Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A philosopher speaks

My friend and colleague Professor Capobianco has responded to my question, "What do philosophers do?" -- and with a conciseness untypical of his profession does it in less than 400 words. Thanks, Richard.

My good friend Chet has challenged me (at least I think it was me!) to help us understand what a philosopher is. As he points out, in earlier centuries that might have been an easier task because philosophers, as "lovers of wisdom," were often precisely those who advanced our understanding of the natural world and of every other aspect of what we call "reality." Admittedly, thinking about what a philosopher is or does in the contemporary world is more difficult because the study of what used to belong to the domain of philosophical thinking has split off over time and has been taken up by specialists in the other disciplines, what we call today the natural and social sciences. So, Chet asks, what's left for philosophers to think about? Why do we need philosophers at all anymore?

The answer, I think, has to do with the peculiar nature of philosophical thinking from its origins. Philosophy, in the proper sense of that term, is concerned with examining, clarifying, and questioning the fundamental assumptions of all our human activities and inquiries. Philosophers ask: what are the fundamental assumptions of our social and political lives? our institutions? our religions? our ethical stances? our art? our various modes of inquiry? With respect to that last item, we might observe that the working physicist, to use one example, proceeds with a method and a vocabulary but does not spend time examining that method and vocabulary; that is what a philosopher does best.

It's the philosophers, and, yes, even those much maligned postmodern philosophers, who remind the practitioners of the other disciplines that in the deep background of their research are basic assumptions about who we are and what the world is that are not fixed and eternal, but contingent and subject to modification or even radical revision. If history is our guide, then the very assumptions that Chet the physicist proceeds with today are likely to be viewed sometime in the future as no less quaint as Aristotle's assumptions appear to us today! So, to put it simply, good philosophy keeps our unknowing in view, and therefore keeps us thinking, keeps us questioning, keeps us wondering. Good philosophy keeps us unsettled in our knowing -- and, remarkably enough, it's precisely in this way that philosophy serves to "advance civilization."
Let the Porch have its say. I'll chime in on Friday. Tomorrow: Remembering Martin Gardner.

(Cartoon by Charles Barsotti, New Yorker. Capobianco's new book is Engaging Heidegger, University of Toronto Press.)