Though I've not yet actually posted the topic announcement yet (we're still dithering about which chapters to focus on), episode 40 will be on Plato's Republic, wherein Socrates states unequivocally that those controlled by reason (i.e. the philosophers like Socrates) are just plain better than the rest of the people, and a just state will put the philosophers in charge.
Though of course the political landscape here and now doesn't much resemble ancient Greece, there's still a perception (recently voiced by me), that just as in Socrates's day, conservatism amounts to rejecting contemplation in favor of the practical life. This is not to say that self-proclaimed conservatives aren't philosophical, as many obviously are, and there are long traditions of conservative philosophy, but that insofar as they are philosophical, they aren't conservative in this narrowly defined sense. It shouldn't be surprising that a word like "conservative" has multiple, mutually incompatible cultural associations.
Here's an article by a blogger ("Richard in Japan") responding to this charge that conservatives are anti-intellectual as implied by Simon Crichley's characterization of philosophy (and Socrates) in "The Stone," i.e. the philosophy forum in the New York Times.
Sir Richard egregiously characterizes Socrates thusly:
He famously went from one end of Athens to the other, asking the bakers "What is the essence of bread making?", and asking the masons "What is the secret of cutting stone?" Then, when these working-class individuals had patiently distilled their career into words, Socrates twisted those words and threw them back in their faces, maintaining that he knew more about their professions than they did. Irony indeed, for a Socrates who had never cracked an egg or held a chisel to claim that he understood it better than people who did it for a living. Socrates had no skill but talking, and Lord, could he talk. As his fellow citizen Aristophanes discovered, he could prove that up was down, that left was right … and that right was wrong. No wonder they sentenced him to death. Had I been among his jurors, I would not only have voted to convict -- I would have volunteered to feed him the hemlock myself.
And here's his conclusion:
We great unwashed have nothing against philosophers, or philosophy. We reject the false dichotomy of intellectuals vs. anti-intellectuals since ultimately each of us appreciates true wisdom when we hear it, and deep down each of us aspires to be the one who utters it. One can laugh at Descartes for oversleeping, but once he managed to pull himself out of bed, he contributed greatly to both mathematics and the science of rational thought.
So the main points here are:
1. Contemplation for contemplation's sake is self-indulgent, but if there's a practical application then it's fine.
2. You can be profound, but don't get all in my face and obnoxious about it. It doesn't make you better than me.
Do either of these points constitute being anti-intellectual or anti-philosophy? Certainly, my approach from the start with P.E.L. has been to figure out what the practical upshot is, not necessarily in designing new technologies, but more generally, how it's supposed to help us deal with our lives. Contemplation in itself can be involving, entertaining, exercise for our brain, but if we're trying to choose one thing to read over another, then it's good to figure out if a work actually answers a real and useful question or is just of historical or cultural significance, in which case we might as well just read old literature that flows down smoothly instead of a thorny piece of philosophy. I think this position is more forgiving, however, than the dreaded scientism which says that philosophy is only good insofar as it is grounding or coordinating some kind of scientifically verifiable and ultimately technologically applicable findings. But even scientism is not anti-intellectual in the "get a job, you hippie!" sense; doing and reading about science is intellectual activity, no question.
Point 2 above is more difficult to respond to, because it's a matter of a perceived and lingering slight. As I've likely said on the podcast more than once, this whole notion of a person being better than another makes no philosophic sense to me. Nonetheless, it's engraved in our history, and fumes of it linger even though we're in a society that is ostensibly classless, or rather which has uncoupled moral worth from monetary holdings (both of which, idiomatically, can still be referred to by the phrase "personal worth"). I think the resonance of this objection has less to do with any intellectual dispute than a cultural one: I was amazed some years ago seeing a PBS documentary on how "class" is still alive (this chapter is what I have in mind) in our country, and the fact that this guy equates "conservative" with "blue collar" is telling.
The root of his objection is that some people are more touchy about perceived arrogance than others. To my mind, arrogance is not a primary sin (a la the tower of Babel) but a mostly harmless foible that makes people look silly. Feeling slighted whenever someone else cops an attitude is just a recipe for increasing your own depression. I see this reactiveness and this kind of blanket judgment re. who's smarter than who as part of the same problem. As I tried to articulate on the Russell episode, the point of philosophy is to try to articulate something that's meaningful. There's nothing inherently competitive or hierarchical about that effort, though it's certainly a social and not a purely solitary undertaking (i.e. you don't know if you've actually articulated something meaningful unless you can say or write it and have someone display understanding of it, and have it still sound meaningful coming back at you), and it's perfectly possible that after you've strained to receive wisdom from someone and found it to be ill-formed, infected with bias, or otherwise repugnant, you're going to feel irritated and probably dismissive. After a couple of rounds of this, you're going to want some canon to tell you what's worth reading and what's a waste of time, and over-reliance on a standard like that means you may end up dismissing those not so chosen as crap, and voilà: elitism!
Note: The image, "Blue Collar" is a sculpture by Herb Williams.
If I could add my own form of elitism here….
I agree there is a bit of a “Who better knows clay, the geologist or the potter?” question that must be answered.
But, surely they can both teach each other something of use.
