Monday, February 20, 2012

On the Defense of Philosophical Inquiry

I am not a Platonist. I believe that some of the worst damage done to western thought has been done by Plato and his successors, yet I will readily admit that the man was a great thinker and a powerful writer and, having witnessed the death of Socrates at the hands of the Athenian people, he understood better than most the threat of popular reaction against philosophy.
I have not read the entirety of Plato’s work, but of what I have read his greatest thought is the allegory of the cave. What I have here repeated is not Plato’s allegory, but rather a version of it told to me by one my high school teachers long before I read the original in The Republic. I believe it to be superior to the original, not in form or style (or anything else related to how I have here conveyed it) but in the coherence of the idea expressed.

There once was a tribe of men that lived in a cave on the side of a mountain. They never left this cave, but were bound to pillars within it such that all they could see was the stone wall that formed the back of the cave and all that they could hear were echoes, from each other and from outside the cave. Each day the sun would rise and cast shadows on the walls of the cave – clouds, trees, birds and other animals, other tribes of men – and seeing these figures the men of the cave would exclaim and call out names for them, guessing which would follow the other. They honored those who could best guess the coming form of each, all the while never realizing, never even imagining, that the shadows were not the things themselves.
Now one day one of the men managed to work himself free and ventured out of the cave, and he saw the things that cast the shadows, the clouds and the trees and the birds, and he saw the sun in whose light they were illuminated. All of these things he saw in a blur, for his vision was not accustomed to such sights, but in time he came to see things ever more clearly. Then thinking back to his tribesmen in the cave, how they labored and strove in vain to understand the shadows, he wished to return to them and tell them what he had seen. But when this he did they became angry and commanded him to look only at the shadows and not try to deceive them, but this he would not do, for though he knew little enough of the world, he had seen the things that cast the shadows and could not go back to the life of his tribesmen. But neither could he leave them to their vacuousness, so he persisted in admonishing them to come with him out of the cave, and at last growing tired of him they set upon him and killed him.

This is the threat every critical thinker faces – the attacks upon him by his former tribesmen who will fight to be left in ignorant contentment. Today in America, philosophers no longer face an existential threat; the laws written to protect political speech incidentally protect us as well, but we face other attacks.
The first is trivialization: the misuse and overuse of the term “philosophy” so that it applies to all abstraction and symbolic language. This has allowed the birth of popular philosophy, a whole genre of pseudo-philosophical literature that uses enough of the language of the tradition to present the illusion of depth of thought. Because of this, people who have no training in the discipline can write and speak derisively about philosophy as if they are well-versed in its theories. This takes two forms, although, admittedly, they are closely related: practicality and proletarian snobbery.
Practicality is the privileging of that which leads to immediate material gain over that which leads only to abstract knowledge. Philosophy is by definition the love of wisdom, not the love of wealth or leisure or efficiency.
Proletarian snobbery is the accusation that philosophy is a rich man’s game, that the issues it discusses are, on the most basic level, irrelevant; that only if one is completely satiated can one indulge in pursuits like philosophy.
The most disheartening feature of these attacks is that they do not even need a formal refutation. If one begins where one should begin when studying philosophy, with the ancient Greeks, it will be completely obvious that the discipline is neither impractical nor bourgeois.
Unfortunately, these forces have largely been victorious. Professional philosophy has faded from public view in this country in favor of the fine arts, particularly music and film, and the hard sciences, particularly biology and physics. If asked to name a 20th century philosopher, most Americans, even those who consider themselves philosophically inclined, would likely mention a figure whose work is known more for its literary than philosophical merit. This is in no way intended to disparage any of these disciplines, but rather to point out that the arts and the sciences are only two of the legs of the liberal tradition and that without philosophy the intellectual environment in this country is doomed to democratic consumerism and blind technological materialism.

To rectify this situation I propose the following reform; which will be simple and relatively easy to implement: philosophy should be taught at the high school level. As a requirement for graduation most high schoolers already take four years of english and history, and many take equal credits of science, mathematics and foreign language, to this should be added at least two years of philosophy.
To this there can be two objections, one that it is infeasible, the other that it is useless. I feel I have already addressed the reasons why it is not useless, but in addition I will say that the writing skills a student gains while studying philosophy are at least as applicable as the skills a student gains in studying literature, perhaps even more so given the focus on clarity and logical analysis that philosophy shares with mathematics. Regarding the first accusation, that teaching philosophy on the high school level would be infeasible, a qualifier must be given. To command the public school districts, as they are now equipped, to implement philosophy classes would be highly infeasible; the average humanities teacher is completely unequipped to transition to teaching philosophy. New teachers, teachers with degrees in philosophy as well as training in education, would have to be hired, and given that most philosophy majors are not on the public education career track, the implementation of this reform would have to be gradual. Of course it is likely that many private schools already offer philosophy classes of the type that are here described, but as these schools are fundamentally elitist they cannot solve the problem of the standing of philosophy in America.

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