Archive for category Philosophy
Worth considering: Philosopher Scott Soames argues that  philosophy’s recent history has been much more impressive than its critics would have you believe, and  philosophy is best done in a university setting, rather than in the public square.
Soames is generally irenic (so long as the grumbling parties are fairly connected to the Anglo-analytic methods he favors). He does not take too seriously the fad of logical positivism in the 20th century, and he does not limit legitimate philosophical interest to any one are of exploration (e.g., he does not dismiss moral philosophy as a going concern). On the contrary, he argues that real advances have been made across the board, and that this is mainly thanks to philosophy’s having been disciplined by the modern research academy. This is no argument, however, for philosophy’s being arcane or divorced from concerns of non-professional philosophers. There is much to consider in this essay.
The impetus for this piece was another that appeared in the NYT “The Stone” philosophy column by Bob Frodeman and Adam Briggle, which argued that philosophy lost its way when it morphed into just another academic discipline (one with science-envy). I confess, I’ve seen it in much the same way as Frodeman and Briggle, and having just re-read their piece I generally still do.
It makes me wonder: Is there just *one* thing that philosophy is? Or is term “philosophy” like term “religion” — a blanket term that (legitimately?) covers widely divergent practices? Is the philosophy for the public square (or philosophy-as-a-way-of-life) “the same thing” as the philosophy done in academic settings and disciplinary practices? If not, is there at least a possibility for a mutually enriching intersection or overlap? Philosophers themselves have been notoriously argumentative about what counts as philosophy at all (for instance, the Derrida affair). Often they divide up their “orthodox” and their “heterodox” and their outright “heathen dogs.” Maybe that’s just part of the game.
But I know I do more than one thing as a philosopher…or maybe I am more than one thing as a philosopher. What and how I teach (and to what end) is not the same (exactly) as what I do when I write a journal article or a book review on a technical issue in, say, ontology. And I don’t think, as a philosopher (not as a philosopher professor), that I am ever “off the clock.” Perhaps I am large and contain multitudes. But why not be large and why not try to contain multitudes? Frodeman/Briggle and Soames. Why not?
It is of the utmost importance to shout from the rooftops that someone could be, or could have been, an anti-communist, a Stalinist, a philo- or anti-semite, hostile to women, a feminist, a monarchist, a democrat, a militarist, a nationalist, a partisan, a Nazi or Mussolinite, gay, sexually conformist, internationalist, colonialist, egalitarian, aristocratic, an elitist or friend of the masses, and so on and so forth… and be a philosopher of the greatest importance. Examinations of morality, passing as a democrat, being of the right ideological breed, non-criminality, inscrutability – ideological purity, in sum, the characteristic that these inquisitorial apostles test in those whom they must purge, and of which they must be the most perfect incarnation – are intolerable, and must not be tolerated. Down with the little masters of the purification of philosophy!
—Alain Badiou, Letter to Jean-Clet Martin, here.
What is the difference between an opinion and a belief? Let us say that a belief is an opinion with reasons. One of the objectives of public debate in a democracy should be to promote opinion into belief. We must demand reasons. But many Americans are not comfortable with this demand. “It’s just my opinion”: this bizarre American locution, which is supposed to provide an avenue of escape in a disputation, suggests that there is something illegitimate, even disrespectful, about insisting upon the defense of a proposition. Yet the respect we owe persons we do not owe their opinions. Political respect is axiomatic, but intellectual respect must be earned.
This is another snippet from the very quotable defense of reason by Leon Wieseltier I linked to earlier. The last point here is key: We could agree with Kant that we are obligated to respect persons for their inherent dignity and worth as persons. But no idea has inherent dignity or worth. Even though our identities are in large measure constituted by our ideas — our hopes, dreams, fears, aspirations, in short, our beliefs and opinions — we are not only our beliefs and opinions. To the extent we remember this, we are less likely to claim to be offended when we are simply disagreed with. Offense leads to fights; disagreement furthers both our arguments and may lead us both on to a clearer picture of the truth.
There are people who prefer ardent thought to clear thought, and loyal thought to strict thought. There are people who mistrust thought altogether and prefer the unarguable authenticities of the heart—the individual heart and the collective heart. There are people who regard thought […] as an activity of an elite…. Yet the ideal of ‘clear and intelligent thought,’ stripped of its condescension and its indifference to the non-rational dimensions of human life, deserves to be defended. We need not be a nation of intellectuals, but we must not be a nation of idiots.
Read the rest of Leon Wieseltier’s reflections: Reason and the Republic of Opinion.
In an interview with John R. Searle, there was this exchange (edited):
Searle: That’s my main objection to contemporary philosophy: they’ve lost sight of the questions. …
Interviewer: … But what advice would you give to a young philosopher starting out to not lose sight of the questions?
Searle: Well, my advice would be to take questions that genuinely worry you. Take questions that really keep you awake at nights, and work on them with passion. I think what we try to do is bully the graduate students. The graduate students suffer worse than the undergraduates. We bully the graduate students into thinking that they have to accept our conception of what is a legitimate philosophical problem, so very few of them come with their own philosophical problems. They get an inventory of problems that they get from their professors. My bet would be to follow your own passion. That would be my advice. That’s what I did.
Indeed! The idea is to find the questions that matter, at least to you and pursue them doggedly.
I wrote an essay every week, which he [Dagfinn Føllesdal] spent an hour talking to me about. During one session, he gave me one of the two best pieces of advice about writing philosophy I ever received. He said “Mr. Soames, you should write so that if you make a mistake, anyone who knows the subject will immediately be able to identify it.” The other piece of good advice, later given by Judy Thomson, was “Don’t be afraid of mistakes; if you never make mistakes, you’ll never be a success.” Not to worry.
What these authors seem to be saying is that philosophy does not have to be aloof and pretentious. It’s as simple and natural as asking questions about ourselves and the world around us, using logic and skepticism as tools. It’s the process of looking for meaning and guidance in how to act. It’s curiosity and common sense, passed down over hundreds of years of human experience. It’s living your life in an engaged, intentional, contented way—or, more fancifully, in the pursuit of wisdom. It can, and should, be utterly practical.