Philosophy as remedy

This is a revised version of some comments I wrote a few years ago, when I observed that it is increasingly common to read opinion pieces that propose an increase in the study of philosophy, logic and science in schools as an antidote to mass stupidity of one form or another. In recent times this has been aimed squarely at intelligent design and creationism, but there is always a steady supply of bad ideas that would allegedly have been less likely to influence or convince anyone if “critical thinking” had been served up in the classroom.

As an example, not so long ago a number of philosophers (including Rorty, Derrida, Putnam and Gadamer), along with scientists and politicians, signed a petition urging “all parliaments and governments of the world to introduce, support and underwrite with full force the study of philosophy and its history and the related history of the natural human sciences”, this being “the ineradicable presupposition for every genuine encounter between peoples and cultures, for the creation of new categories to overcome existing contradictions and to be able to direct humanity on the path of goodness”. A noble cause, no doubt?

Paul Feyerabend refused to sign the document and explained why in an essay entitled Concerning an appeal for philosophy. He took issue with the idea that humanity should need to be “directed … as a policeman directs traffic”, pointing out that the petition required that people be forced to accept what is good for them, in spite of this decision being made by others and without consulting those who would be affected. He referred to this as “the colonial spirit again” – a world to be defined by academics rather than by people as individuals, including people who disagree and sometimes hold notions that other people think are stupid. Perhaps the most powerful part of his critique was the closing section, which read as follows:

My second criticism is that the appeal is self-serving (philosophers and scientists want their subjects to have greater power) and abounds in big words and empty generalities. The real problems of our time are not even touched upon. What are these problems? They are war, violence, hunger, disease, and environmental disasters. The warring parties have found a wonderful instrument for “overcoming existing contradictions” – ethnic cleansing. The appeal has nothing to say about these atrocities; in a way it even supports them by its proposed method of conceptual and/or cultural cleansing. The philosophers and scientists who signed it would have done better to issue a strongly worded condemnation of the crimes and murders that occur in our midst, together with an appeal to all governments to interfere and stop the killing, by military force, if necessary. Such a condemnation and such an appeal would have been understood, it would have shown that philosophers care for their fellow human beings; it would have shown that philosophy is more than an autistic concern with empty generalities, that it is a moral and political force that must be taken into account; and it would have taught the younger generation, better than any government-supported philosophy program, that devoting some time to its study is worthwhile.

It could probably be argued that Feyerabend was himself a little naïve here, either because most of the killing referred to was sponsored or brought about as a result of government intervention in the first place, or because what was actually needed – and perhaps is needed – is lots of small-scale works and actions instead of another list of signatories. Nevertheless, he declined to put his name to the use of philosophy as what he considered yet another tool of oppression, attempting instead to push matters in a more humanitarian direction: instead of trying to make children study how to spot a logical fallacy, perhaps we might recognise that philosophy is already being used to legitimise abhorrent treatment of people across the world, even as the fallacies in these justifications pass with little or no comment from philosophers and other intellectuals.

One of the key issues in this refusal was that, for Feyerabend, what this class of intellectuals actually meant is that certain ideas – those they have declared to be stupid – should be dismissed outright and, if the unwashed masses decline to do so, they should be “educated” until the desired result is achieved; that is, if people decline to think as a privileged minority insists they should then they should be coerced into doing so. As a consequence of this, we would reach something approximating an ideal rationality and many or all of our problems would disappear via the application of reason. The trouble is that, as noted above, reason is already being used to justify political actions and some horrific practices; the question is: are the academics with the critical thinking skills we all supposedly need (so desperately that governments are petitioned to do something about it) speaking out about these issues as they devote their energies to philosophical problems?

(It should be said that some philosophers do apply their philosophical skills to political issues, in presumably what is exactly the way envisaged in the petition. Michael Dummett, for example, has tirelessly campaigned against racism and his On Immigration and Refugees is a masterful account of how to treat migrants justly. Perhaps a better petition would be one that points to such contributions and encourages philosophers to do similarly, even to the extent of having their philosophical careers stall or suffer due to their involvement in activism?)

Thus the point is not the absurd one that critical thinking is a bad thing; instead, it is only that if philosophy is a good thing then we should see philosophers using it to call politicians to account (thereby demonstrating its value) and offering it to people rather than signing up to forcing it on them “for their own good”. No doubt many philosophers already do this and do not presume to tell other people what they should think or do, so why sign a petition when you can provide a positive example?

