Tuesday, March 12, 2013

What Is the Point of Philosophy (by Way of the Jewish State)?


Joseph Levine, a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has a well-written blog post at the New York Times about whether or not "Israel has a right to exist." Levine's thesis is that no people, including the Jewish people, has a right to a nation-state; nation-states do not exist for the sake of any particular people (in the sense of an ethnic group), but rather exist (or should exist) for the sake of all of the peoples who are their citizens.

This article is a great illustration of what the point of philosophy is. It's true that philosophers have often addressed questions which are of mainly theoretical interest, that they have (especially historically) attempted to answer questions which are best left to the empirical sciences, and that philosophy does not produce empirically verified or mathematically proven theories in the same way that the special sciences or mathematics do. So one may be forgiven for wondering what the purpose of philosophy is or if it even has one.

In a word, the point of philosophy is to think carefully and critically about thorny questions having to do with values or with the first principles of science, mathematics, or other disciplines. The tools of the philosophers in their quest for clarity are not microscopes and chemical assays, but rather logical and conceptual analyses.

A big part of both of these tools is the ability to make crucial distinctions (such as that between the ethnic and the civic sense of the term 'people'), which Levine aptly illustrates in his blog post about the Jews and Israel. Conceptual and logical clarity are not sufficient for resolving difficult questions of value or foundations, but they are necessary, and all too often lacking in debates about morality, politics, the arts, scientific methodology, and the like.

I am not hereby endorsing Levine's thesis or his arguments (though they are worth considering seriously), but as soon as I started reading his blog post, I could tell that he was a philosopher or had philosophical training, because of the obvious care he was taking to get conceptual and logical clarity before reaching his conclusion. Most non-philosophers regrettably do not sufficiently distinguish between related issues or concepts as carefully as Levine has done in this piece. I hope that Levine's work serves as a helpful illustration of the value of philosophy, even for such practical, political, "blood and soil" issues as the relations between Jews and Palestinians in the state of Israel.
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