Join 3,414 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Take your time!
May 17, 2010 7:47 AM   Subscribe

In the debut of The New York Times' new philosophy series, Simon Critchley asks, "What is a philosopher?"
posted by anotherpanacea (117 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
"What is a philosopher?"

...20 dollars. Same as in town?
posted by fuq at 7:51 AM on May 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


Good question.

<>
posted by MuffinMan at 7:51 AM on May 17, 2010


Is it a man who asks questions?
posted by molecicco at 7:57 AM on May 17, 2010


A lover of wisdom. Next?
posted by DU at 7:59 AM on May 17, 2010


What Philosophy Majors Do After College.
posted by The Whelk at 8:00 AM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I shall use his answer whenever anyone asks why my dissertation has taken so long to write.
posted by oddman at 8:00 AM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Someone who has no deliverables, who must be taken at their word, without any measurable evidence or experimentally refutable hypothesis; whose accountability is as solid as your inclination to be persuaded by your argument (or lack of cleverness in denying it); working in a profession which, after at least three millenia, has yet to come to agreement about the most basic things (or even what the most basic things are, or what things are, or what "basic" even means, or, for that matter, who perceives the basicness of thingness).

Even the article, for all of its fine words (when was the last time you saw "pettifogger" in text of recent vintage?) fails to supply a concrete answer. Perhaps that is the point, in which case, quod erat demonstratum.
posted by adipocere at 8:01 AM on May 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


A law school dropout trying to get in a girl's pants?
posted by Mayor Curley at 8:01 AM on May 17, 2010


Whoa there sparky, take it one step at a time. What is "is"?
posted by Salvor Hardin at 8:04 AM on May 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


A scientist is someone who knows more and more about less and less, until they know everything about nothing.

A philosopher is someone who knows less and less about more and more, until they know nothing about everything.

/tritefilter
posted by lalochezia at 8:07 AM on May 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


Oh! A bullshit artist!
posted by griphus at 8:14 AM on May 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


Is it possible to hear a philosopher fall in the woods behind a New York Times firewall?
posted by blucevalo at 8:24 AM on May 17, 2010


So far it's all been pro-bono.
posted by Babblesort at 8:24 AM on May 17, 2010


Someone who has no deliverables ...

That you begin your critique here and in these terms is precisely why we need philosophers.

Deliverables? There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your TPS report.
posted by joe lisboa at 8:27 AM on May 17, 2010 [21 favorites]


I have always struggled to understand exactly what philosophy is, and what it is that philosophers do. I dove into this article eagerly, hoping I'd finally have an answer, but came out the other side no more enlightened than before. It seems that philosophers are people who... think about things.... and discuss them... ? Is that it?
posted by Mars Saxman at 8:27 AM on May 17, 2010


The author neglects to mention that Thales, in order to demonstrate how trivially easy it is to live practically, monopolized the olive presses in his community. He also fails to make clear that for Thales water denotes not the common material, but rather the underlying substance of reality.

The philosopher is concerned with the ultimate. The ultimate itself has no practical value. However, philosophy assists us by relativizing practical experience within the context of the absolute. This helps free of us our self-destructive tendency to treat individual things, including ourselves, as the ultimate.
posted by No Robots at 8:27 AM on May 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


Someone who has no deliverables, who must be taken at their word, without any measurable evidence or experimentally refutable hypothesis; whose accountability is as solid as your inclination to be persuaded by your argument (or lack of cleverness in denying it)...

Oh ... So they're a lot like politicians?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:28 AM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


A law school dropout graduate trying to get in a girl's pants mind?

FTFY.
posted by joe lisboa at 8:29 AM on May 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


That sounds more like an Eli Roth plot than a philosopher, joe.
posted by griphus at 8:32 AM on May 17, 2010


I am what I am, griphus.

*phones Eli*
posted by joe lisboa at 8:34 AM on May 17, 2010


There is some controversy surrounding this series in the philosophical community.
posted by mellifluous at 8:34 AM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


The university president sighed as he went over the proposed budget offered him by the head of the department of physics.

"Why is it," he said, mournfully, "that you physicists always require so much expensive equipment? Now the department of mathematics requires nothing of me but money for paper, pencils, and erasers."

He thought a while longer and added, "And the department of philosophy is better still. It doesn't even ask for erasers." (Source: Asimov, The Humor Treasury.)
That's basically the long and short of it. Discussing deep ideas and discussing simple ideas deeply is a very good idea. But doing it in the old experiment-free Greek model is a bad idea.

I really noticed this recently when reading The Stuff of Thought. There's some philosophical discussion in there on the ideas vs reality of space and time. But that discussion is backed up by experiments on actual humans to figure out what those ideas really are (as opposed to what's reported by the people with the ideas).
posted by DU at 8:41 AM on May 17, 2010


There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your TPS report.

Do they need a new coversheet too?
posted by octobersurprise at 8:45 AM on May 17, 2010


MRS. HENDY: Oh, wow. Yes, there is. Do all philosophers have an 's' in them?

MR. HENDY: Uh, yeah! I think most of 'em do.

MRS. HENDY: Oh. Does that mean Selina Jones is a philosopher?

MR. HENDY: Yeah! Right! She could be! She sings about the meaning of life.

MRS. HENDY: Yeah. That's right, but I don't think she writes her own material.

MR. HENDY: No. Oh, maybe Schopenhauer writes her material.

MRS. HENDY: No. Burt Bacharach writes it.

MR. HENDY: But there's no 's' in 'Burt Bacharach'.

MRS. HENDY: Or in 'Hal David'.

MR. HENDY: Who's Hal David?

MRS. HENDY: He writes the lyrics. Burt just writes the tunes, only now, he's married to Carole Bayer Sager.

MR. HENDY: Oh, waiter. This conversation isn't very good.
posted by sciurus at 8:50 AM on May 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


Take this with a grain of thought, since I'm a (well employed) philosophy graduate. Twice over, actually.

The interesting thing about "Philosophy" as a whole isn't it's seeming inability to arrive at agreements and answers for itself, even after 3000+ years - as claimed above.

The interesting thing is the results and clarifications that it delivers for other disciplines.

That whole scientific method thing? Where do you think it came from? Do you think it might not have needed a reasonable consensus on what counts as knowledge? Welcome to Epistemology.

Democratic government and politics? Springs from the same well. To get there, you need to have philosophers hashing out what words like "state," and "legitimacy" and "justice" actually mean. Welcome to Political Philosophy.

The list is endless - from how we think about perception ans what we actually mean when we says "I see you"; to how we think about language and the basic meanings of words and symbols.

The power of philosophy isn't to advice "Philosophy" as a discipline in its own right - it's to answer questions and create working models for pretty much every other discipline out there.

Ignore it at your peril.
posted by generichuman at 8:51 AM on May 17, 2010 [31 favorites]


* Grain of thought was supposed to say "grain of salt".
posted by generichuman at 8:51 AM on May 17, 2010


Goddamn... that is FULL of typos. Hopefully my meaning came through.
posted by generichuman at 8:52 AM on May 17, 2010


It's nice to see the MetaFilter "science" squad's perennial disdain for the humanities on such display. Maybe someone can post some little nugget of Feynman's jejune reductionism before the thread descends further.
posted by OmieWise at 9:03 AM on May 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


What is "meaning"?
posted by elwoodwiles at 9:05 AM on May 17, 2010


I'm a philosopher, but only after my 5th boilermaker. Before that, I'm just mumbling.
posted by jonmc at 9:06 AM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I really liked it when newspapers covered the news.
posted by MarshallPoe at 9:09 AM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Philosophy isn't for everyone. Those who do not feel any affinity for the subject should probably just ignore it. I don't see any reason to attack it.
posted by No Robots at 9:16 AM on May 17, 2010


I dove into this article eagerly, hoping I'd finally have an answer, but came out the other side no more enlightened than before.

