Magisteria and Weltanschauungs

I’ve been enjoying the new semester’s many co-philosophical conversations immensely. With three classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays that’s twelve separate confabs per day, plus all-inclusive wrap-ups, not counting Bioethics (where we’re still just getting started) and staff meetings (where we never get finished) and office hours. The simplest of technologies, a lowly call bell, has been a brilliant innovation. We’ve been answering.


I’ve also been toting coffee to class. To be awake is to be alive. (But co-phers, you’re gonna have to toss some coins in the “donation” bin if you want the good stuff to keep on flowin’. Otherwise, when the XMAS blend is gone it’ll be the Kroger Value Brand…)

I’m also enjoying my fourth Thursday class, an informal tutorial on Science & Religion that meets happily during Happy Hour on the other side of East Main. Yesterday we put Stephen Jay Gould’s Non-overlapping Magisteria, NOMA, to rest. RIP. SJG was a terrific and biting polemicist but he was just wrong: any religion worth its salt does indeed make or imply claims about the world’s facticity, and cannot in intellecutal conscience or political prudence be left strictly to its own sphere of internal discourse. I understand the pluralistic impulse to live and let live, and let a thousand worldviews bloom. I also understand something SJG probably did not about the “mind of the south.” Most of my religious neighbors aren’t too keen on striking the sort of concordat he proposed.

And yet, and yet… Gould was that rare scientist with the soul and pen of a poet, and the sensibility of a renaissance scholar. He was in error on this question, but he was also a genuine philosopher. Can’t say that for 99% of the working scientists I’ve encountered. He was (Michael Shermer reports) moved by mountains and stars.

He was also a baseball fan. Now do you understand his appeal to me, D&D?


So, once more for my CoPhi collaborators:  “What is philosophy?”

“It is a Weltanschauung, an intellectualized attitude towards life. “

There. Clears it right up. Why couldn’t all those confused and laughing philosophers simply have said that?

Oh yeah: every time I’ve ever asked students about their weltanschauungs, they either giggled or recoiled or looked nonplussed… as though I’d mentioned something not suitable for discussion in polite company.

So let me clarify.

The quote is from William James, trying in the first chapter of his last published (posthumous) work (Some Problems of Philosophy1911) to answer the Philosophy Bites stumper question “What is philosophy?”

And here to clarify the Jamesian clarification is Herr Doktor ProfessorFreud, writing two decades later:

By Weltanschauung, then, I mean an intellectual construction which gives a unified solution of all the problems of our existence in virtue of a comprehensive hypothesis, a construction, therefore, in which no question is left open and in which everything in which we are interested finds a place. It is easy to see that the possession of such a Weltanschauung is one of the ideal wishes of mankind. When one believes in such a thing, one feels secure in life, one knows what one ought to strive after, and how one ought to organise one’s emotions and interests to the best purpose.

Oh. “No question is left open” by a good weltanschauung? In that case, I ain’t got one and I really don’t want one. The open questions are the ones that get me out of bed in the morning and give me something to talk about at work.

And James felt the same way. He was always ambivalent about philosophy, and his dying words were: “What has concluded, that we may conclude with regard to it?”

Nothing, is of course the implicitly correct reply. (BTW: Freud and James met once, in 1909, and reportedly had a fairly spirited conversation. But you know what was really on Freud’s mind, right?)

So philosophy is an open-ended, never-ending quest for clarity that gives you an “intellectual attitude” and feeds your curiosity. It is intellectually unifying, to that extent, but should never be stultifying. As James’s thorny friend Charley Peirce insisted: “Do not block the road of inquiry.”

One more thing: good philosophy is interesting.

 Philosophy, indeed, in one sense of the term is only a compendious name for the spirit in education which the word ‘college’ stands for in America. Things can be taught in dry dogmatic ways or in a philosophic way.

So there’s the gauntlet I’ll be picking up, as chief facilitator of three sections of CoPhilosophy at MTSU: don’t be dry, don’t kill curiosity or the cats who have it, don’t dogmatize. And don’t block the road.

Or as DNA pioneer James Watson put it: avoid boring people.


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