Archive for category Philosophy
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.
When I think about the “Allegory of the Cave, from Plato’s Republic, I am first of all struck by what it must mean for the prisoner to get up. Why does the prisoner get up? At what urging? What could be the impetus for such getting up when one’s whole life there was never the slightest notion of ”getting up"?.
Socrates does not say, leaving us to ponder what could lead to such a momentous and inexplicable act. And why had the prisoner not acted before now?
Or is “act”really the right word? Is the getting up a choice the prisoner makes? Or is it something that happens to the prisoner somehow?
And what must that getting up be like? There never was up in that sense in the prior experience of the prisoner. The prisoner could not even have known there was an up.
How disorienting it must have been. How alarming, at least at first. And then to turn around. Around! A completely new orientation, one never before even conceivable. Imagine, if you can, what that must be like.
Getting up demands metanoia, a turning around of the mind, a reorientation. What brings this about? Necessity? But what is the force of that necessity, if indeed it is necessary? What demands that we come around to another heading?
The prisoner must somehow come to grips what is happening – the very realization that he (or she) has been a prisoner requires a turning around of the mind. What is it to come to realize that one has been a prisoner (of a kind) all of one’s life? What will this release from prison come to mean? How will the newly-released prisoner learn to cope with all the new experiences?
It seems such a simple thing: getting up. But what effects such a simple act (if it is an act) can have! And then: metanoia, turning around one’s mind (or having it turned around). What could be more under our own control than our minds, and yet such transformation seems always hard, almost impossible, and always at a great cost.
Can we get up? Will we?
Zombies — yes, seriously — have been a topic of interest in philosophy for quite a while. The interest in zombies comes from a variety of perspectives and pertains to a diversity of issues. I’m not up on any of it.
You can read some articles about zombies and religious philosophy in a special issue of the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory: JCRT 13.2 Summer 2014.
Once you’ve been over-educated in our academic system, it is very hard to be plain spoken. I was just discussing this problem with my sister-in-law Joan as she was getting ready to head to the People’s Climate march. She mentioned that from time to time people have shared some books and articles with her, the meanings of which she just could not grasp. Now, Joan is smarter than you are, so the fault is not hers. She is (among many other wonderful things) an activist. We intellectuals are to blame here, I think. I tried to explain the habits of mind and expression that are inculcated during graduate education (especially in the humanities), and that they are very hard to un-learn.
Further, we — at least I — don’t want to un-learn them completely. I believe that I have learned some things, some real things, in the process of struggling with difficult books and ideas. No doubt, many of the books and ideas I had to deal with were needlessly over-complicated by the vices of academia (one of which is willful desire to be hard to understand, as a mark of “seriousness”). But sometimes, especially when you are working at the boundaries of things, where things are profound but not so clear, it is difficult to put into words what it is that you are seeing, experiencing, discovering. The boundary from prose to poetry gets crossed sometimes before we even know we’ve moved to another country. And trying to speak from that other country, trying to call back over the gulf that opened up between what you used to know and what you can now see, is hard.
I’d like to think that, as I think philosopher John Searle (himself a plain speaker) put it, if you can’t explain it to someone else you don’t understand it yourself. But I wonder sometimes if there is no other way you can get someone to come over to where you are except to have that person walk the whole way that you did. Must there have been a shortcut? Why didn’t you find it?
Wark’s wisdom here refers to the political value of theory. A theory — literally, a way of seeing things — may need to be as complex as the reality it is attempting to see. However, to be politically useful — for that theory to have an impact or to serve as a catalyst — it simply has to be accessible in some way to an appropriate number of political actors. Otherwise, the theory falls stillborn. It could be accessible in the sense of readily comprehensible, or it could be accessible in the sense of serving as a slogan or rallying cry (without its being fully understood). To me, the former is to be preferred, but I admit that the latter might be more immediately effective. I would take Sartre’s existentialism as a good example of the latter, and I suspect examples could be easily multiplied.
But if the theory is simply murk it is useless politically (if not completely).
One effective murk generator is literary allusion. Contemporary continental philosophy (a distinctly American thing, actually) is an infamous offender. If the people you want to reach haven’t read what you’ve read, it serves no purpose to assume that they have with your writing. It does no good to rely heavily on proper names in lieu of full explanations (however much that can be a timesaver with the cognoscenti).
A friend of mine, an august personage in the sphere of continental philosophy, once suggested that the Society of Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP) ban the use of proper names at its conferences — at least for a year. There were no takers.
And this friend of mine (I won’t embarrass him by associating his good name with mine) is a fine example of what I am driving at. I have learned a great deal from his books, and he has tried on occasion to write books for a more “popular” (read: non-academic) audience — books that I think are wonderful, really. But when I try to pass them on to others, they get little response. It is very frustrating to me. He has always made it a great point to try to make the difficult European thinkers “speak English,” as he puts it. And that has worked wonders for us graduate students and fellow academics. We owe him a debt. But his own writing — even his “popular” writing — is still too murky with allusion for the “non-academic” (read: the very, very small number of people who have read the same small set of books).
And in times like these, when there is such a demand for philosophy to be “relevant” (and people really ought to be careful what they wish for…), all of us academic writers need to pay heed to MacKenzie Wark.
What could I tell you, my lady, of the secrets of nature that I have discovered while cooking? I observed that an egg unifies and fries in butter or oil, but to the contrary dissolves in syrup; that in order to keep sugar liquid, it suffices to throw on it a very little bit of water flavored with quince or another bitter fruit; that the yolk and white of the same egg when separated and combined with sugar have an opposite effect, and one different from when they are both used together. I do not mean to tire you with such foolishness, which I only recount to give you a complete picture of my nature and because I think it will amuse you. But, my lady, what can women know except philosophy of the kitchen? Lupercio Leonardo has said it well: it is possible to philosophize while preparing dinner. As I often say on observing these little things, if Aristotle had cooked, he would have written much more.
–Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, c. 1690
Or consider this:
Or consider the example of cookery. It might be supposed that an ignorant man, some edible materials, and a cookery book compose together the necessities of a self-moved (or concrete) activity called cooking. But nothing is further from the truth. The cookery book is not an independently generated beginning from which cooking can spring; it is nothing more than an abstract of somebody’s knowledge of how to cook: it is the stepchild, not the parent of the activity. The book, in its tum, may help to set a man on to dressing a dinner, but if it were his sole guide he could never, in fact, begin: the book speaks only to those who know already the kind of thing to expect from it and consequently bow to interpret it.
Now, just as a cookery book presupposes somebody who knows how to cook, and its use presupposes somebody who already knows how to use it, and just as a scientific hypothesis springs from a knowledge of how to conduct a scientific investigation and separated from that knowledge is powerless to set empiricism profitably to work, so a political ideology must be understood, not as an independently premeditated beginning for political activity, but as knowledge (abstract and generalized) of a concrete manner of attending to the arrangements of a society. The catechism which sets out the purposes to be pursued merely abridges a concrete manner of behaviour in which those purposes are already hidden. It does not exist in advance of political activity, and by itself it is always an insufficient guide. Political enterprises, the ends to be pursued, the arrangements to be established (all the normal ingredients of a political ideology), cannot be premeditated in advance of a manner of attending to the arrangements of a society; what we do, and moreover what we want to do, is the creature of how we are accustomed to conduct our affairs. Indeed, it often reflects no more than a discovered ability to do something which is then translated into an authority to do it.
–Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays