Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Let there be fruit!

Apparently it was World Philosophy Day yesterday. To celebrate, several philosophers asked themselves where we're going and "Are we there yet?" Brian Leiter recommends this essay by Matti Eklund, so I read that first. Eklund argues, plausibly to my mind (though see here for some skepticism about Eklund's claims), that philosophy moves not according to where the best arguments lead but away from programs that come to seem sterile and toward programs that promise to bear fruit. "Sterile" here means, I suppose, something like boring and pointless, which is surely how the whole of philosophy seems to many undergraduates (and others). And I wonder whether this is connected somehow to the fact that undergraduate essays are often so hard to read properly, to engage with. Are we all just pretending to care about ideas and arguments, when what we really care about is something more social? By which I mean the kind of tribalism involved in analytic vs continental 'debates' (and others between consequentialists and non-consequentialists, resolute Wittgensteinians and non-resolute Wittgensteinians, etc.), the concern with pedigree that we see all too often, and the desire to be entertained (by exciting new theories). It's not as if theories and arguments (and wise insights and grammatical reminders, etc.) are irrelevant, but they seem to be a little more off to the side than we like to pretend. 

So what's in the middle, not off to the side? And so what? "Interesting" work in philosophy often seems to be work that expands the empire of one's own interests (e.g., by applying a theory you like to some new area) or strengthens one's own position in relation to rival positions (by attacking them, defending yours, or both). I don't think it's all politics (but then I wouldn't, would I?), but it's hard to deny that it's more political, more a matter of power plays, than it's meant to be. Students don't have a position to defend, though, so why should they care? I think grading can be hard because it's hard to focus on what each student is saying. And that's because many of them aren't really saying anything in their papers. They're just parroting what others have said, or trying to play the game without having yet mastered it. There is something to be said for getting students to think abstractly about things of no immediate concern to themselves. But there's also something to be said for relevance to actual problems of life (to steal a phrase).  

Somehow questions about the teaching of philosophy, the philosophy profession, and philosophy itself all seem to me to come together here. In the profession I think it's important to try to resist mere tribalism (without ceasing to have opinions in the process), to resist the power of mere pedigree (without kidding oneself that people educated at Chicago or Pittsburgh or Oxford are no good), and to resist the lure of the exciting and new. Which all means, I suppose, being open-minded, focusing on the quality of ideas (or maybe just their truth), and being somewhat conservative (or just skeptical about what might be fads). This is how philosophy ought to be done, I think, how the profession ought to work (for instance, pedigree and working on hot topics ought to count for nothing in the job market), and what we ought to be teaching our students (i.e. open-mindedness, love of truth, skepticism). Perhaps no one would disagree. But it doesn't seem to be how things are actually done in reality. And I'm not sure how much fruit this kind of approach would bear, at least in terms of anything that looked like progress.

(Would this make grading student papers any easier? Probably not, if only because it's already pretty much what/how I try to teach. But if I thought about it more I might try less to get them to take a side on some debate and try more to teach them some basics of logic or to engage with a specific issue. The latter is not easy in an introductory or survey course, but it's what I try to do when I teach applied ethics. Maybe I should move all my teaching in that direction.)

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