Friday, September 14, 2012

“Since you’re a philosopher you must know…” (#4 on the list of top ten things not to say to a philosopher)

So this is basically a gripe.
Read Pufendorf? Wtf? I haven't even read the contents of my own bookshelf!

There are a lot of things I like about being a philosopher. One of the things I like is that when people ask what I do I can tell them I’m a philosopher. Because of the type of places I like to hang out, this often results in them asking me what a philosopher is, which usually means we wind up talking about philosophy. This, for me, is a pretty happy result.

But sometimes it doesn’t work like that.

Sometimes, the person does know what philosophy is. In fact, they have read some, or heard of some somewhere. And finally, they have met a real, live philosopher to talk to about it.

Which is great!

Except when they say:

“Since you’re a philosopher, you must know and have read such-and-such…”

And then, when you tell them you haven’t read it, and maybe don’t even know much about it, their face falls in disappointment. How can you – a professional philosopher – not have read the one piece of philosophy that they have read? It’s like meeting a scientist who says no, she’s never actually encountered the third law of thermodynamics before, but she’s really interested in hearing about it from you. Wtf?

Often, it isn’t even laypeople who do this. In its most prevalent form, it comes from other academics and intellectuals. You stumble into a law seminar and they figure you’ve spent years studying Marx, or at least Macpherson on Locke. You visit the social sciences and they’re pleased they have someone to explain Foucault to them. You flee to the hard sciences, where it is inconceivable you haven’t read Popper and Kuhn.

The basic problem, I take it, is that non-philosophers simply have no idea how vast philosophy really is.

Let me give an example. A few years ago I had the pleasure of teaching on one of my favourite subjects; the nature of moral values, relayed through its history since the Greeks. I agonized over what to put in and what to leave out, and wound up picking a selection of the usual suspects: Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Epictetus and the Stoics, Aquinas, Hume, Kant, Mill, Nietzsche and G. E. Moore. No real surprises there.

But let’s canvas (as we did briefly in the first lecture) who’s not featuring. The dramatis personae of those who didn’t make the cut is arresting. Most of the major political philosophers have been ignored, including those who had an enormous amount to say about moral values. The inclusions don’t even make space for the philosopher who often heads polls of the public’s view of the greatest and most influential philosopher of all time: Karl Marx. Nor does it include his immensely influential predecessor Hegel. The philosophers who most shaped the political landscape around us are missing: Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. The philosopher who perhaps alongside Nietzsche gave us the single most sophisticated study of the moral psychology doesn’t get a mention: Adam Smith (yes, he actually did write another book as well as the “Wealth of Nations”). With the exception of Mill there are no card-carrying feminists – worse still there are no women at all (unless Harriet Taylor really wrote as much of “On Liberty” as Mill said she did); no Wollstonecraft, de Beauvoir,  Irigaray… There is no-one at all from the Germany or France in the last century, despite the litany of famous authors from there – Heidegger, Sartre, Derrida, Foucault… No environmental philosophers – Naess, Leopold.

And we are hardly getting started. Thomas Aquinas is the only exemplary religious philosopher included, despite the wealth of input from the Christian, Jewish and Islamic scholars on the Western tradition of ethics. Where’s St Augustine, at least? Which is another way of observing that the list of inclusions only portrays the most facile patina of historical coverage. After all, there is almost a fifteen-hundred year gap in the middle of the list (did you spot it? Between the Stoics and Aquinas). Are we really to believe that nothing worth inclusion happened throughout that vast span of time, as empires rose and fell, religious traditions clashed and laws developed and dissolved? And don’t even get started on the anglo-centricity problem. Surely the Confucian tradition, at least, warrants mention. And what about the input of non-philosophers? Ever heard of that Charles Darwin fellow? He had a bit to say on the nature of morals. And the sociologists – Weber, Durkheim? And the psychologists and psychoanalysts – Freud, Piaget, Kohlberg, Gilligan? Not worth a mention?

One could go on.

And on.

The point is this: the history and content of moral philosophy – itself just one section of philosophy– is enormous. It is possible to reasonably demand a justification for the exclusion of every given one of these philosophers named above. But that’s just the point. Every one of those philosophers, and many more, warranted coverage in a course of this sort. But, it hardly needs to be said, the course only had so many lecture-slots, and harsh decisions had to be made.

