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Philosophy as Mapmaking
Philosophy as Mapmaking
Indulge me in this extended analogy: a good philosopher is like a good map-maker.
A good map-maker, quite obviously, makes good maps and good maps have certain general features. In the first place, all maps are simplified representations of reality. No map is a true one-to-one representation of reality--such a map, as Borges reminds us, would be entirely useless. Given this first feature, every map has to be selective in what it represents. A good map only includes representations of those features or landmarks that are necessary for achieving the goal of getting around. It does not include minutiae that would make that task difficult, nor does it represent landmarks that are irrelevant. Third, it represents the relevant landmarks in such a way that they are easily recognizable by someone reading the map--there is sufficient similarity between the representation of the Eiffel Tower and the real thing so that one can know when they've encountered it in travelling around Paris. Finally, a good map doesn't just represent the various landmarks, roads, subway stops, but also shows the (spatial) relations that hold between them. We know where Grand Central Station stands in relation to the Penn Station and other stops and that knowledge allows us to understand how we need to get to where we want to go.
The same four features apply in good philosophy. A good philosopher attempts to present the truth in their work, but does not attempt to represent all of reality through it (though perhaps great philosophers manage to do something close to it through their entire oeuvre). Instead, they focus only on certain slices of reality, selectively chosen for specific purposes, which are usually presented as central questions or puzzles to be solved. To do this, they describe different concepts or ideas that help orient us, focusing our attention on only those that are relevant for solving the puzzle or answering the central question. If they do this well, they are able to describe these concepts clearly so that we can recognize and understand them even if we haven't 'seen' them before. And, finally, they not only describe these concepts, but also show us the relation between them, helping us see how one is or is not connected to another.
We want to know what it takes to live a good life. The good philosopher draws our attention to those features of the world that matters to achieving that goal--to happiness, to virtue, to art, to beauty, to value, to excellence; they describe them in such a way that we can orient ourselves with respect to each and recognize them with relation to our goal. Even if we don't know what virtue is, the good philosopher is able to lead us to find it is by describing something else that we do know about (e.g. happiness), and showing us how it is related to the new unfamiliar thing. Finally, they allow us to see how and why all the things described help us to find the good life.
We can extend this analogy further to point out some ways in which one might fail to be a good philosopher. They might make a 'map' in which more than what is necessary is represented--they may rely on a superabundance of concepts or of very specific minute and irrelevant ones that makes the drawing of relations between the important ones difficult or obscure. The poor philosopher might pick the right 'landmarks' but describe them so poorly as to not be recognizable by people who encounter them (obtuse, obscure, or unnecessarily technical language does much of the work here; bizarre intuitions, etc.). They might describe everything well, but may fail to show how what is described is relevant to solving the central problem at hand. The perfect theory of reasons may be nice, but if we want to know how to live the good life and can't see the connection between that theory and the question that concerns us, then it makes little difference. Or, they might describe the relevant concepts very well but fail to show us how they relate to one another (some of Wittgenstein's philosophy feels this way to me at times--don't kill me).
Tragically, we may also have 'maps' that were perfectly good at one time, but which no longer bear any resemblance to the city in which we find ourselves (perhaps some ancient philosophy of science or political philosophy is such). Or we may have simply forgotten why we wanted to get to Central Park but continue to judge each map on whether it takes us there (e.g. cottage industries, fads, the philosophy that spins out of central figures, etc.).
Likewise, it's possible to have a fantastic map that isn't treated as such because we don't yet realize the purpose for which it is to be used. I suspect much of the history of philosophy is filled the scraps of such maps.
These are, of course, just general rules of thumb that are subject to exceptions. Many of the truly great philosophers have been able to violate them one way or another and nevertheless remain great. Sometimes I think this is because the central puzzles they raise are so interesting that other aspects fall to the side; sometimes it's because the way they describe things is truly revolutionary; sometimes because they show relations that we never suspected, etc.