06 June 2005

A Philosophical Fraud?

Perhaps it's because I've just finished Understanding Accounting Ethics that I'm very sensitive even to the appearance of fraud these days, but it was in just that regard that I've been wondering about the use of Aristotle's Protrepticus in classroom instruction.

A protreptic to philosophy, it is often said, is an exhortation to philosophy. But to say just this is not to say enough. It is, more properly, an exhortation, with reasons, aiming to convince someone to put aside everything else to which one is devoted, and to devote one's life instead to the study, and practice, of philosophy. Since such an exhortation comes with reasons, it comes with conditions: if the conditions are not met, then the exhortation fails, or perhaps is even fraudulent.

I've heard it said that Hutchinson and Johnson have had great success in using Aristotle's Protrepticus, and also Plato's Alcibiades (see how easy I am in attributions), in introductory courses in philosophy--which stands to reason, some have remarked, because these texts proved their worth in this regard in the ancient world.

It's not important for my purposes that I talk about Hutchinson and Johnson, even if they do intend their edition of the Protrepticus to be used in that way. Let's talk instead about M. & N., taking these to stand (like free variables) for anyone who might take this approach (perhaps even myself, at times).

Here's my argument. If M. & N. use the Protrepticus and Alcibiades only to convince students to major in philosophy, then they've, incongruently, used those texts not according to their intended purposes. (It would be like, say, reading D'Arcy's proposal from Pride and Prejudice to a woman, in order to get her to sleep with you.) If, however, they use those texts to convince students to leave everything and devote themselves to philosophy, then they do this without fraud, only if philosophy has the character that these texts claim for it. But both these texts claim that philosophy is something divine, and they promise or intimate a kind of divinization from studying philosophy. So M. & N. do not defraud, only if philosophy is like this.

Again, in the ancient world, one did not exhort young men to study just any 'philosophy', but what one took to be true and correct philosophy--the alternatives being not simply false and incorrect, but also harmful and to be avoided. So doesn't M. & N.'s use of the Protrepticus and Alcibiades also imply their commitment to arguing, too, that it would be a calamity to become misled by (say) Nietzsche's philosophy, or Quine's? Wouldn't it imply a commitment to setting up a distinct 'school' where only sound, divinizing philosophy is pursued? Without these things, again, isn't there fraud--or, at least, corrupting youth?

"I was intending to become a physician, or an investment banker, and you convinced me to study this worthless stuff instead!" would be a just complaint for someone to make (wouldn't it?) if philosophy is no more than (say) the clarification of concepts from science, or the most abstract aspect of a conceptual web constructed for coping with experience.


Anonymous said...

I think your anxiety is misplaced. The most important reason for exposing students to a philosophical protrepticus (in my view) is to attract the attention of the vanishingly small proportion who will see philosophy as a divinising activity that they cannot fully live without. Since philosophy is in fact such an activity, there is nothing fraudulent in this. And one may do this, on occasion, without the student in question even majoring in philosophy, let alone doing a PhD or taking it up as a profession. So long as that's the main aim, there's no fraud. There's nothing wrong with having the subsidiary aim of getting students to think more clearly and reject the sophistries perpetrated by their other humanities lecturers, or appreciate the literary beauty of Plato's dialogues.

According to Aristotle and 'early' Plato, the divinising nature of philosophy does not spring from its constituting a correct set of doctrines -- not under that description, anyway -- but from its nature as an activity. What "begins in wonder" can scarcely have as its telos merely the acquisition of the correct theses -- could it be the authentic protreptic view that Plato *or* Aristotle could have been doing philosophy, but not both, and possibly neither? And even in the Gorgias Socrates disavows knowledge, and claims to count it a greater blessing to be refuted if he is in error, than to refute another, even on behalf of the truth. Surely it is this attitude that constitutes philosophy insofar as protreptic discourse exhorts us to it. Reason can acknowledge no authority higher than itself, as Augustine saw -- which is in the end why it cannot be distinguished from a sort of prayer, by those who believe that prayer is a meaningful activity.

Anonymous said...

So the question is, if one uses the Platonic or Aristotelian text as a protreptic to philosophy, must one be doing it fradulently if one's view of philosophy is not in important respects the same as the view put forth in those texts?

Probably. I think the most interesting aspect of this question is asking which views of philosophy pass the test and which do not. One might take the ancient texts in a strictly literal way, and say that any view philosophy which denies that doing philosophy is divinizing in the sense of becoming like a god fails the test. That would be silly, though, I think. Why not instead give a passing grade to any view of philosophy that grants a significant ethical value to the activity of philosophy itself, so that engaging in the activity constitutes a good of the sort that, were one to lose it, one's life would be relatively impoverished? Even that is less ambitious than the classical view, in which the philosophical life is the best life, and so anyone who fails to engage in philosophy at all must lead a significantly impoverished life.

Even if we stick with my slightly less ambitious description, though, which strands in contemporary philosophy would be able to qualify? Perhaps Quine and the tradition he represents could claim something of the sort for itself, in so far as empiricism seems to thrive on a will to the avoidance of deception. Even a philosopher with as unambitious a view of philosophy as Bertrand Russell could be heavy handed in his assertions about the value of his particular view of human rationality. But of course, almost nobody in those traditions would think of using Plato or Aristotle as a protreptic, unless perhaps they made use of the Euthyphro, and in that case the activity towards which the student is being exhorted is very, very different from that of the Alcibiades.

