What to Do With a Real Problem, Research Time, 22/11/2017

So yesterday, I was riffing on the nature of the concept. Concept – an expression in thought of a transformative collision of forces and processes. If you think a concept is just another word for a general idea, Gilles Deleuze is very particular to describe the concept in mathematical terms – vectors and relations.

A mathematical formula expresses a relation in thought – we’ve developed a very good notation for writing mathematical formulas, so we can put a very complicated relation in a single line of writing that way.

Concepts have the same precision, but they don’t function mathematically – Concepts are frameworks for everyday human thought, the schema of our how we understand our nature, everyday life, values, and place in the universe. Philosophy is the practice of developing new concepts – new frameworks for understanding experience.

That’s about where we are now. You know, this is why you could plausibly call me a Deleuzian. Because when he explains the nature of concepts and the purpose of philosophy like this, to me, this is incredibly obvious and makes perfect sense.

Storytime. A few years ago, I was at a philosophy conference in Oregon
and many of the attendees were pragmatist thinkers and scholars. In an
off-handed, but very sincere, comment to the conference organizer, I
said that many of the philosophical problems that the pragmatists were
stuck on found their solutions – or at least their next steps – in the
work of Deleuze and Guattari. It's those solutions – about the nature
and purpose of philosophical thinking – that I'm talking about in my
posts about What Is Philosophy?
It’s the only mission statement for “What philosophy is” that doesn’t sound empty, dissatisfying, and ultimately leave you shrugging your shoulders.* It’s the only one that actually can be a mission statement for the discipline going forward.

* The question that I find most insufferably annoying in all the philosophical traditions I've studied has to be, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" My response – Fuck! Who cares?! If there wasn't anything, it wouldn't matter, so neither does the question. There clearly is, so start there.

Given the absurd pressure that exists on humanities and social science departments today, the disciplines should at least fight back instead of retreating inward. Take on an active role in public life – bring your knowledge skills to the problems of our time.

That itself – what research disciplines that have been stuck in ivory towers so long that the disciplines themselves are under attack – is a philosophical problem.

Problem – a situation, whether in thought or practice or more often both, that constitutes obstacles, dangers, puzzles, mysteries to us. A concept is a framework for our understanding that lets us act such that the obstacles aren’t really in our way. Like someone who moves to a cold, wintery region and has to learn to walk well on snowshoes.

Eric Weber is a philosopher I know in the United States, who co-hosts a podcast called Philosophy Bakes Bread. One of the questions he always asks guests is whether philosophy can bake bread – whether and how it has a practical dimension.

As for me, I think it’s only worth calling philosophy if it has a practical dimension. Philosophy creates conceptual tools for solving problems in action with thought. Components of those concepts can include versions of all the traditional topics of philosophy – God, cosmos, being, the good, truth. But those tools are always there.

Conceptual engineers – designers and testers of guides for thinking.

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