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Philosophy in the Popular Imagination

Andrew Taggart is philosophical about a widespread misperception of philosophy.

In my life nothing good has ever come of the “What do you do?” question. Once off my lips, the line “I work on moral philosophy, on ethics,” can lead in only one of two directions. Either my acquaintance, unschooled in philosophy, will be almost preternaturally interested in what I have to say – as if she’s happened upon some sublime creature only thought to exist on blanched parchment – or she’ll be absolutely dumbstruck by the stupidity of a life well wasted. Although it could go either way, let’s suppose she’s alighted on the latter path. “Philosophy… It doesn’t get you anywhere,” she replies, reveling in a truth that she believes is as certain as the claim that night follows day. And I’ve yet to come up with a truly satisfying rejoinder, probably because there’s no such thing. Try a joke, you think? “Oh, I don’t know, it certainly gets you into debt.” Or a plea for clarification? “I suppose it depends on what you mean by ‘get you anywhere’.”

The truth is that neither response will do. For if my conversational partner already thinks philosophy a waste of time, perhaps through having a mistaken conception of philosophy, then she probably (as my former English landlady was fond of saying) “can’t be bothered” to listen to a full rebuttal, and she won’t brook a sharp counterexample either. Like so many others, she’s already made up her mind – or, better put, her mind has already been made up for her.

To do philosophy in the public sphere today is to be immediately put on the defensive, and in most cases, to stand in the wrong. And yet, how we got to this point where philosophy has been put on all fours – either fetishized as being beyond the real world or vilified for playing no part in it – still needs to be explained. A first modest step would be to get straight in our minds how many lay people conceive of philosophy, and why this (mis)conception should matter to those of us who believe, somewhat antiquely, in the life of the mind.

One place to begin is with my interlocutor’s saying that when philosophers discuss something, they never get anywhere. She could mean one of three things by this: first, that philosophers get mired in endless debate, never yielding anything in the way of concrete resolution; or second, that they continually make something out of nothing, causing all parties involved to be brought to a state of mental confusion due to the endless jostling over definitions and the petty squabbling over overnice distinctions; or third, that in the game of philosophy there’s no way to resolve who’s right and who’s wrong. These three doubts, collectively or individually, present considerable challenges to philosophy’s basic self-conception. The first doubt would have it that there can be no authoritative conclusions drawn from a set of competing claims; the second that no mental tranquility can be gained; and the third that there can be no certain judgments concerning winners and losers in the truth game.

Rather than respond to each of the doubts in turn, it occurs to me that it would be wiser to ask what assumptions lie behind my interlocutor’s worries. I suspect that she deeply feels the culturally-widespread loss of faith in the power of reason to help us understand ourselves and our world. She needn’t be a relativist or a deep skeptic to believe this. She may simply believe, for instance, that some combination of emotions, instincts, past experiences, hunches, friends’ advice and expectations, is better than reason at determining how we should act. Against this attitude the philosopher’s belief that reason has its own power to help (as well as its own inherent limitations) requires a profound attitudinal shift: humility must be cultivated where there was once impatience. The light of reason can only shine after we’ve discovered how to quiet our minds and distance ourselves from our ‘empirical selves’ – the chaos of our everyday experience. There’s a long education – an itinerary of sorts – which ultimately leads to this state of mind: a path that the uninitiated hasn’t known or hasn’t taken, and in consequence, can’t find value in.

My interlocutor might concede that if philosophy has any value, it’s philosophy in the sense that everyone has their own personal philosophy. A personal philosophy, she might suggest, is a fundamental set of beliefs that one lives by. Think of a book subtitle like ‘The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women’. In this sense of the word, we’d be justified in saying that a coach has her own coaching philosophy, a company its corporate philosophy, a party its governing philosophy, etc.