That's because the essay isn't very good.

Plus, the question isn't an especially helpful one, I think. It would be better to ask either "what do actual philosophers do, what kinds of questions do they consider?" or "is there some cast of mind that's distinctively philosophical, and anybody who evinces that cast of mind is a philosopher in some sense?"

Hopefully, the guest philosophers they'll bring in will have more to say.

Steven Strogatz's math columns in the NYT have been so fun, it's a shame that the philosophy series starts out with something not so fun. I wonder how many people will be turned off by this and not look at the rest of the series?
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:30 AM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Philosophy has major public relations issues, and Critchley certainly does nothing to help the situation. This article exemplifies the problems a lot of critics see – and always have seen – with philosophy: an article, just a tad too long, overstuffed with quotes and anecdotes from the vaulted forbearers, but ultimately lacking in any content and failing to even address the thesis stated in the headline.

I think the main issue stems from our current academic system of keeping the humanities departments as distinct units. When “Philosophy” has its own departmental budgets and administration, it becomes an easy target for criticism – why should we pay people to just think all of the time? Why are they better at it than anyone else? The reality is that all humanities departments engage in philosophy and critical thought.

Philosophers seem so intent on separating their activities from their peers and are obsessed with giving themselves labels (I’m a continental philosopher, my girlfriends more of a Cynic. . . we’re totally different), that they open themselves up to easy criticism and ridicule.

It frustrates me that many philosophy departments maintain their precious status as a distinct unit, I believe that it ultimately disserves the objectives of philosophy. Everyone does philosophy, scholars need philosophy, but from the outside it seems that “Philosophers” insist on laying the claim that only they are capable of philosophizing, only they have the prerequisite knowledge and skill set. How come they act surprised when people dismiss their subject?
posted by Think_Long at 9:33 AM on May 17, 2010


Yuck, that was ranty and made little sense. Apologies everyone
posted by Think_Long at 9:33 AM on May 17, 2010


I like science and the humanities. That means I get in fights with everyone.
posted by brundlefly at 9:34 AM on May 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


Philosophers would argue that philosophy, in the analytic tradition, does at least three things, either independently or as an integrated part of other important disciplines:

1. It sits outside of other disciplines, as an independent endeavor, to ask questions of (arguable) importance: What is knowledge? What is justice? Do (or can) immaterial objects exist? These questions can be entertained conceptually outside of the laboratory of life in ways that are beneficial.

2. It sits underneath disciplines, to help give direction to the way that they operate. There are good ways to do science, and there are bad ways to do science. Hence, when scientists critique different scientific approaches, they are generally utilizing philosophical concepts to do so. Hence, a Philosophy of Science exists as its own discipline. This doesn't mean that it trumps the role of science itself, but it says that science works cooperatively with philosophy (sometimes innately and sometimes overtly), which already exists and operates as its own discipline, to make sure it is utilizing a method that best approximates truth. There are good reasons that modern scientific methodology developed from the flowerbed of philosophy.

3. It also works within all disciplines, to make sure they are internally coherent. For example, in just about any discipline that derives conclusions of any importance, you want to make sure that you are not violating various formal and informal fallacies.

And a philosopher, therefore, is anyone who addresses questions related to these three roles.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:50 AM on May 17, 2010 [9 favorites]


Bloody ‘ell! That’s what I call thinking! Here Vroomfondel, why do we never think of things like that?

Dunno. Think our minds must be too highly trained Majikthise.
posted by Babblesort at 9:51 AM on May 17, 2010


It's not humanities disdain. I rather like some of the humanities. Even neurophilosophers are great — damn, at least they try to prove that something "might not work like that."

I get annoyed because Pure Philosophy is that dude who was the chief cook and bottlewasher at the first joint back in the day, later to become a franchise entirely unlike the greasy spoon he once worked in, and now sits around idly, and claims the entire restaurant chain is all due to him. He claims things like the Scientific Method — despite that being actually made by scientists, not philosophers from the Greek tradition. Oh, and democracy ... that was great, but it's been a couple thousand years. What have you done lately?

And then comes the claim that "it's all philosophy, really." That's right. Due to the lineage thousands of years ago when pretty much everyone who banged some rocks together and wondered "why?" was a philosopher, a chemist, a physicist, and an engineer, all human endeavor is now philosophy. Great credit grab. Once upon a time, all astronomers were astrologers, too.

The idea that you must experiment has yet to permeate philosophy. Spend a few weekends in some IRC #physics channel and have actual graduates with philosophy degrees argue that relativity is wrong, because ... whatever. My response is always the same: "Tell it to the machines. The Universe appears to disagree with you." They cannot see flaws in their own logic and would prefer their beautiful argument over evidence. Work in a physics department — you would be amazed at the gibberish philosophers send you.

The scientific method and peer review slowly grind out progress, three steps forward, two steps back, because these are careful rituals of enforced humility, doubt, and self-doubt. "What if I am wrong, how would I know?" "What if she is wrong, how can we tell?" And someone is inevitably wrong or we can make some minor correction. The whole thing ratchets forward just a little bit more. Science is a dog-team of tiny triumphs and major mistakes, harnessed together so that the whole pack somehow manages to go forward, anyway.

Philosophy does not ask the questions of doubt. Instead it staggers back into the restaurant through the back, breath fuming with cooking sherry. "I used to run one of these, you know. Here, young whippersnapper, let me show you how we did that back in the day." Please, Gramps, no more stories about the Greeks.

Pure philosophy, what have you done for us lately? Even in the last two centuries? That bit with you wandering around with a lantern was cute when I was three. The gratitude for previous accomplishments has been worn thin and I know all of the stories about the good ole days. I don't actually expect anything to change. The most I could hope for would be an end to articles and defenses of philosophy assuring us of current relevance by bringing up events which occurred before, say, 1750 AD.
posted by adipocere at 10:10 AM on May 17, 2010


There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.--Daniel Dennett / Darwin's Dangerous Idea, p. 21.
posted by No Robots at 10:24 AM on May 17, 2010 [5 favorites]


I'm reading What Is Ancient Philosophy? by Pierre Hadot, and it does a much better job of answering the question than Critchley's article, which seems pretty superficial to me. Hadot's book looks at what the different philosophical schools in ancient Greece and Rome thought a philosopher should be. For example:
[A]lthough Plato and the other teachers at the Academy disagreed on points of doctrine, they nevertheless all accepted, to various degrees, the choice of the way or form of life which Plato had proposed. It seems that this choice of life consisted, first, in adhering to the ethics of dialogue of which we have just spoken. ... Moreover, [philosophers] also experienced that love of the good which is presupposed in every attempt at dialogue. From this perspective, the object of the discussion and its doctrinal content are of secondary importance. What counts is the practice of dialogue, and the transformation which it brings. ... To live in a philosophical way meant, above all, to turn toward intellectual and spiritual life, carrying out a conversation which involved "the whole soul" -- which is to say, the whole of moral life.
So adiopcere's comment about "deliverables" is missing the point. Philosophy (or at least ancient philosophy) is about a particular way of life and a process of asking questions; it's not about answers that can be neatly packaged for others to use.

On preview:

The idea that you must experiment has yet to permeate philosophy. ... They cannot see flaws in their own logic and would prefer their beautiful argument over evidence.

I think you are conflating philosophy with metaphysics, which is a subset of philosophy. The scientific method, for example, was invented and refined by philosophers.

Philosophy does not ask the questions of doubt.

Maybe this is true of your local college philosophy professor. It's not true of Nietzsche or Kierkegaard or Camus or Wittgenstein, all of whom lived and worked in the last two centuries.

Pure philosophy, what have you done for us lately?