I also think the question of ‘useful’ is neither a question for the potter, nor the geologist, but for the market, or rather the participants in the market. At which point, it becomes an ‘Analytic’ question, measured in whatever currency you find useful; gold, fiat paper, or +1s on Facebook….
Again, it feels like the core question is ‘how do we get to useful?’, and both the potter and the geologist have a role to play in answering this question.
Also, once you are in the realm of the market, we don’t call this competition between one offering and another ‘elitism’. Even if you have two philosophy books, each with a different sub-set of all philosophy. The market duel between these two would be part of the evolution of the market, a survival of all marginally valuable offerings.
The fact that 40% of everyone likes book A more than book B, does not make them elitists. Any more than the expression of preference by those that like book B more than book A.
‘Claims of Elitism’ are opening premises for ad hominem arguments, and are no more valid as a premises than the ad hominem argument is as an argument.
Ethan Gach says
I could be forgetting my Plato, but I thought his argument regarding artisans was the reverse of Richard’s characterization. Plato’s Socrates was an elitiest but he was also consistant about it. Socrates didn’t think he knew more about pots than the pot maker, but he also didn’t think the pot maker knew more about justice or virtue than the men who studied them (properly), i.e. philosophers.
Ethan Gach says
The end result being of course that, no, we shouldn’t have democracy. Would anyone think we should draw lots to see who makes pots on a given day? Then why should we do the same when deciding who will govern the city?
Wes Alwan says
One other note: Socrates didn’t go around talking to blue collar workers. He went around talking to celebrities and the wealthy elite. And I’m sorry, I have to say it: how typical of right-wing ressentiment that the premise of the argument — the one thing he could have looked up on fucking Wikipedia or learned by actually reading Plato — turns out to be the opposite of the one he has invented. Socrates was executed for challenging the values of the wealthy bourgeois, not for the equivalent of trying to convince Palin voters that there’s such a thing as global warming.
Daniel Horne says
Wes, I’m mostly with you on this. But I still want to tout the theory I find more plausible, the “IF Stone” account:
Socrates was executed because he was (fairly or unfairly) perceived as a credible threat to Athenian democracy. He was at least a tacit supporter of the 30 Tyrants, and unrepentantly seditious after the return of democratic rule. He was an associate of Critias, a leader of the 30. Plato and Xenophon, two of Socrates’ most famous biographers/defenders, were themselves notoriously anti-democratic. And of course, Critias was Plato’s great-uncle. (In other words, Plato may be an unreliable narrator.)
I think we agree more than we disagree — Socrates _did_ challenge the values of the wealthy bourgeois then in power. But it’s possible he did so to further tyranny over democracy, and to simply support one wealthy bourgeois group over another.
Maybe this account is wrong … none of us know why Socrates was _really_ put on trial. But this account would be more consistent with the world’s history of political intrigues. I’ve always found the “traditional” account implausible: that a democratic society would execute someone for _no other reason_ than offending the sensibilities of the ruling class.
I point this out only because I do find Socrates to have been an elitist, or more contemptible, a hanger-on to the elites. But I’m not so interested in defending the conservative blogger Mark cited – that guy seems a bit of an uninformed blowhard, reviewing his other posts. And last I checked, being an English teacher doesn’t qualify you as blue collar.
Honestly, you should say it. You’ve put your finger on one of the primary reasons I no longer consider myself a conservative. I was a young conservative back in high school, in the mid- to late-90s, and I saw bullshit taking over for reasoned and historically-informed discussion. Conservatism was thrown over for the politics of reaction and now people like Mark Levin have convinced their followers that they’re real intellectuals because they use footnotes.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with Richard Feynman’s essay “Cargo Cult Science”, but I would suggest that the same metaphor can be used to much so-called ‘conservative’ writing on history, literature, philosophy, and so on today. They ape the outward forms of intellectual discourse, but if you go into their books looking for an independent thought, you’ll be entirely disappointed. Instead of thinking, they’re about establishing the limits of how other people shouldn’t think. Hence we have books like 10 Books that Screwed Up the World (And 5 Others that Didn’t Help), A Patriot’s History of the United States, Regnery’s entire series of “Politically Incorrect Guides”, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, and hundreds of others of the same ilk.
How an intellectual tradition of hundreds of years could let itself become so subverted in under thirty, just to guarantee the electoral dominance of a single political party is one of the most depressing questions that this current ‘intellectual’ climate poses.
David Buchanan says
It’s not hard to make a case that Plato was an elitist. He thought the individual soul and the whole society should be ruled by philosophy. His portrait of the artisans and poets could easily be seen as an attack on the lower classes of his society. It’s not exactly crazy to think he was a snob who didn’t like to get his hands dirty or to complain about the otherworldly, anti-empirical spin this attitude puts on things. But I think anti-intellectualism has always been a kind of reactionary defense.
As the Simon Critchley article points out, very little has changed since Socrates was first charged with impiety. Philosophers are supposed to challenge traditional beliefs and critically examine common sense assumptions, which is exactly what will annoy the conservative mind, the true believer or anyone who has a personal stake in the status quo.
