Has analytic philosophy made us any happier?
November 16, 2010

Happier? No clue. I’d say it’s contributed to the sum of human understanding. And I’d also say that a bunch of people — myself included — get a lot of pleasure out of studying it and refining philosophical arguments. A lot of those same people also probably hate it a little bit, but that’s how it is with any real obsession.

But I think asking whether it makes us happier is sort of beside the point. And to explain why, I’m going to need to go all philosophical on the concept of happiness.

We need to distinguish happiness from pleasure. Pleasure is temporary and unstable. Happiness is persistent and stable. A heroin addict may feel quantities of pleasure on a regular basis that, to the non-heroin user, are inconceivable. Yet, on the whole, I consider myself better off, and probably happier, than the majority of heroin addicts.

You could argue that this is true because the heroin addict experiences a lot of physical and mental wear and tear. So maybe you could say that happiness comes from maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain, although that seems like a process with diminishing returns. When I try to conceive a scenario in which one regularly receives pleasure without any sort of struggle or adversity, I can’t. After a certain amount of time, what previously gave one the sensation of pleasure becomes the new baseline. It engenders boredom and anxiety.

So at that point your only option is to pursue different varieties and ascending quantities of pleasure. But any version and level you reach has only limited utility, and the more dependent on different and greater levels of pleasure your happiness becomes, the more fragile it is. Maintaining a baseline becomes impossible. Reaching for more is increasingly risky. You’re engaging in the compulsive behavior of an addict, and if a crash isn’t inevitable, then it’s at least likely enough to give us serious pause.

For this reason, I’d say we’ve got a better chance at happiness if we don’t pursue pleasure for its own end. I think the better strategy is to pursue an end we find worthwhile independent of the pleasure we get from our pursuit.

This is why the objective of the philosopher can’t simply be to find the theory or model of the universe which it feels most pleasurable to believe. If that’s the objective, then philosophy is essentially a hollow pursuit. There’s no way to critically evaluate models besides, “I like this one more right now,” and so there’s no way to achieve excellence within the discipline. Hell, calling philosophy a discipline becomes a joke. In a world where the aim of a philosopher is to make herself feel good, there’s no difference between philosophy and making up soothing bullshit.

This is why it needs a different end. Call that end truth. Call it human flourishing, or the clarification of propositions. But it can’t be pleasure alone. And there has to be a right way and a wrong way to do it, so that people can reach greater levels of achievement, and find enrichment and value even in their failures.

Simply put: any philosophical method that privileges pleasant arguments over sound arguments is illegitimate. The important question isn’t whether analytic philosophy makes people happy, but whether it is a method that produces sound arguments. To that, I would say: Absolutely. While I do have my complaints about the culture of analytic philosophy, its emphasis on reason and logical progression is both invaluable and unimpeachable.

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