Philosophy and its hope (1)

The relationship between philosophy (particularly institutional philosophy) and the general community in which it is found – is a difficult question. I think most of us feel more comfortable discussing it in terms of what is usually called ‘the public intellectual,’ the term embracing anyone with a reasonable social argument to make, regardless of professional background.  But how active should philosophers be in the immediate concerns of their communities?

The difficulty with philosophy per se, as motivation for action, is that philosophy’s principle goal and desired result is deeper understanding. And understanding doesn’t necessarily get us a say as to what should be done about the issues we come to understand through philosophy. That is, it really doesn’t get us claim to be able to suggest programs for improvement or predictions for better futures. In his youth, Hegel was a supporter of the French Revolution, and wrote that he saw “the world spirit on horseback,” when Napoleon marched through Germany. But in the much later “Philosophy of Right” – an analysis of German social structures and their assumptions – which some (wrongly, I think) take to be a defense of Prussian bureaucracy – Hegel wrote the immortal line, “The Owl of Minerva flies at dusk, when history paints her grey on grey.” Quite frequently, understanding only comes on retrospection, after the curtain closes and the play is done.

Yet consider another, more recent thinker. Michel Foucault’s decision to come out of the closet, released him to pursue two activities that filled his last years – commitment to gay rights activism; and protracted research into how the language we’ve historically used to address sex, actually molds our beliefs concerning sex, and positions those beliefs socially.

Now, we can reasonably make connections between these two projects, but such connections are actually somewhat imposed from outside: There is no necessary connection between greater understanding concerning the language of sexuality on the one hand, and, on the other, the collective struggle to achieve greater justice for those with sexual desires and lifestyles outside of the presumed mainstream.

(Indeed, it is a weakness of Foucault’s research project, that he himself very clearly wants there to be such a connection, but he can’t produce it. “The History of Sexuality” is at its best when it is simply a (somewhat arcane) social-historical study of certain language practices and their cultural and political implications. These just happen to involve sex; they might just as well involve eating. A similar archeology of how people have discussed eating meat could prove quite interesting. But vegans would hope in vain that it would provide them better arguments for their own lifestyle.)

Understand that I don’t have an immediate answer to this problem. I do want professional philosophers more concerned with everyday practices of non-professionals. But while such concern would undoubtedly contribute to greater understanding of these practices, I don’t know that they would contribute better practices.

But I would also argue that the discussion here should not miss an important issue, which often gets missed in discussions of this kind taking place in an academic arena. The fact is, people philosophize. This is almost inevitable to being human. We can hear it in the questions that children ask – ‘what is that?’ ‘why did that happen?’ ‘why can’t I do this when people visit?’ The answers adults give to such questions, even when delivered as flat statements or direct injunctions, are also somewhat philosophical in nature – they imply a certain understanding of the world and our place in it. We spend our whole lives re-enforcing the understandings we receive when young; or questioning or unraveling them; of constructing, deconstructing, reconstructing alternate understandings we feel comfortable owning – and passing these onto our own children. The difference between those who profess philosophy (and we can include thinkers from the past since Socrates, as long as we understand that ‘to profess’ doesn’t yet make one a ‘professional’ in current usage of that term), is that those who pursue philosophy for its own sake are somewhat obsessed with finding answers to certain questions that further inquiry doesn’t threaten.

Most people don’t have time for that. They have to live their lives in the community in which they find themselves, and so their rudimentary philosophizing generally resolves into doing what seems needed at the time, and accepting the ‘conventional wisdom’ of the time – religion from the pulpit, openly expressed or unacknowledged prejudices, political exhortations, common truisms swapped among friends.

But there are some intelligent enough not to be content with these resolutions. They get a bee in their bonnet, and seek to get it out or perhaps find honey in the hive. This may lead them into a number of possible inquiries, some of which may prove professionally academic in nature. And given how we’ve received philosophy in our cultural inheritance (what is said of it, the stories we tell about it), it should really come as no surprise that even those outside the academy may be hoping for something said by those publicly acknowledged as professional philosophers – something they can use in their own lives, as they wrestle with questions ‘conventional wisdom’ cannot answer for them.

Are they wrong? Or do professional philosophers owe them some address to their questions?

Well, I don’t think there’s a yes or no answer to those questions. I think philosophers need to recognize that people expecting more than narrow research concerns from them have a felt need for this, and are not just somehow misguided. And I think people – both in and out of professional philosophy, or the Academy per se – should also recognize that one can philosophize without needing a professional or academic stamp of approval.


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