Archive for February, 2011

In praise of uselessness…

A student and I were chatting for a few moments after class on Friday.  She told me that she enjoys our class because she gets “to think about and discuss some important things,” things that don’t seem to come up over there in the business school where she pursues her major.  She wondered whether she should consider changing her major from something she doesn’t like (business) to something she does (seem to) like (philosophy).

Now, I sharpened up this brief conversation to make a point:  this is the moment that any honest and self-aware philosophy professor dreads more than any other.  What do I say next?

Do I go on and on about how the humanities are not respected in academia (despite the lip-service paid them), about the miserable job prospects for one who wants to pursue humane learning in a professional capacity, about the viciousness of campus politics (because, as they say, so little is at stake), that academia seems to breed negativity, etc.?  Who’d recommend to a young person that way of life?  And do I say that the humanities are just something we do for a while, now, while we (at least you) are young, that getting a job is the main thing because so much else in our lives hangs on our economic circumstances, about how the humanities are seemingly useless to living in a consumer society such as ours, about how just because we do not enjoy something does not mean it is not good for us—I teach (about) Aristotelian virtue, after all—etc.?

On the other hand, how do I tamp down the obvious enthusiasm—even love—that I have for philosophy and for what I do with my life?  The students can’t miss it.  And they want that or something like that.  It doesn’t have to be academic philosophy, but they want something that will produce the effusive joy in living and doing in them that they see coming from me.  They know I’m not doing it for the money (Lord knows).  They know I had a career in business that brought in a very nice income.  They know I got to see a little of the world—maybe more than most do.  But they see that, after all, here I am.

And they see that how I experience the philosophical life generates a joy in me that is akin to the joy someone else might find in stamp collecting or ice hockey or cooking—but that it’s also more than that.  The philosophical life is about life itself, about us, even all about me in a non-superficial, non-egocentric sense.  Students in college (and even—maybe especially—the “non-traditional” students, the returning adults) are at a point in their lives where it seems to be “all about me”—again, not just in some superficial, selfish sense.  In fact, you might say that the superficial, selfish manifestations of “all about me” arise just because there is no authentic arena for thinking about, wondering about, imagining what “me” means for most of these students.  When students find such a space, they gravitate towards it.

And yet, the self-aware, honest philosopher would have to ask: This “joy” you’re referring to—is it genuine?  Is it coming from pursuing philosophy itself (if it has an “itself”)?  Or does it come from being in charge in the classroom, from being on stage, raptly attended to (if you are any good at performing), from being the know-it-all in the room, from not having to meet payroll anymore, or deal with neurotic funders or board members or troublesome employees, or the bottom line?  Is philosophy, for me, “all about me,” in a superficial sense?  And am I in any way encouraging the same quest for selfish ego-gratification in others, in perhaps impressionable young people?

Just asking oneself these questions is—inescapably—philosophical, an occupational hazard of the philosophical life, the price to be paid for a joyous pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful.  It’s all in the game.  And the answer is:  Sure, it’s selfish.  But it is not only selfish.  When my students drive away in better cars, I know it is not only selfish.  What I do is fun, but it is also serious.  It is to me, and it is to the students around me.  I should really say fellow-students, because (selfishly, yes!) I am still learning, yearning for learning.  I know that I do not know.

Knowing computer programming, accounting, or animal husbandry is useful.  Not knowing is useless.  Constantly examining one’s life is useless.  Philosophy is useless.  It gets in the way of the useful, upends efficiency and effectiveness, makes trouble where no one noticed anything troubling.

I think this truth about philosophy infects academic philosophy.  I would be willing to bet that most departments might frown upon taking philosophy personally—or at least worry over when it gets “too personal,” as if it is not really about persons, teacher-persons and student-persons.  Departments, I would imagine, tend to worry about confusing eros with philia.  It is a fair concern.  If philosophy is personal—about persons—then some sense of intimacy might develop.  And then, call the lawyers!  It wouldn’t be useful to make education be so personal—not just for these reasons, but also because we’ve made education all about certification.  We have tests and grades and such in order to be able to certify.  So a “good” philosophy student is one who knows about philosophy—which one might be even if one is not a philosopher—does well by knowing names and dates, how to define terms, the stock arguments, who influenced whom, etc.  Making philosophy to be knowing-about-philosophy is very useful for academic philosophy because you can assess it.  If you teach virtue ethics, for instance, you could ask questions about Aristotle and Alasdair MacIntyre.  But you could never follow a student around the rest of her life trying to assess how virtuous in living she’s become.  That’d be creepy.

