What is Philosophy and Paul Graham: Qi Lisp Creator Mark Tarver on Is Philosophy Useful?

By Xah Lee. Date:

hi Mark Tarver,

Here is my own take on doubts about usefulness of philosophy. This is also a subject on my mind for perhaps 10 years. Thanks for the opportunity here to write it out for the first time.

To me, questioning usefulness of philosophy is questioning thinking itself.

Typically, people think philosophy is not useful because when they think of philosophy they think of things like “does god exist”, “what's beauty”, “where do we came from”, “do we have free will”, “purpose of life”, “what's good and what's evil”, etc.

These kinda subjects are what most people think of when hearing “philosophy”. However, that's not what philosophy is about. Thus, the common thought of “philosophy being not practical” is due to wrong characterization of philosophy.

As i mentioned previously, philosophy is thinking. [see What is Philosophy and Paul Graham] And here's a Wikipedia quote on Philosophy:

Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems concerning matters such as existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. It is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational argument.

Note the second sentence.

Philosophy, is the root of all knowledge. It's the origin of all what today we call sciences.

Let's give a concrete example about how philosophy is thinking.

For example, among us programers, we often ask questions like “which language is best”, “which language is most elegant”. We discuss these every day. We argue about it. Some say Scheme, some say Common Lisp is most practical. Some say Haskell is most beautiful. After some discussion, our reasons and thoughts necessarily expand on the meaning of “beauty”, “elegance”, “practical”, or other contexts of each person's opinions and experiences. For example, Scheme Lispers will say they really like Scheme because it is so small a language and most powerful, and perhaps the power/(lang size) ratio is largest. Perl programer may disagree, and counter that Perl allows the shortest number of chars for a source code, therefore the small here is better than Scheme's smallness in lang spec, while perl has much more libs than Scheme, therefore the Power/(actual source code) is maximized, thus more beautiful than Scheme. Common Lispers might counter, saying that yeah perl allows “golfing” but it's line noise, hard to read, not maintainable, while Common Lisp, has huge libraries, huge lang spec, huge number of practical industrial implementations, that once you become familiar with the lang, it has most power for given task with respect to programer. Perhaps, emacs share similar philosophy on this.

So, here, we have several different takes, and as you can see. What's a name to describe these collection of thoughts? Philosophy! We started from a practical, everyday question, that all of us seek the answer, and eager to debate about it, we ends up with schools of thoughts, what's best described by the word “philosophy”.

After few generations of this debate, the thoughts and debates are organized into “school of thoughts”, so we have categorization of thoughts on the meaning of elegance, practicality, beauty, of languages. And, when someone wanted to create a new lang, as happens today all over, he can look at this more organized philosophy of computer languages, and benefit fruitfully, in his thinking about what's is “beauty” and “practicality” in a computer language for him, a direction of lang design. (i'll mention here that Paul Graham's philosophy on this, about the best language, is a language best for “hackers”. [see Paul Graham's Infatuation with the Concept of Hacker])

That's the humble root of all things philosophy: thinking. When the fruits of thinking have amassed into a body of literature, it's called philosophy. Thus we have philosophy of math, philosophy of language, philosophy of science, philosophy of education, for examples. With such established and organized thoughts, it directs our future activities and thoughts. It directly gives us directions for the future.

In general, what's in our brain today, on society, on sciences, on relationships, on sex, on politics, your mindset, your behavior of every minute, are shaped by the accumulated thinking (philosophy!) of the past. For example, in US, your thoughts on free speech, on justice, on politics, etiquette, child rearing, on dating, on personal hygiene habits, came from your education and family, which traces all the way back to the ancient philosophers from the Greeks (for example: Aristotle, Plato.). While, Asian people, their thinking, manners, behavior, are overall distinctly different from Westerners, because thru generations they came from accumulated thoughts of Asia, tracing back to the ancient Asian philosophers. (For example, Confucius, Laozi, Buddha.)

To ask “whether philosophy is useful” is like asking whether accumulated thinking of all humanity before us are useful.

