• Banno
    14.6k
    Is philosophy like plumbing?

    https://philpapers.org/archive/MIDPP.pdf?fbclid=IwAR39W1KkUzVUpVWJrI-eswVYpjKlMhlK3fAlb5QbkNCutbJEGYwNguIkH2k

    Another article of Midgley's that is interestingly provocative. The metaphor is that like plumbing, philosophy is taken for granted until it goes wrong; then we are obliged to call in the experts and clean up the mess.

    The given example is the notion of a social contract. This is now accepted so broadly as to be unquestioned. But we find lately that it is not working so well, that "distinct patches of damp have been arising round it, and there have been some very dubious smells". How do social contracts apply to animals and to children? To oceans and rainforests? We find ourselves needing to address such issues, and yet not noticing that the plumbing of social contracts is inadequate to the task. Enter the philosopher, who can get down beneath the sink and sort out the bottle trap and ball valves.

    Witness the plethora of threads hereabouts rejoicing in the individual, blithely unaware that those old lead pipes are killing us.

    In addition to the plumbing being generally ignored, there is the problem of it's being thought complete. We find that in the histrionic misapplication of philosophical doctrine, be it Kant, Hegel or Wittgenstein. As if philosophy were a doctrine, not a process.

    It follows that Midgley does not offer a solution, although she indicates a few alternatives. She instead admonishes us to engage in sorting out the conceptual confusions that we otherwise take for granted.

    (Edit: by way of full disclosure, see also Midgley vs Dawkins, Nietzsche, Hobbes, Mackie, Rand, Singer...)
  • 180 Proof
    6k
    The metaphor is that like plumbing, philosophy is taken for granted until it goes wrong [ ... ] As if philosophy were a doctrine, not a process [ ... ] sorting out the conceptual confusions that we otherwise take for granted.Banno
    :up: :100:

    Since I wholeheartedly agree with the spirit, if not also the letter, of Midgley's paper, I've nothing to add until others come along and earnestly clog-up the pipes with their (youtubed) "doctrines".
  • Jack Cummins
    3.6k

    I think that this debate about philosophy plumbing applies to the discussion which has just taken place on the thread on the meanings of the term morality and ethics. It may be that some of the pipes of the academic elite have become corroded and clogged. Some serious heavy plumbing is needed to clear out all the decay and gunge, in order for ideas to work in the twenty first century.
  • Wayfarer
    13.8k
    Where philosophy is salaried and professionalized, the lawyer-like skills are almost bound to predominate. (You can examine people to test their logical competence and industry, but you cannot test their creativity.) These skills are then no longer being used to clarify any specially important new vision. Philosophy becomes scholastic, a specialized concern for skilled plumbers doing fine plumbing, and sometimes doing it on their own in laboratories. This happened in the late Middle Ages; it seems to have happened in China, and it has happened to Anglo-American philosophy during much of this century.

    This self-contained, scholastic philosophy remains an impressive feat, something which may well be worth doing for its own sake, but it leaves a most dangerous gap in the intellectual scene. For it cannot, of course, prevent the other aspect, the poetic aspect of philosophy, from being needed. The hungry sheep who do not get that creative vision look up and are not fed. They tend to wander round looking for new visions until they find some elsewhere [e.g. youtube]. Thus, a good deal of poetic philosophising has been imported lately from Europe and from the East, from the social sciences, from evangelists, from literary criticism and from science fiction, as well as from past philosophers.
    — Mary Midgley

    :clap: :clap: :clap:
  • Bartricks
    3.9k
    It may be that some of the pipes of the academic elite have become corroded and clogged.Jack Cummins

    You mean someone who knows a lot more than you do told you how things were and you didn't like it?

    Ethics means the same as morality. One's Greek, the other Latin.....for the same thing. Easy. Not something experts discuss. Ever. It's just what they mean. Get over it.
  • Banno
    14.6k
    @Wayfarer left out the last bit of that quoted paragraph:

    But of course, this poetry comes without the disciplined, detailed thinking that ought to go with it.

    It's apparent why.
  • Wayfarer
    13.8k
    I did do a BA Hons and MA in Arts including two years of philosophy proper, which I believe required a great deal of disciplined and detailed thinking, but nevertheless decided that Anglo-American philosophy was a wasteland of scholasticism.
  • Jack Cummins
    3.6k

    Obviously, that debate is going on in the other thread, but what I got a bit worked up about was your view that philosophy is simply about experts being seen as having knowledge because they are the experts.
  • Banno
    14.6k
    Oh, I don't doubt your ability. My apologies, my jest has offended.

