Wednesday, March 3, 2010

It would seem we're idiots

Ever the curmudgeon, Dr Peters has unleashed another jeremiad today. Towards the end he says something I've heard before:
I would require philosophy every semester[.]
He then follows it with something I've thought many times over:
[B]ut who would teach these classes? Professors of philosophy? They love quarrels, not wisdom.
He... has a point, don't you think?


  1. Well, that's obviously wrong. He said, quarrelsomely.

    I think most professors from all disciplines love quarrels more than they love wisdom. I will say, however, that my experience suggests that philosophy tends to have more lovers of wisdom than do most other disciplines. In fact, Augustana's philosophy department suggested this to me more so than Northern's has, which is why I'm surprised to read Peters writing that.

    The real problem that (I think) most people have with philosophy is that they expect philosophy to offer an argument for their underlying sense of certain "important" truths. So, they expect philosophy to defend their notions of "truth" and "beauty" and "the Good" or whatever. And when they find out (1) that most philosophers don't think what they think, (2) that most canonical philosophers didn't say what they thought those philosophers said, and (3) even those philosophers who agree with them don't usually agree for the same reasons, they're understandably perturbed.

    What gets people's collective goat is that philosophy's domain of discourse is coextensive with that of issues which almost everyone everywhere has thought about, been confused about, and has come to what almost everyone everywhere takes to be some sort of profound conclusions. "Maybe we really ARE in the Matrix;" "Maybe animals really do suffer as we do;" "What is a color, anyway?" "If you strip away all of the sensible features of an object, seriously, WHAT'S left?" Yeah, well, philosophers came up with these questions, like, 2000 years ago, so most people trying to offer 'their' answers to them look like--in the word's of a mutually enjoyed film--a bunch of Johnny-come-latelys. That's simply to say that no one likes to have what they take to be their important thoughts messed with--enter Socrates.

    Here's what I think might be a helpful analogy. Suppose you hear someone say, "Yeah, I just don't like classical music," and you try to find out why he feels that way. Of course, his answers will be bad, because only someone who didn't know what he was talking about would say something so generalized and wrong, and he'll feel like you're being "quarrelsome," because, after all, musical taste is relative, right? The difference, I think, is that whereas many people might honestly (though wrongly) think that taste is relative with regards to music, almost no one thinks that the truths of whether there is a God, whether "goodness" is a property, or whether metaphors can have meaning are relative. So when philosophers offer obvious, knock-down arguments for positions that are important to people who aren't always capable of responding in kind, philosophers are accused of being quarrelsome. I'm not saying that Peters is one of these people--although, with regards to metaphor, he's gone down the short road to crazy--but a lot of people are.

    Does that sound right? It does (obviously) to me, but it should be equally obvious that I'm not as circumspect as about this.

  2. Yes, I suppose your musical analogy explains it. It is quite true that non-philosophers are really quite incapable of real discourse with any but the most patient philosophers. (We can agree, though, that a fair number of philosophy majors, and professors, aren't exactly the most diplomatic sort. Can't we?)

  3. Oh, we definitely can. I don't know why philosophy tends to attract that sort: smart, curious, but defensive people. Now, to be sure, I think that some of the most admirable people are philosophers possessed of the first two characteristics to a great degree, but far more of the philosophical people I know (students, professors, etc.) are possessed in equal measure of all three. This, I think, is what leads some philosophers to sound--nay, be--combative and unjustifiably pretentious. I'd hasten to add that such is a pair of characteristics that I find exclusively among the most loathsome.

    Of course, instances of such characteristics are hardly limited to philosophers: