Philosophy: Not Just About Argumentation

We are no longer able to detect the philosophical unless it comes to us in the form of the peer-reviewed academic article, published (preferably in English) in a journal with a stellar ranking and a top-notch editorial board. No wonder philosophy has become so irrelevant today. Why should anyone need philosophers, if philosophy limits itself so radically?

So writes Costica Bradatan (Texas Tech) in “Philosophy Needs a New Definition,” in the L.A. Review of Books. Bradatan thinks that the dominant strains of Western academic philosophy seem to misunderstand what makes for good philosophy. In Western academic philosophy,

there is at work in it a strong purist assumption: the notion that philosophy is reducible to a purely logical exercise, conducted strictly by the rules of rational argumentation and debate: whatever is not translatable into argument is irrelevant. 

But, he writes, this isn’t desirable:

But philosophy has never only been about rational argumentation. It would be the saddest thing if it were, and it would not have lasted that long. What makes philosophy such an endurable affair, in the West as well as in the East, is that it engages not only our cognition, but also our imagination, emotions, artistic sensibility, religious impulses—in short, our being complicated, messy, impure creatures. To be human is to be always caught in existential entanglements, to have to deal with hybridity and messiness of all sorts. We are an unlikely union of high and low, spirit and flesh, reason and unreason. And philosophers, if they are not to lose their integrity, need to account for such wholeness.

Nor is it historically accurate:

Philosophy—not the bland academic sort, but the lasting, transformative variety that we come across in Lao Tzu, Pythagoras, Plato, Saint Augustine, Rumi, Meister Eckhart, Spinoza, Marx, Nietzsche, Gandhi, Simone Weil—doesn’t come in a pure state. It always gets mixed with myth, poetry, drama, mysticism, scientific thinking, political militancy, or social activism. To complicate matters, often fiction writers (think Dostoyevsky, Huxley, or Borges) turn out to be particularly insightful philosophers, and so do filmmakers—such as Bergman, Kurosawa, and Tarkovsky—who philosophize just as insightfully on screen. All these entanglements and contaminations mark philosophy profoundly—indeed, they make it what it is….

So what is to be done, according to Bradatan?

What we badly need now is a liberal dose of humility. We should at last understand that philosophy comes under different guises, and by many names, that it never comes in a pure state but loves messiness and hybridity, that it gets entangled with the philosophers’ lives and earthiness. Such an act of humility wouldn’t impoverish philosophy at all. On the contrary, it would empower the philosophers and make philosophy a richer, more sophisticated, and more relevant affair.

What to think of all this?

Let me sound a few cautionary notes:

First, we should be suspicious of claims about what philosophy needs, or what philosophers in general need to do. We should be pluralists about the aims, methods, and subjects of philosophy.

Second, even before assessing the prescription, we should ask whether the diagnosis is correct. Do contemporary academic philosophers think that philosophy is “only about argumentation”? To the contrary, I think that academic philosophy now, moreso than at any point in the past 75 years, is welcoming of work that draws on a diversity of non-philosophical resources and acknowledges that we’re “complicated, messy, impure creatures.”

Third, we should be careful before swallowing Bradatan’s prescription for a “liberal dose of humility.” Yes, humility is a reasonable response to our epistemic situation in philosophy, but we don’t want to overdose. Academic philosophers are experts, with specialized training, experience, and skills (e.g.). It is false modesty as well as long-term professional suicide to deny that. And it is misplaced populism to deny the value of fora, like academic journals, in which philosophical experts can share ideas.

Bradatan’s essay is here. Your thoughts welcome.

Louise Bourgeois, from “À l’Infini” series

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