Though, one might ask, then why is that when people hear the word “philosophy” they think of things in metaphysics, esthetics, theology, epistemology, ethics? The type of questions that seem useless and never have any answer? I haven't thought of this in detail. I wish to give a simple, logical reason. Basically, i think it is because when the thinking and questioning developed certain effective methods on particular type of questions, they got new names such as all the branches of sciences, including mathematics, logic, psychology, linguistics, political science, music, arts, law, cosmology. So, what's left that are not given new names are the kinda questions we associate with the word philosophy.

So, for example, if in 20 years, symbolic logic and theories in formal languages have advanced so far that we are able to classify all our computer langs such as lisp, perl, OCaml, C, in some precise way with formal (symbolic) definition on “practicality”, “beauty”, “power”, then, our “philosophy of computer languages” will cease to be such, instead, it'd be a new name, new science, where we use systematic methods to pursuit the question of “best language”, instead of the lose words and written thoughts. But still, as human animals, we will probably still debate and discuss the beauty of languages in traditional way of words and opinions, just as we like poetry, so there is our philosophy again — eternally connected with something seemingly useless and impractical.

Mark Tarver: Is Philosophy Useful

Note: Mark Tarver is the creator of Qi programming language. See also: Qi Language Logo. The following is Tarver's original post.

On , Mark Tarver [dr.mtar…@ukonline.co.uk] wrote:

More interesting than PG is this idea that philosophy is a waste of time. My mind was fired up to consider this proposition and to return to it. Why do people believe it? I think there are three reasons in order of ascending subtlety.

1. It is not practical.

The first is that this is a form of knowledge from which you cannot “do anything practical”. That is, you cannot fix your car, get a better house or make money from it. Of course philosophy mainly never promised those things and I do not see why everything should be weighed in those terms. I think that this mind set is more common now than when I was young, simply because people pay for their education and expect value for money. i.e. the prospect of more money in return. Philosophers historically often showed great disregard for this mind set.

2. It goes nowhere.

The second is that “philosophy never gets anywhere”. “Philosophers just argue round and round”. I would deny this one. What is true is that philosophers sometimes end by saying that a certain proposition cannot be known to be true (eg. “God exists”), but this is a form of (meta) knowledge in itself. Aristotle says that we should not expect more in certainty from a subject than it is capable of delivering. As Socrates pointed out, knowing what it is one does not know is a wisdom in itself. But philosophy does deliver results that are not just meta-knowledge; Russell's destroyed Frege's Axiom V in the Grundgesetze in a single letter written in 1903.

3. It is an attenuated husk left over from the evolution of other subjects.

This is a position sometimes held by people who have done a little reading. The word ‘philosophy’ splits into two parts ‘lover of’ (philo) and ‘knowledge’ or ‘wisdom’ (sophia). The word is indicative of the ancient roots of the discipline back to a time when human knowledge was far less differentiated than it is now. It lingers in the title of Ph.D. which is dished out in many subjects.

The story is that once everything was philosophy, but that gradually all the other sciences separated out from it, leaving only a husk of subjects too dull or intractable for others to bother with and this is what philosophy is. This is probably encouraged by reading the effluent of many academic philosophers who are simply cranking out stuff to a quota.

I believe that this is wrong. One can see it in different terms. We might say, that just like our planet, scholarship and human knowledge was once highly liquid, molten you might say, without clear boundaries. As civilization progressed, the knowledge hardened and floating plates of hardened thinking were created and people made livelihoods by living on those plates as physicists, mathematicians, economists etc. But the boiling magma still exists underneath and in times of conceptual revolution, when old ideas are overturned, it comes boiling up.

Thus you will find in Relativity theory, ideas about space and position which were anticipated by Leibnitz in his contests with Newton 200 years before. In mathematics we found in the C20 that we are not rooted on a rock but floating on this awesome primordial lake. This brilliant, awesome display of light and mental force that bursts out in times of a revolution of ideas is philosophy.


Original thread is here: http://groups.google.com/group/comp.lang.lisp/browse_frm/thread/12dece82a953a811#