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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Jonathan Weisberg
Jonathan Weisberg
5 years ago
dmf
dmf
5 years ago

first of course lots of academic philosophers are putting themselves forward as experts on all sorts of aspects of daily living, 2nd even for those who aren’t concerned with “wisdom” there seems to be an overwhelming majority who see themselves as somehow being in the business of improving thinking and that actions are, or should be, led thinking, no?Report

recent grad
recent grad
Reply to  dmf
5 years ago

dmf,

This feels like a very glib response (the ‘of course’ is arguably a sign of that).Report

dmf
dmf
Reply to  recent grad
5 years ago

seems in the spirit of “Professional philosophers don’t present themselves as particularly wise or as people to turn to for advice about how to live”, no?
yer feelings on my tone aside any other thoughts on the content of my comment?Report

Ben Gibran
Ben Gibran
5 years ago

I applaud Tom Stern’s courage and honesty. He joins a small but growing club of professional philosophers who are philosophical deflationists (of one kind or another). For my own arguments in favor of a deflationist view, google ‘Why Philosophy Fails, by Ben Gibran’. For a very short summary, google ‘My reply to Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s ‘Does Philosophy Matter?’Report

Mike
5 years ago

That was really an outstanding article, and a good sentiment about philosophy as a discipline. I have very often felt that philosophy didn’t live up to its promise, either, but I recognized that it was our fault as philosophers. Since I was an undergrad, I would find any opportunity I could to recite Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”Report

Clement Loo
Clement Loo
5 years ago

I find myself interesting conflicted on the topic of Stern’s article.

On one hand, the direction of my work is largely motivated by a personal sentiment that I want my research to be relevant and to contribute to, in some vague sense, making the world a slightly better place.

Yet, I also tend to believe that neither philosophy, nor any other academic discipline for that matter, needs to “make a difference.” I think pursuit of knowledge, asking interesting questions, and similar activities are worth undertaking whether they affect the general public or result in any practical benefits.

Finally, I don’t think philosophy is unique in the regard that it is often without obvious practical import. While this might be more the result of my ignorance, it doesn’t seem to me that much of pure math, some areas of theoretical physics, or any number of areas of research have that much broad practical impact.Report

Clement Loo
Clement Loo
Reply to  Clement Loo
5 years ago

Note: by “interestingly conflicted,” I simply mean that I find it interesting that I’m conflicted. I make no claims about whether the tension I feel is interesting to anyone else.Report

p
p
5 years ago

Yes, already Ancient Greeks were struck by the lack of bite of philosophy in the real world… in fact, as the legend goes, this was objected to Thales already. Just like it was the Sophists and not the philosophers who presented themselves as wise advisers for “the real” world (read whether one reads the Apology, or the speeches of Callicles in Gorgias, the picture is the same). I am afraid that this objection comes from people who do not actually understand what philosophy, ultimately, is or aspires to be. In any case, think about music – should we aspire to music a la Britney Spears (that presumably made a lot of people quite happy and provided a lot of people with money and jobs – from producers to dancers to sellers – so made a real difference) or should we make music a la Stockhausen or Boulez which made significantly less difference in the real world (besides to the world of other fellow musicians and some cultural snobs)?Report

JCM
JCM
Reply to  p
5 years ago

The Stockhausen/Boulez analogy is misplaced. Stockhausen and Boulez wrote powerful, moving, and important-to-everyone-whether-they-know-it-or-not music. It was difficult and esoteric because what they were saying is subtle and sophisticated and requires a high level of self-honesty and for the listener to have already self-realised to a large extent, something which requires courage and so is naturally rarefied. Or at least this is the pro-these guys story. I don’t know if it’s right (though I think it is, once the story is made complicated by allowing that not everyone with the requisite courage turns to Stockhausen, or to classical music, or to music, or to art), but the point is it’s a different type of story to what can plausibly told of academic philosophy, which doesn’t obviously have anything to do with courage or self-honesty, and which isn’t obviously important to people who don’t think it is. This story could perhaps be made of some philosophers and philosophical traditions – Heidegger, Adorno, feminism and race theory, Christian philosophy – but of Analytic philosophers like Kim, Duncan Pritchard, David Lewis? If can’t see how an analogous defence could be made of these guys.Report

Chrysippus
Chrysippus
5 years ago

I find these kinds of pieces to be simultaneously relevant to our contemporary discipline, while also alienating and frustrating. Is it really true of many/most philosophers that they don’t think philosophical study has helped them to live their life?

I don’t eat meat and I try to ride my bike instead of driving whenever possible because of philosophy. I am much less prone to hold people responsible because my views on responsibility have evolved in light of reading philosophy. I struggle with whether to pursue a career teaching philosophy *because of philosophy(!)*. I’m much more epistemically humble than I used to be because of philosophy. I don’t worship any God or Goddess, because I’m an atheist, because of philosophy. Philosophy has altered my day-to-day life (and not just because I teach it for a living) in so many ways.