If a conservative is one who holds dear the traditional values of her culture then she is likely to feel insulted by any criticism of those values, to feel personally attacked by any challenge to those traditions. I mean, if someone accuses you of being an arrogant elitist it would probably be a good idea to check your attitude. Anything is possible. But I think that kind of reaction usually says a lot more about what’s going on inside the name-caller than anything else. A charge like that is not aimed at reforming your personality. The purpose is to undermine the criticism, to invalidate it. That’s the sense in which evolutionary biologists (with their fancy book learning) become “elitists” who look down their noses at creationism, for example. That’s how global warming became a scam perpetrated by Al Gore. I mean, we see this kind of anti-intellectualism play out in politics too, where it’s real easy to see. On the other hand,…
About three weeks into a course on Plato, one student asked a question that must have been forming in everyone’s mind: Why was Socrates such a dick? Her sassy question wasn’t hilarious but it relieved some tension and everyone had a good laugh. The professor raised that question again and again throughout the course. It became a minor theme. He never really disputed the characterization but rather let us suspect that Socrates might have had a really good reason for being so abrasive and challenging all the time.
Wes Alwan says
Hi Daniel, I think you’ve the strongest case there (via Stone) for the idea that Socrates and Plato were anti-democratic elitists. But these are unsettled points of contention as far as I know; and I seldom read the dialogs without the thought that there’s a good degree of ironic distance between Plato and Socrates and then between Socrates and everything he says. if we were to judge by The Laws rather the The Republic we might make a different case.
But even if were to grant that Socrates is simply anti-democratic, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s the elite of his society that he’s challenging. They just happen to be a democratic elite. And note that for us “elite” will have different meanings depending on your politics: to some on the right being an intellectual is the quintessence of elitism and being wealthy is akin to being a victim of the needy (via taxes, welfare recipients, and the list goes on and on). On the left, elitism is more likely to be equated with wealth. If Socrates really is arguing for an intellectual meritocracy, we can hardly say that the traditional alternative (plutocracy) is less elitist. And both democracy and oligarchy are compatible with either forms of elitism.
And I find the traditional account (that Socrates was executed for corrupting the youth by leading them to question religion) plausible. Just look at what happens in authoritarian regimes — left wing or right wing: the intellectuals are the first against the wall. Why? Because they get in the way of the establishment of a uniform set of values (with an ideology, religious or otherwise).
And so in this sense, unlike Mark, I think there is something inherently hierarchical about being an intellectual: you’re willing to challenge the common wisdom — the “true wisdom” we all know when we hear it, so cherished by Richard in Japan. To the extent that we do that, we put ourselves above the other members of our community: the acceptance of that wisdom really just is a pledge to them, a vow of loyalty. The ultimate vow is to aver the existence — with them — of something we can’t see (God). Behaving in such a strange way is meant to show that we care more about the community than about making sense. Reasons, and reasoning, lead to betrayal. Do I have good reasons to favor my family, my community, my country over that of another? Not really. There’s no way to rationally justify my willingness to save my mother from immanent death rather than yours: I can only say she’s more familiar to me. This is an idea explored in The Republic — the dog is a true philosopher because barks at what is strange and loves what is familiar; ostensibly about loving knowledge hating ignorance, the deeper point is that the dog makes his decisions about his political and familial loyalties in the same baseless way that we do. These loyalties are fundamentally irrational; thinking is fundamentally at odds with communality. (I know there are sustained counter-arguments but I’m not going to dig them up here — the point is that there’s a very real conflict between the polis and the philosopher). Think too much, and you’re no longer trustworthy. After all, what good reasons are there for not behaving amorally toward my neighbor? The philosopher tries to supply them, but he has a hard time of it. The anti-intellectual in us understands we’re better off saying “God” and saving ourselves a lifetime of trouble. Finally, even if you don’t buy the idea that having someone question our communal values feels like an existential threat: it certainly is a threat to a way of life, a form of life. What conservatives get worried about, with good reason, is the disintegration of certain beliefs — and hence the communities bonded by such beliefs — under scrutiny.
So: Socrates is certainly an elitist for questioning the common values of his fellow citizens, and certainly dangerous to his society because of it. But he is no going around picking on people without an education. He’s picking on his society’s upper class (like Meno, the Athenian general; or Gorgias, the famous rhetorician; or Theaetetus (who while young is a gifted student and destined for greatness). The values held by this class will naturally be those of the lower classes: they’re meant unite the interests of two groups of people who might otherwise be at each other’s throats (because really their interests diverge significantly). Hence a defense of the common man against the excesses of the intellectuals is just as much a defense of the most powerful members of society. The upper and lower classes make a pact: worldly power is traded for ideological power (this is more a Nietzschean than Marxian view of ideology). But there’s no pact to be made with the intellectual.
“But even scientism is not anti-intellectual in the “get a job, you hippie!” sense; doing and reading about science is intellectual activity, no question.”
Science is definitely intellectual ( If I didn’t think so, what would that make me?), but I’d say that scientism is indeed anti-intellectual. It’s an ideology after all. I used to be one of those “fuck anything that doesn’t have statistics” people, and automatically dismissed any opinion formed by artists or philosophers; I know from experience that this standpoint is just as harmful, and connected to, the “get a job, you hippie!” brand of anti-intellectualism. The more time spent rote-memorizing math and science means less time spent contemplating what it means to be a good person. George Orwell can say it better than me:
“The fact is that a mere training in one or more of the exact sciences, even combined with very high gifts, is no guarantee of a humane or sceptical outlook. The physicists of half a dozen great nations, all feverishly and secretly working away at the atomic bomb, are a demonstration of this.”
