Thursday, May 17, 2007

Engaged Philosophy on the Rise: Socratic Dialogue Anyone?

Imagine celebrating National Philosophy Month in the U.S.! A Dutch philosopher recently spent several days sitting in a tub and having deep conversations with passerbys in order to recreate the life of the Cynic Diogenes and give honor to the calling of philosophy. This article by Mark Vernon, in the Financial Times of London, talks about the urgent need for philosophy in the public sphere today.

I agree with Vernon that the practice of philosophy has become overly professionalized. He makes a questionable distinction, however, when he says that the fault lies mostly with those involved in doing "analytic philosophy". First, these distinctions between analytic and continental philosophy are suspicious and are notorious for being placeholder for ego trips and terroritory markers in academic departments. But even so called analytic philosophy does not have a monopoly on obscure and technical writing that is impenetrable to people who have not spent 5-8 years in graduate study--Being and Time is not light, summer reading by the pool!

A professor of mine in graduate school said there is a difference between philosophers and teachers of philosophy. This suggests a difference between philosophy as a way of life, a practice (in Alasdair MacIntyre's sense), and philosophy as a set of techniques or prepackaged content (a canon?)

When we talk about the need for engaging philosophy with the contemporary world, what is it that we seek to bring out? What contribution does philosophy have to the "real world"?



At 1:18 PM , Blogger Dennis said...

Based on my experience, philosophy is one of few places where people are given tools and encouraged to use them to be introspective and self-critical. I don't see this anywhere else in the public sphere at the moment. So that's one contribution.

A related contribution, or maybe just the same one restated, is the search for wisdom - or whatever the opposite of rational-technical knowledge. An old friend of mine has a quote at the bottom of his email: "We are discussing no small matter, but how we ought to live." The "right" way to live seems to be assumed for most people, or at least it is assumed to be a private discussion with no bearing on others. I think we can't possibly decide how to live on our own.

At 2:14 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

I agree with you, Dennis, about the worth of philosophy as a practice. I guess what worries me is that it has become a kind of technique relegated to the universities. Russell Jacoby makes a similar view about public intellectuals--it used to be, and not that long ago, that there were good journals of opinion and criticism that were widely read and the people who wrote them were not professors. Things have changed now--academia has become almost the exclusive home of anyone called an "intellectual" and media is increasingly corporatized. Perhaps, there is hope in the blogosphere...?

At 8:48 PM , Blogger Dennis said...

The blogosphere? As a home for public intellectualism?

Yeah, I think so - though maybe of a limited sort. Certainly the left/progressive part has its share of policy wonk/public intellectual types, and some of them are very, very good at being smart AND accessible (ever read Juan Cole's Informed Comment blog?). However, to the best of my knowledge, their readers are already left/progressive folks, or at maybe well-educated, older white folks. In this sense the blogosphere (I hate that name, by the way) hasn't really expanded the amount or kind of people who are being exposed to lefty thoughts (good, cheap Internet access is still divided along class/race/gender lines - demographic data for the left blogosphere suggests that most blog readers are older, educated white folks), it's just allowed people who live in different places to communicate more easily (don't get me wrong; this has huge benefits, but perhaps of a different sort). I want to say that it's a poor replacement for the public talk because one has to be more proactive to seek it out - meaning it's easier to avoid exposure to new and different ideas. That and I think face-to-face interaction is the best form of communication if forced to choose between them. Ideally, I'd like to see a blogosphere that serves alongside public talks, newspapers/magazines/journals, and coffee shop conversations, not as a replacement or substitute; I don't think the Internet can really replace other forms of communication, though I think that is happening to some extent given increasing economic pressures.

Also....I'm not sure that philosophy as an introspective practice is what goes on in the ivory tower. I think philosophy as an academic discipline happens, sure, and for some people that also means philosophy that affects personal practice. But even given my experience even within the OSU Philosophy Department, I don't think the introspective/self-critical part is widely deemed a necessary part of being a philosophy professor.
On the other hand, there is a ton of great material available on the Internet that didn't exist or wasn't available 10 years ago. Even given that, I tend to think the blogosphere (and by extension, the Internet) is a great corollary or addition to other forms of communication, but hardly a replacement. At least until they invent an Internet that smells like coffee.

