Awhile back in a post on love I noted that one of the benefits of philosophy is that it can give one the ability–after lots of practice, of course–to “question the question.” That is to say, even the most skeptical among us tend to be blindly trusting when it comes to language. When a question is posed to us, we often try to answer the question on its own terms. And, of course, we botch the answer, leading us to worry that maybe we are wrong or stupid.
We tend not to notice that maybe this is the kind of question that cannot be answered well, because the question itself is flawed. The philosophical habit of mind can begin to inoculate us against this danger. It makes us harder targets for those unfairly argumentative people the ancients called “Sophists,” and we moderns call “Jerks Who Do Not Realize That Winning a Political Debate At Our Kids’ Soccer Team Picnic Really Does Not Matter.”
But this is not all philosophy can do. In this post I would like to point out another way philosophy can be valuable. It is a smaller thing, but still attractive: it can give you formal knowledge, and not just material knowledge.
Here is how Kant not-so-helpfully describes the difference in the Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals:
“All rational knowledge is either material and concerned with some object, or formal and concerned only with the form of understanding and of reason themselves and with the universal rules of thought in general without regard to differences of its objects.” (trans. James Ellington)
To translate Kant again, there are two different sorts of things that you can “know.” You can know lots of particulars about something. This is material knowledge, or “seeing the details.” It is the knowing of lots of “Thats”: that it is getting darker, that it is rumbling loudly every 15 seconds, that the clouds are swirling, that the air feels charged, etc. But there is another sort of knowledge, which does not involve knowing all the particulars, but knowing instead what the particulars add up to, what they mean. This is formal knowledge, “seeing the big picture.” It is knowing why, at least in a limited sort of way. In the case of the examples above, the “why”(here in the sense of “the way things are shaping up”) is that a storm is brewing.
In our day-to-day lives, material knowledge is crucial. You need the facts, you need the details. Sometimes, the accuracy of your formal knowledge does not matter. Existentially speaking, the main thing is to know to take shelter once the sky turns black and the clouds start swirling. Having formal knowledge–knowing whether the event is “a storm” or “Zeus getting angry”– is just an attractive bonus.
But such cases are actually in the minority. We need formal knowledge just as much, and oftentimes more. If I know what a person is, then I don’t need intricate knowledge of a proposed assault on him–I already know such conduct is wrong, even without all the details. Drowning the opponent in details is a favorite move of the modern-day Sophist. It does a nice job of covering up the uncomfortable fact that he really doesn’t actually know what he is talking about. He sees all the trees, not the forest. And so he wants to keep you arguing about individual trees, quibbling over irrelevant details.
Now we certainly don’t need philosophy to give us formal knowledge. We ourselves acquire it naturally. But here’s the rub: because our lives are so concerned with details, we are often bad at achieving formal knowledge. We play games, but we don’t pause to reflect what a game is. We deal with adult persons all the time, but we don’t pause to reflect what persons are. We pay our taxes, but we don’t have a clear grasp of what a tax is, or what a state is, or what a tyranny is, etc.
Philosophy is helpful in this regard simply because it tends to directly target such formal knowledge, making it a nice repository of it, and a good resource for training oneself to seek it. It asks those kinds of questions that either delight or terrify students: What is a game? What is a science? What is a law? What is a god?
It also accustoms one to disagreement, because formal knowledge is hard to achieve, and mistakes are an ever-present possibility. And this in turn helps to take away the urge to constantly demonize one’s opponents. Take note, Justice Kennedy.