This is the second column in a four-part series by Helena de Bres on academic philosophy and the meaning of life, published weekly; read the first here.
A quick way to get a sense of the average person’s view of philosophy is to consult the auto-complete function in Google’s search bar. When I typed in “why is philosophy,” Google suggested: “why is philosophy important,” “why is philosophy so hard” and “why is philosophy so boring.” If you enter “why are philosophers,” the top results are: “bad writers,” “arrogant” and “depressed.” As for “why do philosophers,” that gets you: “have beards,” “smoke,” “ask questions,” “write so complicated” and “go insane.”
A slower route to the same goal is to teach philosophy for a few semesters, which is the first experience most professional philosophers have of sustained interaction with novices on their area of expertise. The gulf between what students expect from us and what we can or want to provide is often large, and managing it becomes a significant part of the job.
One major thing many students want is a “philosophy of life”: a general framework for approaching the human predicament. This view about philosophy’s role is in the general air, but many students get a stronger dose of it in high school, when some renegade teacher in the outer Midwest assigns them one of the existentialist classics.
“So what made you sign up for a philosophy class?” I ask in our get-to-know-you office hour.
“We read Beyond Good and Evil in our AP English class,” Taylor replies.
“In my senior year I did an independent study on Albert Camus,” Jada announces.
“I discovered Kierkegaard when I was sixteen and it changed my life,” Ying explains.
“Wonderful!” I say. Then I wonder how long it will take this time to crush their hopes and dreams.
The existentialists had their disagreements, but shared a set of general commitments. First, our identity isn’t predetermined: it depends on the values we choose as we go through life. Second, ethics isn’t predetermined either: there’s no objective moral order rationally compelling us to choose between the values we encounter. Third, the responsibility built into this situation is terrifying and most of us can’t face it. Fourth, living authentically requires us to reflect on our absurdly contingent existence, rather than take false consolation in conformity to social convention.
These commitments, taken together, respond to what we might call the “worldview” model of what philosophy is and is for. On this conception, philosophy isn’t only a theoretical effort to understand the universe, but also a search for the right set of attitudes to take to our overall experience of living in it. A philosopher’s work gives us a complexly integrated picture of how the world is, how we should feel about it, and how we should move about in it as a result.
In adopting this picture of philosophy, Kierkegaard and his successors were following Socrates and his, who also saw philosophy as providing a comprehensive answer to the large-scale question of how to live. The ancients viewed all of philosophy as a unified body of knowledge, in which theory and practice were inextricably connected. In both the ancient and existentialist traditions, too, philosophy was a source of, if not comfort, at least reconciliation to the world. The Stoics recommended daily philosophical exercises to reduce mental disquiet, and Camus advised a philosophically grounded rousing defiance in response to life’s absurdity.
What my students get when they turn up to PHIL 101, on the other hand, is a crash course in analytic philosophy, the particularly techy strain of the discipline that came to dominate English-speaking university departments in the twentieth century. A central feature of analytic philosophy is its small-scale, piecemeal method of approaching big questions. Ultimately you want to dissect the whole body, but your immediate task is, say, the uppermost half-inch of the northwest portion of the liver. Often you spend the first third of your paper announcing this—I am working here on the uppermost half-inch of the northwest portion of the liver. I am not, for instance, and it is crucial to keep this in mind, working on the lowermost quarter of an inch of the southwest portion of the liver. Nor am I interested in the northeast quadrant of the midsection of the pancreas, although the assumption that the two locations are equivalent lies at the root of a common misinterpretation of my view, as evidenced in Miller (2006) and Paterson, Schmidt et al. (1997), inter alia—and only then, once you’ve pre-exhausted the reader, do you start burning in.
A second feature of analytic philosophy is an attitude. The standard philosophy professor these days is a hardheaded secular rationalist. They’re allergic to any whiff of soulfulness or yearning for the divine. (The existentialists didn’t believe in God either, but, as Julian Barnes has said of himself, they clearly “missed him.”) And they steer clear of the emotional aspects of whatever is under discussion. While you can write generally about the nature of emotion, your own idiosyncratic inner flutterings—your private hopes, fears and passions—must be kept firmly out of view.
Third, there’s the matter of style. In mainstream academic philosophy, features of language important to atmosphere, mood and enjoyment are intentionally avoided, for fear of muddying the message or conveying superficiality. This results in suspicion of the literary moves that, say, Sartre and Plato went in for, or even suspicion of literature, period. I once announced to a gathering of philosophers that I was leaving for a poetry reading, where I would read a poem I’d written myself, and it was like I’d just outed myself as a Trumper.
As you practice the analytic method, with that attitude, and in that style, you become adept at distinguishing at a very fine grain between different possible theses, and noticing the various ways in which they might be arranged in relation to each other to form arguments for or against highly circumscribed and abstract positions. It’s an interesting thing to do with your mind, but what’s it for? What’s the big picture? How does it help us approach our limited and fraught time here on the planet? Bad questions! The proper response to “What’s your philosophy of life?” is to snort, raise your eyebrows at your colleagues and get back to responding to Reviewer 2.
Maybe contemporary philosophy is just an entirely different enterprise from what the ancients and existentialists were doing: nothing more than a respectable branch of professional-technical academia. Perhaps what those others took to be philosophy was an unwieldy mishmash of too many disparate concerns—science, theology, politics, literature, therapy—and genuine intellectual progress requires cleanly demarcating the lot, then dividing each still further, down to the last sub-sub-subfield.
I’m sympathetic to that suggestion, because I’ve read Adam Smith and I’ve seen the benefits of laser-like analysis in clarifying the conceptual landscape, unearthing faulty assumptions and generating insight. But I find myself wondering if you can really pull that division-of-labor move with philosophy, even if you can with, say, economics or physics. Though we call philosophy the love of truth, what it really seeks is understanding, which requires grasping the relationships between things and organizing them into an intelligible whole. It’s no longer clear to me that you can do this adequately if you restrict your attention to one tiny domain at a time.
More strongly, it’s no longer clear to me that you can do it if you subdivide yourself in the process—if you keep your feelings out of it, strip any hint of personality from your voice and “put the style in afterwards,” if at all, as Bernard Williams reports one analytic philosopher proposing to another.
Some days I think it would be more honest to call much of what we academic philosophers are now doing something else, if it’s so different in aim and nature from the activity that spawned it. But whatever we call it, we should at least call out its results. A central one is a sense of discordance between our work and the world it ostensibly applies to. Some very good applied philosophy is being written right now. But even in that work, the analytic method-attitude-style complex invites an alienated orientation to the subject that makes the product difficult to reinsert without awkwardness into life as it’s actually experienced. The rest of humanity doesn’t feel fenced in by disciplinary restrictions when asking big human questions, and doesn’t police the parts of themselves that are permitted to participate in the task of answering them. How can we philosophers hope to reconnect without strain with the actual thought and feeling of ourselves and others if we’ve stripped ourselves thin and dry first?
The most important result of this constriction of vision and author is what feels like a loss of depth. That might not be obvious, since depth is definitely what we’re getting in an academic philosophy paper: the author is mining to the center of the earth, in one very narrow vein. But what if real depth requires breadth too—the kind of breadth you get when you aim at supplying a “philosophy of life”?
As a philosophy professor, you can hide this sorry business from the general public, because they tend to assume you have the depth part of your ass covered. But at some point, if you’re a thinking, feeling human, you have to actually engage with the depth part of your ass. Now, where did I, where did we, put that thing?
Read the next installment of Helena de Bres’s column here.