It’s Day Two. Three, really, we had two Opening Days. I’m still excited for the new semester, but I think I’ll take off my tie, get comfortable, settle in. Let the conversations begin!
For CoPhi we’re supposed to all read “What is Philosophy?” in Philosophy Bites, the book by Edmonds & Warburton that I waved around in class yesterday… the one amazon sent to me in less than 48 hours… the one our campus bookstore says doesn’t exist. (!!) I know they’re stressed from the move into their fancy new digs, in the new Student Center. But they screwed up.
So what is philosophy? Funny question, apparently. Several of the PB respondents respond by simply laughing, or changing the subject, or stonewalling. “Philosophy is an unusual subject in that its practitioners don’t agree what it’s about.” No kidding. That may be the understatement of the millennium.
But a few common themes do emerge: the quest for clarity, as noted in yesterday’s post. The Sellarsian urge to see how things hang together. (I met Sellars once, after he gave a talk at my undergrad alma mater. He wasn’t hanging together too well, he and Quine in the kitchen.) The stubborn refusal to accept convention and common sense without a critical challenge.
A few of the cats’ meows:
Richard Bradley: “Philosophy is 99 per cent about critical reflection on anything you care to be interested in.”
Clare Carlisle: “Most simply put it’s about making sense of all this . . . We find ourselves in a world that we haven’t chosen. There are all sorts of possible ways of interpreting it and finding meaning in the world and in the lives that we live.”
Donna Dickenson: “Philosophy is what I was told as an undergraduate women couldn’t do—by an eminent philosopher who had best remain nameless. But for me it’s the gadfly image, the Socratic gadfly: refusing to accept any platitudes or accepted wisdom without examining it.”
Anthony Kenny: “Philosophy is thinking as clearly as possible about the most fundamental concepts that reach through all the disciplines.”
Will Kymlicka: “Well I’m in a philosophy department but I’m always wondering what exactly I have in common with many of my colleagues, because, to be frank, I don’t necessarily understand the work they do in the philosophy of language or metaphysics. ”
Ray Monk: “Philosophy is the attempt to understand ourselves and the world.”
A. W. Moore: “I’m hard pressed to say, but one thing that is certainly true is that ‘What is Philosophy?” is itself a striking philosophical question.”
Raymond Tallis: “My dream of philosophy is to make the universe we live in mind-portable…”
Michael Sandel: “Philosophy always intimates the possibility that things could be other than they are. And better.”
*Thomas Pogge: “I think wisdom is understanding what really matters in the world. In my view what really matters is the enormous injustice that’s being perpetrated on the poor in this world.
Jeff McMahan: “Can I just laugh? I have no idea what philosophy is.”
Bottom line seems to be: philosophy is whatever philosophers think they’re doing, but don’t try telling them what to do. That would be like herding cats.
And it would be just like yesterday’s second (already!) departmental staff meeting. We were trying to address the Tennessee Board of Regents’ edict that we (like other academic departments) develop a common “instrument” of student assessment that would work for all of our courses. So we were trying to answer the question: What is it that you’re all trying to do, in all your classes? It quickly became a “depressing” exercise. My Peircean colleague, not surprisingly, was most frustrated at our imprecision. After a while it just became comical. We couldn’t even agree that we’d like our students all to know of Plato’s Myth of the Cave, let alone draw up a formal document committing us to a long and precise list of “learning outcomes.”
After an hour I had to go, saved by 8th grade Parents’ Night back in Nashville. But I’m sure we’ll revisit this wonderful unfinished business next Tuesday. Can’t wait. Who knows, maybe in the process we’ll actually figure out what in the hell philosophy is!
Actually I think many of the PB voices speak part of the truth, and Thomas Pogge’s concern* for social injustice gives us a good segue.
Later this afternoon, it’s back to the ’70s in EEA. We begin with Earth Day.
I’ll bring in my ratty old copy of Greening of America and let my students decide if what I told Gina Logue on the radio about it, that it doesn’t seem quite so hippy-dippy as it did to some back in its own early Green day, is right.
And we’ll consider the late Ernest Callenbach‘s last words to America. Was he deluded about the real possibility of ecotopia, if reality continues its present trajectory?
“But of course human society, like ecological webs, is a complex dance of mutual support and restraint, and if we are lucky it operates by laws openly arrived at and approved by the populace.
If the teetering structure of corporate domination, with its monetary control of Congress and our other institutions, should collapse of its own greed, and the government be unable to rescue it, we will have to reorganize a government that suits the people. We will have to know how to organize groups, how to compromise with other groups, how to argue in public for our positions.”
I read Callenbach’s prequel to Ecotopia back in June:
It’s satisfying in the same way that Edward Bellamy’s 19th century socialist-utopian classic Looking Backward was: for the briefest tantalizing moment it allows readers like me to believe we could get there from here, and may even constructively motivate some of us to positive action. “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” It’s a nice tune to hum on a summer’s day, at least.
How realistic is it to suppose that such a world might actually be achieved? Probably not very, in the foreseeable future. But it’s still a profoundly pleasing revery, and it’s important to visualize powerful practical changes that are well within our ability to achieve if we want it enough: dedicated bike-lanes, open-source solar & wind (etc.) technology to get people off the grid in large numbers, a less manically-driven consumer culture, and many other possibilities worth working for.
Sometimes literary merit is less important than catalysis: chemical transformation plays a crucial role in Callenbach’s story, as his 18-year old scientific whiz Lou Swift figures out how to make an efficient DIY solar cell. A metamorphosis of mind and perception is precisely what it’s going to take, to push us toward Ecotopia… or at least away from the eco-political dystopia this book was so prescient about in 1981.