Of course these changes took place over many years, and each change in itself was relatively minor. So I wonder: Is that why so many philosophers are so outspoken about how superfluous our discipline has become? Because they don’t notice how philosophy affects them? Or is it that they genuinely compartmentalize their philosophical thinking from their everyday decision making?

Now, I don’t say all this to claim that yes, philosophers are experts at living, because I don’t really believe that. But surely we have something to offer, just as cognitive scientists, literature theorists, sociologists, (etc.), and generally clever people do, don’t we? Or has the naive idealistic 19 year old philosophy major in my heart still not rightfully died?Report

JCM
JCM
5 years ago

I think the real money-quote of Stern’s excellent piece is this:

“Philosophy may sometimes be difficult in the sense that it is difficult to understand, that it overcomplicates, or requires technical expertise… Those who bring such thoughts to a wider audience show their skill in cutting through this difficulty as swiftly and as painlessly as possible. But it cannot come at the cost of another kind of difficulty: that it can take your dearest thoughts—your politics, your science, your hope or your affections—and shake them up or cut them down. In other words: it cannot be defanged from the start. This, not a lack of academic rigor, is what I find troubling in the de Botton universe, in so much popular philosophy and, indeed, in much of the professional work I read.”

What strikes me about this is Stern’s criticism of professional philosophy as ‘defanged.’ [email protected] above denigrates de Botton as Spice-Girls-ish in its emotional/spiritual childishness; but the Stockhausen remedy to this is not to be found in professional philosophy, which is in some sense more complicated but emotionally or spiritually just as banal. Professional philosophy, Stern might say, is not Stockhausen to the Spice Girls, but some awful virtuosic rock like Dream Theater, or Yngwie Malmsteem. I’m often inclined to agree with him, although it’s hard to know what spiritual maturity looks like, and I wouldn’t trust myself to pick it out. (Neither does Stern trust himself, it appears.) To give a musical example again: I feel sometimes like a lot of jobbing classical musicians are pretty emotionally immature, and I wonder how that can be possible given how much Beethoven and Bach they play, and that folk singers like Joanna Newsom are where the deep heart is; but then I wonder if classical musicians are just humbler and better able to pick battles than the young, and not so enamoured with their own ability to be human; that they don’t feel the need to advertise their wisdom.

By the way, just a small professional defence of art, in case anyone’s interested: if Stern were to run an art class, it would be demanding in just the way philosophy is, and that demandingness could be ignored with just the ease and just the cost Stern allows the demandingness of philosophy could be ignored. Just as ‘true for me but not for you’ sort of works in an amateur philosophy context but not in a serious philosophy context, so ‘it’s just my personal taste’ sort of works in an amateur art context but not in a serious art context.Report

Antoine Goulem
Antoine Goulem
Reply to  JCM
5 years ago

I’ve wondered for many years now what philosophers mean when they refer to the ‘technical’, as in the quote from Stern above “… technical expertise” and in an (at least to me) , equivalent way when Stern contrasts philosophy and literature claiming that philosophy unlike literature has a defined purpose and method. What specifically philosophical techniques, methods or purposes are there? In other places the suggestion has been made that somehow and in some way argument furnishes us with our own topic. Historians, physicists, literary critics, not to mention, lawyers, journalists and politicians disagree. We would need an argument to settle this, and that puts us back at square one.Report

John Schwenkler
5 years ago

I think Stern seems right in a lot of what’s quoted toward the end. But regarding the first point: surely part of the reason why philosophers don’t take ourselves to be expert at “life” questions is that most of what we do in philosophy approaches things at a really high level of generality and abstraction, from which conclusions about the shape of a particular life — whether to continue studying or move on to a career, say — just don’t follow. (This is similar, I guess, to Jonathan’s point with the Big Bang Theory clip.) And I don’t see anything wrong with having considered views about the nature of e.g. what it is to lead a good life in general without being able to say what a *particular person’s* good life should look like; instead, that’s just a matter of proper modesty.Report

John Schwenkler
5 years ago

Or again:

“… there is nothing in the idea of a virtuous person requiring her to have any explicit knowledge of moral rules (if there are any), much less of moral psychology or education. The virtuous, simply in virtue of their virtues, may be said to know how they are to respond, what they are to feel, what they are to look for, and what they are to do and why. To that limited extent, they may well have good, perhaps even principled and general, counsel to give. But a wide range of situations would remain in which you would have no reason at all to think that a virtuous person will have advice worth following, that she will be any better placed to give answers than are you. For from the fact that the virtuous know how to behave in any given circumstance, it just doesn’t follow that they are in a position to tell the less virtuous how to behave. For one thing, whether they would be depends on whether they would also be good predictors of their own behavior, which they need not be to be completely virtuous. For another, there will be no more reason to think that they have worthwhile guidance concerning how to become virtuous than there is to think that the native speaker of a language has worthwhile guidance concerning learning that language. Of course, she may well perceive that, in a given situation, you ought to improve your character, much as a native speaker can just hear that you ought to improve your grammar. But there is no reason to think that either will have much of interest to say about what to do beyond that.”

