Can Philosophy be Specialized?

I’m better than you at X, and you’re better than me at Y.  This seems fairly intuitive, but is a really important concept in economics called the Law of Comparative Advantage.  Basically, if I engage in X I’m giving up less productive time in engaging in Y, and if you engage in Y you’re giving up less productive time in engaging in X.  It’s a bit more complicated than the way that I describe it here, but that’s another lesson for another time.  The important thing is that this results in the phenomenon that we call specialization or the division of labor.  These are things in the economy that most people take for granted such as the fact that there are certain people who specialize in medical work and we call them doctors, and there are those of us who specialize baking cakes and we call them bakers.  The division of labor makes people more productive, and therefore people have an incentive to behave in this way making specialization a cornerstone of our economy.

 

There are certain things that might pose a problem to the productive efficiency of specialization.  Perhaps, some things, if specialized, lose a part of their value.  When you specialize you are placing the production process upon someone else.  So are there goods that derive a part of their value from the production process?  When we engage in creating an idea, the production process is the various logical gates or hoops that must be jumped through to come up with a valid idea.  In the case of philosophy, a philosophical idea is produced when one creates a set of proofs that have true premises and a valid argument which would lead to a true conclusion.  To understand what makes this good valuable, we need to consider why anyone would engage in producing a philosophical idea.  If it is only so that they have the final product, the conclusion of the argument, to guide their actions buy, then anyone could go to the philosophy store and pick up a package of conclusions to valid arguments. However, this isn’t entirely true.  A large portion of the reason that we engage in philosophy is not only to know what conclusions to act by, but also to understand the process by which they are arrived at in order to make ourselves feel more secure on the conclusions that we live by.

 

“Believing things on authority only means believing them because you’ve been told them by someone you think trustworthy. Ninety-nine per cent of the things you believe are believed on authority. I believe there is such a place as New York. I haven’t seen it myself. I couldn’t prove by abstract reasoning that there must be such a place.”      

-C.S. Lewis

 

Taking things on authority is not a bad idea as Lewis states, but just because it is okay to believe people in whom you trust does not mean that this is true of all ideas at every level.  If Immanuel Kant was to approach me today and tell me that I should not murder, am I now to trust him and not murder?  My trust in him is based mostly on the fact that he is well established and reputable philosopher, and many people revere his work so I can trust that his argument behind “Thou shalt not murder” is sound.  If I live my entire life based on true conclusions of philosophical arguments, one could say that I am acting morally, but did I gain the full utility of philosophy?  

 

A large reason that we can’t take philosophical conclusions based purely on authority is that in the real world, even if a philosopher is reputable they may be wrong, and we want to do our own proofreading of their argument.  There are many opposing conclusions out there, and we need to do our own processing of the arguments behind each to figure out which one we believe to be most true.  If we were to take a conclusion based purely on authority than we are leaving ourselves vulnerable to a situation where another conclusion is proposed to the problem we are trying to solve by an equally reputable source as our previously held conclusion, but since we cannot tell the difference between the validity of either argument we are left in a philosophical limbo where we now have less knowledge than we had before.

 

Does this mean that philosophy cannot be specialized?  Let’s imagine a world in which no philosophy is specialized.  Everyone does their own philosophical proofs starting from cogito ergo sum.  This would take incredibly large amounts of time, and if every person was to do all of the other activities of their life in addition to creating their own philosophy then no one would get very far in life, philosophy or otherwise.

 

In real life, we have come to a consensus.  The kind of specialized philosophy that I have been describing could be called perfectly specialized philosophy, in which there are designated people called philosophers who produce a philosophical conclusion which are accepted on authority and directly applied to the life of the consumer for an ambiguous amount of utility.  In reality philosophy is specialized, but not to this perfect degree.  The philosopher creates arguments and conclusions and puts them into the world for people to either accept or to criticize and modify to something that they believe is more accurate to live by.  Perfectly specialized philosophy may occasionally create individuals who do the morally correct thing, but it does not give the consumers the personal comfort of additional confidence in the good they are using nor does it allow them to distinguish from other philosophical ideas.  

 

To put this into more economic terms, we could consider the perfectly specialized philosopher to produce consumer goods.  The philosophical conclusions are the part of philosophy that we directly apply to our actions so that we derive more utility from our life.  People cannot really choose an action based on its actual utility, but act on how much utility they expect to gain from it.  A philosophical conclusion in and of itself does not communicate to its adherent how much utility they might gain from it.  Therefore, what the real life imperfectly specialized philosopher does is create the various productive such as factors and relevant premises that they analyze and organize for their followers to produce conclusions from themselves. At the very least they show the entire process, and allow the public to understand and consume them at some degree.  
So in fact many things that seemed perfectly specialized may in fact not be.  Even the baker who makes the cake to the very end does not lift the fork to the diners mouth.  The basic Law of Comparative Advantage still holds true in light of the productive complications that philosophy holds.  There are those of us who are better at engaging in the activities that are useful for philosophy, and therefore those become philosophers as they are more productive than if those same people became construction workers.

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2 thoughts on “Can Philosophy be Specialized?”

  1. I think you make a good point when you mentioned how a person consuming works of philosophy is generally brought through the thought process of the philosopher and therefore is enriched by understanding how the philosopher came to his or her conclusion. However, does this mean that one cannot truely benefit by taking something on authority?

    1. I don’t think that it means that one won’t benefit from it. For example, if one takes “Do not Murder” on authority, and then they do not murder that is a benefit on their part. However, if the philosophy field were to be perfectly specialized it would also require perfect philosophers or else people would be taking random meaningless advice.

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