Tuesday, December 27, 2005

What is philosophy?

Pictured here is Professor Martha Nussbaum, whose feminine intellect (like every other woman's mind) is deemed "unimpressive" by Professor David Stove. The image may be blocked by N.J. mafia guys and gals in Trenton.

Allen Wood, "Philosophy: Enlightenment Apology, Enlightenment Critique," in C.P. Ragland & Sarah Heidt, eds., What is Philosophy? (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), p. 96.

Allen Wood is a professor of Philosophy at Stanford University, an expert on German Idealism and modern philosophy, who contributes a clear and elegant essay to this wonderful collection devoted to examining the question: "What is philosophy?"

Philosophy is a self-reflective activity concerned to understand what it is "about." This is because any answer to this question will be profoundly philosophical in itself and will constitute an agenda for future research. In other words, how you understand philosophy will determine how you philosophize.

Professor Wood defends the virtues of the Enlightenment tradition that has been under attack for several decades now, from all directions, both in Europe and America, but also among philosophers and students of Western thought in other parts of the world, where philosophy is a much more political calling and (often) a much more dangerous one.

This essay by Professor Wood is an "Apologetic" account of philosophy's mission to bring the lamp of reason to bear on our travels through the dark forest of social life. "Philosophy," Hegel says, "is our time comprehended in thought." Reason has been under attack too, of course, after Freud, Marx and Nietzsche -- the three thinkers described by Paul Ricoeur as the "Masters of Suspicion." Professor Wood anticipates these issues, offering a modest and chastened understanding of reason and of philosophy's role, writing in a neo-modernist (but not a post-modernist) mode:

Because in human life what exists is very seldom perfect -- or to put it as Hegel would, because what exists contingently is never fully rational, hence never fully actual -- to ask an analytical "What is X?" question about something human is often to invite an openly critical or even deflationary answer. No investigation of (really existing) Christianity can afford to ignore the roles moral hypocrisy and religious intolerance have played in this religion's practices, and no honest inquiry into the American Way can downplay the importance for American culture of such evils as white racism and capitalist exploitation. But for this very reason, apologetic treatments of Christianity will represent self-honesty and tolerance as among Christian virtues, and an apologetic account of the American Way will include racial equality and liberty and justice for all.

In the modern tradition, philosophy is seen as the mission of relying on reason, without "undue" expectations, to help us avoid bias and wish-fulfillment in our thinking, while still seeking objectivity, or some truth (and yes, there is such a thing as "truth") which is undistorted -- as much as possible -- by power-relations and conventional social pieties and hypocrisies.

Philosophy, as a chastened neo-Enlightenment ideal, is not an exaltation of the humble philosophical practioner as somehow above mere mortals. Rather, it is a counsel to humility for him or her. This is what our reasoning should be like, Professor Wood says, notice how far short of this ideal we often fall. We need ideals to point the way for us and to remind us of what remains to be accomplished, which is usually a lot.

Many critics of modernity often rely on Enlightenment ideals in formulating their own criticisms. Also, I doubt that we can dispense with such Enlightenment notions as the worthiness of the individual and the concept of inviolable political, legal and moral rights, to which this understanding of individual worth leads. Once, not so long ago, such notions even received legal respect in America.

In American Constitutional jurisprudence this language of "worth" has been translated recently into talk of individual "dignity" -- a value which the nation seems to be abandoning right now -- and "fundamental rights," which are pretty shaky too. The idea now seems to be that you can do whatever you like to people, so long as it is done secretly (that way you can deny it publicly) and provided that you can claim that what you are doing is for the person's own good (arrogating to yourself the right to make that determination for others). The State becomes a sort of, allegedly, benevolent dictator-therapist.

A combination of careerism and cowardice among judges and politicians seems to be weakening the commitment of America's national institutions to this foundational ideal and value of the society (the dignity of persons), as we wallow in ever-more disgusting displays of torture, "crimes against humanity," collateral damage to civilian targets and other monstrosities, not to mention the cover-ups that usually follow these activities. Doing something secretly that happens to be criminal, because you work for the government, does not make that crime "O.K." -- not even if you claim that it is for the victim's own good. The State should not be a dictator (benevolent or otherwise) nor a therapist. ("New Jersey's Office of Attorney Ethics.")

