Monday, January 25, 2010

Academic philosophy woes

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.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Morality of the moral philosopher

On Thur, Jan 14, 2010 at 18:01:19
Lfand asked this question:

Does a moral philosopher, or a student in moral philosophy as I am, have an obligation to behave morally, or in a much more moral way than anyone else (as a non-philosopher)?

Which do you think is worse, hypocrisy or arrogance?

If I tell you that I am more moral than you because I am a moral philosopher, then isn't that just arrogance? On the other hand, if I tell you that despite the fact that I am a moral philosopher, I do not regard this as having any consequences for the morality of my actions, isn't that just hypocrisy?

If anyone claims to be more moral than I am, then it takes all my powers of self-control to prevent me from giving them a smack. So don't parade your moral virtue in front of me, I won't be impressed. And don't call me a hypocrite just because I refuse to parade my moral virtue in front of you.

I don't like philosophers who preach. In the past, I have nearly succumbed to the temptation, in my erstwhile incarnation as a philosopher of business. My ten part Ethical Dilemmas course ('a primer for decision makers') contains guidelines for business people designed to help them think more clearly about moral issues. However, thinking clearly about a moral issue can sometimes mean seeing that whatever you do will be 'wrong' — from one point of view or another — so don't feel too bad about it. Just do what you've got to do.

What is 'morality'? It is an ugly word, but so is 'ethics'. When philosophers distinguish between the two, it is usually for the sake of some pet theory. I personally don't have a view on this and don't care what term one uses. (My usage generally accords with what Fowler mildly denigrates as 'elegant variation'. When I get bored with using the term 'moral', I switch to 'ethical', and vice versa.)

When Marx in his 11th thesis on Feuerbach stated that philosophers should seek to change the world rather than merely interpret it, he was in a way restating the view expressed 2500 years earlier by Socrates in Plato's dialogue Phaedo. In a long, memorable passage, (96A ff.) Socrates explains why he lost interest in the physical speculations of his predecessors, in particular Anaxagoras. 'Man' and the question how one should live is the central concern of philosophy.

My own taste veers towards 'interpreting the world', understanding the nature of existence. I would like to understand ethics, or morality, because the phenomenon puzzles me. I don't mean this in a superficial sense. I accept that ethics is a direct route to metaphysics, and you can't do metaphysics without at some point tackling ethics. But what has ethics, or metaphysics, taught me (if only incidentally) about right or wrong, or how I ought to live?

You see, I have real problems with the idea that there are some things I 'must' or have an 'obligation' to do, by contrast with the things I desire for myself. To my mind, I don't do things 'for myself', or 'for others' but simply for a reason. Anything else would be irrational. But maybe I mean something different by 'reason' than you do. Being 'fun' is a reason, so I do some things for fun. But sometimes you have avoid things which would be fun, or do things which are positively not fun. It might be fun to knock a policeman's helmet off, but the reason for not doing so is (in most cases) stronger.

This is where the real problem arises. Just because, being a philosopher (or a moral philosopher) you aim to understand and see more, there is a danger that you see reasons for action that other persons fail to see, or indeed that you will see through what others mistakenly take to be valid reasons for action. In other words, it's simply about being true to what you know.

Following this line of reasoning, it would be perfectly logical — perfectly rational — to come to the conclusion that, as a result of what you now know (which you didn't know before) you realize that in the past you have been more moral, more ethical than you ought to have been. You foolishly allowed yourself to be swayed by irrational considerations into doing acts which won moral praise from others, which you ought not to have done, and would not have done had you known better.

Let's say you are a previously ardent Christian who reads Nietzsche and concludes that much of what you thought was ethical is merely the expression of 'herd morality'. You unwittingly allowed your emotions to be manipulated by others to their own ends. Or, let's say you are a previously ardent Socialist who reads Ayn Rand and discovers the 'virtue of selfishness'.

I am not putting forward these philosophers as necessarily representative of my own views; I am merely stating a point of principle. If you look into morality with the unblinking eye of a philosopher seeking truth, there's no saying in advance what you may discover or where your investigations may take you.

What I believe is true — and I don't consider it arrogant to say this — is that the study of philosophy has made my life better. I don't mean this in a moral sense, or a non-moral sense because I don't recognize the distinction. I see meaning, where others struggle to see meaning. But nor is 'helping others to see' a reason for what I do. How could it be, if I didn't have a reason to be a philosopher which was a reason for me?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Camus on absurdity: case of Roger Federer

On Mon, Jan 4, 2010 at 23:16:08
Alvin asked this question:

In the Myth of Sisyphus, I don't quite understand the core concept of absurdity. Camus says that our attempt to find a meaning of life is futile. But it is possible that we make our own isn't it? Roger Federer's meaning of life might be enjoying the best out of tennis and having a great family. Camus also said that we tend to avoid the absurd feeling through the so called 'act of eluding' which manifests itself as hope. Is Federer's meaning of life hope in this case? What is Federer eluding then? What is so unfruitful about this thought, this playing tennis? Isn't this the true meaning of life?

For those not in the know, here is the Federer newsflash from 23 December 2009, courtesy of

Tennis ace Roger Federer will undoubtedly be checking his list twice this Christmas!

