Philosophy is an odd pursuit in that its practitioners aren’t quite sure what it’s for. Scientists add to the stock of human knowledge. Medics cure ailments. Lawyers administer justice. Philosophers question, doubt and probe the underlying assumptions of others.
They ask open-ended, infuriating and perhaps unanswerable questions, like ‘Is it possible to know anything?’, ‘What does it mean to be just?’ and ‘Can suffering be meaningful?’ It’s no wonder a lot people find them annoying.
A selection of views about philosophy from a new book on the subject by Justin EH Smith gives a taste of the discipline’s ill-defined nature:
“Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
“Philosophy is precisely that intellectual inquiry in which anything is open to critical challenge and scrutiny.” – Graham Priest
“I see philosophy not as groundwork for science, but as continuous with science.” – WVO Quine
“The myth-lover is in a sense a philosopher, since myths are composed of wonders.” – Aristotle
Smith is a Paris-based professor of philosophy so he has a vested interest in defending the discipline from its many critics. In The Philosopher: A History in Six Types, he makes a good stab at that but adds his own critique, warning academic practitioners not to get too lost up their own aporias while also highlighting an ethnocentric bias that afflicts western intelligentsia.
Shunning the traditional approach of explaining philosophical thought in steps from ignorance to enlightenment, as epitomised by Bertrand Russell’s famous History of Western Philosophy of 1945, he tells it by way of “job descriptions”, identifying six representative characters that have pushed the boundaries of intellectual life down the ages.
These are the Curiosus, who believes “that there is nothing shameful about knowledge of res singulares: singular things” (they are often women, he says); the Sage (think the Buddha); the Gadfly (think Socrates); the Ascetic (epitomised by cynics, Jainists and early Christians); the Mandarin, who belongs to an elite class of bureaucratic intellectual (eg Confucian scholars or tenured university professors); and the Courtier, a maligned but somewhat misunderstood creature who charges for his thoughts.
A second departure from conventional histories of philosophy is Smith’s resistance to name-checking all the greats: Arthur Schopenhauer doesn’t get a mention, nor Jean-Paul Sartre, nor Peter Singer. The views of 17th-century travelling physician François Bernier get deeper treatment than those of Hobbes, Hume and Wittgenstein combined.
Meanwhile, whole schools of thought are left out, existentialism and pragmatism included. For each of his six types, moreover, Smith declines to advance a representative thinker from history but rather creates a fictional voice to articulate family resemblances.
The quality of these imaginative interludes varies considerably but it is worth the risk, if only for the modern Gadfly Smith conjures up: a retired real estate appraiser who is struggling to get others to recognise the genius of his self-published e-book Quantum Truths for the 21st Century. This amateur philosopher regards the failure of academics like Smith to engage with his revelations as a sign of the academy’s narrow-mindedness, and who is to say he is wrong?
“Philosophy doesn’t just begin in wonder; once the wonder is gone, it is no longer philosophy. Remember that, professor,” the Gadfly writes tartly.
Anyone looking for a definitive history of philosophy, then, will be disappointed. But the strength of Smith’s approach is to demonstrate philosophical thought in action, and the book comes into its own when introducing readers to philosophers outside the recognised canon.
If names like Alexis Kagame, Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq. Dara Shikoh, Richard Sorabji or Nishi Amane don’t ring any bells then prepare to be enlightened. His narrative is deliberately non-Western, or at least consistently interrogating the WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic) norms accepted by those most likely to be reading this Princeton University Press publication.
There are engaging discussions on the classification of knowledge and the tricky problem of identifying legitimate authority, albeit there’s rarely anything that comes close to a resolution. Even on the question of bias, he backtracks from tearing up the existing curriculum.
“To get serious about inclusiveness by reconceiving philosophy in a maximally capacious way, as including not just institutionally based textual knowledge but also orally transmitted folk knowledge, is something that is unlikely to happen soon,” he writes. “Most would take it to be a self-destructive move, an abandonment of any meaningful distinction between philosophy and the rest of human culture.”
All in all, reading The Philosopher feels like you’re spending time with a very widely read raconteur who doesn’t take himself too seriously. And it comes as no surprise when he reveals in the penultimate chapter that he moonlighted for a while as a Courtier, charging cultural tourists to Paris €60 for a two-hour session of free-wheeling philosophical dialogue over espressos.
In a demonstration of philosophy’s open-ended nature, the book ends with a chapter headed “Conclusion” that contains nothing of the sort. Smith says “we have failed to determine what philosophy is” – and thus “that most fundamental of philosophical questions” goes unanswered. No bother. Smith suggests it’s the journey not the destination that matters, and his makes for an enjoyable and head-spinning ride.
Not that everyone will be satisfied, and if you're the sort of the person who finds these ruminations a little too self-indulgent then the antidote is Philosophy and Practical Engagement: Reflection in the Public Sphere, a collection of essays in political theory honouring retired NUI Galway academic Joseph Mahon.