I’m not so sure that the notion of personal philosophy gets us very far in vindicating philosophy per se, for three reasons. One is that it’s not clear to me how far anyone espousing a personal philosophy is really committed to that set of beliefs. How do we know that he lives his life so that it lines up with his own ‘philosophy’, or that when the sea looks stormy, he won’t jump ship? How far his beliefs line up with his actions has yet to be demonstrated. Another reason is that we would need to know whether his personal philosophy is worth standing by. Merely saying “This I believe!” can’t be the end point of any probing inquiry, but must instead be a starting point. And the last reason, already more than hinted at, is that, whatever it is, philosophy must be more than a doctrine, it must be a certain style of thought – a way of examining one’s life with the goal of determining whether the life I’m leading amounts to anything good, for example. But when someone expresses their personal philosophy, the question of why it’s a good thing to have a personal philosophy still remains unasked, as if it were enough just to have one. So personal philosophies are frequently unphilosophical in nature.

“All right. But if you’re going to dismiss talk of personal philosophy as hopelessly ‘unphilosophical’, you’ll have to come round to agreeing with me that philosophy is otherwise useless,” my non-philosophical friend might (philosophically) argue. “After all, the philosophy you’re talking about has no bearing on the real world. It’s mostly an academic pursuit full of puzzles, word games, and the kind of thing that’s done in universities. It’s up in the clouds, not down-to-earth, and nowhere else useful, either.”

“You’re right, contemporary professional philosophy has, in general, become unhinged from the concerns common to all of us,” I might reply. “And, yes, the worst of it has degenerated into logical puzzles and the search for ingenious counterexamples and knock-down arguments to theories no-one else is interested in. But, beyond these worries, I can hear in your voice the most potent criticism – that philosophy is worthless on the grounds that acting is more important than thinking. ‘Getting things done,’ you imply, should be ranked much higher than ‘pie-in-the-sky reasoning’.”

Suppose for a moment that my interlocutor is right. But then, aren’t there times when we don’t know how to act – as well as times when we’re completely at a loss concerning how to go on, or how we got to where we are – a place where we’d prefer not to be? Times when we’re in a crisis over which we seem to have no control? Times when our lives no longer seem to make any sense? At such times, wouldn’t it be wise for us to try to think our way through the situation, in order to come to some more complete understanding of ourselves and of our place in the order of things? It’s at such tragic moments that the moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s questions concerning what we care most about and what (and who) is worthy of our care might ring in our ears. At its best, philosophy asks us to be meticulously honest with ourselves. It impels us to look closely at the hand we’ve been dealt, to determine the extent to which we’ve helped or harmed others, to figure out what ultimately matters to us, and to assess how we’ve lived, in the most fundamental terms we can understand.

Were my questioner then to ask, “Why philosophy now?” my reply would be that we’re living through a historical period marked by great change. The institutions that make up the modern world – education and medicine, family and religion, home and work, among others – as well as the spheres of influence that define our existence – the economy, civil society, the state – are changing dramatically, resulting in new experiments in living being tried out. Some will get replicated and others will be ruled out. Insofar as our time has raised fundamental questions about the nature of our existence (what, for instance, is work? What is meaningful work? What is family? What is justice?), philosophy has returned in the form of a life-need – an activity that, although not fully understood, nor resounding with authority in the public imagination, is more than ever of vital importance. And yet philosophy is vital only if its conclusions are embodied, lived out in practice – that is to say, only so long as they’re taken in, sat with, mulled over, and integrated into our being. In this light, what people should find attractive about the philosophical life is a vision of an integrated soul – a person whose fundamental cares and concerns are integrated into a meaningful whole.

And if, at this late stage, she were to scoff at this seeming self-importance, I might offer the thought that one of the things I’ve learned is not to take myself too seriously. Jane Austen taught me that, along with my myriad failures. Other things I’m still learning include the art of speaking truthfully without bullying or boring; that of being honest without baring all to all; of being accurate without being self-righteous: also, how to be grateful when corrected, open-minded while committed, and, above all, how to love the small things, the grace of them all, and, not least, the sheer fact of my existence.

Reason, it turns out, is neither omnipotent nor impotent in matters of the head and heart. Philosophical wisdom is neither so rare as to be entirely extinct from the world we inhabit, nor so common as to be easily purchasable in the marketplace. Yet thanks to a mature recognition that things aren’t as they ought to be, philosophical self-examination will continue to have a reason for being, because it promises to ultimately bring us peace of mind about the things that matter most.

© Andrew Taggart 2014

Andrew Taggart is a philosophical counselor living in Southern California. In his philosophy practice, he teaches individuals and organizations throughout the US and Europe how to inquire into the things that matter most.

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