Worst of all are jurisdictions, like New Jersey and a few others, which have become by-words for corruption and incompetence. A recent contest for a state slogan in Trenton resulted in the following submission: "New Jersey: What's that smell?"

What is done secretly to persons in the U.S., usually in contempt for the principles of the Constitution, can only be estimated from the disturbing evidence all around us and the testimony provided by many persons, usually minority group members, of tainted legal proceedings combined with imbecility in high places. But enough about the Garden State. After all, we are always heartened by the efforts of the many men and women -- even in that state -- struggling against many obstacles, to do the right things. The framers of the Constitution must be spinning in their graves.

Agreeing with most of Professor Wood's claims, I am troubled by two issues: 1) the contribution of emotions, or the "scope" and "definition" of reason in all of this; and 2) charges of elitism and the compatibility of this "responsible individualism" -- that is, his defense of freedom in philosophical work -- with a version of socialist or communitarian politics that I favor.

For I think an apologetic understanding of philosophy should stress its distinctness from both art and religion, and should focus on the attempt of unaided human reason to understand the world and act in it.

Professor Wood goes on to say:

Philosophy does not necessarily spurn poetic imagination or religious revelation -- and it may even regard these as essential to achieving the ends of human life -- but it takes human reason to be the only permissible criterion of what is genuine in them, and in that sense to be their proper measure as well.

My answer to this is "What do you mean by reason?" Emotions and emotional intelligence will never be irrelevant to the assesment of rationality in human social arrangements or moral prescriptions. In the quest for rationality we must not exclude emotions and feeling responses to human social realities. Gunther Anders defines "soul blindness" as the absence of feeling in rational responses to human predicaments. A discussion of the Holocaust, slavery or Hiroshima that is entirely neutral and dispassionate is no longer a human discussion nor a very rational one for that matter. Arthur Danto comments of Susan Langer's work:

... for her, perhaps because we are never not embodied, feeling is our essence as human beings, and rational thought but one of its more perspicuous modes. The shift of feeling to center stage in our mental life must in her case be explained by the shifting of art to center stage in what she supposed was a philosophy of the human spirit more adequate than [that of] her predecessors -- with the exception perhaps of Schopenhauer, whom she greatly resembles as a thinker ...

John Macquarrie's treatise on Existentialism contains an excellent discussion of the cognitive value of emotions and feeling states:

If our account of the feelings is, up to this point, correct, so that it can be acknowledged that they "attune" us to the world and that at least the more sophisticated feelings are close to reason, then the possibility that feeling may yield some genuine insights having philosophical interest cannot be dismissed out of hand. It could even be the case that this intimate relation to the world through feeling could disclose to us truths concerning the world such as would be quite inaccessible through that mere beholding which characterizes our observation of the world through the senses.

This will come as news to lawyers, whose affective responses are beaten out of them in the law school process. As a corrective, I like Brand Blanshard's idea of "cognitive sanity" as essential to reason and the philosophical enterprise. Although Blanshard is a rationalist, he is more generous in his understanding of reason and rationality than most analytical philosophers.

The notion of rationality and reason as a kind of Jamesian "tough-mindedness," that is exclusive of emotion, fails to see the bias in neutrality (the lack of neutrality in neutrality) explaining its tilt towards the status quo. This hypocrisy is what I deplore in Law and Economics. The issue is never whether emotions will be relevant to reasoning. You can be sure that they will be. The question is whether this emotional tone to our thinking will be recognized and examined, honestly and explicitly, so that emotions will be cultivated and developed, or whether we will pretend -- either as students of legal texts or philosophers -- that we are scientists or machines, without emotions, engaged merely in a cold analytical process. ("Errors" were inserted in this essay since my last reading, errors which I have now corrected.)

