Philosophy – Who Is It Good For?

Crush #1

Hello everyone, and welcome to something that we’re going to call Philosophy Crush.

What I’m going to be doing here is a little different from what people in my line of work usually do. What line of work is that? I’m a Professor of Philosophy at Queen’s University, which is located in Kingston ON, one of Canada’s older universities. I’ve been here now for going on sixteen years, and I teach courses in mostly continental European philosophy of the last 200 years or so. A philosopher in the twentieth-first century is usually a university professor, but not necessarily. I think of a philosopher as a writer of a certain kind, someone who thinks seriously about certain kinds of questions, maybe on a professional basis, but maybe not. What we come up with usually finds its way into books or scholarly journals, or is presented at professional conferences and colloquia. More and more philosophical work is finding its way onto the internet. It occurred to me—actually it was an old friend’s idea, Rob Faucher is his name, and it was immediately seconded by my wife, Gwyneth—that although my usual thing is to write books and long-ish articles for an audience of colleagues in my field, there’s a sizeable audience out there of people who are not professional philosophers but they have a serious interest in thinking about philosophical questions. You don’t need a Ph.D. or a license to think, and you don’t necessarily have to read whole books either. Philosophy, in the beginning, was practiced in the ancient Athenian marketplace. Socrates engaged in serious philosophical conversation with whomever he encountered there, and if it could be done there, it can be done here. Philosophy can be done in the street, in everyday conversation, and anywhere else. It doesn’t only happen in books, scholarly journals, and university classrooms.

Just a bit about myself: I mentioned my university affiliation. I received a Ph.D. in philosophy from McMaster University, in Hamilton ON, in 1995 and since then I’ve written a number of books and essays, edited some anthologies, and so on. Most of the ideas I write about require book-length treatment; others don’t. Philosophers sometimes think big, and at other times in a more piecemeal way. It’s the latter that I’ll be doing here.

This forum is for everyday contemplations meant for anyone who’s trying to live what philosophers since Socrates’ time in the 5th century B.C. have called “the examined life.” I’m going to keep the jargon to the necessary minimum, which is easier said than done in this field. Most philosophers are notoriously difficult to read. There are reasons for this, but technical language isn’t always necessary or even appropriate when we’re thinking about the kinds of questions that I’ll be talking about here. I want to focus on questions that are of obvious relevance to what’s happening in the world and in people’s lives today. Among the more fundamental questions that philosophers have always asked are, what is the good life? How should we be living? What kind of society is a just society? Does human life have a meaning, or perhaps many meanings? Questions like this can seem beyond our grasp, but they’re not. What they are is complex. They demand to be thought about, by anyone, but we shouldn’t expect any simple answers. My suggestion is going to be that when we ask questions like this, we not be in a rush or expect to find any one big answer. Thinking begins with a question, and when these are our questions it’s best to slow down, look at all the ins and outs of a question, and remember that these issues have been thought of before, and by some pretty intelligent people. Philosophers have been thinking about these matters for a couple of thousand years, and it’s often a good idea to hear what some of them have to say before reaching conclusions of our own.

A philosopher is a writer, but beyond this they are someone who’s trying (I emphasize trying) to understand what’s happening, the spirit of the times, who we are, what things mean, and how we should be living. The philosophers I revere were all free spirits. They work in a tradition, sometimes within a particular school of thought and sometimes not. Some of what we do is highly technical, and some of it’s less so. John Dewey, one of the greatest philosophical thinkers of the twentieth century, wrote many books on many subjects, but he also wrote for newspapers and popular magazines. He wasn’t alone in this and he had many predecessors. The great Roman philosopher and emperor Marcus Aurelius, writing in the second century, wrote his famous Meditations; Michel de Montaigne, in the sixteenth century, had his Essays; and there are many other examples like this, of serious thinkers thinking outside the box, sometimes in unusual forms and places. What they and so many others were doing was trying to shed a bit of light on the human condition, one piece at a time. It’s in that tradition that I’m going to be working here.

Let’s begin at the beginning, with a question that’s as old as philosophy itself. What is philosophy? Also, what is it for and who is it for? I don’t want to speak here as a professor, tempting as that is since that is what I do for a living. This isn’t a course in philosophy, and my aim here won’t be to teach but to think out loud, along with all of you—if, that is, there’s anyone out there, and by the way, I don’t assume that there is. Back to our question: philosophy, que-ce que c’est? You’ll have heard that philosophers have a way of disagreeing among ourselves about more or less everything that there is. This is true, and what we disagree about includes the very meaning of this ancient word. The word itself derives from two other ancient Greek words: philo, which means to love, and sophia, which means wisdom. The philosopher was said to be a lover of a certain form of knowledge, especially a knowledge that’s relevant to how we are living. We love wisdom, which isn’t to say that we have it. To love is not to possess but to pursue, relentlessly. Only the gods possess wisdom, Socrates said; human beings at most pursue it. Let’s keep that in mind. Beyond the etymology of the word, nearly everything else is contested. The meaning of philosophy itself tends to reflect what specific approach or tradition a given philosopher is working in. I also work in a tradition, as every philosopher does. My general approach is within the tradition of what’s called phenomenology, hermeneutics, and also pragmatism, although my intention here will not be to sell anyone on any of that or even to discuss it in any direct way. One of the most important early-modern philosophers is the nineteenth–century German writer G. W. F. Hegel, who spoke of philosophy as “its own time comprehended in thoughts.” As definitions go, this one’s rather good. We’re trying to understand the times, the spirit of the times, and what’s happening to us, where we may be going. Another nineteenth–century German, Friedrich Nietzsche, thought of the philosopher as a radically free spirit, beholden to no school of thought. The philosopher is a psychologist of a kind, what he called a “cultural physician,” whose role is to provide a kind of diagnosis on the times or an interpretation of how the general culture is faring at present, maybe also a prescription. His own diagnosis of the nineteenth–century Western world was not optimistic, and one of the questions I’ll want to pose down the road a bit is whether he might have been right about this.

