E.R Emmett’s book, Learning to Philosophise, was published in the 1960s to help beginner-philosophers, and it is still a valuable resource today. Emmett says, “Philosophical matters are often less difficult and more important than is generally supposed.”
In his approach to the subject, Emmett takes the reader step-by-step through an apparent maze of contradictions from the simple to the complex. He acknowledges the difficulty of embracing simultaneously various paradoxes and attempting to reconcile them. The reader is able to evaluate his or her own learning through a series of exercises interspersed throughout the book, and can, finally, compare their responses with those of the experts. This approach, while encouraging participation, removes the impersonal and the activity of reading becomes a teacher-pupil relationship.
Psychologists tell us not to “sweat the small stuff.” However, if you want to learn to philosophise, then that is exactly what you must do.
Nuances in Language
Subtlety and nuance in language can hinder our ability to form clear and logical concepts. We bewitch ourselves with language, clouding our understanding so that language can become meaningless. A tiny, apparently insignificant, error may lead to another more complex error, until, ultimately, the truth is lost in a tangled confusion of minor misconceptions.
These misconceptions affect not only our ability to approach philosophy in a logical fashion, but can also promote conflict on a more immediate level; for example, between nations and between people in everyday life. We learn our language almost unconsciously and so take it for granted, thereby exacerbating the problem; yet, says Emmett, “we have the power to collectively change it.”
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Delving into the fallacy of essential meaning, Emmett demonstrates how the ambiguity of language leads to misunderstanding. The essential, real meaning of words is useless as a tool of communication unless most people mean and understand the same thing by the same word. People use some words, like “good” both as a noun and as an adjective; for example,
“all to the good”
“this man is a good runner”
Beware the Witch!
One cannot assume that a thing exists, just because there is a word for it. Long ago, people believed that certain women performed evil magic and they coined the word “witch.” Today, we know that this does not necessarily reflect reality. The word “witch” used today would be an emotive word.
Emmett believes that politicians often use words to encourage an emotional response rather than an intellectual one.
When Judgements are Relative
Vague words pose problems. For example, a “heavy” man might weigh the same as a “light” car. Thus, such adjectives are strictly relative. Emmett asks, “How close to you need to be to a planet to ascertain its true size?” This question is unanswerable because size is relative.
“Sane” and “insane” are two distinct classifications, bewitching us into labelling, where it would be more useful to look at sanity as an insensible gradation. When people ignore the matter of degree, they get into futile arguments.
In other words, our logic of language is often two-valued, while nature is multi-valued.
Arguments abound regarding properties being seen as universals, for example, redness or blueness. Due to the errors of language, people see them as separate entities. Therefore, the subjective opinion is made to appear objective.
“These strawberries are nice….”
“This table is four feet long.”
At a basic level, people understand this, but as we progress to more complex problems, clarity is lost.
The central message here is that words are important. They are our tools for effective thinking and communication, and the way in which we use and understand them can help or hinder our progress towards more complex concepts and judgments.
The Importance of Education
It is helpful, when learning, to have an apprehension of the contours of the map of what others wrote in the past. When we have this useful map, we can learn instinctively where anything new is likely to belong.
This also means being able to allow for all the books one has not read, and the things one does not understand. In other words, it means some understanding of our own ignorance.
While Emmett defines a concept as a “general notion” or “the idea of the class of objects,” he begins, philosopher-fashion, by doubting the “concept of concepts.”
He asks how it is used and what it means. The “Concept of Mind” could be called, simply, “Mind.” Should a work entitled “The Internal Combustion Engine” be changed to “The Concept of the Internal Combustion Engine?”
Emmett concludes that we need to decide whether “X” stands for a clear-cut class of physical objects, or for an abstraction, or a quality that cannot be pointed to or defined. In other words, the “brain” is not a concept, but how it functions, and what it does, can be described as such.
Take, for example, the concept of loyalty. Loyalty to people is often based on affection, and so we support them under adversity. Loyalty to an institution can cause the institution to take on a “supra-personality” so that it can be helped or damaged by one’s action. This leads to dangerous thinking. Like duty, faithfulness and devotion, loyalty is an abstraction and does not admit to a precise answer.
How True Understanding of Concepts Helps Philosophers
Emmett asks if we can gain anything from the examination of concepts. His conclusion is that such investigations lead us to an understanding of our motives and emotions, so that we may describe them more accurately and communicate our thoughts on a subject. Lack of thought and inability to analyse our emotions can lead to disastrous consequences.
We need to ask the right questions:
- To decide what we want to know.
- To see if the enquiry makes sense.
- To see how the questions may most usefully be posed.
- To ascertain whether it is territory that can be explored.
- To decide what would count as an answer.
The Art of Speculation
In practical subjects, one investigates by “going and seeing,” says Emmett, but in philosophy, we can only speculate. There are questions that we can answer in principle, but not in practice; for example, the population of a great city at a given time. When we ask questions about facts, we should know what sort of answers to expect.
Emmett continues by examining improper questions, such as verbal questions, which apply more to abstract ideas than to factual issues. For example, “legal” or “illegal” and as already mentioned, “sane” or “insane.” These are verbal classifications which could mean the difference between prison and freedom, or confinement or freedom.
“We must not be deluded into thinking that we are inquiring about the facts if we are only asking how we shall describe them; and secondly, that this decision as to how they shall be described may or may not be important; for certain purposes and in certain contexts, the decision whether the facts fit some criteria or accord with some concept may matter very much.”
Begging the Question
Further problems are encountered through questions that suggest the answers. Emmett’s quotes an example: “Do you approve of the suggested betrayal of the Commonwealth?” Another unsatisfactory question is, “Are you still beating your wife?” Questions like this, says Emmett, have been sources of error to the whole of philosophical history.
While we may easily discover erroneous assumptions, this does not happen quite so easily when the concept is an abstract.
He also points out the false assumption that there is an absolutely right way to do something, using for illustration, and as a very useful example, the concept of “absolute velocity,” which we see only to be relative. “Why,” asks Emmett, “don’t we just ask ourselves if wasps or flies are more generous?”
Immediately, our reaction is that this is a nonsensical level at which to pitch such a question. Emmett is unrepentant, and points out that we apply moral concepts to groups such as states, corporations, banks and schools, but it is erroneous to do so without careful analysis. Many people still discuss organisations in emotive terms.
Finally, there are questions with “built-in” unanswerability, for example, trick questions or self-defeating questions, where the act of investigation removes or obscures that which is being investigated.
“True or False: “This statement is true.”
“What does an invisible man look like?”
These questions seem basic, yet this type of unanswerability “may be concealed and not laid bare; that necessarily fruitless attempts may be made to answer questions in which there is a similar, but subtly hidden built-in logical unanswerability.”
We must ask what it is we want to know in a tidy, analytical way, without making assumptions or begging the question.
Only by doing this, can we expect to receive a rational answer.