Knowing about philosophy might be useful outside the academy…it is hard to see how, though.  What would you do…open up your own little philosophy shop?  I guess you could engage in interesting cocktail party conversation.  You could win big on Jeopardy!, I suppose, being able to ring in fast with, “Who was Descartes?”  But it won’t come up on a regular basis in corporate headquarters.

I could try to re-describe philosophy—academic philosophy—in terms that make it appear as if it were useful.  In academic philosophy, you learn the art of careful, close reading; argumentation; debate; critical thinking; seeing the “big picture;” etc.  All these are eminently useful skills to develop.  My students know, for instance, that a big part of the reason I made a buck or two in the business world was simply because I developed these skills.  I never had business, information technology, or manufacturing courses, but I ended up having a bunch of people who did have these courses work for me.  It would be impossible for me to argue that philosophy—at least academic philosophy—has been useless to me.

But all of that makes up the form of academic philosophy, not the content.  You should be learning all of those skills across the liberal arts curriculum.  But for me, the content—what philosophy is all about—matters.  It would be better if conversations about Aristotle, Kant, and Mill came up on board rooms and shop floors as much as in lecture halls.  But they usually don’t.  So, for many reasons, philosophy happens intensely only on college and university campuses (if it does at all).

Speaking of Aristotle, he defines happiness as an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.  Happiness is not a feeling or emotion, but an activity, an actualization, a way of being, a state once achieved that is permanent.  Aristotle says we do all things for the sake of happiness.  What this means is that everything we do we do because it at least seems useful to us for getting what we ultimately want:  happiness.  But this means that happiness—in the sense Aristotle means it—is useless.  It is not for the sake of anything.  There is no “in order to” that follows happiness.  On the contrary, everything else is “in order to” be happy.

If happiness—again, not to be confused with mere pleasure, although it includes it—is what we want, then what we want is, itself, useless.  What students see in me—someone taking joy from the ultimately useless, i.e., someone pursuing genuine happiness, someone working on being happy—is just exactly what they are looking for.  I don’t mean me, that it is peculiar or specific to me.  There is no cult of personality going on here.  I mean they see something in me and what I’m doing that goes way beyond me, that, in fact, makes them forget all about me (in both senses of that—forget about EW and forget about their own superficial “all about me” attitude) and start to be able to grasp who they are and what happiness means to them.  And they start to question whether “getting a job”—the most useful thing in the world—will mean happiness for them.

But—again—the problem for me, their teacher and somewhat reluctant advisor—is what to say to them about all this.  If I say the most important things are the most useless things (i.e., they are goods in themselves, regardless of whether they are useful for anything else), I don’t want them to think there is nothing useful for getting to the “useless.”  Aristotle would be emphatic about this.  There are many things that are useful for getting to happiness (even as they should not be confused with being “happiness” itself).  But if I emphasize just how important the useful things are (like accounting and computer programming, engineering and law, architecture and culinary arts), I don’t want them to think that we’re just wasting time, then, on this useless philosophy stuff.

So my student friend was wondering, in effect: Should I trade useful for useless?

Now what kind of advisor would I be if I simply were to say:  Yes, go for it!?  Part of me thinks I ought to be sued for nonsupport were I to do so.

My academic advisor answer is:  “You know, philosophy is a great minor.  Goes great with business management.”

It’s a useful response.  Still, I want to give them something a little more useless because, well, useless is more….


(from the archive: originally appeared October 4, 2009)



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True philosophy is the highest state to which nature can aspire…

