On Sun, Jan 24, 2010 at 13:30:36
Andy asked this question:
I have spent my entire life feeling distant and lost among my peers. But it all seemed to come clear in my freshman Intro to Philosophy class. I want to learn philosophy. I want to find my true answers for my world and existence but I disagree with today's academic approach towards philosophy. Philosophy for me has never been sitting in a class room and reading out of a book. To me philosophy is an examination of our true spirit we can take our minds anywhere they want to go, answer any question that we are vexed by. The human mind is a an amazing place to go and to see what we are really made of.
So I say the true path to philosophical reasoning is to look inward. I am by no means a genius I just do not want to study philosophy in the same old boring lame 20th century academic system. If you could shed a little light on my predicament and help me find my way to a more ethical and reasoning life.
I deserve this question. As someone who has in the past criticized contemporary academic philosophy and put no small effort into laying out my alternative vision of how philosophy might be practised and taught it is only poetic justice that I should be required to come to the defence of academic philosophers and 'Intro to Philosophy 101'.
When I was a Philosophy undergraduate at Birkbeck College London in the early to mid-70's there was a group of students who seemed to spend much of their time discussing 'what was wrong' with academic philosophy. They called themselves 'radical philosophers'. Things haven't changed much. Here's the blurb from the Radical Philosophy web site which I looked up today:
Radical Philosophy is a journal of socialist and feminist philosophy. It was founded in 1972 in response to the widely felt discontent with the sterility of academic philosophy at the time (in Britain completely dominated by the narrowest sort of 'ordinary language' philosophy), with the purpose of providing a forum for the theoretical work which was emerging in the wake of the radical movements of the 1960s, in philosophy and other fields.
In the interests of historical accuracy, in 1972 (my first year at Birkbeck) the dominating interest in British philosophy was not ordinary language philosophy (J.L. Austin, John Wisdom, the later Wittgenstein). That was already on the way out. The new thing was W.V.O. Quine and Donald Davidson and truth conditional semantics.
Philosophers in the analytic tradition were once again looking at the great work of Frege and Russell and the early Wittgenstein, and showing an increasing preparedness to question the 'givens' of ordinary language. (Again, for the sake of historical accuracy, it should be noted that J.L. Austin did write a fine translation of Frege's Foundations of Arithmetic which fans of ordinary language philosophy seemed to have largely ignored.)
I would argue that the new technical, semantic approach had something of the spirit of radical philosophy in that it raised the possibility that much of the time we don't really understand what we mean, that accepted linguistic forms hold our minds captive an idea not so far away from the notion of 'false consciousness' which the Birkbeck radical philosophy group talked incessantly about.
Of course, much of the new stuff was coming from the USA, and this did get up the nose of many young British philosophers. But I think it would be fairer to say that the emphasis on formal logic and semantics seemed the epitome of the kind of thing Heidegger was warning against in his strictures about technology. And I do agree with this to some extent. (But then again, I'm not such a great fan of Heidegger either.)
I will accept that history is bunk. I've just told a story which touches on how things were back then which seems true, based on my own experience, and possibly is still true (or maybe more true) today. Other philosophers will tell the story differently. It doesn't matter. To my ear, one thing that grates more than boringly minute academic debates over the analysis of Russellian definite descriptions or the Davidsonian truth conditions for action statements, is boringly minute academic debates over Marx, Althusser, Marcuse etc.
In German Ideology Marx set the standard for emotively hyperbolic diatribe which to some radically minded philosophers seems to have provided the model of 'committed' philosophical discourse. Then again, some of the more convoluted passages in Sartre's Being and Nothingness possibly pip Marx for the prize for sheer muddy obscurity. Next to these examples, the clean, austere writing of the likes of Quine and Davidson seems like a model of how words ought to be used in the pursuit of truth.
But I'm digressing.
The question isn't, 'Which style or tradition of academic philosophy do you prefer?' (analytic philosophy, continental philosophy, radical philosophy, process philosophy, eastern philosophy etc.) but rather, 'Why does philosophy have to be academic?' (Or, as a variant, 'Why does philosophy have to be so academic?')
The Pathways School of Philosophy which I run, offers courses in academic philosophy. It's called 'academic' philosophy because that's what you study if you enrol at an academic institution for a course in philosophy, anywhere in the world and regardless of the dominating tradition there. Philosophy has a history, or, rather, several alternative histories depending on which version best fits your tradition. If you don't like studying other philosophers or the history of philosophy remember, 'Those ignorant of the history of philosophy are doomed to repeat it.'
The irony is that I am not academic. I've done my share of sitting at lectures and poring over books. But books and lectures bore me to tears. I like to talk. I talk with my students (admittedly, via email mostly). In partnership, we create something which, as I once wrote, 'is neither yours nor mine something neither of us could have created by our own unaided efforts the dialogue itself as it takes on an independent life of its own' (Can Philosophy be Taught?).
Does Intro to Philosophy 101 bore you? Do you hate listening to professors droning on? Get over it. Don't mistake the style for the substance. The style is clunky, because clunky is what academic institutions do best. It doesn't have to be pretty so long as it works. Don't look to others to provide you with inspiration. That's what you've got to find within yourself. But don't think if you look into your own mind you will find philosophy there. Everything that's in your mind right now came from somewhere. And most of it is a cliché.
You want to follow Descartes' example and write your own 'Meditations on First Philosophy'? Fine. Start off by sitting through lecture after boring lecture by Jesuit priests. That's what Descartes did, and what provided him with the tools to pursue his own original philosophical investigations. That, and reading the great classics of philosophy that were available in his day.
This isn't a sales pitch so don't expect me to tell you how at Pathways we do things differently. Maybe we're a little less clunky, but that's just the beauty of the internet. A laptop can be your professor and your library. And when you've had enough of study, you can play games or DVDs on it too.
Don't knock it, you academic philosophers: it's the future.