Adam I. Gerard
MSFT Research
Future MS

Toolbelt Instrumentalism

I was watching a few Bryan Magee videos recently and wanted to refine a variant of Instrumentalism that I've espoused previously.

Philosophy as a Repository of Ideas

I've previously characterized my view of philosophy (so-called "meta-philosophy" - sidenote: I often wonder if it's a bit comical to be called a Doctor of Philosophy of Meta-Philosophy ha!) as the following:

  1. Philosophy is a repository of ideas (whether those are truth-apt or not, true or false, incorrect or otherwise) that is useful in its right for that reason alone.
  2. Philosophy is a meta-discipline. Traditionally, philosophy was seen as being elevated above all other disciplines or somehow special or separate.
  3. Philosophy is the source of all natural science. When natural sciences develop sufficiently they branch off (like seedlings) and grow into their veritable trees of knowledge.

Such claims are quite nearly platitudes (probably so uncontroversial and widely held to be true so as to be nearly unoriginal) in the age of online dependency management tools and the internet!

However, the view above does lend itself to resolving some problems in philosophy and providing insight, I think, into traditional areas of philosophical debate:

  1. What is a theory?
  2. What is the utility of idea-creation?
  3. Are ideas valuable even if they are not immediately usable in any practical way?

Time and time again, modern ideas in business and commerce return back to traditional topics in philosophy. For instance, consider modern UI/UX design and phenomenology: creating intuitive human experiences from a multitude of small data points - QLED pixels, ontology in database design and the semantic web, and say structuralism in the age of the internet and the Internet of Things!

Philosophy is less a set of correct views and more a toolbox of ideas that are pragmatically wielded at different times in history for different purposes (political, scientific, mathematical, etc.).

Repositories as Tools (and Toolbelts)

After some modest reflection, I realize I'd completely missed a fairly obvious connection - the view above is really a kind of instrumentalism - the view that philosophical ideas and (scientific) theories are tools strictly speaking and therefore not literally truth-functional. (They are tools that help us predict or explain things but they are only that - ways of simplifying, very precise rules of thumb, heuristics.)

I think it's a different, new, kind of instrumentalism. A repository of ideas need not be truth-apt or truth-functional itself while each of the tools it contains (theories, ideas, sketches of ideas, blueprints, frameworks, etc.) might be.

A brief search on Google Scholar doesn't result in any hits for "Toolbelt Instrumentalism".

So, herein is the nucleus of a new kind of instrumentalism in philosophy.