This is from Orwell’s essay “what is science?” The whole essay is worth a read, for those who haven’t yet seen it; it’s a very clear and commonsensical intro to scientism:
Mark Linsenmayer says
Noah, that Orwell’s a good reference. Thanks.
Ethan Gach says
A parrallel to that would be that a mere training in one or more of the humanities, even combined with very high gifts, is no guarentee of a humane or sceptical outlook. The daily lives and poor character of many great philosophers and writers are a demonstration of this.
“Scientism” is a strawman and none of the scientists who actually do science subscribe to it. Thinking that these pursuits mean, “time spent rote-memorizing math and science” is part of the problem.
The atomic bomb was not created by a science foundation, it was created by scientists hired by the department of defense to create a powerful weapon.
The idea that the creation of atomic bombs is a logical and necessary outgrowth of a scientific outlook seems weak.
So while I agree with your overall sentiment Noah, I think it’s worth applying to any realm of thought: be humble with a healthy dose of skepticism. Philosophy done well does this. And the same goes for science.
This goes back to the problem of how hard and fast the boundary between science and philosophy is. In theoretical physics for instance, the boundary is not hard and fast at all.
David Buchanan says
Yes, Wes, there is always a conflict between the polis and the philosopher. In Plato’s case this boils down to a conflict between the Homeric tradition and Socratic doubt or the Socratic method. And I whole-heartedly agree that community loyalty and making sense are very different from each other. Sometimes they’re even violently opposed to each other.
I think it’s interesting to notice that cops and armies can’t stop an idea. They can only bust heads and defend real estate, you know? And if we take the Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights, as an instruction manual for the political authorities, then cops and armies are supposed to protect free speech, freedom of religion, of assembly, of the press, etc.. These laws are aimed at the freedom of thought, no? They say there is going to be no more hemlock for the intellectuals. That’s the kind of framework within which a true intellectual meritocracy can be possible.
The people who rise to the top in an open contest like that are only elite in the sense that they’re excellent, like an elite gymnast or a navy seal team. They have “authority” only in the sense of being an expert in their field, of course, in the sense of being an author. Whether or not they advocate putting political power into the hands of the top performers is a separate question.
Plato was an elitist in both senses, I think, because of the way the structure of soul and structure of the state are supposed to mirror each other. The Republic begins as an examination of the soul but the discussion is moved to politics because the parts of soul are easier to see in the larger view. It’s gotta be one of the longest, most sustained analogies of all time. This is not only where the philosopher King rules but we find the famous analogy of the cave, where the common people believe in mere shadows and most will never see the light of day. I’m guessing those shadows on the cave wall were things like the Homeric tradition, living for pleasure, living for honor and power, and the other ways of the unexamined life. Everybody else is below the philosopher in this picture, it’s just a matter of degree. …You know, cause some people lead a Partially Examine Life.
Wes Alwan says
Thanks David — that’s a good distinction you make between being elite in the sense of having some sort of talent (or for Plato, wisdom) and being elite in the sense of having political power. Political power naturally follows wealth, even in nominal democracies. So Plato is establishing a counter-narrative. There’s more comfort with the concept of plutocracy than meritocracy (or the former is erroneously reduced to the latter) because it’s more compatible with tribalism and populism. America’s myth is that any guy can become wealthy, and when he does so it’s because of “hard work.” And building wealth is largely about social adeptness and networking. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist. But not everyone can sublimate: not everyone is willing to redirect their energies in such an ascetic, self-depriving way. Such people are suspect; their are nerds — outside of the social fold because they have put the honing of their own intellectual powers ahead of doing homage to the community. In less developed societies, such people are witches and magicians. And remember, chemistry has its roots in alchemy, and the hard sciences brings us the kind of power over the world once only fantasized possible by magic.
So one might claim that Richard in Japan, while getting the facts wrong about who Socrates went around talking to, is tuned into Socrates’ or Plato’s elitism. But my point is that he typically a) ignores who actually has the real power in societies, as if professors run the country and the wealthy are their victims; and b) conflates the politically/economically elite classes with whom Socrates was engaged with the common man, and conflates a battle between elitism and an actual elite as a battle between an elite intellectual class and the common man. And of course we see this kind of conflation over again in modern politics; it’s the “What’s the Matter with Kansas’ problem. Poor people support policies that benefit wealthy people because a) they identify with the wealthy and powerful and have the absurd fantasy that they have a good chance of joining them — possibly just as soon as that ebay business takes off; b) because they have been convinced that far more threatening than the policies that actually shaft them, and the powerful class creating such policies, are a class of power intellectuals who will destroy their values and their way of life. They’d rather let the powerful rape the public coffers, and maintain their pride (predicated on various identifications — God, country, and the powerful themselves), than admit they are in fact poor saps who need to be protected from the powerful and whose values aren’t universal.
Sorry for repeating myself in these comments — trying to clarify my thoughts on this.
“Scientism” is a strawman and none of the scientists who actually do science subscribe to it.”
