“I think one of the most profound effects that we could have… is to give people practice in having productive conversations about important issues that are unclear to us and that we disagree about.”That’s Greg Restall, professor of philosophy at the University of St. Andrews, in an interview with the Undergraduate Philosophy Journal of Australasia. It was in response to a question about whether learning logic changes the way students engage with the world. He says:
I think one of the most profound effects that we could have—which I think is shared with other kinds of philosophy we teach—is to give people practice in having productive conversations about important issues that are unclear to us and that we disagree about (for which, at least in some cases, the stakes are pretty high). We have discussions, try to reason together about things where the issues are not settled beforehand and we care about the answers. For example, a lot of people care about the relationship between the mind and the body, how we are to live together, or whether or not God exists. In many of those discussions the personal and social stakes are high, we disagree about the answers and we don’t even know what the rules of the game are.
Having an intellectual discipline where we can do that, and not only do that but practise… I think that’s a very profound and special thing to be able to learn… and something the world needs more of! I know I sound preachy… but that’s why I teach philosophy. We just practice doing this, and hopefully we learn how to do it better and better, and we can learn the merits of understanding what’s getting said when somebody gives a reason for something. And what I try and get my logic students to do is to understand the different ways you can clarify things by understanding the difference between: (i) ‘I disagree with you just because I think the conclusion that you’ve said is wrong’ (aka ‘I just want to reflect on the fact without really knowing what to say about the path that you’ve taken to get to your conclusion’) and (ii) ‘I actually agree with you about your conclusion but I don’t think there is a really good reason for it, and here’s why’. Being able to change the way we work together and think together is meaningful. When we do that well, does it change the way we view the world? Hopefully, yes.
In response to another question about misconsceptions about philosophers, Professor Restall emphasizes the creative aspects of the discipline:
I think the biggest misconception that people have about philosophers, or at least as I would like philosophers to be, is that we are the kind of people who are sitting back and evaluating and criticising everything rather than engaging in conceptual creativity for themselves and for others. I think that the most interesting critical work in philosophy is critical in order to open up space for creation of new possibilities and understanding. And that’s where the fun, the life, and the interest lie, in opening up forms of possibility and understanding for people.
You can read the whole interview here.