Thursday, November 8, 2007

why can't we all just get along?

When I walk through the hallways, I always overhear conversations. It's not intentional. That's just what happens when I walk through public areas where people are having conversations.

I ran across an interesting conversation. I only heard a very brief bit. It went something like this.

Student A says to another: "I really like the philosophy readings that we're doing. But it doesn't connect with me. It doesn't connect with life, you know? Life. And so it's not important. It's kind of meaningless really."

That caused me to wonder what it means to say that some particular philosophy or subfield of philosophy doesn't connect *with life*. I completely understand what it may mean to say that some particular subfield of philosophy (say, philosophy of science or epistemology) does not connect *with me*. I guess that would mean something like *I don't like it* or *it doesn't appear to have anything to do with anything that I'm interested in* or *it doesn't address the kinds of things that I take to be important to me*.

So, I get that. What I don't get is the less qualified statement that some particular philosophy or subfield of philosophy doesn't connect *with life* itself. I mean, why can't we all be axiologically pluralistic on this issue? For those who are intensely interested in social justice, perhaps social and political philosophy is what matters to them. For those who are intensely interested in personal existential issues, perhaps existential philosophy is the kind of philosophizing to which they ought to gravitate. It seems completely innocent a point so far. For those who are interested in X, then they should pursue a philosophy of X, so far as studying philosophy goes. But why would that impact the value of Y and the philosophy of Y?

It's when that innocent point (i.e., that a person who is interested in X should generously pursue the philosophy of X) is somehow transformed into a normative claim that *all* philosophy should conform to that particular model that I begin to be puzzled. Suppose a person finds it intensely interesting to study the theoretical advantages and disadvantages of logical models of probability in the philosophy of science. Suppose also that this person derives great personal pleasure and a sense of meaning from doing so. Suppose that this person takes this subfield of philosophy to be intrinsically valuable in and for itself, perhaps purely for the sake of learning or coming to know something that was not known before. Why should it be the case that this endeavor either is by definition *not connected with life* or in need of any defense for its legitimacy at all?

No doubt, someone may reply: But isn't Philosophy (note the capital "P") supposed to be about ________?" Generally, the blank is filled in by some qualifying feature that (inadvertently in most cases) is rigged to rule out things like technical subfields concerning analytic epistemology, Anglo-American philosophy of language, or analytic ontology. (And I do recognize that this kind of intolerance or ignorance goes in both directions... if we use the increasingly meaningless Continental-Analytic divide.)

The reply to this reply is: "Why should anyone else accept your totalizing conception of Philosophy?" [My actual reply would be to deny that there is anything that we call "Philosophy" (note the capital "P").]

So, I guess I wonder why we can't all just get along. Why can't we adopt an axiological pluralism with respect to what counts as legitimate philosophy or philosophy that is *connected with life... you know, life.*

From a personal perspective, there are entire swaths of philosophy that I find completely not connected with *my life*. But what relevance does that have to do with anyone else who loves those swaths and whose love of philosophy reverberates with and against those swaths? And what relevance does that have to do with philosophy vis-à-vis *Life* (whatever that is). Answer: seems to me none at all.

I wonder why we shouldn't all return the favor with respect to each other, our choices, and the fragments of inquiry that we conveniently label "philosophy."


Donald said...

You know what Dan, I agree with you. I don't think any given discipline is, in itself, necessarily disconnected with life. Mathematics and logic may be completely abstract yet may give meaning to the lives of certain people. Perhaps someone values mathematics because he/she finds it a good way to relieve stress and clear one's thoughts; perhaps mathematics even allows this person to orient the rest of their live in a balanced and meaningful way. Mathematics may be irrelevant to the majority of people, however, that does not mean that mathematics lacks connection to 'real life'.

In the same way just because one person finds a certain subfield of philosophy irrelevant to his/her own life does not mean that subfield cannot be meaningful and valuable in the life of another person.

I have been frustrated with philosophy in the past because I have felt that it lacks connection to my life, as well as applicability to the lives of others. I think, in view of your argument, as well as some of my own thoughts, that I have been mistaken in thinking that certain subfields of philosophy, and perhaps the works of certain philosophers, lack meaning and relevance to 'life'. It would be more appropriate for me to say that these types of philosophy, at least some of the time, lack meaning for me. I wish to make no claims about what counts as proper 'Philosophy'. I wouldn’t even know where to start.

However, I do think that different subfields of philosophy have different goals, and as such end up affecting us in different ways. For example, persons who study Utilitarian ethics and take the arguments seriously will develop different beliefs about how they should go about living than will persons who have been thoroughly convince by Nietzsche's arguments. Even epistemology can affect the way we live life; a Cliffordian is much more cautious in his/her epistemic claims than a fallibilist. I am not sure exactly what the connection is between our subfields of philosophy and the way we live life, but it seems to me that there is one.

To complicate the problem I think that the way a given philosophy relates to life changes from person to person. A philosophy which makes specific claims about what leads to the good life, such as Platonism, may prove for a given individual to be completely meaningless, boring, and irrelevant to his/her life. This same person may find that a study of logic is best suited for him/her. Perhaps he/she will find great meaning in that work and be empowered to live a wholesome life through the study of logic.

Although I don't think we can say that one subfield of philosophy is more relevant to 'life' than another field is, I do think there is room for examination of how subfields of philosophy impact our lives. However, it seems to me that this examination must be done on an individual level; otherwise we will come to make unfair judgments about persons and their philosophies.

A person’s philosophical interests and studies are bound to be connected, at least in some way, to the way he/she lives life.

Here is one question I am not prepared to answer:

Can we pass judgments about the way people live? If so does this give us an avenue to critique an individual’s choice in their philosophical studies? A critique of this kind must be motivated by concern for the good of the individual rather than the validity of a subfield of philosophy.

As I said I agree with you, thanks for writing this. I am still trying to figure out how to live life and I guess that means I have uncertainty about the relevance of any given academic discipline to my life (subfields of philosophy, physics, and mathematics all included). That is why I have at times expressed frustration with Philosophy.

timothy in new haven said...

It is an often-made slight against philosophy, especially academic philosophy, especially academic analytic philosophy, that it is too disconnected from life. I think that this is too often the fault of philosophers who do not do work that is interesting to a broader audience in addition to their other work. Two brief points on this.

1. I don't think it is a slight against other technical disciplines that they do not "connect with life." A computer programmer writes in a language I don't understand and a physicist does work I can't yet appreciate. But that is simply to say that there is a need for technical, as opposed to broad, work in many fields, philosophy included. Perhaps it is only a complaint against philosophy because philosophy is supposed to connect with life in a way that computer programming isn't, so it is a failure to meet expectations. Which only means we need more philosophers doing more philosophy, not less technical philosophy being done.

2. If Person A can't find *some* areas of philosophy that connect with their life, this may say less about philosophy than about Person A's life. Perhaps it is not always philosophy that needs changing.