Wednesday, May 26, 2010

What is a Philosopher?

That was Simon Critchley's question in his essay on the new NYT philosophy series called The Stone. He's the moderator of the series, and his essay was supposed to kick things off.

Kind of a weird piece. The internets rumbled with the groaning of analytic philosophers, and I can understand why.

[Quick primer on the two main denominations in the contemporary academic philosophy world: There are analytic philosophers and there are Continental philosophers. One way to understand the distinction is to consider why each is hard to read, for different reasons. Analytic philosophers are hard to read like computer programs are hard to read. They're full of precisely defined words, and sometimes just letters and symbols, and you have to have your philosophical dictionary out and plug and chug the definitions in there to understand what the hell they're saying. It may be a bitch to read, but like a computer program, you can be sure that it either makes sense or it won't work. Someone can point out your mistake and you have to admit you're wrong. Well, not everyone admits they're wrong, but by and large, that's the way it usually works.

Continental philosophy is hard to read because it doesn't use precisely defined words. I mean, they're using English...or German or French or whatever (Continental does refer to that Euro euphemism "the Continent"). The words have definitions. But the style is much squishier and lends itself to stretching words and concepts to fit a philosophical argument. And it's hard to read because the argument itself can be hard to follow, and sometimes gets lost in literary type flourishes, that usually aren't very good from a literary point of view anyway. So, the criticism is, it's much harder to pin someone down and say, aha!, look here see, what you wrote was wrong. Because there's plenty of wiggle room and opportunity for showmanship, which lends itself to confidence games rather than clearly understood questions and (attempted) answers.

The ideal analytic philosopher is just nails when it comes to logical argumentation. The ideal Continental philosopher is damn clever and cryptic.

These are just caricatures of the two styles of philosophy. It's not a necessarily useful way to categorize all philosophy out there, but it's one way to explain the context of the academic discipline today. Another helpful bit of information is that analytic philosophy currently tends to be very much an applied discipline. I mean, it does have abstract topics like metaphysics, but it also deals with the philosophy of science. More specifically, philosophy of psychology, artificial intelligence, philosophy of physics, biology, et cetera. Continental philosophy tends to be about more abstract, metaphysical and existential stuff.]

Back to Critchley's essay. He doesn't mention any of the great philosophy being done on practical topics, like bioethics and philosophy of mind and philosophy of physics (I'm probably giving away my preference for analytic philosophy here). And there are some really great popular books out there that translate this stuff into non-specialist language for the rest of us. But the message he delivered in his essay was that the philosopher is basically out of touch, but gosh aren't you intrigued by how wonderfully out of touch he is (it's a "he", definitely--the only philosophers Critchley talks about are ancient Greek dudes). The philosopher is "the one who is silly", "the person who has time or who takes time", and, let's give a fair warning, "PHILOSOPHY KILLS".


Is it that hard to write an apology for philosophy? Philosophy helps us get our thinking straight. It's better to think straight than to think crooked. Try it out. Moving on.

I just came across this website today, which is a great example of philosophy being put to good use: Got a tough question that hurts your thinker? Post it on the website, and a professional philosopher will do his or her diggity darndest to answer it. Seems incredibly practical to me.

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