Monday, March 31, 2008

In Defense of Philosophers

"I don't know where my expertise is; my expertise is no disciplines. I would recommend to drop disciplinarity wherever one can. Disciplines are an outgrowth of academia. In academia you appoint somebody and then in order to give him a name he must be a historian, a physicist, a chemist, a biologist, a biophysicist; he has to have a name. Here is a human being: Joe Smith -- he suddenly has a label around the neck: biophysicist. Now he has to live up to that label and push away everything that is not biophysics; otherwise people will doubt that he is a biophysicist. If he's talking to somebody about astronomy, they will say "I don't know, you are not talking about your area of competence, you're talking about astronomy, and there is the department of astronomy, those are the people over there," and things of that sort. Disciplines are an aftereffect of the institutional situation." Heinz von Foerster, from an interview with the Stanford Humanities Review ------ Having married a philosopher, I feel it's time to speak out in their favor. When people ask me what my husband does, I say, "He's getting his master's degree in philosophy at BC." (Sometimes I have to add, "Well, that's what he's doing right now. He wants to do a lot of things, including a few PhD's and maybe a JD and business experience.") It's always a little irritating when they say, often derisively, "Oh, what does he want to do? Teach?" Why is it that people think the only thing you can do with a philosophy degree (or classics, for that matter. grrr) is teach? Good philosophy should be the thorough and honest study of everything--the pursuing of one's unrestricted desire to know. Do you know that Ph.D. means "Doctorate of Philosophy"? That means you get a Doctorate of Philosophy in Chemistry, or a Doctorate of Philosophy in Cello Performance. Philosophy means the love of wisdom. If you have a PhD in chemistry, you have a love of the wisdom which chemistry offers. But what if you get a doctorate of philosophy in philosophy? You profess a love of wisdom offered by the love of all wisdom. It makes perfect sense to me that T wants a PhD in philosophy--he wants to know everything about everything. It's true that not all philosophy programs (and teachers) foster this love of wisdom about everything (or one thing). There are two analogies from Walker Percy that I think are fittingly applied to the word philosophy. It is like a very old coin that is still in use, but whose markings and differentiating symbols have been rubbed bare by over use. I often hear people clamoring about a "philosophy of living" or that "philosophy = X." But what do they mean when they use the word? Or, the word philosophy is like the hull of a very old ship, encrusted with so many barnacled layers of meaning that it is now barely recognizable as itself. Truly, philosophy carries with it much baggage. In this picture, the debate rises, "but what do you mean by philosophy? Is it a way of living or is it something you study in school and have tests on? Can you do philosophy or can you just read about it? Are there implications or is it just a collection of nice ideas to think about when you're bored?" The questions are endless. But still, bearing in mind the above quotation by von Foerster, I think philosophers should reawaken their unrestricted desire to know everything about everything. No more of this "I'm a 'philosopher' but I'm only interested in so-and-so's interpretation of this one particular sentence in this obscure work by another so-and-so you've probably never heard of." If the 'philosopher' is sincerely interested in that obscure something, fine. But he shouldn't let it be the sole focus of his studies. Similarly we, the "common people," the "uneducated," the "non-specialists," should NOT rely solely on the advice of the elite specialists! Everyone has a desire to know. Go find out everything about everything. As Calvin puts it, "Let's go exploring."

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