David Hume made an extremely valuable distinction between “good philosophy” and “bad philosophy.” Hume understood that philosophy itself could be a problem, and that if reasoning did not ultimately defer to a “common life,” it would become a force of destruction.
To briefly lay out the argument found in “Deconstructing Common Life” (I will not repeat the entire paper here): if I believe it’s going to rain today, it is rational for me to bring along my umbrella, but if it doesn’t rain, does that mean I acted illogically? No: I was wrong, but I still acted rationally. Similarly, if I believe God exists, it is rational to attend mass; if I don’t believe God exists, attending mass is irrational. What constitutes rational action is relative to what I believe is true, but then what do people use to assent to truth? Yes, once I have a truth, I can use rationality to help me jump from one truth to another, but truth cannot be determined by rationality “all the way down.” Imagination, emotions, experiences, and other methods of ascent must be at play, and following Hume, common life is the main source of truths to which people ascent. To illustrate the point: once I experience in my daily life rain falling from dark clouds, I then know it’s rational to think that when dark clouds are present, there might be rain (even if no rain falls). Thus, the experience had to come before the rationality: I couldn’t conclude it was rational to believe rain fell from dark clouds before I saw it. Considering this, since rationality alone cannot be the means by which a truth is followed, the philosophical ideal of “autonomous rationality” is impossible. Rationality needs a truth outside of rationality to make itself possible.
But is that such a dire mistake? Absolutely: rationality without a “common life” is unbound, and nothing can stop it that it finds rational (according to itself) from making the world in its own image. The world thus becomes something for rationality to recreate as opposed to something for rationality to honor.
Problematically, ideas naturally appear “perfect” in the mind. When we imagine building an outdoor ceremony site at a wedding venue (unless we know the territory incredibly well or naturally think in terms of practical obstacles), it is unlikely we’ll envision in what we consider the best spot a lack of electricity, an abundance of mosquitoes, a lack of shade, the problem of finding a spot where the benches can be anchored to the ground, and so on. Instead, we’ll probably just envision the outdoor ceremony spot finished and all our brides thrilled with it.
Similarly, when we envision a Socialist society, we’ll probably envision everyone free of the tyranny of corporate power, oppressive bosses, and having time to finally do what they want to do. We probably won’t envision a massive government bureaucracy, a refusal of business owners to run businesses, or slow healthcare.
When we envision a Capitalist society, we’ll probably envision everyone happier and the economy functioning more efficiently and prosperously. We probably won’t envision the tyranny of corporate power, oppressive bosses, or inequality.
Ideas naturally appear in our minds as perfect, and if we do not believe ideas need to be “tested” against reality, experience, or “common life,” the fact that our idea of Socialism/Capitalism/etc. appears perfect to us will be enough evidence to try the idea and shape the world in its image. To use Plato’s language, thoughts appear to us like “forms,” but experience is where we find that our ideas are incomplete and a little “too perfect.” Reality is a test for ideas, but “autonomous rationality” believes ideas are a test for reality. It is not ideas that can fail, but reality.
All this isn’t to say ideas are bad — Hume warns against the lack of philosophy as much as he warns against a religious faith in it — but it is to say that ideas need to be tested. “Autonomous rationality” is dangerous.
To illustrate Hume’s point on the importance of a philosophical life embedded in a common life, imagine that we own a small business that runs weddings. To attract new brides, we need to build an outdoor ceremony space. Simple enough, right? That’s not a complicated idea. We can already see in our heads how perfect it will be.
We walk outside and see that the spot we thought the venue site would fit in isn’t flat. It looked flat, but on close inspection, it’s slightly tilted. This changes the design of the ceremony site significantly, and unfortunately, the design brides enjoy the most will no longer be possible.
Well, maybe there’s another site on the property? Perhaps somewhere else the most popular outdoor ceremony site design will be possible? There is a big lake on our property: we check down there. It’s flat! There’s space! But goodness, there’s no shade or electricity. And the bugs can be terrible. But brides love getting married near the lake. But if it rains hard the night before, the lake will be muddy. Maybe we could build a ceremony site at the lake and one on the nearby hill as a backup? But that would cost $50,000, and we can’t charge more than $4,000 a wedding in our market. That’s about 13 weddings before we pay for the space, and we already have other costs to manage. Considering our total costs, it could be 4 years before we turn a profit, and that assumes there isn’t a significant change in the tastes of brides before then. The style of our venue might go out…
We walk around to the back of our venue and look for another spot. It’s flat, there happens to be an electrical socket nearby, and the trees provide great shade, but there’s no view of the lake. We’re famous for our lake view.
We sit down and sigh. There are pluses and minuses to each spot. None of them are perfect. Whichever spot we pick, brides will no doubt inform us of the problems as if we were ignorant of the tradeoffs. Many people have told us that we need an outdoor ceremony space if we want more business. It’s simple in their minds — just build it. We thought it was simple, but then we walked the land. We thought we had thought up everything we needed to think about before taking the walk, but it turns out we were nowhere close to being that smart or aware. Can anyone be that perceptive? Probably not.
Ideas unto themselves don’t have to make any tradeoffs: they appear whole, complete, and perfect. But when we try to translate ideas into the world, we must start changing them to be possible in the world. And that’s when the tradeoffs and tragedy come in, but only to those who actually try to realize an idea in the world. To those standing on the outside thinking about the situation, the tradeoffs are abstractions. Sure, the onlookers know nothing is perfect, but thinkers tend to think they can approximate perfection better than they actually can. People who actually try to implement their ideas know better, but thinkers have reason to think that they will be different. After all, they haven’t tried to build the outdoor venue space yet: they have reason to think they could be different. And if it’s not perfect, it’s not like the other people did any better…
In closing, ideas that are unbound from a common life and lived experienced are ungrounded and, in their idealism, threatening. Such ideas create the “bad philosopher” Hume dreaded. It’s our job to be “good philosophers,” but that entails not only thinking well, but getting our hands dirty.