Like everything, my experience is limited, and I’ve met few scientists in person, but don’t you think it’s somewhat broad to say no scientist practices scientism? I know Stephen Hawking has recently said things such as “philosophy is dead.” I know Richard Feynman was incredibly skeptical of philosophy and psychology, sometimes even calling them bullshit (I speak as a big fan of his). No, I think there are definitely scientists who practice scientism.
“Thinking that these pursuits mean, “time spent rote-memorizing math and science” is part of the problem.”
Yeah, sorry. That was a straw man on my part. I don’t think people who major in Science are automatons. I just meant to say that perhaps some of the people who practice scientism do so because they’ve only ever studied science. That’s why I think Feynman dismissed the humanities, at least as a youth (this is just the impression I got from reading his books).
( I start to realize how little experience I have outside of books when I try to discuss these things)
But I think we agree on most things. There are plenty of people who have focused on the humanities and are at the same time amoral assholes; I was going to name a drop a few, but then I realized anyone come come up with a huge list of their own.
Ethan Gach says
In a the sense of a platonic ideal, I think you could make the argument that IF you are actually doing science (i.e. science done correctly) then you won’t fall prey to scientism.
Unfortunately, as well, the term as so many different cultural battles wrapped up in it that it get’s confusing. It seems to be a catchall for materialists, naturalists, utilitarianists, technologists, technocrats, etc.
What seems to be shared by all of these groups when an accusation of “scientism” is attributed to them is that they are seen as being arrogant, presumptuous, and/or unyeilding.
The problem is that most people’s only interaction with science is from a popularizers who want to sell books and are coaxed by PR reps to make polemic statements.
As far as Hawking, that may well have been a blatant moment of hubris and ignorance (I haven’t read the whole lecture). But is one statement enough to earn the scarlet letter?
Are these moments of scientism farflung and abundant? Or are they few and far between and not part of the general consensus within the scientific community?
And of course, there is some truth to his claims. Is there any branch of philosophy that could remain meaninful without keeping up with science? Often times, it appears that philosophers want to remain the queens of the sciences without staying on top of the literature (for instance in philosophy of mind).
Unless you’re a neo-dualist like Wes, attempts to keep science and philosophy independent from one another will only leave them both more fallow.
Charges of “scientism” usually translate to, “hey science, your place is in the lab and in the field, stop trying to answer questions that don’t concern you.”
To paraphrase Hume, ‘Reason is a slave to the emotions’
It explains all the -isms of the world.
Jorge Videla says
It is possible to be intellectual about practical things. It is only from the time and effort of practical intellectuals (as opposed to for example analyitc “philosophers”) that this blog is possible. The computer and its software, the internet, telecommunications, etc. are all the work of practical intellectuals.
Without such people “philosophers” wouldn’t have the leisure to contemplate their navels. Books would be written by hand on vellum and unaffordable, etc. Literacy would be a luxury.
The effect of the prctical intellectual is MUCH greater than that of the navel gazer. The effect is not merely material. Man changes himself through work as Marx might have said.
The navel gazers of this website and of philosophy departments are far more common and numerous today than they have ever been. This is the unearned gift from practical intellectuals living, dead, and long dead to men and women who are intellectually still children.
Henry Maudsley has as a matter of fact (rather than as matter of ought) had more effect on men’s souls than all philosophers put together.
That some philosophers still describe their expertise as ethics is a JOKE.
I am not a conservative. Those thinkers dearest to be are Heidegger and Marx.
Ethan Gach says
The effects of philosophy are more subtle but still present and just as profoundI think people often overlook how profoundly philosophical discourse affects public identity and understanding once it trickles down, especially in education (k-12).
Also, going back far enough, lifestyles were probably much more condusive to philosophy (as oppose to the technologized rat race of modern times). If you’re hunter/gathering, you’ll have plenty of time to sit around and think. If you’re farming, you’ll have even more during between the planting and harvesting seasons. All in all, I don’t think I’d be alone in saying that while many modern comforts are condusive to doing philosophy, many others distract.
Jorge Videla says
I agree that “modern times” do cover over/obscure Being, etc. if you’ll excuse the “BS”, but how sophisticated can the thought of the Trobriand Islanders be? (I don’t mean that as a racist comment.)
The idea that everything is better now has obvious ideological implications. That is, “Shut up. The status quo is the best of all possible worlds.”
BTW, I’m not an engineer and I haven’t practiced what I preach.
Ethan Gach says
True, I’m not sure how sophisticated their thoughts would have been. But as far as having the material conditions to make it possible…
The factor that would have been missing then was education. Only the elite would have had access to that. Of course the elite in those times were more satisfied to lounge about (and perhaps philosophize) then today, where even the “leisure class” spends most of it’s time accumulating wealth or being productive in some economic/civic way.
Jorge Videla says
Sorry that should have been Henry MaudslAy, but I’m not the only one to missipell his name.
Henry Mausdlay more than anyone else made mass production possible.
How do contemporary philosophers judge the quality of ancient Greek philosophy? Do any of them take ancient Indian philosophy seriously? Do any think that ancient Chinese philosophy is even philosophy?
