How philosophy becomes useful

Why we urgently need more philosophy

Reply to Winfried Degen's polemic against studying philosophy

Can a baker judge the work of a cobbler? Or a soccer player that of a tennis player? Maybe in part. But you should certainly not just ask a non-specialist person to get a complete impression.

Recently Winfried Degen, by his own admission a non-philosopher, wrote a "letter to a young philosopher" here. This is aimed at a young man in the family, perhaps a nephew or grandson, who has decided to study philosophy. That is why Degen felt compelled to "prevent the worst" with his letter and to give his family member important life and study tips.

The good of the labor market

Degen's letter is based on the premise that every "talented person" who chooses a degree in a subject such as philosophy instead of a natural or engineering science is "a grave loss for our country". After all, the shortage of skilled workers is a threat to the German economy. The informed Telepolis reader has suspected for a long time, however, that with the eternally lamented shortage of skilled workers, at least in part, it is employer-friendly propaganda:

On the one hand, employers always have an interest in getting ten, twenty or even a hundred people to apply for their positions instead of just two or three. When can we reasonably speak of a deficiency? On the other hand, the horror scenario of an economic downturn due to vacancies may also justify a later retirement age (shortage of skilled workers: more appearances than real?). Do you work for Germany as a business location until you are 70?

I do not want to discuss the prevailing labor policy here. I'm not even qualified for that. I just want to point out that Degen's letter is dubious in its presuppositions. It is similar with his hymn of praise for taxi driving, which is much more useful than philosophizing. That doesn't fit well into Degen's picture for the simple reason that the highly praised natural or engineering sciences graduates with their apps like Uber will likely destroy traditional taxi drivers in the next few years.

So if we see the philosophy student as a loss to the economy, then we can see new apps as a loss to the traditional passenger transportation system as well. What I'm getting at: It's all a matter of point of view. One's benefit can quickly become another's damage. In any case, the author does not explain why Degen's point of view is the best and why it should be binding for young people who choose a subject.

Let us therefore state: What Winfried Degen presupposes is rather a hypothesis that one would first have to prove. And with the examples there is also a bit of a problem. We haven't even touched on his tacit premise that economic growth is more important than education and personal development.

And trying to convince young people with the argument that they have to serve the interests of German business when choosing a course reminds me of gloomy times. Times when the desire of the individual did not count for a common good, however understood. In countries like China it should still be like that today. I don't know if it makes the people there much happier to sacrifice themselves for the country. Most likely they do it because they would be punished otherwise or because they would lose their livelihood.

But is philosophy such a "useless enterprise" as Degen claims? So useless that he feels compelled to dissuade his younger family members S. from wanting to study philosophy in the city of B. And if he can't be completely dissuaded from it, then maybe damage can be minimized.

Autobiographical interlude

It is perhaps interesting to mention that I once enrolled in industrial engineering at the University of Karlsruhe - and got the place. So an extremely "useful" subject in the sense of Degen. That was my first choice back then. For reasons that were unforeseeable to me, I ended up enrolling in philosophy at the University of Mainz. I would probably never have started writing for Telepolis if I had become a graduate industrial engineer.

The semester initially intended as a bridging semester then turned into nine, which ended with a master’s degree. It was love at first sight: In the epistemology lecture by Elke Brendel, who is teaching in Bonn today, we dealt with questions such as what is truth, what knowledge and under what circumstances we can know something about the world. For example, I was fascinated by the fact that Aristotle had already thought about what a meaningful ontology is for dividing the world into different categories.

This way of thinking not only influences all natural sciences to this day, but also plays a role in object-oriented programming, for example. And with artificial intelligence, it is a great challenge to map the input data to the correct category. We then call this pattern recognition. For this we need a suitable taxonomy, i.e. a system of categories. And that, in turn, depends on our goals, what we see as useful problem solving. Philosophers have been dealing with this for over 2000 years.

A year later, the consciousness philosopher Thomas Metzinger joined them. There were many other inspiring lecturers in my faculty. The best thing, however, was that not only standard curricula were taught there, but that the teachers were able to pick out the topics from their subject area that interested them themselves year after year. There was so much variety! And I don't want to deny that the sociability of the Philosophy Student Council, while the average philosophy student is more of a lonely wolf, also played a role in staying.

Example of German idealism

But back to Winfried Degen's text. Epistemology, philosophy of consciousness - one does not hear a word about that in his letter. As an example of philosophical "chatter" - the word is used eight times in his text - he prefers to use the philosopher Hegel. He then counters this with a criticism from Schopenhauer. Whereby "criticism" is actually the wrong word here: it is rather a personal split without any substantive arguments.

