Friday, January 9, 2015

Feral Philosophy

In a column for the New York Times' Opinionator Steve Neumann discusses the need for popular, as opposed to academic, philosophy. It's not that academic philosophy is not important for Neumann, it's just that, like any academic discipline, it's inaccessible to the public which would benefit greatly from its insights and ideas. Neumann writes:
I really do believe we need philosophy journalists in the same way and for the same reason we have science journalists — to prepare the arcana of academia into a dish digestible by the public. But philosophy journalists like me certainly aren’t enough — we also need professional philosophers practicing their craft outside the academy.

The strength of philosophy — the unflinching interrogation of existence, in accord with the highest standards of reasoned argument — is mostly being exercised between academics relegated to making incremental refinements to their areas of specialization....
This sentence, perhaps inadvertently, sums up why so much contemporary scholarship, not just in philosophy but in other humanities subject areas as well, seems so pointless and arid. Once most of the great advances in a discipline have been made there's little left to occupy its practitioners but to putter around the margins. This is stifling for many bright minds, and it's the reason, in my opinion, why a lot of academics advance novel theories and churn out work that borders on the bizarre. They're desperately trying to do something original so that their life's work doesn't seem so meaningless to them and to others.

Those who find this puttering to be a frivolous use of one's time either leave the profession or settle for teaching others about those great advances. Neumann gives us a couple of examples of philosophers who have followed both paths:
Nigel Warburton, who left his position as a senior lecturer at the Open University in 2013 to devote his time to the popular Philosophy Bites podcast, among other things, told me it was primarily the limited opportunities for teaching subjects that he was interested in that led him to leave. “It didn’t work for me. Perhaps that’s my problem,” he said. “But I’ve been heartened by the number of academics who have written to me saying they feel more or less the same but don’t have a straightforward escape route.” He added that he wished more philosophers would follow suit, but that “many are too timid, or are effectively gagged on controversial topics by their institutions.”

Another philosopher who left academia to try his luck in “nature red in tooth and claw” is Dan Fincke, the author of Camels With Hammers, a blog on the atheist channel of Patheos. Fincke told me that, like Warburton, he left his position as an adjunct philosophy professor at both Hofstra and Fordham Universities because of “the demands to produce technical scholarship rather than just continue to follow my philosophical interests.” Fincke is a prolific blogger who was excited by the prospect of being able to “speak to the wider educated lay audience out there about the relevance of philosophical concepts to what they actually cared about.” In addition to his daily blog, he also runs an online philosophy class via videoconference.
These are examples of what Neumann later refers to as "feral" philosophy. It's philosophy geared to the layman outside the formal university classroom.

The great value of philosophy, at whatever level it's taught, is that it teaches people what the important questions in life are are, what others have thought about those questions, and helps us to think about them for ourselves.

Philosophers have for thousands of years debated questions like why am I here? What purpose, if any, does my life have? How did the cosmos and life ever come to be? Does God exist? If so, what is God like? Is the material world all there is? Do we have minds? Do we have free will? If not, does anyone ever deserve reward or punishment? Is love more than just a chemical reaction in our brains? In what sense is the world outside of our minds real? In what sense is time real? What does it mean to know something? Can we have knowledge without certainty? What's the difference between knowing and believing? What is right to do? What makes something right? Must I care about other people's welfare or just my own?

These and many other questions we could think of weave together to form the tapestry of philosophy and it's mind-expanding and fascinating to ponder them. We may not ever arrive at the correct answers to these questions, indeed for some questions there may be no correct answers, but what addressing them does is enable us to develop a more coherent view of our life, our place in the world and of human existence in general.

Neumann says something like this when he writes that:
I think the key difference between science and philosophy is that we need the results of science more than we need everyone in the body politic “doing science.” By contrast, we need everyone “doing philosophy” more than we need the results of philosophy. In other words, we don’t need to know or understand how the scientist has gone from the minute molecular intricacies of DNA to a public good like genetic counseling.

On the other hand, the emulation of the critical thinking and logical argument of a philosopher is a virtue that can be applied to any area of life — from where you stand on the most important social and political issues of the day to how best to spend the rest of your days on this planet.
I agree.