Monday, August 5, 2013

The Worst Thing About Philosophical Method Is The Best Thing About Philosophical Method

Suddenly last weekend philosophy was in the news. I'm always hoping to see philosophy in the news putting its best face forward, with philosophers commenting on topics like medical ethics, science, intellectual property, human rights, war, mental health and illness, why we believe what we believe, the list goes on and on.

For whatever reasons -- and I'm sure there are several -- that doesn't generally happen.

And last weekend, instead, we were in the news for our problems with women -- of which we have a few. The article discussed several important topics, including What It's Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy. I have to say that though I was glad to see this issue receiving attention, I was also a little sad to have our moment in the limelight focus on our flaws.

I've often reflected about the things that make philosophy an uneasy fit with the modern world, and thus why philosophers' opinions are not more frequently sought out -- by the media and also by scholars in other areas. Chief among these, as I see it, is that philosophy often requires some abstracting away from the way things seem, or the way they just happen to be, to get at some more essential truth about how they are, or could be in radically different circumstances.

That is, to some extent, philosophical thinking has to be disconnected from the real world, has to see as separate things that just happen to tend to go together. For instance, just war theory is theory; it tries to analyze what's just in war in abstract terms that don't depend on contingent factors about particular wars.

This quality can sometimes be a problem, because of the intense interest people have, not unnaturally, in how things are, here and now, for us, in these very particular circumstances. I feel it myself. Why can't philosophy be engaged with what's actually going on, with what happens contingently to be the case? For us?

But then I reflect that this element of abstraction is in some ways the best thing about philosophy, because it can result in original and new imaginings about the world.

For example, in 1869, when J. S. Mill wrote The Subjection of Women, probably together with his wife Harriet Taylor Mill, and certainly with her intellectual input, they imagined an equality of the sexes that challenged everything about the society they lived in. Confronted with facts about the relative standing and accomplishments of women in their day, the Mills pointed out that these were the result of contingent social forces, forces that functioned to make it appear that women were weaker or intellectually inferior, and that in the absence of those forces men and women both would be happier.

It's a great example of how challenging what seems to be the case, and getting away from what just happens to be true in your own particular world, produces truly radical thought in the best possible way.

In this sense the worst thing about philosophical methodology -- its pie-in-the-sky disconnection from "the real world" -- is also the best thing about philosophical methodology, because only through this disconnection can you truly challenge the status quo.

Of course, once you've had the abstract thoughts, you can change the world only by bringing them to bear on the here and now, on the world we live in. And you can only develop abstract thoughts relevant to changing the world by constant careful attention to that hear and now, our actual world. So it seems to me philosophy is always in a certain balancing act: you need the one but you also need the other.

What does surprise me in my discipline is how often scholars seem to move in the abstraction direction instead of the application direction.

I mean, you might think that figuring out what you believe about some very abstract thing, the next interesting order of business would be to figure out how it fits, or doesn't, with some real stuff. The work I do on ethical reasoning is abstract, but now that I know what I think about some basic aspects of it, I'm interested in how that fits with bioethics, ethics in application, the real problems and decision making processes people are using.

That's often not what happens. What happens instead is that Professor X develops a view about the foundations of ethical claims. And instead of getting gripped next by the potential implications of this view for how we live, Professor X gets gripped instead by a more abstract question, like what epistemological view, or philosophy of language view, would fit best with the foundations of ethics views.

Given the way various forces combine in our discipline to make the more abstract work seem hierarchically superior, it seems to me the "balance" is out of whack: though we need both, right now we could use more of the connection, real world aspect and less of the disconnection, abstract aspect.

And though this post has been about philosophy as a methodology and not about the particular problems the field has with women, there are certainly connections. These seem complex enough to me that I'll leave them aside for another occasion.

But I do share the view, common among women in philosophy, that addressing the one problem would help address the other: in addition to the issues about fairness and opportunity, it's also simply the case that more women in philosophy will simply make philosophy better.

1 comment:

Russell Downham said...

I agree, more to-ing and fro-ing between experience and abstraction invigorates philosophy. Abstraction is a powerful tool for isolating those features that different experiences and situations have in common. But thus isolated, the concepts all too easily take on a life of their own, and then by the time we try to apply them to their original context the link is unrecognisable. More frequent translations back and forth during the course of an idea's development can keep it grounded. Perhaps philosophical thought then is more about this switching between the abstract and the experiential than it is simply about abstraction playing out through its own terms.