Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Is Sophia a Jealous Goddess?

Peter Fosl laments that "philosophers are more often than not pre-occupied with status and acquisition", just like everybody else. But is an interest in status and acquisition necessarily objectionable? The life of the mind is commonly associated with an ascetic lifestyle (since at least Socrates, I suppose), and it can seem very appealing to imagine valuing the intellect so highly that other "petty" concerns fade into the background. But in other moods, this strikes me as a kind of snobbishness. There's no reason to expect that philosophers should value their art exclusively. If, in addition to thinking and theorizing, one also wishes to acquire the latest gadgets, and vacation (or, indeed, conference) in pleasant locations, what's the harm in that?

Perhaps it's a matter of "guilt by association". Most folks seem deplorably anti-intellectual, and so I grew up defining myself partly in opposition to them: not only was I a person who loved reading, thinking, etc., but further, I wasn't one of those "others" who cared (only?) about sports, celebrities, cars, partying, and so on. Human minds being what they are, our contempt for one trait (e.g. anti-intellectualism) can easily spread to others that have been correlated with it in our experience. And, in fairness, I guess they can serve as a kind of indirect, Bayesian evidence, if these signs are all that we know about a person. But that doesn't make such interests intrinsically repugnant, so if some people combine a genuine love of philosophy with more conventional concerns, it's hard to see why this should be objectionable.

(It would be more of a worry if one became obsessed with such trivialities to the point of ceasing to care about what really matters. But I don't see much reason to think that's what's going on here. Fosl asserts that most philosophers no longer care about wisdom, but all he really shows is that they care about other things in addition.)

In another odd part of the article, Fosl rails against Brian Leiter's PGR rankings:
Philosophers have even taken to ranking their programs in a linear, hierarchical way – or rather deferring to the barely-informed rankings of others. That these rankings are actually taken seriously in a profession so diverse, so pervaded by idiosyncrasy, so flush with an overabundance of talent, and so thoroughly populated by people sophisticated enough to know better, is simply breathtaking.

Is it really so "breathtaking" for someone to "take seriously" the idea that, say, a budding young philosopher of language would do well to look at Rutgers, or that Arizona is a powerhouse of political philosophy? Does the existence of "idiosyncrasy" and widespread talent really preclude our making any useful generalizations whatsoever about the comparative strengths of philosophy departments? Fools may be led into error if they attempt to apply their knowledge of the rankings too crudely, of course. But to entirely dismiss the value of such rankings is itself a... well, not exactly sophisticated position.

Fosl concludes:
Academics now flee or aspire to flee to institutions where status and money pool. Finding philosophers devoted principally to the love of wisdom and to sharing it broadly has become, as Spinoza said of all excellent things, as difficult as it is rare.

But again, these strike me as compatible (depending, perhaps, on how heavily one stresses 'sharing it broadly'). Quite apart from any material benefits, sheer love of philosophy provides ample reason to want to work in a top institution, with outstanding colleagues and intelligent, motivated students. I guess an egalitarian might prefer to reach out to less able students, and the best of luck to them. But there's nothing anti-philosophical about wanting to nourish and develop the very best.


  1. Here's another way to spin this:

    Much of modern western philosophy has become completely remote from the practice of philosophy. It is as if no one is living his or her philosophy.

    It is as if abstract theoretical physicists have taken over, and driven out all the experimentalists.

  2. Though many are, there is no reason that philosophers should be social isolates. And arguably, many of these 'non-intellectual' concerns are not at all petty. Partying, for example, is a sub-category of perhaps one of the least petty things imaginable: positive social interaction. And is admiring the heights of human athleticism, mental strength and physical ability (enjoying sport) petty?
    And appreciating good food or wine, relaxing with a loved one? (This could of course be in the form of a vacation.)
    A balance surely needs to be struck if the philosopher is not to miss out on many of life's best (non-intellectual) experiences.

  3. Here's my general take on these kinds of issues.

    When philosophers talk, they usually tell you about themselves.

    Many philosophers have argued, or implied, that some sort of ascetic life of self-denial where the intellect is prioritised above all else is the highest (and therefore true) path. Plato is an obvious example, but the final book of the Nicomachean Ethics also sees Aristotle banging on about how the true human function is contemplation.

    Later you get Kant saying that only reason has any ethical value and that pleasure etc taints human moral action, and then Schopenhauer gets in a tizzy about desire and sex and decides it's all part of a nasty, all-consuming Will operating in the (not-what-he-called-it) noumenal realm.

    Why do so many philosophers go this way? Is it because they have discovered some deep truth? Or are they *trying* to discover a deep truth?

    That is, if you were a very intelligent person, racking your brains with very difficult questions which few people around you were interested in, with the result that you are socially marginalised from a very young age, would it not make perfect sense to justify all this by ascertaining that the pain of being clever is compensated by achieving "man's highest function" or transcending the "base bodily pleasures"?

    In short, when philosophers preach forms of ascetism, plus pro-intellectual anti-"lower pleasure" messages, are they not maybe just projecting their own disatisfaction with a world that doesn't want them?

    Note that philosophers like Hume who are generally much more comfortable with their own lives and place in society tend to be quite comfortable with making room for "lower" and "bodily" pleasures, although of coruse happily indulging in intellectual pursuits.

    In the famous qoute, Hume both eats dinner and plays backgammon, after all.


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.