Perhaps the key aspect to all this is the conflict – or possibly just a disagreement – between those who would tell others what to think and those who prefer for people to choose for themselves, even if this means they might choose “wrongly”. No doubt the world would be a better place – from our own perspective, at least – if everyone thought as we assume they should, but we might ask if this is a world we would like to live in. Obviously the price we pay for an uncoerced world is that people may make all manner of (what we call) irrational decisions but, by the same token, we then have the freedom to advocate other decisions. Even though there are a multitude of obstacles in the way of this process being a free one (and it may be a very, very long way from it currently), it puts the responsibility for changing opinions on the individuals who would have people believe other than as they do.

What we see in this petition and on the part of many internet commentators is that some of us presume instead to harness the power of the state to force people to think differently, claiming as a justification that we are doing what is best for the masses in the long run. Of course, we can defend this approach by saying that what is being insisted upon is only a method (critical thinking, more science education, etc) that could conceivably lead anywhere, but actually it is quite clear that this begs the question and that the method is chosen to achieve a specific end; that is, removing unpalatable beliefs, as defined in advance. Indeed, if it were the case that this method could result in people coming to believe in ideas that are now dismissed as irrational or stupid, those supporting it would have to allow that the results of uncoerced debate – informed by critical thinking, and so on – must lead where they may or else they are exposed as trying to dictate what are acceptable conclusions. In that case, the only consistent option would be to let people think what they will, trying to argue for more critical thought but not insisting on it (not least because if this aspiration has much to recommend it then it should be easy to explain why and convince people as such) and we are back to not requiring that the state achieve a result we cannot through open dialogue.

This is why Feyerabend considered the petition oppressive: it involved a minority of academics asking the state to allow them to tell people how they should be educated and to what end. Resisting this tendency may not seem like a form of activism and it may lead to being dismissed as a defender of irrationality, but so it goes.

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3 Responses to Philosophy as remedy

  1. Pingback: » New blog you should be reading

  2. Awet says:

    If this blog relies on a distinction between the public n private role of the intellectual then I think irony can serve as the secret that avoids merging them both and forcing the philosopher to act as a politician every time he speaks.

    The dream of a single life that fuses the private and the public sphere dates back to Plato’s efforts to answer why one should be just and Christianity’s moral imperative that one can reach self-realization through serving others. All of these relies on the assumption of a common human nature, that both private life and human solidarity are one and same.

    I think we can honor both realms of self-creation and social interaction, for both leads to a greater understanding and commitment, for they’re not necessarily contradictory. As we mature in our self-realization, our sensitivity to the pain of others develops as well, which helps our sense of solidarity also develops.

    if this relies on a severe distinction between the public and the private world of the intellectual, then to honor this distinction we can resort to irony and remain a liberal. taking a page from Rorty, irony can play a positive role in “accommodating” other people’s private sense of identity. If a liberal uses irony as a technique then he is capable of maintaining a public commitment to liberalism while privately admit the historical contingency of their commitments. as long irony is limited to the private realm, where its corrosive power affects only the personal pursuit of autonomy, the liberal ironist can also uphold a commitment to the promotion of human solidarity.

    The ironist has an irreverent attitude to their own collection of ideas & expressions of their basic hopes and vocabularies, i.e., their “final vocabulary,” coz she has been (impressed) by other vocabularies that other people take as final. She also is aware that her current vocabulary can never (underwrite) nor dissolve her irreverent attitude or doubts. Thus she will not ever take her vocabulary to be more or less true than anyone else’s.

    However, this definition of irony leads Rorty to the conclusion that philosophy cannot serve as a foundation for politics, or have any role in politics. Basically, there’s no public role for philosophy. It should be restricted to private life, where irony can best serve it, and leave political & moral traditions to deal with the political issues of the day. While it is true that consciousness, language, and subjectivity are all contingent, historical, is this the only possible conclusion to draw? Is it necessarily impossible for theory to construct non-arbitrary grounds to assess factual and value claims, as long these grounds are neither metaphysical or ahistorical? After Rorty, what’s left, except Baudrillard, who is willing to destroy ideas with outrageous exaggerations and unsubstantiated claims?

  3. Pingback: » Irony and philosophy as remedy for politics

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