Someone on my friendslist posted a few weeks ago about struggling with reading the logical positivists and feeling like the arguments sounded plausible yet clearly it must be wrong. I posted a comment then, and have been meaning to repost it for a while since it got into some interesting points.
I double-majored in College, the second major being Philosophy, and by the time I made it through the program I was totally burned out on philosophy, and I generally refuse to participate in philosophical discussions to this day, fourteen years later. It had become a dull topic for two reasons:
- philosophy is the study of problems that have no definite answer: if any problem ever gets an incontravertible (or nearly so) proof, it becomes the realm of science.
- too much of philosophical argument feels like game playing, where a proof is advanced that says 'given X, then Y', and you go, but come on, Y is clearly ludicrous, so either X is false, or else you've skipped a step here.
This is relevant to [the question about the positivists] in several ways. One is that I sympathize with the Logical Positivists because I am a scientist more than I am anything (e.g. I am anti-mystic and etc., at least internally; this is not intended as a slam against anyone of a different bent), and so their theory was very appealing to me on the #1 grounds, because it just did away with metaphysics and, essentially for me, all of philosophy. Hooray, I was done with philosophy anyway.
But #2 applies just as strongly. Their basic premise is to redefine the situation, to look at it from a new perspective, and argue from that that something is entirely irrelevant. But my instinct is that, even if Heidegger's "the Nothing itself nothings" is little more than poetry, much other philosophical discussion isn't meaningless. Thus I have the same reaction as in #2; not only is the grand conclusion suspect, making me doubt the premise or the argumentation, but so too do I doubt the good faith of the argumenter. And the moment you doubt the good faith of a person making an argument, the more reasonable it is to stop going over their argument with a fine-toothed comb to find the flaw and instead just say "hey, they cleverly made it hard to figure out why this argument is wrong" (the same reaction suggested for dealing with slashdot-style libtertarians).
Indeed, I blame the Logical Positivists for beginning the whole Linguistic Turn in 20th century philosophy which just ruined the whole thing by turning everything into an argument about whether and how words mean what they appear to mean.
To be fair, I don't actually think the LPs were singular in arguing in bad faith. I think nearly all philosophers do it: they have something they believe, and then they attempt to construct arguments to prove it. For example, I'm a hard-core skeptic about objective reality, as it's known: I believe it is possible I'm a brain in a vat, and therefore everything I perceive is fake. Many philosophers have trouble with this because they want there to be such a thing as "knowledge" in a very absolute sense, and to achieve this they end up formulating weird theories that involve all sorts of implausible things. That is, they already believe Y to be true, so they try to find some 'given X, therefore Y' arguments, regardless of their plausibility. One of their arguments is that if I can believe that my perceptions of reality might be wrong (because I'm a brain in a vat), then therefore I can't really know anything about the world (in some sense of know that depends on it being certain, which my doubts prevent); therefore they conclude that either our perceptions of reality aren't wrong, or there's a way to get this "real" knowledge anyway; instead I conclude that, ok, it's only "fake" knowledge not "real" knowledge (but fake knowledge is just as good if the world really is what it seems to be, so who cares?).
Indeed, this isn't merely a fault of philosophers; many scientists engage in the same thing: they have an intuition that something is true, and then they set out to prove it. The difference is that scientific theories are testable; the scientific method weeds out the theories that work and those that don't. Nothing weeds out the philosophical theories (except peer-reviewing, I guess).
When I started college I looked at the existence of all these programs and came up with this silly idea of inventing a new field of study which was totally frivolous and useless, that nobody could make a career out of: except people who went on to become professors of that subject at universities. Surely, I supposed of this scenario, there'd be no way for there to be enough jobs to make the whole thing self-sustaining.
By the time I was done with college, I'd decided that there were quite a few of these. Philosophy was one. Leave it, I say, to people getting stoned.