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Is philosophy possible?

A basic issue for many arguments in favor of Christianity is whether our words and thoughts somehow catch hold of reality. If they do, then the arguments for Christianity start looking very strong. If they don’t, then we’re nowhere in more ways than one.

On the face of it, the issue is silly. If what we think and say is not about the world, then what is it about? The problem, though, is how to understand the connection between thought and object once the issue has been raised. That has been a philosophically acute problem in the West for centuries, at least since Descartes asked what grounds he had for believing in any connection whatever between his thought and something outside itself.

A great many philosophers have tried to solve the problem by saying that our thought somehow participates in constituting its own objects. What we see in the world is what we have put into it. That solution doesn’t seem to stand up or even make sense, so today the tendency, certainly in America, is to view the connections among word, thought and object in strictly pragmatic terms. Our words and thoughts are justified by their usefulness to us, and anything beyond that is groundless metaphysical speculation.

The argument against that view is an internal one: in the long run it’s useless. We understand ourselves and our actions by putting them in a larger setting, and we can’t cut that process short by refusing to put our lives and purposes as a whole in a setting larger than they are. To turn our back on objective goods that serve as a standard for our purposes is to destroy the possibility of rational action by eliminating the distinction between what is useful to us and what we feel like doing.

Not that such a line of thought impresses many pragmatists. Because the real substance of their philosophy is to change the subject if a line of thought starts suggesting something they aren’t comfortable with.



What a coincidence to run across your mention of the Cartesian dilemma — I’ve been reading Catholic philosopher Robert Sokolowski’s Introduction to Phenomenology [Cambridge UP, 2000]. According to Sokolowski, phenomenology rejects the Cartesian divide division of identity and appearance, what’s in our minds vs. what’s “out there”, as incoherent. The way things appear is part of the very being of things, and phenomonology studies the myriad of ways that things present themselves to us in experience — it is “reason’s self-discovery in the presence of intelligible objects”.

Check it out next time you’re book-hunting. =)