(Robert N. Johnson, “Virtue and Right”, ETHICS, July 2003, 832-24)Report

PeterJ
5 years ago

Not this one again. Blame the tools and let off the users. This is such a parochial approach to philosophy that it says nothing about it. It speaks only of professional philosophy, as if this is where all the action is, but then admits that this is not where the action is.

“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.”

I would replace ‘lack of bite in the world’ with ‘lack of progress’ and see the two phrases as inevitably having an equivalent meaning. It will never have any bite until it has something definite to say.

“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.”

This seems true to me. In this case, where there’s a problem it would clearly indicate a poorly designed reading list.

“… you can’t expect a knowledge of philosophy to guide you through the big decisions about what to do with your life.”

This may be the most astonishing sentence about philosophy that I’ve ever read. It’s like saying that you can’t expect a hammer to bang in a nail.Report

p
p
5 years ago

Cassirer and Rorty [or supply any other favorite name(s)] wrote powerful, moving, and important-to-everyone-whether-they-know-it-or-not philosophy. It was difficult and esoteric because what they were saying is subtle and sophisticated and requires a high level of self-honesty and for the reader to have already self-realised to a large extent, something which requires courage and so is naturally rarefied.

I am sorry – but I can’t stand empty assertions.Report

JCM
JCM
Reply to  p
5 years ago

This is in response to me, right? I’m afraid I don’t see your point.Report

Marcus
Marcus
5 years ago

“Why do our philosophers abandon the magnificent promises made? After assuring me in solemn turns that my eyes shall no longer be overwhelmed by the glitter of gold or the sparkle of a sword, that I shall spurn with magnificent purpose the trifles before which others tremble, why do we spend on all of our time on mere theoretical squabbles? Philosophy began as a way to the heavens; it promised nothing less than that she will make us God’s equal. That is the invitation that was sent, and it is for that and that alone that I have come. Be as good as your word.” – Seneca Letter XLVIIIReport

p
p
5 years ago

The point is that you asserted something in so general (and vague) terms that it could be said just about anything one happens to like and so one (usually) thinks it has some universal claim to merit. Your objection to the analogy was that you think (and so assume it is to be thought in general) that Boulez and Stockhausen are important (even to people who never heard of them and do not care about them and their music or whatevever followed from it at all – which my guess is 99.5% people) and totally not like Lewis. Your reason is that you like them or think that you like them and you associate your liking them with very ideal features of character that you, presumably, attribute to yourself – since you are one of the people who can appreciate them (and so you have the required courage and honesty and so on). People who can’t probably lack these feature (the silly hoi polloi). This is, to my mind, pretentious snobbism. Not that that is always a bad thing – presumably Stockhausen and Boulez could not have existed without it – as probably Lewis and Kripke couldn’t either (unless one thinks their work is somehow indispensible for human well-being).

Concerning Seneca – yes, in the Roman times especially philosophers often assumed the role of what we nowadays call counselors and psychologists, and so on (this feature of philosophy persisted then for a couple of centuries). It is also a feature eminently found in Chinese and Indian philosophy. But even there it is not a feature central to all philosophical enterprise (esp. in Indian philosophy) since a lot of it is purely theoretical and considered valuable for its own sake. Similarly to many other cultural or scientific enterprises that are pursued for their own sake, these things cannot really be defended in terms of practical impact or usefulness or what have you. Unless one can already see the value of music, art, or sending robots to Mars, this cannot be quite explained (just like explanation will not make you see something, say a painting, as beautiful). There is, of course, always some argument (like that if we did not do such things we could just go back to animal cycle of life – eating, defecating, and copulating), but one cannot use to persuade people who do not already see the point. This is an old thought – Plato and Aristotle were quite aware of it, and I am sure many others too.

