Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Philosophy is Quite Useless


I went on a boat trip yesterday to the island of Staffa off the west coast of Scotland. During the trip the skipper asked me if I knew how Columbus had deduced that land was ahead when he was approaching the Americas – what 3 things had Columbus noticed? I had a hunch about one (sea birds) but it seemed pointless to offer just one when three were required. The skipper looked at me with a grin and said “Ah, you see, we had a good education on the island of Iona!” The answer, he told me, was birds, driftwood and cloud formations, at which point he indicated the distinctive clouds hovering above the distant islands of Coll and Tiree.

Of course this isn’t philosophy, it’s knowledge, lore and understanding. It’s the application of observation to the realities of life and the struggle for survival. It’s empirical and testable and reliable and we call these things "facts".

There are two types of facts which are interesting to think about here: facts which are like tools - which allow us to achieve other things, to recognize that certain clouds indicate the presence of land etc - and facts which have no obvious utility. These useless facts are observations of simple patterns, affiliations and connections between things; the way’s things appear or interrelate. Whilst these observations may have no immediate or obvious utility it’s still the case that useful facts have frequently emerged out of these apparently useless ones. Certainly not all useless observations are destined to become useful but we are nonetheless programmed as beings to notice patterns and connections between things, despite our accompanying (but complimentary) tendency to doubt, question and test the fruits of such observations.

But since it’s both a natural tendency to observe and speculate about our observations and since utility occasionally emerges from such speculations, we should be unrepentant about our enquiries into things which, to some people, might seem senseless or purposeless nonsense, since who knows from whence the next important discovery will emerge from the fog of uncertainty?

Staffa, Fingal's Cave, JMW Turner, 1832

In his 1773 descriptions of Scotland’s Western Isles, Samuel Johnson devoted a single paragraph to the Island of Staffa. It begins thus:
“When the Islanders were reproached with their ignorance, or insensibility of the wonders of Staffa, they had not much to reply. They had indeed considered it little, because they had always seen it; and none but philosophers, nor they always, are struck with wonder, otherwise than by novelty.”

Staffa, The Clam Shell Cave, James Valentine, Undated

(This post originated from a discussion on Sean's Reflective Journal blog here)

9 comments:

Vivian Oblivion said...

Thank goodness for that last part about potential discoveries from uncertain fogs. The musing otherwise summarized (personal) fears concerning my dissertation and its utter (applicable) uselessness.

J. Hamlyn said...

Hi Vivian,

I'm really chuffed that it helped you. I've been thinking about this whole issue of utility for a couple of days now - most especially because I've been involved in another (extremely lengthy) online discussion about the use (or not) of Philosophy. I'm not at all convinced that utility is the way we should be evaluating such things. Here's a link if your interested:

http://aphilosopher.wordpress.com/2007/08/27/is-philosophy-useless/

Sean said...

Utility isn't of course the only way we should be evaluating such things, but if that is our criterion, philosophy comes out looking pretty flaky. On the other hand, philosophy and the humanities in general make an interesting hobby, and a means to a living for a lucky few...

Arts do not necessarily have common cause with the humanities, as they can give pleasure, transmit emotion, experience and insight, as well as make things which are both useful and beautiful.

Whilst some of these uses are harder to measure than others, that they are thought useful can be seen from the fact that people are willing to pay great sums to access certain sorts of arts, and to commit great sums of public money to other sorts.

J. Hamlyn said...

Hi Sean,

Thanks for that. I almost entirely agree with you bar one detail - I wouldn't say that peoples willingness to part with cash for art is a measure of art's usefulness but rather its assumed value. As Oscar Wilde wrote: "Art is quite useless." (hence the title of this post) but he knew it had value - otherwise, according to his own logic, he'd be a cynic!

Seán said...

Perhaps then we should go with William Morris's distinction between what is useful and what is beautiful, whilst admitting the worth of both. And then there's this: http://artwank.tumblr.com/

J. Hamlyn said...

Hmm, not sure Sean. I tend to think Morris missed some vital details in his “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”.

Alcohol's out then for starters! Not sure I'd be too happy about that!

Seán said...

Well yes, I used to live in Scotland, and based on that I guess if he'd been a Scot it would had ended ..."or intoxicating".

J. Hamlyn said...

Haha yes not to mention..."or perplexing".
..."or funny"
..."or unusual"
..."or entertaining"
..."or sentimental"
..."or edifying (as all good philosophy should be).

Yep I reckon Morris' house must've been pretty sterile actually.

Oh yeah and I've a studio which is constantly filling up with stuff that "I know to be useful". Who knows whether I'll actually use it though! And until I do, it's just clutter with the potential to be useful - kind of like philosophy really eh: knowledge which may or may not come in handy!

Schrodinger's Human said...

Amen to that

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