What is it that you want philosophy to do for you? It doesn't exist to provide you with shiny new toys that you can play with for a week or two and then discard.
posted by twirlip at 10:31 AM on May 17, 2010 [10 favorites]


...bringing up events which occurred before, say, 1750 AD

A short selection of practical results of Political Philosophy alone, post 1750:

The Declaration of Independence
The UN Declaration of Human Rights
Libertarianism
Universal Suffrage
Communism
The Modern Nation State
The European Union
Environmentalism
Concept of individual personhood and self ownership
State Property
Borders
Multiculturalism

... we can probably go one from the dozens of other sub-genres of philosophy?
posted by generichuman at 10:32 AM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I dunno about that, adiopocere. There's been a substantial amount of philosophizin' about the Holocaust, Hiroshima and even modern Capitalist systems of exchange.

Not to mention the influence of the structuralists/post and pre on modern communications theory, linguistics, literature, film, and advertising.

I could point at philosophy being a prerequisite for even some kinds of scientific thinking- in particular I'm thinking of relativity as it relates to modernity- but my expertise is limited.

Fire up wikipedia's news of the day section. The strands of philosophy seem obvious to me- from ongoing unrest in Thailand to new developments in Python- if anything, the need for a basic philosophical education is more of a prerequisite now, than ever. Otherwise, the risk of repeating a well-explored dead end- or worse- becoming captive to some hideous new idea (crafted by clever advertising sorts with philosophy degrees) being pushed in luxurious HD.
posted by mrdaneri at 10:32 AM on May 17, 2010


He claims things like the Scientific Method — despite that being actually made by scientists, not philosophers from the Greek tradition.

Do you have specific people you're thinking of here? I'm no expert in the history of science, but the names I'm seeing in the discussions of the history of the Scientific Method include Aristotle, Descartes, Roger and Francis Bacon, Avicenna, and Averroes, all of whom are considered philosophers nowadays (I admit that the distinctions were much blurrier back in the days of natural philosophy), and all of whom are decidedly in the Greek tradition.
posted by Copronymus at 10:35 AM on May 17, 2010


You know Diogenes finally did locate an honest man. (At least he thought so till the due stole his latern.)

Being a philospher today is a practice in being the fool in everyone else's fool-proof systems.
posted by ahimsakid at 10:35 AM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


The idea that you must experiment has yet to permeate philosophy. Spend a few weekends in some IRC #physics channel and have actual graduates with philosophy degrees argue that relativity is wrong, because ... whatever. My response is always the same: "Tell it to the machines. The Universe appears to disagree with you." They cannot see flaws in their own logic and would prefer their beautiful argument over evidence. Work in a physics department — you would be amazed at the gibberish philosophers send you.

You seem to believe in the notion that for something to be true it needs to be empirically verified (through experimentation). This is similar to the position put forward by the logical positivists 60 odd years ago.

A huge amount of philosophy since then has been explaining why they were confused. I would start with Two Dogmas of Empiricism, by W. V. O. Quine, if you are interested in following up this issue further.

Pure philosophy, what have you done for us lately? Even in the last two centuries? That bit with you wandering around with a lantern was cute when I was three. The gratitude for previous accomplishments has been worn thin and I know all of the stories about the good ole days. I don't actually expect anything to change. The most I could hope for would be an end to articles and defenses of philosophy assuring us of current relevance by bringing up events which occurred before, say, 1750 AD.

Important ways philosophy has influenced the world in the past 200 years? Really? To pick the easiest example, neither the U.S.A nor the U.S.S.R would have been founded if it wasn't for philosophers who did nothing more than write books.

In the past 50 years, philosophy has not had a nearly as much influence on the politics as it once did, maybe because of the utter failure of communism. But I think that at least in the States, we wouldn't be dealing with entire political movements based on ignorance, if people were taught some basic philosophy.

But to claim that Philosophy doesn't matter to physics anymore is ridiculous. The entire debate around the validity of string theory is a philosophical debate. The phrase, Not even wrong only makes sense because of the last half century of philosophy of science.
posted by afu at 10:37 AM on May 17, 2010 [6 favorites]


There's some small number of people at any given time who are doing interesting philosophical work, but many times that number of people are required to teach philosophy to students, who are (and should be) exposed to philosophy as a social good.

Philosophy is overdue for a reorganization that recognizes and codifies a currently marginalized teaching class. This happens in other disciplines; no one expects the person who teaches your kid algebra to also be proving new theorems when the class ends. This would be better for almost everyone: Students get a teacher who is totally focused on providing the best instruction that she can. Marginal philosophy graduate students don't get strung along until job market time, when they are currently totally screwed. Actual philosophers don't have to waste time advising and critiquing lousy work that doesn't matter from people who just can't produce better, or teaching anything but high level graduate seminars.

Guess who it wouldn't be better for? Administrators, who would be forced to pay their teachers a living wage and reasonable benefits, rather than couching it in terms of an academic apprenticeship. So I'm not holding my breath.
posted by Kwine at 10:38 AM on May 17, 2010 [7 favorites]


Kwine, that's a problem in all academic fields at the college level. We expect people to be both excellent teachers and excellent researchers, and we thereby deprive ourselves of people who are excellent at one or the other.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:05 AM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Spend a few weekends in some IRC #physics channel and have actual graduates with philosophy degrees argue that relativity is wrong, because ... whatever.

The kinds of people who frequent IRC channels are probably more to blame for this nonsense than the discipline of philosophy. (Which isn't to say that those kinds of people might not find philosophy especially appealing, but, still.)
posted by octobersurprise at 11:06 AM on May 17, 2010


I think very deeply.
posted by Legomancer at 11:10 AM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


In the past 50 years, philosophy has not had a nearly as much influence on the politics as it once did, maybe because of the utter failure of communism. But I think that at least in the States, we wouldn't be dealing with entire political movements based on ignorance, if people were taught some basic philosophy.

What about Leo Strauss? Wasn't too long ago his ideas was considered crucial to understanding American foreign policy.

Philosophers can still be very influential in politics. This is not necessarily a good thing.
posted by otio at 11:27 AM on May 17, 2010


Philosophers are always influential in politics. It's just that we pay more attention to the people implementing their philosophies than to the forumulators of those philosophies.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:38 AM on May 17, 2010


What is it that you want philosophy to do for you? It doesn't exist to provide you with shiny new toys that you can play with for a week or two and then discard.

Let me ask the opposite question: what is it that philosophy wants to do for me? I don't know what it is for, and I can't really tell why I should care about it (except that so many smart people seem to respect it). What are people doing, when they do philosophy, and what is it they hope to accomplish?

People who understand what philosophy is all seem to think it is significant, but I'm still struggling to figure out why it matters. The explanations I have read all seem to be elaborations of "thinking about things and discussing them", which does not help me distinguish "philosophy" from "passing a joint around the campfire with your friends".

I suspect that there is some limitation in the way I look at the world which makes it so hard for me to grasp what this is all about. I hope that eventually something will click, and I'll understand what philosophy is for, and the understanding will broaden my understanding of the world. But it hasn't happened yet.
posted by Mars Saxman at 11:54 AM on May 17, 2010


James Kochalka, philosopher.
posted by DaDaDaDave at 12:06 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


That is very good, Mars Saxman. If you are ignorant but curious about something, you can educate yourself. One book that I really like is Pictorial History of Philosophy, by Dagobert Runes. It gives little snippets about famous philosophers, and is, of course, copiously illustrated. It is nice and easy for somebody getting his feet wet.
posted by No Robots at 12:14 PM on May 17, 2010


Mars: I think Philosophy is more of training in how to think, rather than actually producing exact results, like Engineering. Think of when you're a kid, and (maybe) for the first time you wonder "what if God doesn't exist?" If there was no existing library of philosophy that you could turn to, then this sort of question could become all-consuming, or you may think about it, come to some self-satisfied answer, and not be aware that someone, some other time, half way around the globe has addressed that answer and refuted it.

