Stating the Obvious

Can philosophy make a difference? Here, with ‘philosophy’ I don’t mean what is usually labelled as such in Germany: some pompous shooting-from-the-hip mansplaining on every possible question, either on salon level (Richard David Precht) or with more academic ambition (Julian Nida-Rümelin).

I’m rather talking about the humble attempt “to understand how things in the broadest sense of the term hang together in the broadest sense of the term”. This definition stems from the US-american philosopher Wilfrid Sellars (1912-1989). He adds that such an understanding would help “to ‘know one’s way around’ with respect to all these things”. Successful philosophy aims, accordingly, rather at the acquisition of a skillset than at the acquisition of factual or even theoretical knowledge.

I don’t know whether I completely agree with Sellars’ definition, but I like it in a way. To my experience, philosophical insight very often comes with the feeling of having been stubbornly reminded of the obvious. And that is the case even though it can take considerable energy to get to this point. Then the effect more often than not is that several other things suddenly fall into place and you are less prone to make certain errors.

It might sound a bit paradoxical, but the obvious is not necessarily clear. So you have to dig for it, rinse to clean it from all kinds of pollutants, and hold it to light in all possible angles. Then comes the insight: Well, isn’t it obvious?

I had happily given up on philosophy after my Ph. D. thesis, and there have been definitely no deep dives from my side afterwards. But I’m still prone to searching for the obvious, and it has helped me in so many different areas and situations. Some of these ‘common philosophy’ digs have made it into this blog. See, for example, the seven-part series of “Journalistische Reflexionen” (links in the right margin), or my essay with the title “Die Freiheit, die wir meinen (sollten)” (dt./engl.). The latter also shows that sometimes my stubborn insistence of digging for the obvious brings me in positions at odds with what is now fashionable mainstream thinking – in this case the sloppy concept of ‘agency’ you will find in many contemporary social theories like Bruno Latour’s ‘Actor-Network-Theory’, with a lot of hideous unintended and unreflected consequences. (Read the comment section of the german version for some discussion.)

Anyways, I have been playing with the idea of extending the “Journalistische Reflexionen” to something a bit broader in range – a kind of “Philosophical Primer for Journalists”. I think that regaining insight into the nature of some concepts central to journalism (like truth, independence, analysis, argumentation, the distinction between description and evaluation etc.) could be helpful. Maybe not as arguments in future discussions with the bullshit artists of our time (because they are not interested in insight) but simply for adding to the confidence and stability with which we enter into these fights. It’s always good to thave the obvious on your side.