By Nathan Bierma
Content & Context
REASON TO BELIEVE: PHILOSOPHY TODAY
With the recent presidential election being spun as a triumph of faith over reason—and with Garry Wills (surprise, surprise) going as far as to say America has abandoned the Enlightenment—it's as good a time as any to round up recent articles on philosophy.
- We're all philosophers now. Or at least we think we are. Contrary to Descartes, that doesn't make it so. "Philosophy, the dustiest of subjects, formerly the preserve of a few, has gone public," says Steve Carroll in the Melbourne Age. "Philosophers are not just writing books for themselves any more or the select circle in which they move, but for 'the people'—out there. And people are reading them, or, at least, they are buying them." Although many of these books are merely "the worst kind of arranged marriage between publishing and opportunistic editors … basically cultural studies with bits of philosophy thrown in" (including The Sopranos and Philosophy: I Kill Therefore I Am), others aren't bad, Carroll says. He cautiously lauds the example of Alain De Botton, author of How Proust Can Change Your Life and Status Anxiety, for helping to bring philosophy into the mainstream. "To many, the populariser is by definition superficial—a pretender," Carroll says. "But it might also be argued that popularisers such as de Botton belong to a long tradition of writers who felt bound to break free of academia and the intelligentsia in order to take their ideas to the people."
To readers, Carroll says this: "There is also something of the self-congratulatory in a lot of these books; they make people feel good about themselves for having snacked on edible summaries of the great minds—a bit like congratulating yourself on being able to translate lines of a foreign language on a billboard," even though this is a long way from being able to speak French. Still, Carroll concludes, some quality reading awaits among the popular introductions to philosophy: "Like most things literary, what works and what doesn't work often comes down to the quality of the writing and to, as Henry James put it, just how good the mind of the writer is." Article
Related: Four philosophy books for the non-philosopher, from the Christian Science Monitor
- "There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers," said Thoreau (quoted in the introduction to B&C's interview with public intellectual Tom Morris). If that's true today, part of the problem may be that philosophy professors tend to treat their subject only as a subject, detached from themselves rather than integrated into their reflections on their lives. In philosophy today, "hardly a trace of autobiographical detail surfaces," writes philosopher and critic Carlin Romano in the Chronicle of Higher Education. "We know what many philosophers believe, and why they claim to believe it, but not who it is that believes." Romano praises two recent exceptions to this rule—two collections of philosophical memoirs, The Philosophical I: Personal Reflections on Life in Philosophy and Singing in the Fire: Stories of Women in Philosophy. "Somehow the editors convinced contributors not that their lives matter … but that they matter enough to be recalled, reflected upon, talked about," Romano says. "Yes, there's the inevitable egotism, self-puffery, credentialism, and—dare one say it?—ignorance of self in these reflections. Far more important, there's news—and drama, and tears, and love, and more wisdom than appears in putatively more important work to which a few of these worthies owe tenure and career." Article
- You will be hearing more—and not just from Wills—that only belief, not reason, matters now in America. In September, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran an excerpt of Michael Lynch's forthcoming True to Life: Why Truth Matters, from MIT Press. Most of the published portion concerns what the Bush Administration said and says about Iraq, but Lynch takes aim at some broader principles. As a country, "we are rather cynical about the value of truth," he says. Stanley Fish and Bill Bennett are both to blame. "Under the banner of postmodernism, cynicism about truth and related notions like objectivity and knowledge has become the semiofficial philosophical stance of many academic disciplines. Roughly speaking, the attitude is that objective truth is an illusion and what we call truth is just another name for power," Lynch writes. Meanwhile, moralists decry relativism and hope to reawaken America to the truth "that we are right, and everyone else is wrong," when in fact, "truth means that you have to be open to the possibility that your own beliefs are mistaken." Both of these points are familiar but probably necessary to reiterate, including Lynch's (albeit quasi-empiricist) conclusion that "we distinguish truth from falsity because we need a way of distinguishing right answers from wrong ones." As Lynch notes, "The most terrifying aspect of Orwell's Ministry of Truth isn't its ability to get people to keep people from speaking their minds, or even to believe lies; it is its success at getting them to give up on the idea of truth altogether." Article
Related:The Truth Wars and Reason and the Left from Butterflies and Wheels