Newman Reader – Idea of a University – Discourse 6: “To have even a portion of this illuminative reason and true philosophy is the highest state to which nature can aspire, in the way of intellect; it puts the mind above the influences of chance and necessity, above anxiety, suspense, unsettlement, and superstition, which is the lot of the many. Men, whose minds are possessed with some one object, take exaggerated views of its importance, are feverish in the pursuit of it, make it the measure of things which are utterly foreign to it, and are startled and despond if it happens to fail them. They are ever in alarm or in transport. Those on the other hand who have no object or principle whatever to hold by, lose their way, every step they take. They are thrown out, and do not know what to think or say, at every fresh juncture; they have no view of persons, or occurrences, or facts, which come suddenly upon them, and they hang upon the opinion of others, for want of internal resources. But the intellect, which has been disciplined to the perfection of its powers, which knows, and thinks while it knows, which has learned to leaven the dense mass of facts and events with the elastic force of reason, such an intellect cannot be partial, cannot be exclusive, cannot be impetuous, cannot be at a loss, cannot but be patient, collected, and majestically calm, because it discerns the end in every beginning, the origin in every end, the law in every interruption, the limit in each delay; because it ever knows where it stands, and how its path lies from one point to another.”

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True enlargement of the mind….

Newman Reader – Idea of a University – Discourse 6: “That only is true enlargement of mind {137} which is the power of viewing many things at once as one whole, of referring them severally to their true place in the universal system, of understanding their respective values, and determining their mutual dependence. Thus is that form of Universal Knowledge, of which I have on a former occasion spoken, set up in the individual intellect, and constitutes its perfection. Possessed of this real illumination, the mind never views any part of the extended subject-matter of Knowledge without recollecting that it is but a part, or without the associations which spring from this recollection. It makes every thing in some sort lead to every thing else; it would communicate the image of the whole to every separate portion, till that whole becomes in imagination like a spirit, every where pervading and penetrating its component parts, and giving them one definite meaning. Just as our bodily organs, when mentioned, recall their function in the body, as the word ‘creation’ suggests the Creator, and ‘subjects’ a sovereign, so, in the mind of the Philosopher, as we are abstractedly conceiving of him, the elements of the physical and moral world, sciences, arts, pursuits, ranks, offices, events, opinions, individualities, are all viewed as one, with correlative functions, and as gradually by successive combinations converging, one and all, to the true centre.”

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I commend mirth

From the book of Ecclesiastes 8:5—9:10

The consolations of the wise man

‘He who keeps the commandment experiences no evil, and the wise man’s heart knows times and judgments; for there is a time and a judgment for everything.’–Yet it is a great affliction for man that he is ignorant of what is to come; for who will make known to him how it will be? There is no man who is master of the breath of life so as to retain it, and none has mastery of the day of death. There is no exemption from the struggle, nor are the wicked saved by their wickedness. All these things I considered and I applied my mind to every work that is done under the sun, while one man tyrannizes over another to his hurt.

Meanwhile I saw wicked men approach and enter; and as they left the sacred place, they were praised in the city for what they had done. This also is vanity. Because the sentence against evildoers is not promptly executed, therefore the hearts of men are filled with the desire to commit evil– because the sinner does evil a hundred times and survives. Though indeed I know that it shall be well with those who fear God, for their reverence toward him; and that it shall not be well with the wicked man, and he shall not prolong his shadowy days, for his lack of reverence toward God.

This is a vanity which occurs on earth: there are just men treated as though they had done evil and wicked men treated as though they had done justly. This, too, I say is vanity.

Therefore I commend mirth, because there is nothing good for man under the sun except eating and drinking and mirth: for this is the accompaniment of his toil during the limited days of the life which God gives him under the sun.

When I applied my heart to know wisdom and to observe what is done on earth, I recognized that man is unable to find out all God’s work that is done under the sun, even though neither by day nor by night do his eyes find rest in sleep. However much man toils in searching, he does not find it out; and even if the wise man says that he knows, he is unable to find it out.

All this I have kept in mind and recognized: the just, the wise, and their deeds are in the hand of God. Love from hatred man cannot tell; both appear equally vain, in that there is the same lot for all, for the just and the wicked, for the good and the bad, for the clean and the unclean, for him who offers sacrifice and him who does not. As it is for the good man, so it is for the sinner; as it is for him who swears rashly, so it is for him who fears an oath.

Among all the things that happen under the sun, this is the worst, that things turn out the same for all. Hence the minds of men are filled with evil, and madness is in their hearts during life; and afterward they go to the dead. Indeed, for any among the living there is hope; a live dog is better off than a dead lion. For the living know that they are to die, but the dead no longer know anything. There is no further recompense for them, because all memory of them is lost. For them, love and hatred and rivalry have long since perished. They will never again have part in anything that is done under the sun.