Let’s look at a few more statements that both try to define what philosophy is while also speaking to its task, from three of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century. I’ve mentioned the American philosopher John Dewey already. Here’s what he had to say: “The principal task of philosophy is to get below the turmoil that is particularly conspicuous in times of rapid cultural change, to get behind what appears on the surface, to get to the soil in which a given culture has its roots.” Here is Martin Heidegger: ‘“Wood’ is an old name for forest. In the wood are paths that mostly wind along until they end quite suddenly in an impenetrable thicket. They are called ‘woodpaths.’ Each goes its peculiar way, but in the same forest. Often it seems as though one were identical to another. Yet it only seems so. Woodcutters and foresters are familiar with these paths. They know what it means to be on a woodpath.” This isn’t a formal definition of philosophy so much as an interpretation of what philosophical thinking itself is. Let’s look at one final description, this one from another German thinker, Karl Jaspers: “The essence of philosophy is not the possession of truth but the search for truth, regardless of how many philosophers may belie it with their dogmatism, that is, with a body of didactic principles purporting to be definitive and complete. Philosophy means to be on the way. Its questions are more essential than its answers, and every answer becomes a new question.”

What philosophy is is itself a philosophical question, and there are many answers, no one of which is likely ever to be definitive, any more than the question, what is art? has one answer that all artists would agree to. My own view borrows from all of these and some others. I’d suggest that we keep in mind the Greeks’ original definition of the word while bringing this into our current times. Philosophers are lovers, of a certain kind of knowledge. This is not purely formal, theoretical knowledge, but a knowledge that arises from life and from experience. It’s not science and it’s not art, but somewhere between the two. You can imagine philosophy as a kind of conversation that began with the ancient Greeks—especially Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—and that’s been going on ever since, in one form or another, in different time periods, different nations and different languages, and addressing a wide assortment of issues. But it’s a single conversation. Michael Oakeshott in the last century spoke of “the conversation of mankind,” and the metaphor has caught on. Philosophy is a running dialogue about the human condition, an attempt to shed some light on what is true, what is good, and what things mean, one bit at a time. Its questions, as Jaspers said, are more important than its answers, and the answers that I’ll put forward here are ones that I’ll try to defend, to back up with reasons, and which I, like any philosopher, here submit for your consideration. But we never reach any final, fully worked out system. We are only ever, as both Heidegger and Jaspers liked to say, “on the way,” making a beginning. Philosophy is experimental, not dogmatic, and the philosophical mind is radically open. No philosopher who knows what they’re doing is a know-it-all.

Philosophers have been known to hang out in ivory towers. I do that too. I spend most of my time there, but much of what we think about is of direct relevance to what’s called the real world. You may be a teacher, who wants to understand what is the meaning and the purpose of what you do in that classroom; I wonder about that too. You may be a lawyer, who wonders from time to time what justice really is, and whether you’re actually serving it. You may be a voter, who wonders about the kind of democracy we’re building, or a parent, concerned about the kind of society we’re leaving to our kids. You may be an artist or an art lover, who wants to understand more deeply something about the nature and the value of art. You may be a friend or a lover, who wants to understand what the various forms of love mean and what it asks of us. Or you may be a geek, who wonders about a lot of things, an intellectual. In any event, you’re probably already interested in philosophical matters. I don’t need to sell you on that. Philosophy has a thousand applications. These can be personal, political, ethical, aesthetic, metaphysical, theological, existential, and some other things. Its relevance is obvious to anyone who’s introduced to it in the right way.

Some of the topics that I’ll be discussing in the weeks ahead are: post-truth; the importance of listening; education and indoctrination; are social media making us antisocial?; is smart technology making us stupid?; does anyone read books anymore?; ideology and the politics of potholes; so you’ve made it to the top of the mountain—now what?; and death for beginners. There’ll be many others too.

Since philosophy can be thought of as a conversation that’s been going on for at least two and a half millennia, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for anyone reading or listening to this to write out your responses to whatever ideas I’ll be expressing here. There is a need today for ideas—good, intelligent ideas, which may be new or they may be old. Their age doesn’t matter. What matters is whether we can defend them with reasons, something that rises above the level of knee-jerk reactions of the kind that we’re presented with every day. Responses, critical or otherwise, to what I’ll be saying here are welcome, as well as any ideas and arguments of your own. My aim is to speak here weekly, or thereabouts. I’ll try to keep things informal and brief—maybe ten or fifteen minutes each time—and to avoid any unnecessary repetition in topics.

Why am I doing this, you ask? I’m doing this for a very simple reason, and it’s the same reason that I write books. That is, for the love of it. The singer-songwriter Don Henley once wrote, “Folks these days just don’t do nothing / Simply for the love of it.” I wish Mr. Henley was wrong about that, but I suspect he’s right. Still, exceptions exist and this is one of them. I have a passion for ideas. Maybe you do too, or maybe you’ll develop one if you stick around. Til next time.