    I lay great emphasis on the critical component of philosophical method. But I recognise the myth-building component, too - the "showing"; Midgley addresses this, in the last few pages of the article, and with far greater clarity than I could muster.

    I thought of you as I read the piece you quote.

    So where to now? Plumbing is not laying just any pipe; they have to be up to the task. Some sort of balance is needed.
  • Wayfarer
    13.8k
    My apologies, my jest has offended.Banno

    I'm sorry for being so thin-skinned. I will continue with that piece, haven't finished it yet.
  • Bartricks
    3.9k
    but what I got a bit worked up about was your view that philosophy is simply about experts being seen as having knowledge because they are the experts.Jack Cummins

    Yeah, I didn't say that though, did I. I didn't say anything about what philosophy is about. But experts know things. And the experts in ethics know that 'ethics' and 'morality' are synonyms.

    Pilot: pushing that lever will stall the plane and we'll crash

    Jack: I think there's disagreement over whether it will

    Pilot: no there isn't. It'll stall the plane and crash it. There's no disagreement over it.

    Jack: Well, that's your opinion. But I think there is. When I asked people in the passenger tube some said they thought it would crash the plane and others said it wouldn't.

    Pilot: It's not my opinion. It's universally acknowledged among the experts - pilots - that it'll stall the plane and crash it. The people you consulted were passengers, not pilots.

    Jack: Well, I think everyone's view is equally valid and just because you spent years learning to fly doesn't mean you know more than I do about what these buttons and levers do.

    Pilot: It does mean that. I do know more than you. I fly planes. You don't.

    Jack: what annoys me is this idea that being a pilot is just about knowing pilots telling each other what levers do.

    Pilot: er, what?
  • Jack Cummins
    3.6k

    Okay, can we leave it there. I am about to go to bed and we don't wish to derail this thread.
  • Banno
    14.6k
    Cheers. I've flagged Bart's interruptions. They are unwelcome.

    Please stick to the topic.
  • Banno
    14.6k
    Since I wholeheartedly agree with the spirit, if not also the letter, of Midgley's paper...180 Proof

    Yes, no fun in that, hey?

    But I wonder what you make of her comments regarding social contracts. Do you have sympathy for returning to a more organic metaphor? Or water, which she mentions briefly, or dignity. This last echoes Martha Nussbaum, but her interpretation of Rawls stands at odd with Midgley's criticism of social contracts. Something's in need of resolution.
  • Tom Storm
    2.2k
    Thanks for this and forgive my fumbling response. Midgley's essay is extremely accessible and thought provoking but does not fill me with hope. Much as her recommendations seem sensible (and I say this as someone from outside academic philosophy) I wonder how achievable her vision might be. I like how she considers philosophy to be unavoidable and ubiquitous. We're all in it together. But how do we procede?

    Can philosophers and, presumably thinkers more broadly, really work on identifying the patterns inherent in ostensibly contradictory ideas and see how they can fit together? Almost sounds utopian.

    When Midgley talks about the need to see the 'unconsidered mass' that lies behind our ideas I wonder how this plays out more broadly. Her example of unpacking the social contact is intriguing. I can't say if her analysis is right but it does resonate (especially on children/the mentally ill, the 'outcasts').

    Is there not a risk that in adopting a plumbing approach like this that philosophical debate will shift to an illimitable and perhaps confusing exploration of what the unconsidered mass consists of?

    What's your sense of her criticism of social contacts?
  • frank
    8.8k
    Social contract was meant to replace divine right as the source of a government's legitimacy.

    It actually makes a lot of sense until someone decides to contort it into something ridiculous.
  • Banno
    14.6k
    I noticed your did not address Midgley's specific criticism.
  • frank
    8.8k
    I noticed your did not address Midgley's specific criticism.Banno

    It might be helpful to consider that it comes from a different era, and it was meant to address a problem most of us don't have.

    Perhaps over time, there have been efforts to force the idea to be useful for a new era. This creates a sense of working with old plumbing.

    Perhaps the old idea is actually working pretty well for its original purpose.

    Maybe new problems call for new ideas.

    That's what I said the first time. Did I really have to spell all if that out?
  • Banno
    14.6k
    Midgley's essay is extremely accessible and thought provokingTom Storm

    She was a disarming grandmotherly figure, it seems, quietly pointing to the blocked drain.

    She points out that Social contract replaced divine right, as @frank repeated, but without showing he'd troubled to do some reading.