I am now by no means in a position to defend Hegel. I wouldn't feel like doing that either. But one should add historically here that this philosopher liked to side with the mighty. In the early 19th century that was the then victorious Emperor Napoleon, whom Hegel glorified as the "soul of the world" in his philosophy, and later the rising Prussian kingdom.

Schopenhauer, who was almost 20 years younger than him, let it come down to a power struggle with the already very popular Hegel during his time in Berlin (1820-1831). For example, he put his lectures at the same time as those of his famous competitor. The fact that, as a result, almost no one came to Schopi while Hegel was enjoying the full lecture halls is not really surprising. In any case, the duel between the two is not just a quarrel of philosophies, but also of men. Or should it be better said: big egos? This must be taken into account in Schopenhauer's remarks about Hegel.

Be that as it may, following the principle of pars pro toto - one part stands for the whole - working off a long-dead representative of outdated German idealism, i.e. Hegel, and thus branding philosophy as a whole as useless chatter, is not an example for good reasoning, therefore not for good philosophy either. Rather, this procedure is called a straw man: You either look for a weak opponent in the discussion or distort the point of view of the other so much that it is easy to burn down. But that reveals a lot more about the way the flarer thinks and works than the (apparently) flared.

Useful philosophy

In the whole text, Degen refers only once to a philosopher from outside the German-speaking area, namely briefly to John Locke. That is certainly not representative. That is a second serious problem in the polemic against philosophy. The fact that von Degen in principle only uses Hegel, logic and philosophy of language - I will come to the latter two later - is quite weird:

Because with this, in an article, which is supposed to prove the uselessness of philosophy, precisely the most useful parts of the discipline according to general understanding are excluded: namely philosophy of life, which is hardly taught at today's universities, but the aforementioned Schopenhauer with his "aphorisms on life wisdom "Already during his lifetime brought some popularity, political philosophy and above all ethics or moral philosophy! So if Degen concludes that philosophy is useless, it may simply be due to his limited choice.

But that's not all. The author uses logic as an example of good philosophy. He puts this at the top of the list of recommendations for his family members, if they cannot be dissuaded from studying philosophy. This move is surprising in two ways: Firstly, Degen knows about the limited mathematical talent of the young S., while logic - together with the philosophy of mathematics - is precisely the most mathematical part of the discipline. Second, like pure mathematics, logic is precisely not known for its usefulness.

This is by no means to say that teaching logical thinking or pure mathematical knowledge cannot be an important educational goal. Precisely because of its beauty and uselessness in an economic sense, it could be a l'art pour l'art, a pure pleasure as an end in itself. And in this sense, the study of logic would correspond to the original meaning of the word school (ancient Greek scholé), namely, purposeless leisure hours out of pure passion. For the young S. it would be more of an ordeal because of his talents.

But why isn't logic useful? Perhaps one can speak of an uncertainty relation here: the closer one approaches the area of ​​logic, the more one has to abstract from concrete content. Pure logic is simply manipulating symbols that are meaningless in the truest sense of the word according to given rules. That is to say, one gains logical truth at the price of empty content. The theory of argumentation could at best be described as a useful appendage to logic.

In practice, however, one usually comes to the conclusion that today's speeches, for example by politicians, do not argue properly. Degen doesn't do that himself, as we have already seen. And with them also a large part of the natural and engineering sciences that the author values ​​so highly, which primarily report statistical correlations that are supposed to suggest something. With a good will one could perhaps call this the "conclusion to the best explanation". But for that you would have to deal more closely with epistemology and philosophy of science, to which Degen does not devote a single line.

In the interest of brevity, I do not want to comment on the philosophy of language in any more detail. Suffice it to say: Degen devotes a good third of his long article to the discussion of the meaning of the sentence "The ball is round". So he is himself philosophically active, i.e. philosopher. If his young family member does in front If Degen describes the beginning of his studies as a "philosopher", then the author Winfried Degen, who philosophizes at a high level, is certainly one of them.

Thus he deals with the problem of self-contradiction: either philosophy is useless rambling, but then his own text is also suspected of being rambling. Or Degen's linguistic-philosophical part is useful, but then he contradicts his core thesis of the uselessness of philosophy. This is called a "performative self-contradiction": by doing something, you contradict what you actually want to prove. Incidentally, I found the discussion of the meaning of "the ball is round" to be a good example of explaining the function of language and useful in this sense.

Philosophy and brain research

Since Winfried Degen decided to argue in his letter with the authority of his age or his experience, I do not want to completely ignore this rather personal advice here. For example, he writes to the young S. because of his lack of language skills: "You not only have two left hands, but, as I think I have noticed, also two left hemispheres, or at least one hypertrophied language center."