Philosophy deals with big questions, and at least in my experience as an adolescent, these big questions can be paralyzing, and never fully realized until you start reading the work of a person who's spent their whole life studying a, seemingly, very simple idea.

Bertrand Russel put it well:
"Everything is vague to a degree you do not realize till you have tried to make it precise."

Without philosophers putting into very precise words what is confusing and unsure with our world, we would have to learn it new each time. And even if someone scrutinizing the nature of free will never increases the GDP, then maybe what they write spurs some idea that actually does have a very real effect on the world: like wondering what happens when you elect representative governments instead of letting grudges and brute force rule the day.
posted by codacorolla at 12:31 PM on May 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


People who understand what philosophy is all seem to think it is significant, but I'm still struggling to figure out why it matters.

Replace the word "philosophy" with the word "life" in your sentence and you may understand part of the existential uncertainty that animates philosophy both past and present. In particular, the Aristotelian concept of eudaimonia seems relevant here, for that concept (or something like it) is one that preoccupied many of the earliest philosophers: what it means to achieve well-being, to be fulfilled and to flourish, to find a kind of reflective peace or psychological harmony amid the perpetual strife of the world. This usually falls under the category of ethics: the concern with what is good, what is right, and how to live one's life. Perhaps one measure of a society is the degree to which it fulfills the ability for all of its citizens to flourish to the best of their abilities, for instance, and we might ask: is the society we live in one that lives up to its true potential? These and similar questions are philosophical, whether or not they are framed formally within contemporary academic philosophical settings.

I'm surprised at how many people on this thread seem to think, somewhat uncritically, that science is the best way to measure what philosophy does. After all, the reverse may well be the case, as some philosophers have suggested (see here and here and here). That is, we might also ask: how can science better service the needs of people, is science capable of adequately addressing all questions, etc. Somewhere between dogmatic religious faith, such as belief in the supernatural, and dogmatic faith that science alone can shed light on the human predicament and society's ills, is something like what philosophy (in the widest sense, not just the professional academic sense) has been and might continue to be. It represents the potential for critical self-reflective inquiry, and even if in the final analysis it fails to achieve it, there is something to be said for leaving that door open in a world like ours.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 12:46 PM on May 17, 2010 [5 favorites]


All I ever got out of Philosophy was a free Civilization Advance.
posted by a young man in spats at 12:47 PM on May 17, 2010


My favorite answer to the question:

A philosopher is someone who worries that what works in practice will not work in theory.

-----

I like twirlip's answer. Contemporary academic philosophy has relatively little to offer most of us. They clarify some concepts, they make some distinctions - typically on some rather abstruse subjects. It's more about shaping academic thought than providing guidance for a meaningful life. Pierre Hadot does an excellent job explaining how at one time philosophy was of great relevance to a layman. His book Philosophy as a Way of Life is excellent.
posted by BigSky at 12:59 PM on May 17, 2010


From the comments: "As a philosophy graduate student, I can say that my gladness that philosophy is being featured on the NYT website is quite tarnished by the drivel that Critchley has written here..."
posted by homunculus at 1:12 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Academic philosophy is, generally speaking, not really philosophy at all. It is scholasticism, the handmaiden of physicalism as once it was the handmaiden of religion.
posted by No Robots at 1:12 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Mars Saxman, I don't read a lot of philosophy books, but when I do, it's usually because I want to see what very smart people have said in the past about how one should live one's life. I like Nietzsche because he exposes the flaws a lot of conventional wisdom about what is good and meaningful, and proposes alternative answers that challenge me. (Plus he's really fun to read.) Lately I've been getting into Plato, because a book by Jan Zwicky called Plato as Artist introduced me to some insightful and thought-provoking ideas about the nature of wisdom and virtue.

And occasionally I have really awesome and valuable conversations with friends about stuff like that, too, and those conversations tend to be more immediately, practically useful to me than the old books I sometimes read. But as intelligent and insightful as my friends are, philosophers like Plato and Nietzsche are smarter, and I feel like I have a richer understanding of life (and better conversations with my friends) as a result of reading them.

I'm no expert, but I think Socrates would have liked to have you as a student, because you know there are things you don't know and you have a desire to learn. (His whole method involved dismantling people's preconceived notions to get them to the point where they realize they don't know what they thought they knew, then working through a line of reasoning with them until they have a new understanding.) I think that attitude is probably more valuable philosophically than any amount of rote knowledge about the doctrines of the Great Philosophers.
posted by twirlip at 1:13 PM on May 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


how at one time philosophy was of great relevance to a layman.

It might become so once again. I was curious to find while touring Alcatraz that some of the most sought-after books by inmates from the library there were drawn from the philosophical canon (Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche). Likewise, every once and a while one will read of someone from an unexpected background who schools him or herself in philosophy through extensive reading. People still read Thoreau, Locke, Hume, Bacon, etc., or turn to those authors (Cervantes, Beckett, Dostoevsky) who give flesh and blood to deeply philosophical themes. Recent thinkers like Murray Bookchin and Freya Mathews seem increasingly relevant to our present ecological crisis. So it's not all scholastic, pedantic and peripheral:

"It is in periods of social and political crisis that men are more aware of the enigma of their presence in the world." --Lucien Goldmann
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 1:17 PM on May 17, 2010


Let me ask the opposite question: what is it that philosophy wants to do for me? I don't know what it is for, and I can't really tell why I should care about it (except that so many smart people seem to respect it).

Well, for one thing, rational discussion for or against philosophy presupposes a branch of philosophy in a primitive way. That is, rational discourse presupposes rules of logic that allow language to be used well. Now one can argue that simply because we've put those kinds of things into the branch of philosophy doesn't mean that we can't do without the formal discipline title. But at the very least, philosophy is a branch that is pretty damn determined to make sure that these kinds of concepts and applications are appropriately revered in discourse, and hence takes on the duty to form a formal discipline around them.

Also, in a nutshell, philosophy is about how to think well about life, because one can always do it better. In my mind, it's awesome that we have a organized approach to asking this particular question, regardless of whether or not we always realize this ideal. And simply because there are many different opinions on the answers, it doesn't mean that they are all incorrect, although it does tend to muddy the journey at times. Do you already think well about life? My guess is that you are doing philosophy in ways that you haven't put formal references to. Philosophy puts words to these concepts. It also likes to say that even if you are thinking well about life already, there may be ways to do it better, so let's think on some more.
posted by SpacemanStix at 1:39 PM on May 17, 2010


"Philosophy does not ask the questions of doubt."

Are you serious? I can think of very few more preposterous things that one could say about anything.
posted by oddman at 1:41 PM on May 17, 2010


As for what philosophy has done lately. How about little inconsequential things like this advanced by nobodies like this man?
posted by oddman at 1:45 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Academic philosophy is, generally speaking, not really philosophy at all. It is scholasticism, the handmaiden of physicalism as once it was the handmaiden of religion.

You can't see it, but I am making a vigorous wanking motion with my hand.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:47 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I am making a vigorous wanking motion with my hand.

Is that directed at me or at the scholastics? :)
posted by No Robots at 1:51 PM on May 17, 2010


Academic philosophy is, generally speaking, not really philosophy at all. It is scholasticism, the handmaiden of physicalism as once it was the handmaiden of religion.

Argh. Ok...ok. This is a great test case for why philosophical education is important.

"Academic philosophy is not really philosophy at all"

Ok, so you have a privileged notion of what the term 'philosophy' ought to refer to, but you give us little guidance to what it is or why it matters, and expect us to just latch onto it. ("Not Scholasticism" is one thing that 'philosophy' is supposed to be, one supposes--though many extremely famous philosophers were scholastics and so I suggest that we're off to a rough start already)

You have to walk us through your claims and be extremely careful that they are understood; I suspect that I have already spent more time unpacking your thought than you did expressing it. As it turns out, this wasted effort is just as irritating in non-academic contexts as it is in the seminar room. If you can't be bothered to craft your point, why should I bother to listen to it?