For the contributors in this book edited by Allyn Fives and Keith Breen, defining philosophy is not the most fundamental question facing independent thinkers; rather it is figuring out how to tackle pressing collective problems such as political violence, global poverty and the democratic deficit.
Or as the editors put it at the opening of this book: “Do philosophers have a responsibility to their society that is distinct from their responsibility to it as citizens? If so, what form does this responsibility take?”
A running theme throughout is that philosophy has retreated from the public sphere in recent decades, and a number of explanations are offered. One theory is that the discipline has suffered from the rise of science. Another is that it has made itself marginal to public interest by pursuing esoteric topics. Another hypothesis is that today's managerial form of politics has no use for, or interest in, the kind of independent, bird's-eye perspective that philosophers can provide.
In any event, the prognosis is glum. As Alasdair MacIntyre writes in a chapter contrasting social discourse today with that a hundred years ago: “Tell almost any member of the present day general public… that it is to philosophy that she or he needs to go, if they are to understand what they most need to understand about themselves and why a concern for the condition of the poor should be important to them, and they will take you to babble.”
Thankfully, the various contributors – who include Co Galway native Philip Pettit and Allen W Wood from the US along with half a dozen Irish – and UK-based philosophers – don’t waste their time feeling sorry for themselves. Rather they make the case for philosophy’s relevance by addressing urgent matters like economic equality, the struggle for meaningful work, and the ethics of assisted suicide.
In a chapter on “Abortion and the Right to Not Be Pregnant”, James Edwin Mahon – who followed his father into the business and is now a philosophy professor in New York – reminds us of one of the things philosophers are especially good at: The Thought Experiment.
John Searle gave us the “the Chinese room” to illustrate the limits of artificial intelligence, Philippa Foot “the trolley problem” to better understand ethical decision making, John Rawls “the veil of ignorance” to show us how conditions of authentic justice are formed, and so on, right back to Plato who used the allegory “the cave” to try to demonstrate how illusion and reality differed.
Add to these Judith Jarvis Thomson's famous thought experiment in A Defense of Abortion published in 1971: "You wake up in the morning and find yourself back-to-back in bed with an unconscious violinist."
Mahon Jnr describes this as “surely one of the most famous sentences in all of moral philosophy” as it sets up a scenario that puts bodily integrity as the centre of the abortion debate. “By putting the example in the second person,” he adds, “Thompson made the male reader adopt the perspective of a pregnant woman.”
In her story, you discover “the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own”, and there you must stay for at least nine months until doctors unplug him.
Thomson’s argument is that everyone possesses the right to his or her own body, and while you might be seen as a “Good Samaritan” by hosting another body against your will you can’t be compelled to do so.
Mahon’s essay essay should be read by anyone who believes the arguments either for or against abortion rights are self-evident. While he support’s Thomson’s view, he takes issue with some aspects of her case, and leaves open the question of whether abortion should be frowned upon, or morally condemned, in certain circumstances even if it is legal.
Thompson recognises a duty of “Minimally Decent Samaritanism” and places certain categories of abortion (such as late-term abortion to avoid the inconvenience of pregnancy while on holidays) as “suberogatory acts”, things that you ought not to do but which are not forbidden.
Proving MacIntyre’s point about the sidelining of philosophers in public discourse, the Government has decided to refer the issue of the Eighth Amendment to a 100-person “citizens’ assembly”, what appears to be a glorified focus group. Fives highlights how philosophers have been deployed in other jurisdictions to make legislative recommendations in contentious areas such as pornography control and embryology. So why not here?
One can’t just blame philosophy’s marginalised status on politicians, however. Many academics prefer the comfort zone of the lecture hall to the “real world”, and more than a few would balk at the notion of “philosophy by expert committee”. Fives urges his peers to get over any such reservations, and in doing so he provides yet another definition of philosophy. Paraphrasing British ethicist Jonathan Wolff, he likens it to the art of “carrying others with you”.
The collection of essays cover only a small sample of contemporary political problems but they demonstrate that that the cross-disciplinary, analytical skills in which philosophers are trained can point the way to unexpected solutions or illuminate new paths of progress.
MacIntyre reminds us that this gift should not remain in the academy, seeing philosophy – at its most authentic – as a means of empowering people to tackle social injustices or to realise their own dignity.
“Those who most need an education in our society, if they are to understand their own condition and act effectively to remedy it, are those least likely to receive it,” he writes. Arguably, a small step towards addressing this would be to introduce philosophy in schools.
*Philosophy Ireland, a new organisation aimed at promoting philosophy in education and society, is being launched on Saturday, August 27th, with a day-long conference in Dublin. See: philosophyireland.ie
The Philosopher: A History in Six Types by Justin E.H. Smith is published by Princeton University Press
Philosophy and Practical Engagement: Reflection in the Public Sphere, edited by Allyn Fives and Keith Breen, is published by Palgrave Macmillan