Formulated in this way, the diagnosis is as pedagogically dubious as the suggestion that a student who is not gifted in maths should write a lot of logic in the studbook. Or was it rather a guerrilla tactic of the author to spoil the family member's fun with the subject? But let's ask ourselves what is actually being said here: The young man has a hyper-trophic, i.e. excessively trained, language center. But that would speak right now For good language skills.

Perhaps, on the contrary, Degen meant hypotrophic, i.e. underdeveloped. But then that would be a very embarrassing linguistic mistake in such an overall structure that appears to be so senior teacher. Apart from that, I think it is an exaggeration to expect a particularly trophied, i.e. well developed, language center from someone even before the first hour of philosophy lesson. With hard work and perhaps also a little talent, that will take care of itself during the course of your studies.

But speaking of neurology, that part of medicine that deals with diseases of the nervous system: the author probably means, where he recommends studying "cognitive neurology" rather than philosophy in order to understand thinking the cognitive neurosciences. And where it really comes down to the disruption of thought processes, psychiatry and clinical psychology would be more in demand.

It is, however, the case that the neurosciences do not yet have the right categories to describe humans as feeling and thinking beings, let alone contribute a lot of new things. And wherever they try, they usually supplement psychological theories with a few statistical correlations with brain data that do not explain anything in themselves, but rather require psychology in order to be explained. And finally, to analyze the relationship between these levels of explanation, the philosophy of science and philosophy of mind come into play.

Incidentally, the extremely embarrassing discussion of free will for brain research over the past twenty to thirty years was the best example of the fact that humans on this level cannot be understood at all, if that ever will be the case. With historical knowledge, which Degner again considers useless, one would have known that similar arguments were made in a similar way as early as the 19th century - and convincingly rejected. Leading brain researchers have simply sold us old wine in new bottles. Was that useful? Maybe for your wallet.

How do you explain seeing?

But Degner also tries himself in a daring way as a neurophilosophist: namely, where he explains seeing. Apart from the fact that hardly anyone would deny that perceptual psychology and neurophysiology are the most important disciplines for this, the question arises as to how these examples can be transferred to the understanding of thinking. That's what the author was after. Seeing is different from thinking. But he does not answer this question.

Instead, he gets into problems where he claims, for example, that we humans see with our eyes and hear with our ears. One can say with reasonable certainty that this is a mereological fallacy, i.e. a part-whole fallacy. Seeing is an achievement of the whole perceptual apparatus, if not of the whole human being, and not just of the eye. The eye itself “sees” nothing, but registers light stimuli. You have to take into account that "register" in the previous sentence is a metaphor.

Fortunately, scientists have understood the eye and other parts of the perception apparatus so well that we can use the metaphor pretty well: Certain light stimuli lead to certain electrical stimuli in the visual cells, i.e. in rods, cones and a few ganglion cells.

However, we already know that color vision, for example, is not an individual contribution of the eye and its sensory cells, because the perceived color also depends on the colors of the environment and not just on the wavelength of the light. Here there is an integration effort at a higher level of the brain. If you do not know this yet, you should search for perceptual illusions of color vision yourself on the Internet.There are twelve fascinating examples here.

So-called bistable stimuli are an even clearer example: if you show a test subject a red disk in one eye, but a blue rotating disk in the other, then - according to the textbook - the person only sees either the red or the blue disk alternately . Personally, I also notice a diffuse intermediate state, but that's not the point here. Rather, it shows that although the eyes permanently "see" the same thing in the Degenerate (i.e. wrong) sense, the person alternately sees one thing and the other.

Winfried Degen saws off the argumentative branch he is sitting on only a few lines later, where he writes: "Seeing means the sensory data that interpret impulses from the retina. And this interpretation naturally depends on your experience and knowledge. " I beg your pardon, the eye that was just said to see interpreted now all of a sudden, it has experience and knowledge? No, no, and once again no.

Neurophilosophical fallacies

The recommendation to record the meaning of statements such as "The ball is round" through examinations in the brain scanner goes similarly wrong. The author himself admits that every person (and every animal that is capable of doing this, such as his dog) is likely to have different experiences with balls. This begs the question of what the studies of different representations of balls in the brains of different subjects should show us about the nature of balls. And which test subjects represent a "ball in itself", which ones have a wrong ball concept? Aren't these theoretical and philosophical questions useful for research?

