Thursday, October 21, 2010

What is Philosophy?

Because it is unfortunately that time of year and the state of the world is what it is, I am going on the market. This activity requires revising a "teaching dossier" in which I talk about my teaching style and pedagogical principles, etc. This year, in revising it, I am treading the same path that I have pursued in the past by defining philosophy ... and I find this task making me wonder, in a way much like my erstwhile colleague Dr. J, who has recently done so on her blog.
She has challenged myself and others to provide an explanation in 200 words, to avoid terminological pedantry and to distinguish between the profession and the discipline

On my account, philosophy has two aspects and these aspects are actually not complementary, but indicate an internal conflict.

On the one hand, philosophy is an activity, by which I understand the skills of "critical thinking." That is, so as to counter the natural tendency of students to believe that philosophy is an abstract matter, I  stress that as an activity philosophy depends upon the skills of reading, writing and discussion, which are skills that we use everyday, although not in the "critical" mode.  I say a lot about the conditions for this critical thinking, but here I will only say that it should inspire "intellectual curiousity". Intellectual curiousity is a state, in which we encounter the world with the greatest of fascination. The accumulation of knowledge could allow our expectations and assumptions to make us bored with the world. Intellectual curiousity, by contrast, is a state in which we find the world fascinating, so as not to allow the possible cynicism of certain wisdom to afflict us.

On the other hand, philosophy is a vibrant historical discipline, meaning that it has passed down practices of thinking and questioning, determinations of appropriate objects, the canonization of important texts and philosophers. This history develops and changes in relation to the events that occur within philosophy, the academy and outside. Being a philosopher means knowing that history, appreciating it and contributing to it.

Now for the interesting part. I think that many contemporary philosophers accept the former description, presuming that philosophy inquires into meta-disciplinary areas, some traditionally occupied by philosophy (metaphysics) and others new (philosophy of science), but that they see themselves as related to their past as merely a narrative about what happened before. What is more, they liken their activity to the activities of theorists and scientists in other disciplines.

But I think those philosophers would be uncomfortable by the philosophers who work from and in the historical institution (I am one of those). That is, I am dubious about the scientific-like assumptions of philosophy as an activity, and instead perceive my work as reading and developing the history of philosophy. The big problem is this: I think that should be an end without being legitimated by possible application. In other words, I think that history should be done for its own sake--the antiquarian, I believe, that Nietzsche critiques in his famous essay.

A last brief note: I have no idea how to distinguish the discipline from the profession. The former it seems to me is the activity and the historical institution. My inclination is to hold the profession to be the conferences and professional societies and journals and publications.  But it is equally reasonable to say that the profession is very much about teaching in the university system.

A pickle, as a Romanian philosopher used to say.

1 comment:

Chet said...

Upon reflection I am starting to doubt my characterization of the "activity" of philosophy. By this, I do not mean that there is no aspect or method that we might identify as the activity, but that the activity I describe is not contradictory to the historical orientation I also attribute to philosophy. It seems to me that if philosophy is also an activity that is opposed to this historical orientation, it cannot be an activity that leads to "intellectual curiousity." Moreover, I do not think that the latent scientism of some philosophical activity would dare associate itself with Aristotlian wonder. You cannot have both wonder and a conviction about the science like progress of philosophical reflection.