    She points out that social contract theory implies individuality, since it is an individual who enters into a contract. "The only possible source of civic duty was tacit agreement among rational citizens, each concerned for their own interest—an agreement regularly tested through voting." This "slipped under the floorboards" of our culture, but can be seen in the presumption of many a discussion - anything from @NOS4A2 will suffice as an example. But it is an assumption - or perhaps better, a presumption; it was used to dispose of kings, and now perhaps stands in need of disposal itself.
  • frank
    8.8k
    She points out that social contract theory implies individuality,Banno

    All sorts of things count as individuals in the eyes of Roman-style law. So, no.
  • Banno
    14.6k
    Since you won't read, I'll quote:

    For instance—if we rely heavily on the notion of contract we have to ask, what about the interests of non-voting parties? What, for a start, about the claims of children, of the inarticulate and the insane, and of people as yet unborn? What about something that, till recently, our moralists hardly mentioned at all, namely the non-human, non-speak- ing world—the needs of animals and plants, of the ocean and the Antarctic and the rainforests? There is a whole great range of questions here which we now see to be vital, but which we find strangely hard to deal with, simply because our culture has been so obsessed with models centring on contract. Again, too, even within the set of possible con- tractors, we might ask who is entitled to a voice on what? What happens to the interests of people in one democratic country who suffer by the democratically agreed acts of another? What, too, about minorities within a country, minorities who must live by decisions they did not vote for (a question which Mill worried about profoundly in his Essay on Liberty)} And so on.

    Here's the critique you might choose to address.
  • frank
    8.8k

    I did address it. Apparently I'm not the only one who doesn't read.

    I'm tired. Bye
  • Banno
    14.6k
    I did address it.frank

    Not substantively. Sleep well, I'll continue the goading in the morrow.
  • Manuel
    1.6k
    It's hard. I mean, I think that the central point is true, we as a society only need philosophy when things go bad or things don't work anymore.

    It's just that even defining philosophy is difficult. There are just so many ways of thinking about it and even applying it. And it's not trivial to say that speaking of philosophy is such or such a tradition is wrong, we may not share the assumptions they have.

    And when it comes to ethics and especially political matters, I think that the topics can often be devilishly difficult. We no longer live in a time when a person could be very knowledgeable on all topics, there's way too much to cover.

    Yet we need it, like she points out. Jeez... I'm tying myself in knots here...
  • Tom Storm
    2.2k
    we as a society only need philosophy when things go bad or things don't work anymore.Manuel

    Is it the case that when society works it is because the underlying philosophy works? Perhaps we only notice philosophy when there's clear conflict.
  • Banno
    14.6k
    I'm tying myself in knots here...Manuel

    Good!

    Yes, philosophy is hard. The start might be in seeing problems such as the example she cites; that the presumed notion of a social contract has its limits. Only then we can look for something better.

    The example she rejected using - "but it is now wallowing in too many kinds of difficulty to deal with in this article" - was the Machine Model, presumably of the mind. Another favourite hereabouts, with many a thread taking it for granted only to find itself stinking and leaking.
  • Banno
    14.6k
    Is it the case that when society works it is because the underlying philosophy works?Tom Storm

    There's a tension between system building and critical evaluation in philosophy. Perhaps the system builders - your Kant, Hegel, Russel - thrive when the basis of society is unthreatened; and the critics - Socrates, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein - in what might be called "interesting times"?

    But perhaps not.
  • Tom Storm
    2.2k
    That is a vey intriguing idea. Nice.
  • Banno
    14.6k
    maybe. Not sure it works.

    But I will place myself on the side of the critics.
  • Manuel
    1.6k


    The social contract has its limits. I'm currently not seeing a big state showing something different on a large scale. There may be scattered examples of, say, worker co-operatives and similar institutions based on voluntary cooperation and the like, but not on a large scale.

    As we've sadly seen with COVID, we can't even co-operate with a damn virus which isn't even very deadly. This forebodes a very bleak future with the urgent case of climate change.

    But people will care about that only when they can't find food in the super markets or they can't go outside for too long or they'll suffer heat stroke.

    Instead of thinking about how we could perhaps work at an international level on climate change or nuclear weapons, people's imaginations are caught in this whole AI stuff and wanting to go to Mars. This is being done by Important People like Musk and Bezos. So this is individualism on steroids.

    So - how to proceed? I can argue why I think most of the promises of AI aren't plausible or I can talk about evidence relating to climate change, but if people don't care about facts anymore, what gives? It's not like speaking of caring for Mother Earth really moves people, outside of certain sensibilities.

    Ugh.
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