Go, eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a merry heart, because it is now that God favors your works. At all times let your garments be white, and spare not the perfume for your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of the fleeting life that is granted you under the sun. This is your lot in life, for the toil of your labors under the sun. Anything you can turn your hand to, do with what power you have; for there will be no work, nor reason, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in the nether world where you are going.”

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The FIVE MINUTE University

Why is this scary true?

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The Allegory of the Cave (animated)

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Can you make a living? PROVE IT!

Try this game.  It’ll be an eye-opener, at least for some….

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Moral Views, Lying, and Euthyphro

You promised the Jews to hide them from their murderers. To keep that promise, you have to deceive the Nazis. Physical hiding and verbal hiding are two sides of the same coin, whether you call it lying, or deception, or whatever you call it. What it is, is much more obvious than what it is to be called. It’s a good thing to do. If you don’t know that, you’re morally stupid, and moral stupidity comes in two opposite forms: relativism and legalism. Relativism sees no principles, only people; legalism sees no people, only principles.

So says Peter Kreeft in the course of defending the group Live Action‘s…er…actions against its critics.

I am interested in the italicized passage (emphasis mine).  I have described moral positions as follows:  One can take an “absolutely absolute” position, which holds there is one right way for everyone, regardless of circumstances (what Kreeft calls “legalism”).  One can take an “absolutely relative” position, which holds there is no right way at all, everyone calling whatever he does “good” with no justification for criticizing another’s choices or actions (Kreeft’s “relativism”).  I’d call both of these positions untenable, but perhaps Kreeft does better by calling them “morally stupid.”

There is a third position – call it “relatively absolute” – that is the view of Aristotle (among others). This view holds that all of us are bound to develop certain virtues (excellent ways of choosing and behaving) – that is the absolute part – and yet each one of us must live out those virtues, manifest them, in our own ways according to our own capacities, circumstances, and situations – that is the relative part.

Regarding lying as sometimes “a good thing to do,” I recommend comparing Kreeft to Feser, here. There is much blogosphere discussion about Live Action and the moral status of its strategies against Planned Parenthood (see here and here and here and here). Perhaps a topic for another day….

In this same piece by Kreeft, he writes the following in regard to moral intuitions:

These instinctive intuitions and judgments are not infallible, of course, and logic can often reveal our errors. This is what Socrates did, and four cheers for his doing it. But any argument that begins by contradicting our moral common sense is almost certainly going to be wrong.

A good example is Euthyphro, the young man in the Platonic dialog by that name who is impiously prosecuting his own father for murder while professing to be an expert on piety. (‘Piety’ was the ancient virtue of respect both for gods and for elders, ancestors, and family.) In reasoning with Euthyphro, Socrates does not begin with logic, he begins with an instinctive astonishment, which is an implicit moral judgment that Plato expects all morally sane readers to share. Until we read Socrates’ arguments, we don’t clearly know why Euthyphro is wrong, but we know that he is wrong.

Not so fast…Do we really know Euthyphro is wrong to prosecute his father?

Here is the logic of Euthyphro’s critics:  “Son, your father is one of us, we just don’t prosecute one of our own; the so-called “victim” of your father was an *other* (a hired servant), who killed one of our own (albeit a lesser one – a slave).  What your father did was right *because* it was your father who did it.”

Here is Euthyphro’s logic:  “It doesn’t matter who offends against the gods – even if it is one of our own, the actions are wrong and stain the family.  We must act to rid ourselves of that stain, even as we would definitely insist that justice be done to another family if they had wronged us.”

Now who, really, is wrong? Who had moral courage?  Who was pious?

As Kreeft says we must, Euthyphro reasons first by analogy (What if the roles were reversed and someone killed on of our own?). Euthyphro then – with Socrates’ help, of course – ascends to principle (or tries to, anyway):  we must find a justice/piety that is universal, or it is no justice/piety at all.

And yet we are supposed to just *know* that Euthyphro is wrong.  If so, it can only be because Euthyphro’s father was one of us, and our side is always right.  How is that not “relativism”?

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Mubarak Gone – A Win for the People?

Democracy protests bring down Egypt’s Mubarak – Yahoo! News:

Sure hope so…Is the military the people?  We’ll stay tuned….


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In Love with Hayek


Wow!  There are no words….  Love is just like this!

Now if I could just get my students dancing around campus with their copies of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, head over heels for virtue….

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