01 December 2005

The OC

Is it the case that a commitment to study philosophy implies a commitment to live in a certain way, or to pursue, or to reject the pursuit of, certain goals? It seems to me that there is a conception of philosophy according to which it does. I'll call this the Old Conception (or 'OC', which is very distant from Orange County!).

I have in mind the approach to philosophy through a protreptic. Here is how such a protreptic works. First, some short list of goals in life is presented: wealth, fame, power, honor, comfort (including 'physical pleasures'). It is claimed that just about everyone pursues one of these, or some combination of them, whatever he might take himself to be doing with his life. Second, it is pointed out that none of these goals stands up to rational scrutiny; none really makes sense as the goal of a human life. Third, it is pointed out that this reflection and self-knowledge, perhaps attained for the first time--that none of these goals makes sense as the goal of a human life--itself is an instance of a new goal that now shows itself, namely, understanding and knowledge. And this does seem to be the sort of thing that a human life might reasonably be directed toward. Finally, a 'life devoted to philosophy', then, is put forward simply as a life devoted to achieving understanding, beginning with and including this initial self-understanding.

This I call the OC.

Now this initial self-understanding includes, therefore, some sort of rejection of certain goals as ultimate goals; and the continued seeking of understanding implies some permanent setting aside of these goals. One can imagine different ways of setting these goals aside. One way would be to dismiss them with contempt--"It is beneath the dignity of a philosopher to care about such things as fame and power". Another way: to cultivate an indifference toward such things. Yet another: to take them as they come, but to seek them only in some obviously secondary way.

Now here are some further questions:

1. Is the life to which someone is committed, in committing himself to philosophy, according to the OC, different from the life to which any academic researcher or scientist should, in principle, be committed (again, according to the OC)? Is there something that is in this way distinctive or special about the pursuit of philosophical understanding?

2. According to the OC, can philosophy be a profession? Can it be something that one 'goes into', like law or business?

3. (A more particular question, but interesting, I think.) Is there some special incongruity, between being dedicated to philosophy according to the OC, and the development of ratings and rankings of philosophers or philosophy departments--and, if so, would this incongruity help to explain some of the discomfort some people feel about such rankings? The argument would be: such rankings can only be of influence (i.e. power), fame, or honor; yet even if the rankings were roughly correct in these terms, and such things did loosely, at least, accompany some kinds of achievement in philosophy, still, the rankings either turn, or threaten to turn, some implicitly rejected goals into goals once more.

4. Would it be the case, then, that the OC would effectively be excluded in academic philosophy, to the extent that the study of philosophy were guided by the outlook presupposed in rankings? That is, there would be a selection from the start, and students who might formerly have studied philosophy because they had been persuaded in the manner of an old protreptic, will not think of studying, as a consequence, professional philosophy, any more than they would think of law school or business school as, in the first instance, an appropriate path for a life well lived. (They might indeed opt eventually for law school or business school, but only on the grounds that if there is no way to pursue philosophy, then they might as well pursue wealth or power effectively.)

I don't know--perhaps this is a 'cranky' speculation. But how could someone read Plato for long without at least considering it?


Anonymous said...

A fundamental commitment to pursuing philosophical wisdom implies a commitment to live in a way conducive to pursuing this goal. Arguably, “externals” such as health, fitness, moderate wealth, honor, comfortable & safe living conditions are conducive to such a devotion. Certainly their opposites, conditions such as sickness & disability, poverty, dishonor, and horrific living conditions are strong impediments to a life of study & reflection. (If you have any doubts about this, try living as one of America’s homeless people for a week or so.)
Arguably, academia provides the person who wishes to pursue philosophic wisdom with a livelihood compatible with his aspirations to wisdom in a way that business or law or other careers usually are not. But America’s universities are for-profit teaching and research corporations, so what do you expect in terms of how they should evaluate & reward their employees? Someone’s pursuit of philosophic wisdom has no bottom line impact, so why should the corporation care about it unless it is productive of profitable research or good teaching? If working for an educational corporation offends you—especially an ed-corp that fails to educate-- and you have some better way of affording a life that pursues philosophical wisdom, by all means go for it. For you, I would say, the choice of academia is a at bottom lesser evil.

Anonymous said...

I can't help but think that this response yields too much to the problems that MP's post points towards. I suppose that if we find it entirely acceptable to sit back in comfortable cynicism about our disciplines and our educational institutions even as they turn towards goals that we find wrong-headed, then we can take the attitude that our anonymous poster takes. We don't need to worry about trying to turn things in the right direction so long as we can keep on comfortably doing what it is we're doing.

Our universities and the discipline of philosophy as it has been constructed in English-speaking countries is not likely to adopt an ancient view of philosophy as its means of understanding itself anytime soon. That does not mean that such a view of philosophy has no place in the discipline. The current status quo hasn't been established for all that long, and it was never obvious that it had to become what it has. This is especially true when it comes to universities conducting themselves as for-profit corporations pandering to their students' disinterest in anything that falls outside their idea of professional development ; this is neither strictly necessary nor is it something that people with a real interest in education should tolerate quietly.

All that said, it does seem to me that only a few people go into philosophy for the external rewards. There just aren't that many, especially if you aren't among the best in your field. It seems to me, rather, that the cynical professionalism gets beaten into us later on, so that we end up like anonymous, just happy that we can get paid to think about ideas that few or no practical consequences.

Does ancient philosophy have some kind of inherent political element that contemporary philosophy lacks? All, or almost all, of the ancient philosophers seemed to think that it was simply a part of philosophy not just to pursue the good yourself, but to work in some capacity to turn others towards it, too. Most folks working in philosophy today would claim that studying philosophy offers goods of some kind, but all but a few seem to lack much interest in directing others towards that good. Is this a result of specialization, so that a given philosopher can think about his field honestly and conclude correctly that its study does not amount to a serious good that anyone might pursue with profit? Do we lack the ancient holistic conception of philosophy because we've come to think of philosophy as a kind of technique?