I suppose the very poor Tibetans are up to their ears in philosophy, but isn’t this philosophy derided by “professional” philosophers in both analytic and continental traditions?
Do the childless have any responsibity to the future? What’s wrong with philosophy as neurosis motivated by fear of death? One’s contribution to the improvement of mankind may not be a good measure of virtue as the only reason man has a future is that some volunteer to have children when no one is obligated. Imagine how silly applied science and engineering would seem if it were known that in 50 years an enormous asteroid would smash into the earth.
Ethan Gach says
I’m not quite sure what the point is that you’re getting at in that last response. What are you trying to say exactly?
And how, Jorge.
I do not want to sour others here on your post thru my endorsement, but I must say I endorse every word.
You might enjoy this little gem which I refer to as engineering apologetics.
Like Pirsig’s Zen and MM book of the anti-tech ’70s, it embraces technology and technologists, giving them the respect they held at the turn of the 20th century – I do not understand Heidegger’s anti-tech notions, unless he sees it as anti-romantic/pastoral, in which he should have read Kipling, Whitehead, and posthumously, Pirsig and Florman.
Mark wrote: “conservatism amounts to rejecting contemplation in favor of the practical life. This is not to say that self-proclaimed conservatives aren’t philosophical, as many obviously are, and there are long traditions of conservative philosophy, but that insofar as they are philosophical, they aren’t conservative in this narrowly defined sense.”
Sounds like you are letting your definition exclude relevant data instead of structuring your definition around the data.
Actually, what Mark wrote is more nuanced and self deprecating.
I think you should include these statements that bracket either end of the quote you have selected. It reads to me as if Mark is describing perceptions, not offering definitions.
Mark Linsenmayer says
I get the point, though. “Conservative” (unlike “liberal,” which as a term I think has a very different story, given that many liberals prefer “progressive,” even though the dictionary def of “liberal” as I just looked it up is “favorable to progress or reform,” which is not something that even most conservatives are going to object to in the abstract… doesn’t everyone want things to get better in some way?) is a term indicating a group identity, and as such, if it picks out an ideology at all, should pick out whatever those who claim themselves as conservatives claim to believe, insofar as there’s any commonality across that broad group. So for someone to come in and look at the word itself and say “conservatives don’t want change; that’s just what the word means!” or “conservatives want to deny progress and so are closed to new ideas!” is sort of messed up. You have the same philosophical problems trying to define this word as any other word that’s been used for so many different purposes in our culture (and adjacent cultures).
However, as a philosophical question that sounds boring boring boring to me, so I’m tempted just to concede the argument and say that this word is just not precise enough to be useful in philosophical discourse: just say “libertarian” if you mean that and “evangelical Christian” if you mean that and “Republican” if you mean people that tend to actually vote that way and “batshit reactionary” if you’re talking about Frege’s apparent political views. Relevant to this actual post, you can use “blue collar” to refer generally to people working at certain kinds of jobs, but to assume from that any commonality in their political views is pretty suspect.
Ethan Gach says
On the question of liberalism and progress, as I understand it, traditional conservatism in the United States, being based in Protestant Christianity, denied that progress at a meta level was possible, i.e. people don’t change: they have the capacity for goodness but are prone to sinful behavior.
This seems to dovetail well with the general attitude toward human nature by the Enlightenment (perhaps more the British version than the continental one) in which human nature is to some large extent, known as well as unchanging.
And once you fix this basic idea, its hard to imagine progress in any meaningful way. People are sinful and imperfect, hence the conservative distrust of attempts to “fix” social ills (poverty, crime). If you can’t fix human nature, you can’t fix public policy, right? As a result Conservatism works to “conserve” basic principles, values, and social rules in the face of temptation and human weakness, rather than try to “engineer” some solution to fix the problem.
So if you were to ask a conservative if there’s a better set of principles than those in classic liberalism, or a better book of moral values than the Bible, I’m not sure they would agree that you could progress beyond those in any meaninful way. It’s very “end of history” in a way.
As an instructive example of the wonderfully ludicrous nature of political nomenclature, Australia’s landscape offers an example.
The Australian Liberal Party, while historically of the classical liberal bent, contains today people of the socially conservative/religious right/economic libertarian bent. They are opposed to Gay Marriage, anti-immigration, a mix of denial and grudging acceptance on climate change, critical of the UN, etc. So, as an Australian occasionally observing from afar, they look to me to be aligned with some of the more obvious US Conservative values.
Anyway, I think this article sums up the political mood in the English speaking world – the ‘right’ of the political classes has cleverly manipulated the discourse to capture the minds of those who for economic reasons would seem better of with the ‘left’ such as I imagine the average member of the “Tea Party” would be:
I think we get it – you are not a fan of “philosophy”.
Can I ask why you are so keen on deriding something that other people are quite interested in and do not find a waste of their time?
There are plenty of things I am not interested in, but going to their fan blogs and getting uppity seems a little pointless.
What would life be if people only concentrated on what’s practical? I think it would be a vanilla flavoured existence:
go to work, work, go home, sleep, and repeat.
No books, no movies, no music, no philosophy (being the products of navel gazers.) Life would be an endless drive towards better and more efficient machines that would save time for…. what? More practical intellectual efforts? Sex and food? Philosophy is noble because it is unessential.
