Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Philosophy as Critic and Creator

Again, Brian Leiter’s blog has informed me of an intriguing essay and a sticky problem that contemporary philosophers face: the perception among many in wider society that the problems of philosophy are irrelevant. This essay by Jason Stanley describes a typical philosopher’s problem of trying to make the issues around which his discipline revolves matter. Stanley describes philosophy as the target of a prevailing attitude in the humanities today that understanding the particularities of cultures are most important for human civilization. Philosophy concentrates on the ancient problems such as whether there is free will, the nature of rational agency, what constitutes evidence, what is the truth of existence? These are the eternal questions, the questions that would appear to make mere gossip of what Stanley calls “the anthropology of the other.”

Yet philosophy, as it is traditionally understood, is devalued by its fellow humanities disciplines precisely because it does not engage in this anthropology. Stanley describes philosophers who seek ways of writing that escape the traditional eternal questions (Friedrich Nietzsche, Slavoj Zizek, in my opinion John Dewey and Ludwig Wittgenstein also) as anti-philosophers. Stanley sees a role for philosophy in this new environment as one in its ancient Western tradition: the critic.

Often, people find themselves slipping into the dogmas of their cultural upbringings, their colloquial traditions, that which seems so obvious that it would never be questioned. Where this happens, the critical voice of philosopher turns, showing people by reasoned argument that they are straying from the truth through their mere anthropology. The job of the philosopher is to stand up for what is right and true, defending universal justice in the face of those who would say, “Ah, that’s not how we do things here,” sneaking abuse and violence under the banner of tolerant relativism. This relativism ends all discourse over right and wrong, which the philosopher, with his eye on the truth, can restore.

But I want to take this further. Stanley is mistaken to build an antagonism, an opposition, between the philosophy of the traditional eternal questions and the traditional critics of philosophy that tend to align with cultural studies and anthropology. The ideas they represent are only anti-philosophy insofar as ‘philosophy’ is understood as investigating the eternal, projects above merely cultural traditions, matters of absolute truth, unpolluted by facts of simple practicality.

To understand philosophy as a cultural tradition is not anti-philosophical, it is anti-necessitarian. I agree with Stanley about the importance of philosophical thinking as a critical, subversive activity. The biggest problem philosophy faces, I think, is its tendency to believe itself to have this priviledged role as the only path to reasoned certainty; its tendency to believe that the truth is unified, absolute, more pure than the cultural collisions described in mere anthropology.

John Ralston Saul gave a talk at McMaster University today on understanding Canada as having an important cultural tradition of embracing hybrids, multiple mutually inconsistent identities, continuing negotiation among neighbouring communities, and adaptation to changing conditions of life. He contrasted this attitude (which he associated with the traditions of the indigenous peoples of Canada and its first immigrants who implicitly picked up their ideas) with the European attitude that unity of identity, science, politics, ethnicity, territory, and truth is the only good way to run society.

From the very beginning of one’s education in philosophy, one is taught to unify one’s thinking, that inconsistency is a major problem in one’s thinking and identity, that you cannot be two things at once. Such inconsistencies and multiplicities are against the very nature of reason and truth itself. This is the kind of thinking that is dangerous, that brings adaptiveness and flexibility to an end. Convinced that what is true now is true at all times, one will run into severe problems when the nature of the world changes.

One rhetorical point Saul made was to bring up the condescending point about the technology of the indigenous peoples of the Canadian shield. “If these people were so intelligent, said the intelligensia of Europe, then why didn’t they develop such a simple technology as the wheel? Have you ever tried to use a wheeled vehicle of the nineteenth century to get through the wilderness of the Shield? You’d end up with a lot of broken wood very quickly.”

The point is that what is right and true for one land, region, culture, people, civilization, may not be right and true for another. This is not relativism, but adaptation. One can defend those abused by the powers of a foreign land, but not because you have access to an eternal ethical truth that holds sway over the contingent culture. The abused themselves know that they are abused, and if they ask for help, it must be given. A violent man may say that this is what we do here, but not for long once those to which violence is done rise up.

The philosophy that most intrigues me is the creation of new concepts and new ways of life for changing times, and the changing problems that come along with time. Philosophy is the branch of the humanities that deals with thought at its most abstract, but this is not superior because of the purity of the abstract. There is no absolute purity, only purity of some quality, abstractness being only one such quality. Thought at its most abstract is least restrained by our habits of daily thought, what we have become used to thinking is possible and impossible.

Maximizing freedom of thought in philosophical creativity lets us build ideas that can take us to weird, alien places. The world may change in an utterly unpredictable way one day. The more concepts we have at our disposal, the better we can approximate in our thinking and planning the strange new world where we now find ourselves. Philosophy can be our first foothold in a contingent, dangerous world.

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