Monday, February 2, 2015
Dilemmas of Philosophy: Creativity And Criticism
I'm a philosopher, but I didn't become one in the normal way. I studied math in college, and when I did take a philosophy class in undergrad, I happened into one of the standard Descartes-to-Kant history surveys. To be honest I spent the semester staring out the window and thinking, "Who cares about proofs of the existence of god? This is stupid."
It wasn't until after I'd spent years pursuing a PhD in mathematics and then eventually started hanging around some humanities people that I began to read some philosophy of mathematics, and that drew me in to the whole shebang, and really right into the core of philosophy. If you know me at all, you know I have ideas in a wide-range of philosophical areas, and that, in the classic philosophical style, I like to think about how they all fit together.
So I may be an "accidental" philosopher, but I'm definitely a philosopher.
This particular history, though, means that when I started my PhD in philosophy, I was already a pretty formed person, with opinions and a self-concept that were formed in the "pure math" atmosphere and not the "humanities" atmosphere. And one of the first things I noticed hanging out with humanities people -- and especially humanities students -- was how much time they seemed to spend on essentially critical activities. Finding a problem in someone's argument, objecting to a framework, finding a counter-example, complicating a narrative.
While I could see how criticism could be important, and obviously useful for learning, and how it could be part of a dialectic activity that really did move things along, I found this aspect of the humanities ... would "distasteful" be too strong a word? Criticism seemed to me so narrow in scope, so not-getting-anywhere, so uncreative, and frankly, often a bit like shooting fish in a barrel.
I wanted to go beyond criticism. I wanted to create something, and I wanted to take a stand not only on what I thought was wrong, but on what I thought was right. If you know math, you know how creative it is: the main activity in math is proving things, and there's a rich aesthetic quality to it. I wanted to keep the feeling of doing that, and I also thought there was a kind of intellectual virtue to laying my own cards on the table, to say not only "I disagree with your claim that X" but also "I think Y."
So OK: as I've gone along in philosophy, I've tried, with varying degrees of success, to do just that. I've tried to say what I thought the answers to certain problems were, or how the problems should be framed, or what interesting things would follow from which other things.
Lately, however, I feel like I'm running up against the limits of creativity in philosophy. One major problem with it, it seems to me, is that it seems to require framing your new thing with some accepted background framework or set of ideas or posing of the question.
I mean, in philosophy, to make your new contribution seem intelligible, interesting, or relevant, you kind of have to appeal in some way to the way things are set up. Otherwise people -- and especially other philosophers -- have nothing to connect them to your idea, no way of understanding or entering in to what you are saying, no shared starting point for reflection. For example, if you want to offer, say, a new view in bioethics, getting others to care about and understand your work requires some kind of use of familiar concepts and references to familiar texts and so on.
But this seems to essentially limit the depth of possible challenges to the status quo. Sometimes you don't want to appeal to the existing framework, because sometimes it's the framework that's the problem. Sometimes you want to say that some whole way of doing things is wrong -- wrong in such a way that you can't just turn around and create some other way of doing things.
For example, in his book The Racial Contract, Charles Mills expertly lays out the historical and philosophical case that what we think of as "social contract theory" was constructed on essentially racist foundations. It's basically a ground-up criticism of a whole way of thinking about something. I have to admit, when I first finished reading the book, I thought to myself for a moment, "Well? And? Should we stop doing social contract theory? Change it? What?" I was looking for the positive and creative part in a book where that wasn't the point, where the point was more to say that the whole frame for thinking of some area was a problem. I had to step back and remember what that kind of deep criticism was all about.
So while I continue to feel the appeal of the creative and the positive, the importance of offering something that might be true of the natural or social world and not just true of some other theorizing, more and more lately I find myself confronting its limited usefulness for really deeply different thinking. And wow, does this ever seem like a time for deeply different thinking.
This essential limitation to creative and positive work seems to me particularly a problem in philosophy. In other humanities, it seems like scholars have so much to connect them to one another just in the content of the discipline: US historians have the history of the US; scholars of French literature have the literature of France; art historians have actual art to talk about.
But philosophy, it's like there's no there there. All we have are our ideas, and our history, and our shared conversation, for connecting our ideas together and sharing what we are thinking about and how it matters. That's not only a negative thing -- it can also be what makes philosophy limitless and open-ended in the strange way that it is. But it can be a problem.
One way it can be a problem, I think, is in this creativity/criticism dilemma. The creative work of philosophy, the saying what is, the making of a theory or set of ideas to share seems constrained. Since you're always referring back to some shared conversation from the past to even frame what you're talking about, it's hard to strike completely out on your own with a radically and interestingly new thing.