The 28-year-old World No. 1 on Tuesday shared a new family photo via Facebook. Identical twins Myla Rose and Charlene Riva, 5 months today, are seen sitting contently for Roger and wife Mirka, whom he wed in April.

'Many fans have asked for an updated picture of our girls so we thought we’d post this picture for the holiday season,' Roger writes. 'Our entire family wishes you a safe and happy 2010.'

I am guessing that many, or most persons — including Alvin — faced with the choice of contemplating the absurdity of human existence or being Roger Federer would choose to be Roger Federer. On Alvin's reading, however, Camus would rather contemplate the absurdity of human existence. This is preferable to succumbing to the illusion of hope, eluding the existential question which every human being must ultimately face.

In other words, the case of Roger Federer is (according to Alvin) a reductio ad absurdum of Camus' views on absurdity.

The first thought that occurs to me is, How can Alvin be so sure that Federer hasn't read Camus?

Let's imagine two possible worlds, each very similar to the actual world — in fact, one of them might be the actual world, we just don't know which — with two Roger Federers, Federer1 and his counterpart Federer2. Federer1 has read Camus, Federer2 has never heard of the French philosopher. Asked whether he thinks life is absurd, Federer2 replies, 'How can my life be absurd? I have my tennis, and my family!' Federer1, on the other hand, says, 'Yeah, I agree. I like to read Camus in the locker room, it helps me focus on my tennis.'

That's not my response to Alvin, merely a rebuttal of the initial charge that the case of Roger Federer makes Camus' claim about the absurd, obviously absurd. It is not obviously absurd. But it might still be false, we have yet to see.

Federer2 doesn't concern us. There are many people like Federer2, crowding the pages of Hello and, but they are of no interest to philosophy. As little interest, in fact, as the many who have never considered the mind-body problem, or the problem of free will, or the challenge of scepticism. I'm not passing judgement. It's a non-issue.

Federer1, on the other hand, looks to be a bit of a challenge. To appreciate, intellectually, the absurdity of existence, the absurdity of every human project, does not require that one feels this, the way a man contemplating suicide might feel it. Federer1 (like Federer2) is justifiably proud of his achievements on the tennis court, as he is of his twin daughters. Life is good. Then what exactly does he get out of reading Camus?

There is a superficial way of understanding this, an impression one might gain from someone like the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. 'Remember at the moment of your greatest glory, that you are destined to die. Your body will on day be dust.' Or words to that effect. It's a thought you don't need to be a philosopher to a appreciate: victorious Roman athletes were crowned with a garland of laurel leaves, as a symbolic reminder of human mortality.

You can accept the fact of death, and with it the realization that everything we achieve will eventually be taken from us — that our beloved children are destined for death, as are their children — without seeing this as making all our efforts and striving absurd. To be limited in time, as all human goods must be, does not take away from their intrinsic value. But Camus is claiming something more. It is not merely the transience of the things we value that concerns him, but the fact that they are only valuable because we value them, and so long as we value them. To value X, or not to value X, is ultimately a matter of each person's existential choice regardless of what X may be.

At this point, you might begin to smell a rat. The dialectic is familiar territory to anyone who has struggled with the problem of scepticism in epistemology. The philosophical sceptic asserts, 'There is no such thing as knowledge,' then outside the philosophy seminar room continues to live as we all do. You wouldn't drive a car if you feared the engine might catch fire. But if you say you don't know that your car is safe to drive, what the hell are you doing getting behind the wheel?

In an similar way, if Federer1 spends three frustrating hours working on a problem with his backhand volley, and you ask, 'Why bother, what's so great about being a tennis champion anyway?' and he replies, 'Sure, I've read my Camus, there's nothing so great about it other than the fact that I choose to care,' then spends another three hours practising the same stroke, we are entitled to ask whether he is being sincere. The effort he puts in is proof that he really does care, not in the way of someone who arbitrarily 'chooses to care' but rather in the way of someone who sees something out there that is objectively worthy of being cared about. We may not necessarily see what he sees, but that is the way with values.

The philosopher/ novelist Iris Murdoch makes much of this point in her short monograph — an excellent introduction to ethics — The Sovereignty of Good. Values, things-to-be-cared-about, are there to be seen, just as Plato held that justice and virtue are not mere human inventions but eternal Forms, of which the philosopher seeks to gain vision and knowledge. Trouble is (as Murdoch well knows) it's not to easy to find philosophers these days willing to defend the literal truth of Plato's Theory of Forms. The point about the objectivity of values is a point about phenomenology rather than ontology. Phenomenology considers how things must necessarily appear to us, regardless of how they might or might not be in reality, supposing that we have some independent grip on what 'reality' is, or is meant to be.

But if it's just phenomenology, then isn't Camus vindicated? Again, one falls back on the parallel with scepticism in epistemology. It's true that the sceptic who wants us to give up the term 'know' risks the charge of insincerity. However, there is a way of saying this — a way of making the point — which doesn't have the absurd consequence that we should all wrap ourselves up in cotton wool, and never risk getting into a car, or even sitting on a chair (which might collapse).

There is a problem with knowledge, just as there is a problem with the idea of objective values. There is a dialectic to explore. Camus' Myth of Sisyphus is a historically essential contribution to that on-going philosophical debate, as well as being an important document in human psychology. But it is not the last word. The debate goes on.