This problem pervades your second sentence as well. When I think of physicalism, I think of questions about the supervenience of mental and moral properties onto physical properties, because I worked on metaethics. A metaphysicist would probably think about physicalism qua purely metaphysical explanation; an action theorist about physicalism as a cause of action. There are many physicalist theories; none of them are broadly agreed upon and none of them necessarily come together (unless you're Donald Davidson). None of these appear to have anything to do with scholasticism. I don't know what it would mean to be a handmaiden to physicalism 'now' as opposed to religion 'then'.

I can't agree or disagree with your position on academic philosophy, because it's wildly underdeveloped. One of the best things about solid training in philosophy is that it helps to understand when you have a point and are saying things, and when you have no point and are not, actually, saying anything.
posted by Kwine at 2:17 PM on May 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


Well, you can start with my source material, Spinoza contra Kant, by Constantin Brunner. You may also want to look at Spinoza's reasons for declining an academic appointment.
posted by No Robots at 2:22 PM on May 17, 2010


you can start with my source material

I'm not sure the problem Kwine has with your earlier statement, No Robots, is one of lack of proper citations, so much as it is one of uncritical thinking about just what philosophical scholasticism amounts to.

The charge of scholasticism is easier to lob (it is after all a not-unfamiliar conceit about academic philosophy) than to defend. Even those who see a general crisis in philosophy do not by any means all agree on the nature of that crisis.

Regarding this discussion in general, I realize "lebensphilosophie" is not what it once was, but I feel there are several somewhat forgotten modern philosophers whose work takes on big questions in a way non-students of philosophy might find engaging; I am thinking in particular of Karl Jaspers, Jose Ortega y Gassett, Gabriel Marcel, Hannah Arendt, Susan Langer, Norman O. Brown, Max Scheler, and others.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 2:36 PM on May 17, 2010


Some of the comments in this thread are much better than that New York Times piece. The most scientific recent mention of a fairly recent philosopher I have seen is in Noam Chomsky's "On Language" where he states that his entire approach to his Linguistics research (the man is a giant of science) was shaped by his understanding of Charles Pierce's logic, Pierce's ideas of abductive logic and reasoning to the best explanation. If you have never read Pierce, I find him very readable.

William James's collected works are also very useful. James's pragmatism is how I respond when somebody asks me to describe in a phrase our modern Western philosophy. James also was a student of Pierce.
posted by bukvich at 2:42 PM on May 17, 2010


I'm not sure the problem Kwine has with your earlier statement, No Robots, is one of lack of proper citations, so much as it is one of uncritical thinking about just what philosophical scholasticism amounts to.

All I'm saying is that Brunner presents a most thorough-going critique of scholastic philosophy, and I would invite one and all to investigate his work.
posted by No Robots at 2:45 PM on May 17, 2010


Pure philosophy, what have you done for us lately?

For instance, Ethics allows us to decide if income inequality, war or cheating spouses are conditions we support or not. The different camps in culture wars are informed by philosophy. Hell, philosophy kickstarted the models of political economy we're still using.
posted by ersatz at 3:26 PM on May 17, 2010


Ethics also help us combat little things like gender and racial inequality. Really, why bother with philosophy at all when it only helps directly improve the living conditions of a mere two thirds, or so, of the population (in the USA). (I wrote directly, because living in a more fair and equal society helps everyone, even the people from whom power is taken, albeit the latter indirectly.)
posted by oddman at 7:29 PM on May 17, 2010


Well, that was flatly awful. Brian Leiter wrote an indignant little piece on it.

Mars, your comments and concerns are good. It's pretty hard to say what philosophers spend their time doing because there are so many different branches of philosophy... any attempt to characterize all of them at once is probably going to end up platitudinous. I tried to say a little something about why philosophy is important in an earlier AskMe thread here. Basically, philosophers try to answer whatever questions fall between the cracks of other disciplines.

I kinda liked comment 14 of the NYTimes thread: "God knows that philosophers are laughing-stocks these days, but I hope Mr. Critchley doesn't think he's *helping*, with claims that philosophers are "monstrous or god-like or indeed both at once," or that "to philosophize is to take your time." As if I don't get enough sneers when people find out I hold a philosophy degree. Philosophers are little men in little offices who write unreadable papers about symbolic logic or metaethics. That's all."
posted by painquale at 9:09 PM on May 17, 2010


Just wanted to note that while I don't mind Critchley's article, I posted this more out of excitement that the New York Times is going to do a philosophy series than to pimp this particular definition of the profession. Unlike Leiter, I think there's little damage Critchley can do as series editor of a blog on philosophy. I've long been disappointed by the lack of public profile for philosophy in the US, compared to say the UK, where the Guardian does a regular series called "How to believe".

The absence of philosophers from public life is more troubling to me than the fact that some philosophers will spout platitudes about the discipline. And it was Wittgenstein that offered "Take your time" as a philosophical salutation, so boring or no, I think Critchley hasn't completely missed the point.

This is some public intellectual's chance to launch themselves as the next John Dewey. It won't be Critchley, but it might mean a higher profile for Martha Nussbaum or Charles Taylor or Elizabeth Anscombe or Michael Thompson. And that's likely to be a net gain.
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:23 AM on May 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


Ack! I wrote Elizabeth Anscombe, who is dead. I intended to write Elizabeth Anderson!
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:49 AM on May 18, 2010


There are now 630 comments on the New York Times site and it is the most e-mailed story right now. So even if this first blog is bad it seems there is a wide audience for the content, which is great news to me.
posted by bukvich at 8:03 AM on May 18, 2010


Well, you can start with my source material, Spinoza contra Kant, by Constantin Brunner. You may also want to look at Spinoza's reasons for declining an academic appointment.

This is your complete response to my criticism, which is more or less that you ought to care about your audience enough to bother to explain yourself as well as you can?

Just wanted to note that while I don't mind Critchley's article, I posted this more out of excitement that the New York Times is going to do a philosophy series than to pimp this particular definition of the profession. Unlike Leiter, I think there's little damage Critchley can do as series editor of a blog on philosophy. I've long been disappointed by the lack of public profile for philosophy in the US, compared to say the UK, where the Guardian does a regular series called "How to believe".

This is basically my opinion as well. I've already been asked about it a few times at work, by people who would otherwise never care.
posted by Kwine at 11:58 AM on May 18, 2010


Would it be fair to describe philosophy as careful, systematic thinking about a topic which has not yet been well enough explored to become an independent field of study?

For example, one could start by asking "why is the sky blue?". Since we now have a wide variety of scientific tools concerning light, color, and atmosphere, we would turn to physics or meteorology as a starting point; but perhaps once upon a time, before the invention of physics and meteorology, this could have been a philosophical question.
posted by Mars Saxman at 12:17 PM on May 18, 2010


Brunner’s essential thesis is that humanity is divided into two basic types, distinguished by the content of their thought. On the one hand, there are the masses (das Volk), whose thought is oriented toward practical, material existence. On the other hand, there are the spiritually/intellectually inclined (die Geistigen), whose thought is oriented toward the Absolute. The masses imitate the spiritually/intellectually inclined, and generate a fictitious Absolute, with the aid and abetment of their scholastic leadership.
posted by No Robots at 1:39 PM on May 18, 2010


