Is it Philosophy?


– Rant # 168 –


Here’s what I write in the course outline for my Intros, “What is philosophy? is itself a philosophical question, best answered, if at all, only after having done some of it.” But what’s the antecedent of the pronoun ‘it’?

We’ve all been admonished not to bullshit but to teach what we know. So if I taught my students the rules of chess and how to make egg popovers, would these things become part of philosophy by virtue of the fact that a member of the Philosophy Department taught them in his courses? Presumably not. But that’s precisely what they’d be if we subscribed to the institutional theory of what is philosophy. On this view philosophy is just whatever philosophers happen to do, and philosophers are just those people so designated by the institution in which they do whatever it is they happen to do.

On the other hand, neither do we want to become essentialists about what we do. Nor about how we do it. We want to be able to retire questions that have proven meaningless, or at least unfruitful, like, What is the meaning of life?, and to ask new ones, like, How does a word attach to an object? Likewise if we couldn’t ask old questions from new perspectives then feminist philosophy would never have been allowed off the ground.

So even though we can say that philosophy always was and remains the critical examination of the core concepts by which we maneuver our way through the world, those concepts change with the material conditions in which their use is embedded. So, for example, if we became disembodied – as kindergarten Christianity preaches we will in the Hereafter – then much of ethics and political philosophy would have to be retooled if and when we get there. But on the essentialist view the critical examination of our interpersonal relations in the Hereafter would no longer count as philosophy because interpersonal relations are essentially embodied.

It would seem, then, that somewhere between the essentialist and anything-goes views must lie the right way to decide whether this or that is or is not content suitable for credit as a philosophy course. In what sense ‘right’? In the sense of contributing to a grasp of how to critically examine the core concepts by which we maneuver our way through the world.

Do we have a sense of what does and does not contribute to this grasp? Well, we had better! And by their second or third year – but for sure by their fourth – our better students have that sense too. And this is why, if a critical mass of our senior students are turning to each other and asking, “What does any of this have to do with philosophy?” or “Where’s the philosophy in this course?”, there’s a very good chance it’s the instructor who’s lost that grasp, a synonym for which is his ‘grip’.

Hey, I’m not sayin’. I’m just reporting!

Categories: Why My Colleagues Are Idiots

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