The Dualism of Philosophy’s Purpose

The Dualism of Philosophy’s Purpose

Professional philosophers don’t present themselves as particularly wise or as people to turn to for advice about how to live. And why should we? That’s not what we were trained for when we were students and it’s not what we promise in the prospectus. I remember, as a student, asking a philosophy professor something about what I should do the following year—whether I should continue with my studies or move on to something else. “That’s not a philosophy question,” she said. “That’s a life question! I can’t answer that.” I know what she meant, now more than ever, having faced such questions myself: you can’t expect a knowledge of philosophy to guide you through the big decisions about what to do with your life. But I can’t help wondering whether something has gone astray when “philosophy” questions and “life” questions are so easy to pull apart.

Tom Stern (UCL) has written a beautiful essay, “Complications of Philosophy,” in the latest issue of The Point. In it, he takes up the disconnect between the practical promise of philosophy—to help figure out how to live one’s life—which motivates so many to study it, and philosophy’s pursuit of truth—sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes mundane, sometimes technical—which seems to be of little help, if any, in figuring out how to live.

Stern sees the appeal of both of these elements, and the hope for their unification in philosophy. He reflects on his education:

In philosophy, unlike the science classes I nonetheless enjoyed, the questions were the ones I asked myself when school was done. In philosophy, unlike in the literature classes I nonetheless loved, the purpose and the methods were clear.

But his experiences as a philosopher have led him to doubt whether such unity is possible. If philosophy could be used to get something right about how to live, then he and his colleagues and students, “with their formal philosophical training, are somehow better at living than the rest,”  but this is “a repulsive thought that cannot be true.”

And if philosophy were really about wisdom in living, you’d think more people would be interested in what the professionals are up to. Yet that is not the case.

One has to be careful making generalizations about a profession whose members are selected, in part, for how good they are at finding counterexamples. But, in some moods, I feel certain that if all the professional philosophers stopped writing philosophy altogether—if a freak accident muted the profession, its students and its publishers—astonishingly few non-philosophers would notice. No industry anxiously awaits the latest philosophical innovations. No general public hangs on our words. Even within the profession, the average philosophy publication is cited once and probably only then to be mischaracterized, cast aside or pigeonholed by a new author, whose work, in turn, meets the same fate…

I am struck, in such moments, by a startling contrast between the intelligence, seriousness and energy that is poured into this activity by the professionals and its lack of bite in the world. It is true that there is a public appetite for philosophy. But I am confident that the books and journals that have been written up to now could satisfy it adequately.

Stern’s thoughts about his experience in philosophy color his thinking about his students, too:

When the best students tell me they want to be philosophers (they always mean professional, academic philosophers), my feelings sometimes combine sorrow at the waste of their talents and frustration that, despite their intelligence, they haven’t seen through it. It’s not that I have some particular idea of what they ought to become instead: artists or bankers or lawyers or solid contributors to the economy. It’s that philosophy, for me, hasn’t delivered on its promise, or the promise I thought it was making some years ago: to be the very activity where you didn’t have to choose between what was true and what mattered to you.

Read the whole thing.

(image: detail of “The Chair” by David Hockney)

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