He forgot about the warrior class.
posted by oddman at 5:11 PM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Heh. Yeah, he has some great insights on The Republic.
Brunner sees the unceasing warfare between the Geistigen and the leadership of the Volk as the fundamental truth of human culture. He puts forward as the greatest examples of this war Socrates against the sophists and Christ against the Pharisees. In modern times, he construes a polarization between Spinoza and Kant, with the former representing the epitome of the Geistigen, and the latter the epitome of the Volk. He further argues that with the demolition of religion a new folkish superstition is arising, which he identifies as materialist monism and progressivism/evolutionism (Entwicklungsglaube). In Brunner’s view, philosophy has died as the result of the impossibility of validating thought from within a materialist context.
In terms of education in philosophy, he argues that philosophy must remain simple, that it must revolve continuously around the same basic terms and notions. Foremost among these is thought itself. In Brunner’s view, the abstract principle of active thought, which he calls das Denkende (the Cogitant), is the fundamental truth of philosophy. It corresponds to terms used by other thinkers: the Eleatic One, Brahman, the Stoic Logos, the Absolute, Jahveh, Being, the Father of Christ and Spinoza’s Substance. Each of these denotes the abstract spiritual principle which is the central preoccupation of art, philosophy and mysticism.
Brunner maintains that his contribution to the understanding of human thought is the elaboration of the principle of the Analogon, the superstitious imitation of authentic spiritual thought. This is the tendency of the Volk to imitate spiritual thought, to misconstrue it by materializing it so that it fits in with their own materialistic and egoistic way of understanding. Thus the abstract principle of Being becomes the anthropomorphic god. In our own time, matter itself is absolutized, and thought is understood as an epiphenomenon of matter. Superstition then tries to generate a god from matter by positing the progressive realization of greater and greater material forms until the singularity is attained. Isn’t this, asks Brunner, just putting god at the end, rather than at the beginning?
The upshot is that authentic spiritual thought, whether expressed as art, philosophy or mysticism, will always exist in an antagonistic relationship with tradition and authority. Geist trotz Welt, as he says. That is not to say that one cannot find value in scholasticism, but only that, if we are to seek the source of that value, we must look beyond the scholastics to the great thinkers on whom they depend.
posted by No Robots at 8:22 PM on May 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Would it be fair to describe philosophy as careful, systematic thinking about a topic which has not yet been well enough explored to become an independent field of study?

Yes, this is one definition that you see lobbed around enough, and if you're struggling to get a hold on what philosophy does in general, I tend to think it's good enough a definition for those purposes. However, there also are some topics that seem inherently philosophical -- it's not just that we don't yet have enough information about the topic to make it its own field, but the nature of the topic itself requires a particularly philosophical investigation. Ethics is a very good example of this. No amount of information about human psychology, about sociology, about culture, or about evolution will ever give you the answer to the question, How should one live? There are more examples, but they tend take longer explanations

(There's kind of a pun in this post...Kinda. It was completely unintentional. I'm sorry.)
posted by Ms. Saint at 10:57 PM on May 18, 2010


See? That's incredibly interesting, Robots. Thank you for elaborating, and now we get to have a fun discussion! A few thoughts, bearing in mind that I have no Spinoza whatsoever:

-My training and inclination is to carefully tease out the distinction between Volk and Geisteigen, but I recognize that to do this sort of philosophy involves in part turning off that part of the brain and trying to just apprehend the distinction and roll with it in a more visceral way. Nevertheless, supposing that a thing that the Volk do is inevitably imitate spiritual thinking and imbue it with materialism and approach God. But where are those Geistigen? I think about how much of Christianity is applied action-service and charity. I think about how religions the world over bother to build places of worship that are beautiful or simple or feature other particular important material characteristics. I think about the physical act of bowing towards Mecca. Perhaps Jesuits are Volk. Perhaps Christians are all Volk, or principally Volk. Maybe some Buddhists are Geistigen...but maybe material inaction is a kind of material action. Perhaps the distinction doesn't carry the water that Brunner wishes. Maybe we'll have a hard time distinguishing between a Geistigen expressing her spirituality in material ways and a Volk mistakenly elevating the material to the spiritual. Maybe that's not the right question to ask, about 'distinguishing'. Maybe Brunner doesn't want us to ask questions about which question to ask? Maybe that's not the right question to ask either. Why did Brunner bother sharing his views with anyone? Can I be convinced to be Geistigen or has that ship sailed?

-This seems to paint the sort of philosophy that I like to do, and that I believe people like painquale and anotherpanacea and lobstermitten do, as broadly Kantian, insofar as our philosophical process generally accepts Kantian limitations on experience and the acceptable (or perhaps useful) operable scope of the human mind. Then I think that this conclusion is sort of like labeling Barack Obama a socialist, in that it totally misconstrues the shape of the available space-for example, there is an entrenched debate that I have observed from some distance over whether deontic or consequentialist normative ethics is correct (or 'better', or whatever). That debate seems to me to be vibrant and live and more to the point to matter--yet under Brunner's framework those people are all Kantian, (and all Volk?) right? That seems to me to concede too much ground to people like you and nasreddin and koeselitz-there are real differences that matter that are subsumed, in the same way that people who label Obama a socialist have no remaining space to mark out the real differences between him and someone like Kucinich. So I think in the end I reject that way of defining the playing field-though that's no surprise.
posted by Kwine at 7:19 AM on May 19, 2010


Brunner was once asked by his stepdaughter if such-and-such a person was of the Geistigen. Brunner responded by saying, “Don’t ever ask me that question!” The distinction between Geistigen and Volk is a scientific fiction, like the atomic theory that posits discrete indivisible material entities. Scientific fictions help us orient ourselves in the general flux by providing us with a principle of discrimination. It is unfair and unwise to apply it to individuals except in cases that serve as exemplars, as with Socrates, Christ and Spinoza.

Brunner makes a distinction within the Geistigen between those who are creative and those who are receptive. The creative geniuses of art, philosophy and mysticism are few and far between. Far more numerous are those who are receptive to spiritual production, who appreciate and allow their thought to be modified by art, philosophy and mysticism. Brunner’s intent is to foster spiritual thought in those who are apt for it.

It is Brunner’s view, though, that those who are spiritually receptive have several obstacles in their path. First, there is the problem of exaggerated egoism. Many people who have a measure of spiritual receptivity are consumed with the desire to be original, to be creative geniuses in their own right, which leads them to distort their thought. If they were content to receive the work of the creative geniuses and to let it modify their thought and activity, the human condition would be significantly improved. It is for this reason that Brunner insists on the utter otherness of the few creative geniuses.

Second, he argues that the cultural dominance of folkish thinking makes it very difficult for individuals to develop spiritual thought, and so they need a kind of inner shock to free themselves. That is why his writing is deliberately provocative.

It is true that the Brunnerian approach can lead to horrors of over-generalization. That is why he was so ferocious about not labelling individual X as either Geistigen or Volk. But what his approach does is allow us to consider questions of, say, ethics, without having to enter into every single departmental squabble. We can instead keep our eyes firmly on the great masters of ethics. We can then turn back to the petty squabbles and perhaps do something to free the participants from their pettiness, and bring them into the Gemeinschaft der Geistigen.
posted by No Robots at 8:45 AM on May 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Mars Saxman: "Would it be fair to describe philosophy as careful, systematic thinking about a topic which has not yet been well enough explored to become an independent field of study?"

Right, that's the way I'd characterize it. Of course, there are those who disagree: some people think that if you show that a question can be adequately answered by some other field, then it wasn't really philosophical to begin with. Some people think that philosophy is intrinsically normative (rather than descriptive like the sciences are), as Ms. Saint hints at above. There's not much point in splitting hairs over what counts as real philosophy though. Philosophy is whatever it is that philosophers do, and what they do is try to respond to certain questions which can more or less be characterized as questions that fall between the cracks. A more nuanced answer would actually describe the sorts of questions that philosophers respond to. That will hopefully be done over the next few weeks in the New York Times series. The best way to explain what philosophy is is to do some philosophy; an introductory piece just isn't that useful (especially when it's this platitudinous and empty).