At 10:14 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Yes, I think you are right about the limitations of the Internet. Some studies I have seen suggest that it reinforces people's views rather than challenges them--most people tend to look for content that is already tilted toward their ideological bent. That seems to be true of most people's experience with media today. That is why I think that there is something particularly important about the face to face interaction of the public realm--its much more unpredictable about who will be there and what will be said (not always, since you can certainly only go to those places which will reinforce your world view).

The OSU philosophy department is a rare thing in the academy in the US. I think if we looked at how the top 30 Ph.D granting departments work and hwo they are churning out new professors, we might be less optimistic about philosopy being an engaged practice with the "real" issues of the day.

At 10:09 AM , Blogger Martid said...

As a social philosopher, I have no other option then to agree with your suggestion Joseph – philosophy needs to have the practical dimension, people need to see the philosopher’s work in everyday life. This is why we do practice the political and social philosophy. This is a "sine qua non" of our existence. If there would be no need for such a thing, we should all emigrate on the deserted island or at least, change the profession (become sociologists, psychologist, ethnologists - at least some practical dimensions).

We are the political creatures and we are people because we take action (as Arendt would say we perform "vita activa"). On the other hand the lack of concern about the whole spectrum of philosophical enquiry which has never been brought to the eyes of the public but influenced its life more then everything else, is another issue that we should not be ashamed of. Even, in such a pragmatic society as American, one can not deny the need for something transcendental, something not really defined. This is not a merely theological or spiritual quest, but also a philosophical one. "Vita contemplativa" is where philosophy begins and this is its beauty.
There is also no need to diminish the role of those, whose efforts to understand the reality are strictly abstract or analytical. Did you ever get lost in the labyrinths of matrix presented by Putnam or in the depths of the Epimenides paradox? I will not believe that as the philosopher one did not get thrilled by the implications that those have for the reality...

What I tend to think is, that the value which should be reconsidered today is the one called "phronesis": not only the virtue of the practical wisdom but also of the good man. And it is our job to define it well, so the actions of people will take good directions.
Let me say one more thing at the end, with which you will not be able to disagree, although you may be irritated by its analytical form: 'P' is True if and only if p.:)

At 1:12 AM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Martid: I actually like the suggestion that we need to focus more on "phronesis". I like Aristotle's emphasis on this as a way of knowing and thinking about the common good for the community. How to develop this "common sense" seems to be a crucial task in an age in which knowledge seems to be defined mostly as "technological know how" (techne--for the Greek lovers out there!)

At 9:18 PM , Blogger Candace said...

I never saw philosophy as Philosophy, to be learned in College where one gets a Degree. Funny since that is what I am getting my degree in, but I feel like I used my government dollars for personal betterment and enjoyment - not a job opportunity or the right to pretentiousness. I see philosophy happening a lot around me, but I don't think people realize they are philosophizing. When people find out that I am a philosophy major, they are always full of awe that I am doing something like that when I could be learning about Business! Engineering! Or Science! They ask me what philosophy is or what one does to philosophize. I ask them some question about the condition of society. They give a problem and possible solution to this problem. I tell them they are now philosophizing.

I think people are disconnected from philosophy and don't realize they are doing it. It is easily recognizable when one practices medicine, or chemistry, or mathematics. I think philosophy is such a part of daily life for many people that they don't or can't recognize it for what it is and have also grown complacent in their analysis of the world.

I would guess that people think "real" philosophy is only done by PhD's that teach at universities. I feel like I do my best philosophy when I am outside of the classroom, though. I feel that the classroom is a great place to talk with people that are on a very common ground as me and speak the same language (like Joscelyne said tonight, English...but not easily understood by everyone). It is a great place to begin to ask questions and collaborate, and I love the community. But when I can share that community and our discussions with people that don't have the exposure...I feel that is when I make the most gains and have the greatest connections with others, because I am educating in a way!

I guess the bottom line is, if people don't recognize that they are "doing philosophy", that is okay! It is the practice that matters, not the labeling of it. And if I can facilitate it in daily life, then I'm not doing too badly.


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