The constant gardener

No not the movie. Philosophy only posts are boring to most people so I’ll try to expand the point, but what I want to talk about here is building theories. How do we do that? Well the most important thing to do is to go for the weird cases; situations where our theory goes wrong or where the circumstances are very unusual.

For example, in this post I discussed solitary confinement, and its a very fruitful thing to examine because it gets away from the normal way things go to expose the workings of when things go wrong. Many early social scientists took this approach toward society at large, looking, for example, at crime. The idea was to find out about society by looking at what happens when people ignore its dictates. Freud also thought he could understand society and human life by looking at what happens when our psyche breakdowns.

So, what is the job of a philosopher. As I see it, the good philosopher nourishes examples from everyday life. The philosopher grows these examples over the course of often very long periods of time, tending to the example, finding ways to express it and just generally nursing it along.

Here’s an example. I’m writing a paper on weakness of the will, and the example is simple. You decide to do something, but don’t do it. You don’t change your mind or anything, you really do think you should do x, but you just don’t it. Instead, you do something else instead.

This single example basically underlies an entire area of philosophy known as action theory. Why doesn’t our best judgment work to get us to act? Of course, there is a psychological reason, that is not in dispute. But the issue is that we can act intentionally event against our best judgment. We can judge in favor of working and then go meet a friend. But if we can act intentionally (its not an accident that I go see my friend) then our best judgment is not a necessary component of intentional action.

Ok you say, intentional action is unrelated to judgment, but its not hard to see what it is: it’s just a desire. We have a stronger desire to meet our friend then we do to work. That may be true, but this raises problems in itself. Doesn’t it seem like there should be a connection about what we judge we should do and what we ACTUALLY do.

Also, and worse, a desire can’t be what underlies intentional action, and here’s why (this is a very famous example). Say I’m holding a rope while climbing with a friend and I suddenly have a desire to drop the rope. The thought of this cowardly desire so unnerves me that I drop the rope, out of shock. This is not intentional. The desire made my body MOVE, but I did not ACT.

What this example shows is that desires cannot be what underlies intentional action (you have a desire but no action, therefore desires are not SUFFICIENT for action. Something else is needed. What is that something else?) A whole area of philosophy takes off from just that problem and that is how all philosophy is: one example sets off a chain reaction of issues and complications. There is no easy answer and so someone has to think deeply about what it means to act.

To do philosophy, one must always be taking little instances of things that may seem totally innocuous and grow them; one must be a constant gardener of the everyday.


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