Ms. Saint: Ethics is a very good example of this. No amount of information about human psychology, about sociology, about culture, or about evolution will ever give you the answer to the question, How should one live?

Well, it's kind of an open question as to whether ethics can be naturalized. There are good arguments to be made on both sides. But regardless, it's not really a counterexample to Mars' characterization of philosophy as "careful, systematic thinking about a topic which has not yet been well enough explored to become an independent field of study." Even ethics is non-naturalizable, irreducible, and inherently normative, it could still eventually branch off into a new, wholly autonomous field of study. This happened with logic and (arguably) mathematics, which are both normative. I think it's pretty plausible that both formal epistemology and ethics could jointly give rise to an autonomous field of decision theory. (Something like this might already be happening in universities in Scandinavia.)
posted by painquale at 3:31 PM on May 19, 2010


Not sure how this...

Spinoza and Kant, with the former representing the epitome of the Geistigen, and the latter the epitome of the Volk.

jibes with this...

That is why he was so ferocious about not labelling individual X as either Geistigen or Volk.

or with this...

Brunner sees the unceasing warfare between the Geistigen and the leadership of the Volk as the fundamental truth of human culture. He puts forward as the greatest examples of this war Socrates against the sophists and Christ against the Pharisees.

I mean, if Brunner really resists labeling individuals this way, then have you misrepresented how he categorizes the likes of Kant, Spinoza, Christ, and so on? It all seems very reductive in any case. Furthermore, how could Kant possibly be a "Volk" thinker? He seems to me precisely the opposite. Also: it's unclear to me how this...

Brunner’s essential thesis is that humanity is divided into two basic types, distinguished by the content of their thought. On the one hand, there are the masses (das Volk), whose thought is oriented toward practical, material existence. On the other hand, there are the spiritually/intellectually inclined (die Geistigen), whose thought is oriented toward the Absolute. The masses imitate the spiritually/intellectually inclined, and generate a fictitious Absolute, with the aid and abetment of their scholastic leadership.

is not just taking a familiar distinction

(between on the one hand, a priestly/hierophantic/Mandarin/Brahmanic class, and on the other, a commoner/parishioner/householder/proletarian class)

and attempting to make it eternal or Platonic. One sees a similar impulse in such diverse thinkers as Vico and Confucious, but I thought we had all since Marx begun to deconstruct this and see how arbitrary it is. I am not sure there's anything intrinsic about this division: it seems more like an attempt to legitimize certain power structures.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 9:47 PM on May 20, 2010


I'm unclear how Brunner's approach is supposed to help us focus on doing better philosophy. Take my case from above: when we make moral assessments of actions, some people think that the only criteria that matter are the states of affairs that those actions bring about. Other people think that other criteria matter: fulfilling a duty, or following a rule, or some such. There is a huge literature on this topic, stretching to the dawn of philosophy; philosophers currently working this debate therefore often focus on making incremental gains on quite narrow problems. This isn't because they've lost track of what the great thinkers are saying; rather, it's that they're familiar with the literature and accept great work that has been done in the past as constraining the debate in certain ways.

I think that what you term a 'petty squabble' is just the sort of thing that happens when a bunch of smart people worry about the details in complex systems over hundreds or thousands of years. To put a sharper point on it, I find it quite unlikely that there is a method or procedure lurking in Brunner's viewpoint that would lead to superior philosophical work--if only working philosophers would abide by it. If your point is just that most philosophical work being done today does not matter very much, then I agree-but that's a point about how hard philosophy is, not a point about methodology.
posted by Kwine at 6:58 AM on May 21, 2010


HP LaserJet P10006:

I wrote that Brunner resists assigning individuals to categories except in the case of exemplars. It wouldn't make sense to assign, say, you or me. I mean, who's to say what metamorphosis either one of us may make tomorrow?

The priestly/hierophantic/Mandarin/Brahmanic class is still within the Volk. These are Volk who have risen to positions of religious/political/scholastic leadership. The Geistigen are completely outside of the Volk. They are the artists, philosophers and mystics.

On the question of Kant as exemplar of the Volk, here is how Michael Mack in his new book describes Brunner’s position:
Brunner argues that Kant’s rationalism has ironically fallen prey to what Spinoza criticizes as superstition and anthropomorphism. How can we account for a superstitious Kant? Brunner pinpoints Kant’s superstition in his belief in progress (Entwicklungsglaube). He traces the way how “the transformation of superstition out of religion emerges in the doctrine of progress as part of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy.”—Spinoza and the Specters of Modernity / Michael Mack, p. 8.
Kwine:

Brunner’s work is actually devoted to demonstrating that the essential questions of philosophy are already quite settled, and that the work that remains is to instruct in these essentials, and to modify our practical scientific activity in light of them. No one of Brunner’s admirers is a philosopher. Rather, they all apply his philosophical insights to practical work. The idea is to modify our scientific and practical work in light of the eternal truths of philosophy.

In this light, scholasticism is neither philosophy nor philosophically-modified praxis in that it neither acknowledges that philosophy is the domain of spiritual thought in which all the essentials are already quite well known, nor does it seek to modify practical and scientific work in light of these essentials.
posted by No Robots at 9:50 AM on May 21, 2010


It's hardly surprising that someone who thinks that all of the 'essential' questions of philosophy has been solved is unhappy with the business of philosophy as practiced by people who do not share that view. The dispute between deontologists and consequentialists surely has not been resolved; so on Brunner's view it must not be 'essential'. I suggest that 1) this is a commitment to a rather impoverished view of the scope and power of philosophical thought and 2) introduces in 'essential' another fuzzy distinction that I imagine that you'll again back away from when pressed; just like with Volk/Geistigen. Perhaps 'essential' is a scientific fiction as well? If you can't or won't pin down the view, we can't hold it to the light and see what we have, and in the meantime you can continue taking unearned potshots at those who give their lives to advancing philosophical practice and engage us in terminological disputes about the proper referent of the word 'philosophy'. Is that about the size of it? How dull.
posted by Kwine at 10:23 AM on May 21, 2010


And we say: Spinoza or Kant! And we find it more agreeable if, when we say this, the Kant-people, in their fancy, seize us, break us and annihilate us, than if they were to do the opposite, and pamper and flatter us.--Brunner
posted by No Robots at 10:50 AM on May 21, 2010


more critical reaction to the Critchley column from philosophers, on Leiter
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:20 PM on May 21, 2010


Leiter attacks Critchley using terms like "poseur", "lightweight", "STFU", "bullshit artist." There's your "business of philosophy": scholastic cat-fights featuring gutter prima donnas.
posted by No Robots at 12:58 PM on May 21, 2010


Meh. His essay was not good, people in the profession are making fun of it because it was not good. Sure, some philosophers are prima donnas but that's neither here nor there, when evaluating his essay.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:07 PM on May 21, 2010


... How dull.
posted by Kwine at 2:16 PM on May 21, 2010


I gotta say, No Robots, you seem to have a real hate on for philosophers. It lends to your attempt at argument, such as it is, the aroma of screed. The irony, of course, is that as Kwine has pointed out, philosophy is in many ways about avoiding screeds, as they degrade thought.
posted by OmieWise at 3:02 PM on May 21, 2010


The question is, "Who is a philosopher?" Not Brian Leiter, certainly. Spinoza is the philosopher, the sophos.
posted by No Robots at 3:04 PM on May 21, 2010


Ultimately, philosophy is indeed dull, as Brunner clearly states:
The truly interesting thing is not the spirit, but rather the world. Is it not so? There is nothing at all to the spirit. One can say nothing about it: if you wants to speak about it, you have only a single word-: One!—And that's it. The spirit thus is boring, no? Only the world is interesting; that is, varied and multi-hued and complicated and very exciting. And it is also mysterious; where does it come from, and where do all its individual things come from? But also in the whole: how does it actually come to pass that the world is in the world? It is all in essence entirely obscure—in spite of all science. We can find so much within it, and where would we be without it?! But finally all is nevertheless a mystery; the entire relative world is pure mystery. Only the absolute spirit has not the slightest mystery. The absolute is entirely clear. It is precisely that, the Absolute, that is: it is without all relations and therefore—simply boring.--quoted in "Nirwana und die Substanz" / George Goetz. In his Philosophie und Judentum. My translation.
The exciting thing is to engage the world on the basis of philosophy, on the basis that everything is one, and that everything thinks.
posted by No Robots at 3:15 PM on May 21, 2010


Brunner argues that Kant’s rationalism has ironically fallen prey to what Spinoza criticizes as superstition and anthropomorphism. How can we account for a superstitious Kant? Brunner pinpoints Kant’s superstition in his belief in progress (Entwicklungsglaube).