Lastly – when philosophers did try to have real impact – the results were often distressing… I cannot but think of Sartre and Khmer Rouge, Marx->Lenin and Soviet Union, Heidegger and Mazzini and Fascism, Rand and the neo-cons in US, and so on – Although some others were much better (US Founding Fathers or Enlightment people in France and elsewhere). In other words, philosophy has often had huge – sometimes disastrous, sometimes good – impact, but it is not necessary that all philosophy does have such “measurable” and practical impact. Ok, enough, blabber…Report

JCM
JCM
Reply to  p
5 years ago

The features which I say are required by Stockhausen, Adorno, et al., are possessed by all people to some extent, and so by me too. Not by me to any large extent, I think. Enough to appreciate that Stockhausen is great, not enough to love him. Of course snobbery is still a danger here, which is why I made that parenthetical modification to what I take to be a standard defence of art like Stockhausen’s. But whatever, this isn’t about me. The standardness of this defence of Stockhausen it’s what’s important: a defence of this sort – with its use of many terms far richer than the empty ‘good,’ and so not a defence that can be equally plausibly made of anything good, contra what you say – is not typically made of Analytic philosophy in the vein that I indicated. Think of Quine’s brushing off of Stern-style worries: “I think of organic chemistry; I recognize its importance, but I am not curious about it, nor do I see why the layman should care about much of what concerns me in philosophy.” This distinction looks decidedly shaky with regard to art, and also, tentatively argues Stern, with regard to philosophy.Report

MrMister
MrMister
5 years ago

It seems to me that some of the (disappointed) expectations here turn on substantive philosophical assumptions, assumptions I don’t believe I share. For me, philosophy has answered to my satisfaction the big life questions. It just turns out that those answers are such that having them doesn’t make one a particularly competent advisor.

So, for instance, and in the very broadest of strokes: I find it plausible that the good life is one of (subjectively conceived) happiness, and that the ethical life is one where one acts impartially to bring it about that everyone might have such a life. But, having accepted such a general picture, I am left with the problem that I have very little idea what will make individual people happy, let alone what political and social action will serve to impartially secure happiness for all. These are, as far as I can tell, social scientific and psychological questions, ones I have no special facility for. And if anything, I have even less facility for (because epistemic distance from) answering them when it comes to other people’s lives than I do for my own.

I’m still not sure, I guess, where to pinpoint the disagreement, but in general the claim that philosophy doesn’t engage with the big questions seems to me false. It may not always give helpful answers, but that seems to be a different problem (and one that we may put on the shoulders of the universe–it wasn’t chemistry’s fault we couldn’t spin straw into gold…)Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

I think that philosophy can help us to live better lives. If nothing else, philosophy can help us to be consistent in our moral judgements, and most people would behave better if they were consistent in their moral judgements. I also think that philosophy can help us to better understand the universe.

The claim that the public is not interested in philosophy is unjustified. The public doesn’t understand philosophy so they don’t ask for it. Public philosophy books sell very well when academics deign to produce them. Who knows how well we could engage with the public if we made doing so a serious priority? Perhaps we have so little impact because we don’t talk to people.Report

PeterJ
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

I expect think the public would be more inclined to listen if the pros claimed that they understood it themselves. As it is it’s every man for himself.Report

Dan Dennis
Dan Dennis
5 years ago

It might be that most philosophers take an approach to philosophising which is such that their philosophising does not impact on their character and life: – but some take a different approach, such as Chrysippus above. And this difference of approach is reflected in the philosophy written by each type of philosopher. As a result most philosophy texts cannot help a person with living his life better, but some can.Report

PeterJ
5 years ago

“….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.”

Not all philosophers would recognise this dualism. Some would say that finding the truth would be essential for understanding how to live. This dualism would only be necessary when the truth has not been found and when it is assumed that it cannot be found.

Yet it would be very un-philosophical thinking to suppose that the truth cannot help us live better lives before we know what it is. It would be pure speculation and very pessimistic at that, and the speculation would only be possible by ignoring all philosophy except the kind that fails to find the truth.

In my view where a philosophy fails to discover truth then it must fail to help us live. No dualism is implied but, rather, an equivalence between the two goals.Report

Dennis
Dennis
5 years ago

I have a hard time separating knowing the truth and living better. It seems one “could” nurture the other. However, the disconnect is in the assumption that if someone knows the truth, they will then choose to live out of that truth. There is here and issue of seeing the applicability of that truth and then choosing to apply that to how you live.

So, the second disconnect, arising from the first, is that professional philosophers, or anyone serious about doing philosophy, are a guide to whether knowing the truth and living the truth can be integrated. This assumes the “applicability and choice” disconnect is not there.

I am neither a professional philosophy nor a philosophy grad student, but I pursue philosophy, read philosophy, watch online classes and talk philosophy. For me, it is about truth and it is about application and choice of how you live.Report

Dennis
Dennis
Reply to  Dennis
5 years ago

I also think that philosophy gets short shrift until college. Even then it’s not in the required courses. How are the people on the street supposed to see the applicability and use philosophy if they have never been exposed to it and few philosophers write for the non-professional. I wonder how much appetite there really is. That doesn’t mean they might not be one under other circumstances especially in the US where religion is the route people take to try to answer the “big question”.

“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.”Report