Jorge Videla says
You’ve got me all wrong.
I AM a fan of genuine philosophy.
I do not regard analytic philosophy as such though. Whenever a self proclaimed philosopher thinks of himself as a professional and his thoght as rigorous whether or not he is an aristocrat as was Russell one knows for sure he’s a vulgar and boring person.
Philosophy as pass time for gentlemen is no more hateful to me than sailing or playing cards or getting tight. Thinking of philosophy as more than pass time however I find despicable.
“Get a job you dirty hippie” may be taken in two ways.
1. The person saying this is an idiot who cannot imagine that things could be different and who has taken on the prevailing ideology and value system as a given, as the way things are necessarily.
2. The person saying this realizes that material and technical progress is unstoppable whatever the political cultural etc environment and that such progress changes what man is. How does one get to utopia: either by prescription (morality as prescription is always a failure as Nietzsche said) or by WORK!
David Buchanan says
I’m thinking about Wes’s point but I also want to put the issue of elitism on the back burner.
Two different philosophy courses (art and religion) began with a reading of the same Platonic dialogue: Ion. The titular character is a rhapsode, an interpreter and performer of Homeric poetry, so that he was sort of a poet and priest at the same time. The implication of this double-barreled reading assignment was that the philosophy of art and the philosophy of religion both begin with the application of the Socratic method. But if you believe guys like Nietzsche and Pirsig, then this is a rather tragic beginning. (For Western civilization, not necessarily my semester.)
Ion the rhapsode gets the same treatment that Gorgias the sophist gets from Socrates, which is a demand for intelligible reasons. Even though they are something like rock stars in their culture, Socrates asks a lot of questions and fairly successfully makes them look they don’t know what they’re doing. Guys like Nietzsche and Pirsig turn that on it’s head in a way and say, “No, Socrates. They’re just fine. You don’t understand what they’re doing because they’re artists and you’re a quasi-autistic square who can’t grasp anything unless it’s neatly defined.” Nietzsche framed it in terms of the Apollo’s domination of Dionysian spirit, James and Pirsig see it as the birth of a “vicious” intellectualism that tries to dominate everything else. Dionysus wasn’t exactly a “dirty hippie” but his demonization is a large part of the reason we now have such terms. This is why fields like philosophy and literature and the arts are now considered to be unnecessary, self-indulgent frills. But I think math only SEEMS truer than poetry because the former is so simple and neat (and trivia)l by comparison. Don’t tell Frege I said that.
What, in your view, constitutes ‘genuine’ philosophy and why is analytic philosophy considered as such?
– or not considered as such.
I’ll take a stab at that Geoff
Analistic philosophy is of necessity anthropocentric, thus it begins and is rooted as an abstraction from nature.
Reason and associated illuminative conscious intention/focus on possib;e/probable/’conceptual’ are quite rare in nature, even in living organisms, where emotion is predominant.
It tells a very limited tale.
Pretty much the same for continental .
What’s wrong with the love of and seeking of the nature of our reality – you know…plain old philosophy – before compartmentalization.
How does this aid your argument, Burl?
Nonetheless, this really doesn’t tell me why one is ‘genuine’ and the other is not. The simple act of asserting perceived limitations or disputing its methodology, seems neither here nor their. If, for the sake of simplicity, philosophy is at it’s heart about truth seeking – why is one form of truth seeking more ‘genuine’ than any other?
You will need to more than simply express your disdain.
Burl: It tells a very limited tale.
Geoff: Nonetheless, this really doesn’t tell me why one is ‘genuine’ and the other is not. The simple act of asserting perceived limitations or disputing its methodology, seems neither here nor their. If, for the sake of simplicity, philosophy is at it’s heart about truth seeking – why is one form of truth seeking more ‘genuine’ than any other?
You will need to more than simply express your disdain.
When I write ‘analistic,’ I intend to associate a failed century of otherwise intelligent people setting up language and symbols as ultimate reality, thus blocking-out/bracketing/purging/forcing nature to be as their words and symbolic concepts say it must be. (theoretical physics laugh at philosophy for this, even as they are continuing to commit the same fallacy of misplaced concreteness by placing the abstraction above reality). Use of the derogatory term shows how viscerally I feel about those who erect grand egos from perepetrating their inner-ring beliefs (and irrelevant journals full of upside-down As) while smugly assuming that the rest of us must likewise see nature as their chess game fetish, or an interesting syllogism, or a tensor that won’t behave.
Regardless whether or not my Phil 101 professor laughingly explained that analytic philosophers actually thought (he was using past tense for the linguisticly-turned back in ’75) reality is words – even my dog would find this funny, if she would take time out from sniffing for crumbs under the table. It reminds me of Nim Chimsky.
Now we have “Nim Chimsky” to add to “analistic”.
This is somewhat childish so I will stop interacting now.
Jorge Videla says
Don’t you know who Nim Chimsky is? He’s a chimpanzee.
Jorge Videla says
Bryan Magee in his Confessions of a Philosopher expresses my own thinking on what genuine philosophy is.