Hegel? Cut.

Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Smith? Cut.

Anyone French? Cut.

Anyone writing in the last hundred years? Cut.

The rest of you name-brand guys are in.

Oh, except you Marx. You’re cut. No, I don’t care what that bloody poll said.

And just as there are only so many lectures in a course, so too there are only so many hours in a day, and only so many books that can be read. Most decent philosophers take months if not years of study to understand, and philosophers, like everyone else, need to specialize. So the chances are ultimately pretty high that if a layperson or an academic from another field has just bumped into a particular philosopher’s book, or just knows the philosophy that relates to their own domain, that I simply haven’t read it. Sometimes I won’t even have heard of it. And I doubt the problem is confined to me; most philosophers would encounter this (though maybe they don’t worry about it as much as I do).

What’s the cause of this problem? Is it simply that those who bump into some philosophy just assume that – if they as a non-philosopher have encountered it – then surely it must be a central text within philosophy itself? Is it a type of optimism they have that what they read actually mattered, and that the time spent wading through that forty pages of ethical argument at the end of ‘Atlas Shrugged’ was worth it? (Gracious – I didn’t even mention non-academic philosophers above!)

Or is the problem with we philosophers? Is it a function of the fact that philosophy never wholly dispenses with its past? Philosophy snowballs through history, gathering accretions but only rarely shedding them, to the point now where a person conversant with the works of every name mentioned above appears more like a polymath than a recognizable philosopher. Granted, there are occasionally efforts to excise vast parts of that history, and so to make philosophy more manageable. Analytic philosophy in the early 20th Century – under the spell of logical positivism – tried something like this with all those “unscientific” forebears. So too postmodern theory is all-too-easy to be taken as an excuse for not bothering with all those superseded dead, white males from modernist days of yore. I wonder what a tremendous intellectual relief it must be to have some excuse for ignoring all these thousands of years of philosophical thought. But – in the end – we keep going back for more. One generation casts aside Kant, and the next resurrects him. The struggle between Plato and Aristotle begins anew. And the snowball ever grows.

Perhaps the problem is with the way we philosophers write our books. When a layperson or non-philosophy-academic picks up one of our books, it’s unlikely they’ll be bearing in mind that this is just the latest offering on a question millennia old, on which countless theorists have written and are still writing. On which countless wrong turns have been taken and dead-ends found. The reader has happened across just one tiny drop in the ocean of thought, just one skittering pebble in the vast avalanche that is philosophy. Hopefully, of course, the drop might turn out to be an important one, the skittering pebble might be one that ramifies into a new avalanche – but such questions might not be settled for decades or even centuries after publication. In all likelihood, the drop will remain a drop, the pebble just a pebble.

Try putting that as the cover blurb on your new book.

Goodness knows I haven’t. So perhaps ultimately the fault is – at least in part – one of my own making. Perhaps philosophers have a tendency to present to their readers a view of philosophy as so much smaller than it actually is, so as to make our own works comparatively so much larger – and therefore worth reading and thinking about.

So – even though it didn’t make it onto the back cover of my upcoming book – this humble blogpost can be my attempt to communicate to the wider world the point that philosophy is big. Really big. And that the chances are pretty high that I have never heard of that dusty old tome you happened across in that delightful used bookstore.

But I’m happy to hear about it anyway.


Bunnitos said...

Fantastic post. Working in a bookstore and studying literature I get this sort of thing a lot too. 'So you've read all the books in this shop?' is one of my favourites. There are quite a lot of books even in a very small bookshop and a section of them are also philosophy.

Hugh Breakey said...

That seems even less forgiveable! I mean, the books are all there, lining the bookshelves. You'd think it would only require the swiftest of mental arithmetic to imagine how long it would actually take for someone to read them all. Especially with a section in philosophy - if you read a book on philosophy in a couple of days then you usually haven't really read it at all!

Emma said...

Heh. Only all the time. I say "neurophilosopher" now which has the pleasant effect of either confusing or scaring the crap out of people. If I say I study pain it triggers an avalanche of: "Then you'd be familiar with my cousin Fred's condition, can he do anything about it?"

Hugh Breakey said...

Neurophilosophy?! Arghh! You're open not only to 'haven't you read X?' but 'can't you fix Y?' That's the worst of both worlds!