Pragmatising Philosophy

I wrote this on my old blog in 2007 a month after moving into a Sociology department to complete a second masters degree rather than starting my planned Philosophy PhD. It’s strange to realise that my intellectual sensibility was fully formed almost 15 years ago and the progress I’ve made since then has largely been about working out the practical consequences of it for what I do with my life.

There’s a crucial difference between saying metaphysical claims are false or that they’re not truth-functional (physicalism, naturalism and positivism) and that they represent a kind of question it’s not particularly useful or interesting for us to engage in abstraction from a given context. The former involves a (profoundly metaphysical) claim about transcending metaphysical language whereas the latter simply questions their utility as a specific form of intellectual activity.

My path from studying philosophy into sociology has largely been through an interest in the methodology and philosophy of social science. You can’t avoid making epistemological and ontological commitments in sociological inquiry but you can possess varying degrees of reflexive awareness about the assumptions made and the way they’re being made. Yet these commitments and the distinctions implicit in them possess utility relative to some prior framework of inquiry. On a higher level of abstraction the framework of inquiry (the background of commitments and assumptions that turn social reality into a potentially fruitful target of inquiry) itself implicates epistemological and ontological commitments. Even then though their utility is a function of the possibility for inquiry that they help constitute.

When they’re cut loose to stand autonomously as “grand theory” they cease to facilitate inquiry and begin to obstruct it: they no longer function as tools to be picked up, discarded and modified as suits or purposes and instead their theoretical power (in some complex ways a function of the academic and intellectual power-structures through which they’re intellectually reproduced) presses on us normatively to limit the scope of possible inquiry. They begin to be seen as products of a higher reality (subliminally enforced by the vast historical edifice founded on this assumption) rather than as simply a answer to a specific kind of question. We inquire into the world. We ask questions about how we are to inquire into the world (method) and we often ask questions about the questions we ask about how we are to inquiry into the world (methodology). Philosophy and metaphysics are reified answers to second order questions. Which is not to call for them to be abandoned per se but rather ask that we reorientate ourselves to them. So they become seen as a (non-pejoratively) peripheral domain parasitic upon human practice rather than as autonomous ‘higher’ spheres of truth, knowledge and reality.

In short: philosophy is a particular sort of abstract questioning. The people who do this historically got preoccupied with how profound it made them feel (particularly with relation to other people) and consequently it became abstract questioning for it’s own sake rather than to some end. It began to see itself as at the centre of human life and inquiry rather than in actuality being quite a minor area of it, dependent on the real world interests and concerns that it has tended to look down upon as “merely contingent”.

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