I wasn't aware that Spinoza's philosophy did not allow for progress, but either way the idea that Kant's Enlightenment philosophy contains a kind of sublimated superstition would have seemed pretty strange to someone like Hamann. In Beiser's book The Fate of Reason: German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte, the author details how Hamann explicitly set his mystical Sturm and Drang philosophy of feeling in opposition to Kant's arch-rational Aufklärung. Now perhaps Brunner's point is best understood within the framework of the pantheism controversy that took up so much ink (among Jacobi, Lessing, etc.) during Kant's time, but that's another question.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 5:08 PM on May 21, 2010


I haven't been following this discussion but No Robots, you seem to have a number of confusions.

1. Philosophers ask certain kinds of questions about the world and thinking things etc. Just because you think Spinoza has the right answers to those questions doesn't mean that people like Aristotle or Kant or Leiter (who have wrong anwers, or wrong methods, by your assessment) are not philosophers. Just means they're philosophers who've got the wrong answer, or the wrong approach, etc.

2. Believing that Spinoza is correct, that the world is one unified being, implies that you think we can know the answers to some questions about the world. But your admiring quote from Brunner suggests that we can't know those answers (because "the entire relative world is pure mystery").
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:41 PM on May 21, 2010


Beiser's book is very good, and does indeed give the background for much of Brunner's work. However, the study of this period misses a fundamental point, which Brunner makes clear:
Why did the most prominent Kantians—Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, the best philosophical brains Germany has ever produced, become Spinozists? One will try in vain to find an answer to this question in our histories of philosophy, which do not even ask that legitimate and obvious question. And there is no other answer to it than this one: that it could not have been otherwise, since these truly philosophical men necessarily saw and felt how different Benedict Spinoza's stance within philosophy was from that of Kant, who—to say it in my blunt way—had nothing in common with philosophy.--Spinoza contra Kant.
As for progressivism/evolutionism in Spinoza, here is Brunner's position, as recorded in the journal of his stepdaughter (my translation):
I said that it was not clear to me how Goethe's scientific theory of evolution could be compatible with his Spinozism, and asked whether Spinozism would not exclude any thought of evolution. Father answered that this way of thinking arose first with the decline of theology. Within the theological system, one would have nothing to seek because therein the human counts as the highest, around which all other creatures are subordinated. Spinoza had had therefore no occasion to explain himself specifically against evolution. In his doctrine, evolutionary thinking has no place at all, no point at all where it could have been broached. "And especially with my view of the attributes as relativity, of which each is locked solely and uniquely unto itself, there can only be constancy of the species [Arten], no passing over of one into the other. Goethe was not aware that, with his morphology, which is already a theory of evolution, he is already in contradiction of Spinoza; and therefore stands by himself. Naturally, he could on the faulty metaphysical grounding of his scientific work still obtain for himself singularly magnificent results, just as the Ptolemaic or any other religious system (all religion encloses metaphysics in itself) can be scientifically fruitful, because science does not arise from understanding, but from orientation.
posted by No Robots at 2:39 PM on May 22, 2010


Arthur C. Danto discusses the performance art of Marina Abramovic in the second entry in the series.
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:33 PM on May 23, 2010


Well, that was also disappointing. It was more art criticism than philosophy. You could make the case that criticism is a form of philosophy, but this article was nothing that you couldn't find in other sections of the New York Times. For that matter, it wasn't especially good art criticism. It was a pretty good article, because it did a nice job discussing Abramovic's motivations, the history of the work, and the responses of Danto and other participants. But those topics are largely unrelated to philosophy or deep criticism.
posted by painquale at 8:40 PM on May 23, 2010


What would be totally great would be if Danto would spend his time talking about what the big issues are in the philosophy of art are and have been over the last half-century or so, and why they matter. Then get someone to do that for every sub-branch of philosophy, and for every big shot philosopher as well. When people work on Plato today, what are they working on? What are the live debates in metaphysics right now? There's an audience for that among the NYT readership, but I can't imagine who could possibly be excited about the pieces we've gotten so far.
posted by Kwine at 8:20 AM on May 24, 2010


Kwine, I would read that blog enthusiastically.
posted by oddman at 8:24 AM on May 24, 2010


The third segment is up. This one is pretty good, though it's just a short musing. It made me want to learn more about Nancy Sherman's work, in any event.
posted by painquale at 10:28 AM on May 31, 2010


Well, it's light, but better than the previous two. Making a Necessity of Virtue looks pretty good.
posted by anotherpanacea at 11:03 AM on May 31, 2010


Stockdale's book is a fascinating read.
posted by homunculus at 12:27 PM on May 31, 2010


Folks have likely grown tired of these updates, but I quite liked Peter Singer's latest: Should this be the last generation? I'm particularly interested in anti-natalism in general, and Parfitian population ethics in particular, so it's good to see Singer bringing these questions to a larger audience.
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:27 AM on June 7, 2010


The Very Angry Tea Party
posted by homunculus at 5:32 PM on June 14, 2010


The Very Angry Tea Party

Stanford philosophy professor Joshua Cohen linked to this article on his Twitter feed with the comment, "Armchair bullshit, masquerading as philosophy".

Good call. And this from a guy who wrote his dissertation under Rawls.
posted by BigSky at 3:42 AM on June 15, 2010


Another embarrassment. I like the Cohen criticism: calling yourself a philosopher is not excuse for making hand-wavey attacks on an inchoate group noun like "the Tea Party." If anything, Bernstein should set the bar higher for fact-checking and justification because we know he's not actually talking to Tea Partiers, just reading highly biased accounts.
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:29 AM on June 15, 2010


Are philosophers soft-peddling because of the format? Do they think that writing blog entries permits them to go off on whatever rant they want? This series has been consistently bad, except for Peter Singer's entry. (Though he might have not been off-the-cuff enough. I saw a few references to his entry being poorly written. This shocked me a little, because it was written in a pretty standard style for a philosophy article.) I'm beginning to suspect that the mandate the authors are getting---what they are told to write about and how they are told to write about it---is generating the poor submissions. Someone up above said that although Critchley's introductory article was terrible, they doubted he had enough editorial clout to sink the whole series. The series is sinking, and it's hard not to think that editorial ineptitude is partly responsible.

I'm looking forward to Nancy Bauer's article. She's a good writer, and I think she'll understand the blog format.
posted by painquale at 11:52 AM on June 15, 2010


Also: is the whole series going to be about ethics, political philosophy, or other subdisciplines about normative issues? The remaining two philosophers that are slated also do political/ethical philosophy. Where are the metaphysicians, epistemologists, logicians, philosophers of language, and philosophers of mind?
posted by painquale at 12:00 PM on June 15, 2010


Yeah, I have to agree the series so far has been dismal except for Singer and the one about Stockdale/stoicism. Yet they keep showing up on the NYT sidebar of "most emailed articles". I do wonder what they're being told about their charge in writing these pieces.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:24 PM on June 15, 2010


« Older The...  |  A tornado forms in front of a ... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments