11 June 2008

A Little Meta-Philosophy

Brian Leiter links to an interesting Eurozine article entitled "Modes of Philosophizing: A Round Table Debate." The article portrays a Q&A between Cogito (apparently Eurozines in-house philosopher extraordinaire) and Raymond Geuss (Cambridge), Jonathan Barnes (emeritus Paris-Sorbonne), Myles Burnyeat (Cambridge/emeritus Oxford), and Barry Stroud (Berkeley). The answers are fairly interesting all around, though, as Leiter points out, a few are dismissive (he thinks appropriately so, I think not). In any case, I don't want to take issue here with what was said by these respected Professors and Emeruti. Instead, I'd like to put my novice skills to use and see if a newbie like myself can say anything interesting in response to these questions:

Question one:
Do you think that philosophy as pursued by philosophers has something to say which is, or should be, of some relevance to the way non-philosophers think about the world and their life? Is it desirable that philosophers make an effort to make those aspects of philosophy which are relevant in this way available to non-philosophers?
The short answer: Yes and yes. But it's more complicated than that. (We're philosophers, why wouldn't it be?) We must first clarify just who these non-philosophers are. There are some who have much to learn from philosophy in their professional lives: lawyers, judges, research scientists, doctors, legislators...all of these professions - just to name a few - can take something away from studies in different areas of philosophy. Philosophy of science, philosophy of law, ethics...the way philosophers go about doing work in these fields sheds light on questions that are very pertinent in some professional endeavors. I have a hunch, though, that this isn't what the question is really asking.

Now, if we're talking about whether philosophy has something to offer outside of certain professional endeavors the answers get a bit murky, and one's definition of philosophy has much to do with it. Logic chopping and exegesis on arcane texts has little if any value to non-philosopher folks. It seems that sometimes we work ourselves into tight little corners where we ourselves have trouble seeing the relevance of the work we're doing. But this isn't all that there is to academic philosophy, there are also those working in fields that do address (directly or indirectly) the "big questions" about life, god, etc, that we all - human beings, not just philosophers - come to wonder about from time to time. Philosophers and the work we do can, I think, provide new and interesting ways for everyone to approach these ponderings. And, of course, there's also critical race theory, feminist theory, queer theory, successor system theory, deconstructionism, etc, that all have strong philosophical theory underpinning them which find mainstream popularity and are useful when accompanied by real-world practice.

As for the second part...OF COURSE! All philosophy should be made accessible to non-philosophers. All information of this sort should be made accessible...and free.

Question two:
Should philosophy be pursued only by those trained in philosophy? Are there clear criteria that have to be observed and respected by anyone outside the academic institutions who wants to claim that he/she is engaged in doing philosophy?
Again, this is going to hinge on our definition of philosophy. If we define it only as the academic endeavor of reading, studying, contemplating, writing, and getting published...well, it's hard to do that if you're untrained in the field. You're also likely to re-invent the wheel...or, you know, something more philosophically useful than a wheel, hopefully...if you're not familiar with the field. However, if we go broader and think of philosophy as the love of wisdom as the word's etymology would have us do, then anyone who's struck by the profundity and baffled by the complexity of life's great questions can be engaged in a philosophical endeavor. Why should we be so elitist? Many of the greatest among philosophers weren't trained in the field: Socrates and Wittgenstein to name a couple.

Question three:
Should academic teachers of philosophy consider themselves philosophers in virtue of the fact that they teach philosophy? Or should we reserve the title of a philosopher only for Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Wittgenstein, and the like?
Those who teach philosophy are likely much better at teaching it if they are actively engaged in it (and, please, tell me how they got a job if they're not). How is one to get students engaged if you yourself are not interested and working on answering some questions. If we restate the question and ask whether all of those who do think of themselves as philosophers (those who are teaching, publishing, engaged in the dialog, etc.) actually are philosophers we might have a more interesting discussion.

One way to think about this restated question is in reference to Kuhn's paradigm shift theory of scientific progress. Plato, Kant, Wittgenstein, and the rest of those big names where doing what we might call revolutionary philosophy (though it's obviously up for debate how revolutionary any of them really were) much like the revolutionary science of a Newton or Einstein. This doesn't mean that the rest of us poor schmucks aren't doing philosophy at all. They've set the paradigms, we're solving the puzzles in them...doing "normal philosophy," if you will. Now, I'm sure some would disagree with this analogy, but there are other ways to think through this and still come up with the answer that, of course, philosophy profs (and grad students?) are philosophers, too.

Question four:
"Although the history of philosophy – despite what many historians like to say – is no more a part of philosophy than the history of mathematics is a part of mathematics, nonetheless you can't do anything much in the history of a subject without having some sort of acquaintance with the subject itself." (J. Barnes) Do you agree?
Are historians of philosophy philosophers, too? Sure they are. I agree with Barnes that to do history of philosophy (or any subject, for that matter) one must be at least somewhat familiar and skilled with philosophy itself. One needs to understand the questions being asked in order to understand the history of their asking.

Question five:
What about the reverse? Can one do anything much in philosophy without having some sort of acquaintance with its history?
One can, most can't. There are those brilliant few who can just see the logical structure of a language, perceive the misunderstandings in a theory, or grasp what knowledge is without doing the difficult work of figuring out what everyone before her thought, but there are many of those. Even they will, at some point, need to acquaint themselves with some of the history if they want to be at all sure that their brilliant breakthrough wasn't accomplished 200 years prior.
The rest of us, we don't stand a chance without learning a good deal of the history.

Question six:
Many philosophers nowadays work in particular areas of philosophy without taking an active interest, or without being interested at all in others. To make it clearer, philosophers working on ethics or political philosophy often do not concern themselves with, or even express an aversion to, areas of philosophy such as philosophy of logic or language, and the other way around. What do you think about this compartmentalization of philosophy?
In one respect, compartmentalization is unavoidable. There's simply too much literature out there and too much new stuff being produced for one person to keep up on the whole of philosophy. One needs to keep a keen eye on one's areas of specialization in order to be able to contribute to the discussion. It's understandable that one would then not keep on top of developments in other areas, as there are only 24 hours in a day.

On the other hand, it's important to not lose sight of the forest for the trees, as they say. Developments in other areas may be of interest in one's own, and even if they are not, some are of enough general interest that one ought to be aware of them (if not well-read on them). I think that we all have a lot to learn from each other, and to spurn an entire branch of the field is to preempt the opportunity for possible fruitful developments. You'll also be better at small talk at the APA.

Question seven:
During the last decades there has been a debate, sometimes quite polemical, between the so-called "analytical" and "continental" philosophers. Should one say that the representatives of the one or the other tradition are not philosophers at all, or do they represent different modes of philosophizing?
I'm not sure I know what "modes of philosophizing" means. Continentals and analytics tend to approach the world in different ways, but let's not get confused, both are doing something called philosophy. I can look at a ball and call it red, you can look at it and call it round...we've both had a sense experience of the ball. The world's a tricky thing to observe and grasp, and no one can say that their way is the absolute only way to do it. Until one can, then we're all doing philosophy. Again, we have a lot to learn from each other.

And the finale:
Throughout the history of philosophy philosophers have used different forms of expressing their views such as dialogues, letters, poems, questions and answers, commentaries, aphorisms. It seems that we have long stopped experimenting in this area and most philosophers choose to write articles and books of a standard form. Does this standardization involve a loss?
Whether or not standardization involves a loss in the sense of meaningful philosophical inquiry is a question far beyond my reach, but I do think that we've lost some style, some panache, if you will. Philosophy, like all academic disciplines, has had to fall in line with the capitalistic paradigm of be productive or be gone. For the philosopher it's a matter of publish or perish, and no journals are publishing poems these days. In my opinion, the discipline has become to corporate, all of academia has. But I don't know if that involves a meaningful loss of content.

1 comment:

Chris Panayis said...

Philosophy not addressing itself to the concerns of non-philosophers regresses into being an esoteric scholastic activity, debating how many angels can stand on pin head. See what happened to analytic philosophy.

Wider concerns and audiences can serve philosophy from losing touch.