The dominance of analytic philosophy in English speaking countries has many more non-philosophical motivations than philosophical, and they are much more important. Some of them are:
1. The most intelligent students rarely choose philosphy any more.
2. Philosophers fell inferior to natuaral scientists and mathematicians.
3. The prevailing neo-liberal ideology discourages any thinking which might lead to “heresies” like Marxism.
4. In order to get a job and get tenure it is rational to cleave to some group rather than think independently.
Jorge Videla says
It is my only somewhat hyperbolic opinion that the only philosopher deserving of the name since 1900 was Heidegger.
Reading analytic philosophers is a chore. Not because it’s hard to understand. It is usually very easy to nderstand. It is a chore because one gets this sick feeling in his stomach, “This guy isn’t very smart.”
Mark Linsenmayer says
OK, well, go read the Nelson Goodman book we talk about here (http://partiallyexaminedlife.com/2010/10/31/episode-28-nelson-goodman-on-art-as-epistemology/) and tell me if you get that feeling, because your generalization here sounds like you just haven’t read very widely. (If you got this feeling reading something by Russell, I could perhaps sympathize.) Your referred to Bryan Magee: if you look at the many great interviews Magee has on youtube from his old TV show interviewing philosophers of all stripes (we’ve linked to some of them from this blog: http://partiallyexaminedlife.com/?s=magee), you’ll see he’s very sympathetic to many types of philosophy and would not be likely to agree with your categorical dismissals
I realize this is an internet forum, a medium where talking shit is pretty much the established standard, but Geoff’s entreaties here for people to explain themselves better are entirely appropriate, and this was the point of my whole pro-analytic screed on the Russell episode. “Sounding smart” should never be your point as a philosopher; that’s the direction of the sophists. Making sense while saying something that you find worthwhile is entirely the point. I agree that Frege’s and Russell’s concerns as discussed on those two episodes are a bit esoteric, and it takes some orientation to see that they’re addressing real problems (and one could argue that they aren’t, but not with any more persuasion than Quine or Rorty or Carnap argues that most old-time philosophers weren’t arguing about anything real either), but the same can most definitely be said of Heidegger’s questioning the “meaning of Being,” which even by many continental philosophers is not considered a real question.
Re. your comment on Eastern philosophy, I think you’re overestimating the amount of unity there is in philosophy departments; they’re far too fractured in general for there to be any country-wide conspiracy in dismissing them. We have instead, mostly a lack of familiarity with that material (which leaves a great opportunity for up-and-coming scholars to fill that need), the fact that Greek/Roman philosophy had so much influence the Western canon that it’s pretty much required reading for understanding, say, Descartes, or Nietzsche, or Heidegger (whereas the Eastern stuff is only marginally useful in that respect, like if you’re into Schopenhauer), plus there’s the fact that there are so many bleedin’ old Indian/Chinese/Tibetan/Japanese/etc. texts (how many sutras? how many upanishads even?), and so many of them are nearly indistinguishable from religious texts with nary a hint of actual philosophy to be seen in them (I’m not saying it’s not there, as in the massive history of Indian logic, but it takes some effort to navigate).
Jorge Videla says
Sorry I had to stop reading after it became clear you hadn’t read Magee’s book!
Jorge Videla says
“And tell me if you get that feeling”
Yes I get that feeling. It’s like being on a small boat in a big storm. Nauseating.
Jorge Videla says
I was listening to Davidson and Dummet discussing truth and meaning. Again nauseating, but easy to understand.
Analytic philosophy is, as Magee said, a means whereby people who have NO ideas can call themselves philosophers. It is pseudophilosophy for second rate minds incapable of understanding genuine philosophy or producing it.
Jorge Videla says
John MacDowell’s Mind and World — easy to understand but nauseatingly stupid.
Jorge Videla says
Wittgenstein has absolutely nothing to say that I hadn’t learned when I was 13 and read the introduction to a dictionary.
Intelligent people do not hang out in philosophy departments any more.
So the existentialists and the Frankfurt School had nothing interesting to say?
Jorge Videla says
Existensialists = French.
Frankfurt = Jews.
Please explain. Why do I get the feeling you might be a fan of Julius Evola?
Jorge Videla says
No. I hadn’t heard of him but he sounds like a moron. Whenever I hear spiritualism or mysticism a light goes off: IGNORE, this person is really really stupid.
When Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse are all Jewish and they take Freud seriously I have to be suspicious. I’m a big fan of Marx though.
I do not believe that Hegel or Heidegger was intentionally obscure. I DO believe that some 20th century French philosophers have been or have just been silly. “When the French think they think in German.”
But he wore a monocle!
No prob, Geoff.
It might explain some other things as well. We shall wait and see.
Was it really necessary to censor Jorge? (unless he asked the comment to be removed of course)
Considering all the controversial philosophers that you’ve discussed including Heidegger?
I am intrigued by Jorge, and am not supportive of censoring ideas at a liberal philosophy site.
Political Correctness is not absolute, it is a keystroke of the liberal.
I just listened to the latest philosophers zone podcast (Aussie) on Spinoza http://www.abc.net.au/rn/philosopherszone/, and the notion of Being was mentioned often (as with Heidegger).
Jorge, what importance/connection is there in Spinoza and Heidegger?
Also, from an essay, Magee was decidedly convinced that analytic phil was shit. (I felt it in his interview w/ the upstart Searle that is on Utube).