April 19, 2012

Who is a Philosopher?

Oh man, Bharath, you are crazy! You say in The Experiment that you want to see what will happen if you think philosophically about life without following the habits of professional philosophers (reading the latest books by professors, going to conferences, etc.). You even say that you are curious to see if perhaps through this experiment you might gain some philosophical knowledge. That's absurd! How can you gain philosophical knowledge without doing what the philosophy experts do? Are you also going to find a cure for cancer without reading what medical experts have to say? Or build a house without knowing anything about construction? Come on! There is no need to do the experiment; we know in advance how it will turn out. You can't gain philosophical knowledge if you don't follow the latest, cutting edge advances in philosophy, which is what professional philosophy is about. This is obvious.

I feel the force of this thought. Since I left professional philosophy this argument will sometimes come to mind with an urgent energy, suggesting that perhaps I have made a big mistake; that perhaps I must be deluded or insane. What am I thinking?! It has been a year since I read any professional philosophy. How could I possibly think this can help me somehow improve my philosophical thinking?

It is interesting that I feel this worry mainly when I am by myself; if I am talking a walk and am a bit sad, or if I am at home and not sure how to spend the time. I have noticed that I almost never feel this worry when I am in public spaces, such as in the metro or the grocery store. To the contrary, I have noticed that especially when I am in the metro even the hint of the worry seems to disappear. So much so that I now love riding the metro to work. It is soothing and calming. It makes me feel connected to people, and in that connection I realize that I am not at all deluded or insane. That I am perfectly well, and that all is well.

What is it about the metro that has this effect on me? It's because it gives me a chance to really think about the above objection. And I find myself responding to it in the following way.

Look at all these people. Some might be doctors or lawyers. Some security guards or secretaries. Maybe artists or stay at home parents. Or maybe they never got a steady career. Whatever they are, surely most of them aren't philosophy professors. And what does that mean about their philosophical ability? If the philosophy professors are the experts in philosophy, and they are discovering the deepest philosophical truths of the universe, then what does that mean about these peoples' lives?

Most of these people sitting in front of me on the metro don't worry about finding medical cures because the medical researchers are responsible for that. Similarly, they don't worry about building bridges, because the engineers are responsible for that. So could these everyday people leave philosophical questions as well to the philosophy experts? So if someone asks them, "Do you have free will? Or are you determined by your upbringing?", could they just say, "Hey, why are you asking me? Let's ask the philosophy professors, and they will tell us. I haven't read all the great philosophers and the latest journal articles, so what clue could I possibly have on the topic? I get my philosophical views from the professors the same way I get my medical knowledge from the researchers. After all, they are the experts. We would be crazy to think that we--silly old us who can't even read a page of Aristotle or Kant without getting confused--can contribute anything on the issue of whether we have free will."

And perhaps they say the same thing when asked, "Is there a God?" Or "Do you think it's OK to ban gay marriage?" Or "Does human life have meaning?" Or "Is a democracy a better form of government than a dictatorship?" If they keep responding in the same way--"Hey, the philosophy professors will tell us!"--then in what way is society cultivating the art and skill of self-reflection in its citizens?

The idea that philosophy professors are the only ones who discover philosophical knowledge seems innocent enough, if one doesn't really think about it. But if one does think it through, it can be a frightening thought which seems to actually imply a kind of mindless, unreflective society.

The majority of people are not professional philosophers. If that means that they cannot contribute to the content of philosophical knowledge (as opposed to contributing by funding professional philosophers), then what responsibility can they have for thinking philosophically in their own lives? And if they don't have that responsibility, how can we have a flourishing, intellectually vigorous and free society?

Here is a comparison of the craziness level of views, as I see it.

View 1: Philosophy professors are the experts in philosophy, and so non-professionals cannot contribute to philosophical knowledge, and so those non-professionals don't have to think about philosophy.

Craziness level: Extremely Crazy!

Reason: It institutionalizes the capacity to gain philosophical knowledge, and in this way takes philosophy out of the hands of most people. How is this compatible with the ideals of a democratic society?

View 2: Philosophy professors are the experts in philosophy who exercise that expertise in contributing to philosophical knowledge by writing professional books. And they teach that expertise in classes. Non-professional philosophers should take those classes, and then use philosophy as best as they can in their lives. 

Craziness level: Extremely Crazy!

Reason: It implies View 1. Since philosophy professors exercise their philosophical ability by writing professional texts, they cannot teach how to exercise that ability to non-professionals. One cannot teach what one does not practice. Since non-professionals aren't taught how to incorporate philosophy into their lives, in effect it is as if they don't have to think about philosophy after all.

View 3: Philosophy is the birth right of every person, and the ability to do it, and the joy and peace it provides, can be each person's gift to themselves. This doesn't mean that there are no standards, any more than the fact that every person has a birth right to being healthy doesn't mean that there aren't standards. The philosophy profession exists to cultivate this birth right of each person, and in that way it is beholden to the general public, and not the other way around.

Craziness level: Least Crazy!

Reason: This view is just the truism that philosophy is the art of self-reflection, and that every self has the responsibility to do it in order to thrive and flourish. How can self-reflection be compatible with handing over that expertise to other people? This is the basic question guiding my belief.

My view is something, but it is not crazy. It is challenging.

It challenges professional philosophers to think more about what it means to take on the mantle of a philosophy expert. And it challenges every one else to think more about what it means to say that because they are not professors, they are not philosophers.

It challenges me as someone with a professional philosophy training to think about how I can use that training to question even the deepest assumptions of my education. And it challenges me as a person to use philosophy to question my deepest assumptions, and to take responsibility for myself as a philosopher.

Who is a philosopher? I think we should be concerned for a society in which the answer isn't: everyone.

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