As Daily Nous and Open Culture both reported, the great John Cleese (of Monty Python and Faulty Towers fame, and so much more) recently recorded a series of public service announcements proclaiming the value of philosophy. Daily Nous also included this video of Cleese acting as a philosopher in terrific bit of comedy. While funny in its own right, the clip brought to mind one other way that philosophy can be of value. And it’s something we do at the Toolbox Project. But first, watch the video:
As you noticed, at one point Cleese says, “In other words, why do philosophy at all? Why?” To answer that question, he tells the following story:
This morning, I walked into a shop, and a shop assistant was having an argument with a customer. The shop assistant said, “Yes.” And the customer said, “What do you mean ‘Yes’?” And the shop assistant said, “I mean yes.” Now here we have a splendid example in everyday life where two very ordinary people are asking each other what are in essence a metaphysical question…. Where I, as a philosopher, could help them.
Well, no. They were in rather a hurry.
He was right that philosophers can help in situations, like this one, of conversational confusion. Of course, he didn’t. But that is precisely what the Toolbox Project actually does, albeit in contexts where a great deal more is at stake than semantic confusion in a shop. Much of our work is with cross-disciplinary research teams working on important problems but lacking in a unified set of important terms, concepts, and values. Often they’re not even aware of their disunity, i.e., that some terms are ambiguous, that team members have conflicting conceptual commitments, or how (or even whether) their values should influence their research. We lead them through a philosophical dialogue to reveal differences in their conceptual worldviews and semantic assumptions. This at least helps them to better understand the different worldviews of their collaborators. But it also affords them the opportunity to collectively develop some shared conceptual commitments and agreement on terms’ meaning. In doing so, we enhance their collaborative capacity. In essence, we—unlike Cleese’s philosopher—answer the question of why do philosophy at all not theoretically, but actually. I have some forthcoming research (which should be published soon) that demonstrates the Toolbox Project’s answer to the value of philosophy. I look forward to sharing it here as it comes out.