No reading of a text is ever entirely dispassionate or disinterested. It should not be. Neither is the best science. Great scientists delight in thinking and speculating, pondering the elegance and beauty in the universe that they see and marvel at. Like the best artists, the finest scientists are "at play" when they do their work. Their true interest is in the joy of learning. This is almost an aesthetic pleasure for those who acquire it, whether they happen to be scientists or philosophers, social scientists or lawyers, humanists and/or artists.

While I believe that cogitation or "pure" ratiocination -- to the extent that it is possible for us -- is essential in philosophy, I am certain that imagination and intuition leading to insight and creativity are equally essential. Both are part of reasoning, and each is involved in the other. This is true in law, social science, criticism and (for Einstein) in science too. Those feminine "mushy emotions" only become more important as we seek to exclude or repress them from the vital "masculine" business of judging political options or legal solutions, or even the results of experiments. I am aware that the use of the terms "masculine" and "feminine" in this paragraph is tendentious. My purpose is to be annoying enough to get the reader to think. We need emotional wisdom as much as any other kind of intelligence. (Another set of "errors" has been inserted in this paragraph, and I have also corrected these errors -- which will be reinserted before my next review of this text.)

If emotions are dismissed by these philosopher "guys" as "feminine," then masculine "cognitive functions" -- that are adored by these same guys -- better watch out, because the emotions have now become militant feminists, insisting on being included at the tables of power. This last statement is metaphorical, whimsical, humorous, imaginative (I hope), but it has argumentative content, so that it illustrates my point.

I am suggesting that philosophical writing or other communicative efforts can be essentially "rationally argumentative," while at the same time, characterized by emotive "tone." It should be o.k. for such writings also to be fun. Reasonable arguments, again, include both affective tone and intellectual substance. If you prefer to use the language of gender, then they should be regarded as both masculine and feminine. This is to impose a pattern that will make "thematic" sense of large amounts of information.

"Elitism" charges rear their ugly head at this point. Ignore them. There is nothing elitist about this, since emotions may be cultivated and trained or disciplined in everyone, so as to enhance cognitive functions. Literal minded and slow-witted types will complain that feeling is one thing and thinking is another, but they are not really. Desires, wishes, fears and hopes lurk in our most seemingly dispassionate philosophies, theories, studies and plans, or legal decisions. No, this does not make everything "relative" so that there is no truth or objectivity. It means that, in thinking, we must accept ambiguity, complexity and profundity: Yes, the glass is half-full; and no, it isn't, because it is really half-empty. Both claims are objectively true, at the same time. I hate to break the news to those who find this puzzling, but we live a complex universe -- and we are all, even accountants, somewhat complex ourselves.

"Aha! That means it's all relative!" No, the person asserting that the glass is half full is speaking the truth, as far as his statement goes; the observer claiming that the glass is half empty is also speaking the truth, as far as her statement goes; now, if only we can put the two statements together, we may see a larger truth, a more "absolute truth." (See my essays on F.H. Bradley.) As for the social component of an Individualist or neo-Enlightenment ethic, this is the point when Hegel rescues Kant:

One obvious result of reflective self-knowledge, however, is the discovery that as a human being the philosopher needs to live with other human beings, and that in order to fulfill their human natures philosophers cannot withdraw from society but must cultivate in themselves the right kind of sociability. This argument clearly needs to be filled out by a demonstration that the philosopher needs a sociability of probity and devotion to the common interest rather than one of self-interested manipulation and opportunistic exploitativeness.

Appropriate respect for the individual and his or her freedom leads to a recognition of the equal right to freedom of others. Also, it forces a recognition of the conditions that make that right in others truly meaningful, so that they will be genuinely free. Hence, from Hegel we move to Marx, along with various forms of socially engaged existentialism and neo-Thomism. Philosophy, as understood in this tradition, directs us to a concern with ethics and social action. From the Self we move to the Other. One word for this moving is politics, another is law. Our understanding of these phenomena, to the extent that it seeks to be reasonable and universal, may be described as philosophy. I urge everyone to read John MacMurray's The Self as Agent.

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