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The point of philosophy

Let’s have a look at another metaphilosophical remark of Russell’s, this time from The Philosophy of Logical Atomism:

I am trying as far as possible again this time, as I did last time, to start with perfectly plain truisms. My desire and wish is that the things I start with should be so obvious that you wonder why I spend my time stating them. This is what I aim at, because the point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.

I’m not totally sure whether this was meant to be fully serious, but if it was, then it seems a rather grim picture of philosophy. Why? Well, if it’s all about picking some truisms to start with to reach a conclusion in which some other truism is rejected, then the obvious question arises: why not go the opposite way? Suppose we have three truisms: p, q and r. If we can show that not-r follows from p and q, then we can also show that not-p follows from q and r, and that not-q follows from p and r ([(p ∧ q) → ~r] ≡ [(p ∧ r) → ~q] ≡ [(q ∧ r) → ~p]). If the process of selecting initial truisms is arbitrary, then we are bound to be left with a number of contradictory claims and no way of telling which one is correct. Everything depends on what you happen to start with. Abandon all hope for philosophical truth.

The fact that some view is grim doesn’t of course mean it is false. Maybe this is how philosophy operates. Let’s go back to arguably the most popular example of an inconsistent set of seemingly obvious propositions in philosophy, the Sorites paradox. It can be portrayed as a conflict between three statements:

(1) One grain doesn’t make a heap.

(2) One grain doesn’t make a difference between a heap and a non-heap.

(3) One million grains make a heap.

All three seem undeniably true, and yet they cannot all be true at the same time – at least not unless standard logic is rejected. However the laws of standard logic seem undeniably true too, so, in any case, some seemingly true statements have to be denied in order to solve the paradox. And when we look into the solutions of the paradox, some might argue that this is precisely the case. For example, Timothy Williamson accepts (1) and (3), but denies (2). According to him everything is either a heap or a non-heap, as there is a sharp cut-off point between a collection of grains that constitutes a heap and a collection of grains that doesn’t, we just don’t know – and cannot know – where it lies. On the other hand, Peter Unger accepts (1) and (2), but denies (3). According to Unger heaps don’t exist, and neither do “pieces of furniture, rocks and stones, planets and ordinary stars, and even lakes and mountains”. This is because if they existed, we’d be forced to admit that one atom, or even no atoms at all, can constitute a stone, a planet etc. which, argues Unger, is “absurd” (isn’t it equally absurd though to say that things don’t exist?).

It might therefore be that Williamson and Unger fit into Russell’s model in some way. However they clearly don’t acknowledge each other’s conclusions as equally legitimate, which suggests there’s more to their methodology. And besides, there are plenty of philosophical arguments that clearly don’t “end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it”, and also plenty that don’t start with “perfectly plain truisms”. So even if philosophy is entirely futile, it can’t be for reasons that have to do with Russell’s claim.

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