Nietzsche presents a much stronger case, I think. His attitude towards the philosophic life probably resembles Plato and Aristotle's more than any other modern philosopher's does. Of course, his view of the philosophic life led by other philosophers is fairly disparaging, but for those who lived lives that were philosophic in the sense that he took to be the proper one, he has his special kind of respect. And a Nietzschean might even be able to use the Alcibiades as a protreptic, given that so much of Nietzsche relies on overturning essentially Platonist thought. Of course, that would be a very different kind of protreptic, since its aim would be to demonstrate the allure of a kind of philosophy and then slowly move towards its transvaluation. Deceptive, perhaps, but all of Nietzsche is parasitic in that way. So maybe he couldn't elude the charge of fraud.

Philosophy is one of the few disciplines left in the academy that has the very real potential to be an ethical discipline in the sense that its activity is inseparable from the kind of life it involves. That's true for all professional philosophers, of course, but in a fairly trivial way barely distinct from the way it holds true of any professional academic. Rather, philosophy as an activity (rather than merely an academic profession) is one of the few disciplines that can really be integrated into the whole of a person's life in a way that no other, with the exception of creative enterprises like art and creative writing, can. History, sociology, chemistry, and the like may be able to become the center of someone's life, but they can not really orient a person's way of life in the same way, I don't think, unless they become essentialy ideological in some form or another.

So philosophy can do that, though the bulk of the work being produced by professional philosophers provides ample proof that it doesn't need to. It can be an ancillary to natural science or a set of tools for linguistic analysis. It can be the attempt to answer for natural science what natural science itself can not quite answer (e.g., physicalist theories of the mind). But it can, and probably damn well ought, to be more than that.

So which other strands of philosophy might meet or fail to meet these standards? I suspect that any philosophy focused on ethics and politics is likely to be a good candidate, and any philosophy that pays no attention to those things will be a poor one. And of course, those that pay purely critical attention (anti-realists, non-cognitivists, e.g.) will probably be in the odd mid-point of denying the reality of normative standards and yet reccommending themselves as the sane, rational philosophers with respect for the truth.

But would any of them really be able to use the Alcibiades as a protreptic?

Anonymous said...

I wanted to thank these two commentators for extremely interesting and thoughtful remarks. 

Posted by Michael Pakaluk

Anonymous said...

You're welcome, Prof Pakaluk.

Anonymous2 said:

"Why not...give a passing grade to any view of philosophy that grants a significant ethical value to the activity of philosophy itself, so that engaging in the activity constitutes a good of the sort that, were one to lose it, one's life would be relatively impoverished? Even that is less ambitious than the classical view, in which the philosophical life is the best life, and so anyone who fails to engage in philosophy at all must lead a significantly impoverished life."

Isn't the classical view more plausible? Surely real philosophy offers us a good of a higher order than other academic disciplines. The sort of benefit anonymous2's test identifies as provided by philosophy could be said to accrue just as much to (bona fide) academic study generally; but there are good grounds (I think) for claiming that philosophy offers benefits of a higher order than what is provided by intellectual activity as such; these grounds are various, but many have to do with philosophy's opening up questions that other disciplines must perforce take as settled.

Anonymous2 also said:

"...if we stick with my slightly less ambitious description, though, which strands in contemporary philosophy would be able to qualify? Perhaps Quine and the tradition he represents could claim something of the sort for itself, in so far as empiricism seems to thrive on a will to the avoidance of deception."

This is where the issue of 'higher-order' benefits of philosophy is important. It's hard to see how a Quinean can acknowledge them, because Quineans (and a certain widespread species of naturalist more generally) hold to a 'demystified' conception of philosophy, whereby the sort of intellectual activity it is, and so presumably the sorts of benefits it can be expected to bring, are continuous with the case of natural science. It's crucial to the Quinean account that there's no sharp difference in kind between bouncing around in the middle of the web of belief (logic, maths, philosophy) and scrutinising bits closer to the edges (science). So Quinean philosophy fails to be true Philosophy (ie the source of a unique value indispensible to those capable of attaining to it) on the classical conception. But doesn't it fail on the 'less ambitious' account to? Or rather: if it succeeds, it lacks the conceptual resources to acknowledge its own success: the less ambitious account makes essential reference to 'ethical value,' 'goods' and 'impoverishment' (eg of a life), where these surely must be understood in a 'robust' rather than a 'debunking' way (ie they are to be accorded a significant measure of objective being), on pain of undermining the whole idea that philosophy could *really* matter. But of course it is partly definitive of the Quinean outlook, and the 'Humean-naturalist' tradition of which it is a recent expression, that talk of such value must be understood as either non-assertoric or systematically false -- in either case, as an expression of confusion and delusion if taken at face-value. So the Quinean view is, at least, in the embarrassing position of having to rule that the 'less ambitious' account is itself false or meaningless if taken at face value.

This is a good illustration of the radically distorting influence on philosophy of the idea that "a will to the avoidance of deception" is ultimately the whole of intellectual virtue. One is left officially unable to say many of the things one needs to be able to say.

Nietzsche is a very different example of fundamentally the same problem. But I agree that for him, philosophy was "inseparable from the kind of life it involves" -- this seems to have been true of Wittgenstein, too: it's hard to imagine a Quinean saying "How can I be a good philosopher unless I am first a good *man*? This is the source of much that is admirable in Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, but also much that is infuriating.

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