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Main | Heidegger's Place? »
10:18AM

Too Much Philosophy?

Since retiring in 2002 I have put in nearly two decades returning to philosophy, the intellectual passion of my youth. I left philosophy when I left the university and headed out into the world to make a life, start and raise a family and, ultimately, build a bit of a career. I never forgot my interest in things philosophical, of course, but I let them go as I put my energies into other things. Eventually I picked up another favored pastime of my youth when I wrote an historical novel in my later years on the job (during a hiatus when our upper management was in transition) and later published it myself (no luck finding representation or an interested publisher -- it was a Norse saga pastiche, written in an archaic voice, so I wasn't surprised). But after that book, and a couple of others, I kind of got bogged down. Why? I found my old interest in philosophy again and for a decade I lost myself in philosophical discussions and readings on the Internet (sometimes contentious -- philosopher wannabes can be pretty arrogant -- and always detailed and wide ranging) until I finally felt that I had something of my own to say. There followed two books. The first, Choice and Action, turned out to be a compilation of many essays expanded by me from my online jeremiads on those philosophy discussion groups, as well as some written especially for the new book.

Because the focus of those essays leaned toward Ethics and Meta-Ethics and because while back in college majoring in philosophy I had always thought that, if I wrote a book of philosophy, it would bear that name, that's the title I settled on. But Choice and Action was too disjointed and even while I believed the latter part of the book made a cohesive case for the ethical answer I was trying to give, I came to think it had failed. And so I wrote another on the subject, one that I hoped would provide a more satisfactory answer to the questions I'd tried to deal with in the first.

Value and Representation: Three Essays Exploring the Implications of a Pragmatic Epistemology for Moral Thought was to be my definitive answer to the moral questions which philosophy took up: What is moral or ethical goodness? How do we know it and what justifies it? What are the rules we apply to determine what, if anything, we should do in our lives? More unified and cohesive than its predecessor, Value and Representation would be my final attempt to answer the great ethical questions that matter in philosophy.

But to get there I found I had to start somewhere else, not with the questions concerning what we should do and how we can know what to do that bedevils contemporary Anglo-American ethical philosophy. I had to go backwards, deeper, into epistemology and metaphysics. I had to build the structure on which my account of moral thought would rest. To do it, I expanded my reading again to explore more contemporary writers on ethical matters and on philosophy more generally (many of the essays on this site actually reflect and report on those further efforts). And so it came to pass that Value and Representation followed Choice and Action and I had finally done what I'd imagined I'd do way back in my college days, contribute something in published form to the world of philosophy. The first book bore the title I had planned so many years before but the second is the one I had meant to write -- but had delayed for some fifty years.

And now, with those books behind me, I find myself somewhat at sea. I self-published both (having learned how easy it was to do it and how much control doing it provides a writer -- and, of course, lacking access to academic publishers, the ones who usually publish philosophical works). And I'm content with having done it that way (I never expected much of an audience for philosophical works in any case) and fine, too, in the knowledge that I am not the first philosopher to have felt the need to publish his own material -- and no doubt will not be the last. I do hope, of course, that some time in the future some will read one or both books and see something of worth in them, taking them as genuine contributions to the philosophical discussion.

But having been through what now looks to be two decades of reading and writing philosophy, poring through the works of the great philosophers of the past and many, many contemporary ones who comment on those others or who endeavor to add something of their own to the discourse, I have begun to wonder whether or not we have too much philosophy today! Our universities are replete with philosophy departments and our philosophers all seem, nowadays, to be professors or aspirants to that title, seeking to contribute something, to make a place for themselves, a career, in the halls of academe as PHILOSOPHERS. But this was not always what philosophy, what being a philosopher, was about.

Once philosophy spoke to all thinking people, concerned itself with our lives and what mattered or should matter to us. Once philosophy was a far reaching enterprise not limited to the academy, indeed hardly even a part of it. To be a philosopher was to be something else and to think and write about matters of concern to human beings when they stopped to ask themselves hard questions about what life is about and why go on. Philosophy used to be relevant. People cared about it, turned to it for answers, quoted the aphorisms and observations of the greatest thinkers of the past and sometimes of some remarkable contemporary ones.

But that does not seem to be the philosophy we know today. These days it is seen as a narrow academic discipline studying obscure writings of the past and dealing with technical questions in the present that no one but other philosophers find remotely interesting. These days, scouring the Internet, searching YouTube, we find an abundance of people giving talks, lectures, interviews, speaking philosopheze as it were, but most of what is being bruited about is all but unfathomable, or too refined and technical to resonate with real life and its interests. These days it is increasingly hard to find philosophy integrated into the broader domain of our concerns. People know the names of some of the greats: Wittgenstein, Russell, Heidegger, Sartre -- but not much more than that about them. Their concerns no longer seem to be the concerns of even our smartest, most educated folks.

Philosophy has lost its connection to the real and it has lost connection with most of us. The other night, watching yet another philosophy lecture on YouTube (what else is on the television these days when you've exhausted Game of Thrones for the week?), I found my eyes glazing over as I listened to the speaker go on and on about some obscure fine points re: Wittgenstein's "fideism" in On Certainty. Before that I had listened to a female voice complaining that the academic philosophical world was still too male dominated, that no one paid much attention to the philosophy of pregnancy or child raising and that, because of this, women who sought a philosophical career could not find an audience for their concerns. Well, I agree that philosophy ought to be relevant but is anything we can think of or are concerned with philosophically relevant?

I'm not sure about that. For me the big issues are still the ones that draw me though I think that, at least for the issues that have concerned me since I was a boy (what is the right thing to do and how can we know it?), I have got them right in those two books or mostly so and so the itch I once scratched incessantly (to borrow a Wittgensteinian metaphor) no longer demands my attention -- or at least not so much scratching as before. I know this will not be true for others with other itches but it seems to be the case now for me. But what next? Am I done with philosophy because the old itch has subsided? Is that the reason I've suddenly begun to find those philosophy clips on YouTube sleep inducing?

If so, what is left? What is philosophy about then, when the itch has been finally and thoroughly scratched? What is the point of philosophy departments and professors of the subject if there are no questions left to answer? And what, I wonder, will my next book (assuming there is one!) be about?

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