The renowned neuroscientist Semir Zeki from University College London tried to do something similar to what Degen suggests for the essence of beauty. An undertaking which, by the way, the author himself considers to be out of the question: "... what we perceive to be beautiful - science does not talk about that." In this TEDx talk about the neuroscience of the beautiful, Zeki doesn't talk about anything else for a full thirteen minutes. And this is not just an older man's hobby, but is based on publications in scientific journals.

The way this research works is not a brilliant achievement in brain research, which my third-year psychology students can usually find out for themselves. But where Degen recommends that a philosopher who wants to explain thinking should also attend a few psychology courses, I can only agree with him. His family member, the young S., can also prove this to the not so young S., namely me. For the time being, this is only possible in the city of G. and not in B.

I want to come to the end and I also have to keep the promise of the title, why philosophy is more urgently needed than ever in my opinion. I hope that by now it has become clear that philosophy is a training in critical thinking with which one can question the meaning of words and statements; with which one can check the validity of arguments; that she can give orientation knowledge; that it can teach us something about the possibility and conditionality of scientific research.

Why ethics are so important

Above I also briefly mentioned ethics, i.e. the sub-discipline of philosophy that deals with correct action. In order to clarify the broad social benefits of this form of philosophy, for the sake of simplicity I want to discuss the "Made in Germany" diesel scandal, ie the deceptions of the Volkswagen group. This does not mean that other companies are not also deceiving, nor that all Volkswagen employees are deceiving.

What I find so psychologically interesting about this scandal is the deceptive intelligence, perhaps you could also say: deceptive intelligence that Volkswagen has built into some of its cars. The lower measured values ​​in the emissions test were generated by the fact that the car "recognized" that it was in a test situation. Of course, this was only possible because it is regulated by law, i.e. sufficiently standardized. In this situation, the car then behaved differently than on the road, so that the measured values ​​were lower but were no longer realistic.

The point is not that metaphors were used in the previous paragraph. Cars cannot recognize anything and whether they behave in any way is still an open question. My concern is that this was a higher-order deception: Not only were any measured values ​​falsified, but the cars were programmed in such a way that the deception program was activated at the right time.

Of course, there is human intelligence behind these processes: There must have been managers, probably with knowledge of business administration, who decided the deception in the interests of making a profit. And there must have been natural scientists or engineers, that is, members of the class that Degen said was so "useful" who implemented the deception in such a way that it worked and was not noticed for years. Until some auditors noticed irregularities that the deceiver had not foreseen.

These members of the Volkswagen Group knew during the entire planning and execution period and of course all the time afterwards that they were not only deceiving and lied to their future customers, but also to their colleagues. The colleagues who proudly assemble the supposedly clean diesel vehicles and finally sell them.

The deceivers also knew, or at least had to know, that the trust and value of the company would be seriously damaged once the matter was discovered; that the jobs and livelihoods of presumably thousands of people were attached to it, not to mention the health consequences of the pollution.

So the responsible people knew that they were deceiving and that this would have serious consequences. Yet they did.

My final point now is that from an ethical standpoint, whatever the established ethical theory, this form of deception is completely unacceptable. It is difficult to imagine that a representative of the virtue ethic, which was popular in antiquity, would understand the falseness of this action and still do it. A brave virtue ethicist at Volkswagen would rather have exposed the whole shit, at least anonymously. With Kant's strict ethics of duty, for which lying is an absolute no-go, we don't even need to argue here.

But even a clumsy philosophical utilitarianism, which is better than the everyday use of the word suggests, could not be used to justify this deception: Because the negative consequences for the general public are in no reasonable relation to the benefit. The deceiver's action was not a utilitarian act, but a purely selfish one. And pure egoism is the opposite of ethics.

What the economy boils down to

We have had so many scandals and crises in the last few decades that the economy, including the German economy, which Winfried Degen says, was allowed to come up with its own solution: It is not called ethics, but compliance. They have undoubtedly come up with well-paid people, people with a "useful" education. And compliance is, as the former federal judge Thomas Fischer once explained very nicely, not ethics. Rather, it is the art of deceiving in competition in such a way that you cannot be prosecuted for it afterwards.

The Volkswagen group undoubtedly also had a well-functioning compliance department.

That was just now a Example of how the economy works, which Degen believes young people should look to when choosing a course of study. In more general terms, however, the moral of my story is: keep going, you well-paid business economists, engineers and technicians, with the competition and profit-driven exploitation of raw materials, nature, animals and humans. At some point there are simply no more problems to be solved, because then there is no longer a viable world.

Anyone who has not yet understood why philosophy is more urgent than ever today, I do not know what to do next. But I would like to try again personally in the discussion forum.

This article also appears on the author's blog "Menschen-Bilder".

Read comments (409 posts) an error