Do Philosophers Simplify Things or Complicate Them?

On the one hand, Shakespeare’s Hamlet says, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” But on the other hand, Thomas Reid wrote, “there is nothing so absurd which some philosophers have not maintained.” What are we to think? Is philosophy impoverished, compared to reality, or is it fantastically richer than reality?

Perhaps the disagreement between Shakespeare and Reid is due to the different times in which they lived. Shakespeare, in the English Renaissance, had inherited a philosophy that was more rigid and formulaic than did Reid, writing in Eighteenth Century Scotland, when the rebellion against medieval thought had ultimately produced many new philosophical systems, some of them involving truly amazing, if not absurd, propositions such as Berkeley’s rejection of the existence of matter. To Shakespeare, then, philosophy may naturally have seemed restrictive, inadequate to the mystery of reality itself, while Reid may have thought, with equally good reason, that it was about time for philosophy to be reined in, tamed, brought back down to earth.

However, I think there is more to this than the historical account suggests. It’s also possible that Shakespeare and Reid simply had completely different temperaments. The poet and playwright would naturally be a more imaginative person, the philosopher and champion of common sense more literal-minded.

Still I think there’s more to it. In fact, it is philosophy’s task to envision reality in such a way that it gives an account neither too plain nor too flowery, and the very difficulty of doing this may be the source of some people’s complaints that philosophy is too dull and repetitious as well as of others’ that it is too bizarre and counterintuitive. Certainly, as a teacher of philosophy for nearly thirty years, I have heard both complaints repeatedly.

Doing philosophy is one way for a person to live in the world. Consequently the world as it exists at a given time, and the person who philosophizes with given inclinations, both affect the spirit of the philosophy that is produced. But since reality itself, in all its glory and horror, is at least somewhat beyond us mere mortals at all times, we can expect that certain distractions will intervene to over-simplify or over-complicate the philosophical task. I think in particular of three of these:

1. There is the temptation of reductive analyses. By this I mean propositions of the general form, “x is really just y,” where x is the object of experience to be explained and y is a simpler phenomenon with which it is identified. For instance, in physics, “colors are really just different wavelengths of light.” In science, reductive analyses often inform. But philosophy is not science; for philosophers, a reductive analysis is likely a way to shirk our work. Consider: “a mind is really just a brain.” The reality of mind goes far beyond that.

2. There is the attraction, too, of our own delightful, architectonic schemes and the charm of interlocking concepts that appear to bring all things together into one, comprehensible (though of course very complicated) whole. Such schemes and concepts require a vocabulary all their own which inevitably lends them an air of depth and veracity. If you get the terminology right, you can prove that a table is a “colony of souls,” as Bertrand Russell complained, disapproving of Leibniz. But the facts will have their day, whether we like it or not, and then so much the worse for our theories, our prized and precious creations. Philosophy is not art.

3. There is even our laudable faith in the intelligibility of the cosmos, a faith bequeathed to us by the Greeks, without which neither philosophy nor Western civilization in general would even be possible. Yet this faith wavers between the humility of genuine wonder and the arrogance of self-absorbed intelligence, sliding toward the latter as often as not. “What can I learn from others?” we ought to ask, not “How impressively can I refute them?” To learn the relative importance of the former question, though, we need to listen and read carefully, for as Aristotle rightly points out, nobody is mistaken about everything.

How can our philosophies remain open to all the things in heaven and earth, especially to the things we do not yet know? And how can we, thus open-minded but (we hope) never empty-headed, still retain our ability to discern and reject the absurd? I think that in order to devise a philosophical outlook that does some justice to reality—a view neither too austere nor too ornate—we have to remember, as Daniel Boorstin put it, that illusions of knowledge are obstacles to discovery. This is true in the sciences, in the arts, and also in philosophy. For whenever we presume to know more than we actually do know, we stop considering that we might be wrong, and when we stop considering that we might be wrong we stop learning. But with finite minds we cannot afford to stop learning. Therefore we must remain somewhat skeptical (from the Greek, skeptikos, thoughtful, inquiring). Perhaps we could venture to modify a famous phrase from Kant, who in “What is Enlightenment?” told his reader, “sapere aude,” dare to know. First let’s dare to think, cogitare audeamus! This does require perseverance and even courage because really to think involves both hard work and not knowing where we’ll end up—though of course we hope to arrive closer to the truth rather than further away from it. Somewhere, that is, between the too simple and the too complex.