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02/29/2016

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Ambrose

Hi Marcus,
Excellent comments. I'm glad you think this is an important topic (because I sure do think so).

About Thought 1:

One reason why professional philosophers find it so plausible that there are no "reliable answers" to questions about how to lead a good life may be just that they don't regard living a good life as one of the basic guiding ideals of their lives or careers as philosophers; so consequently they don't lead particularly good lives -- they are mentally unhealthy and not particularly moral -- and so consequently they fail to meet the non-intellectual preconditions for sound judgments about this topic. Obviously this line of argument depends on controversial assumptions. But I find it natural to assume that proper intellectual functioning, especially with respect to normative issues, is at least very difficult for people who aren't grounded in a healthy moral way of life.

About Thought 3:

For many people, participating in the professional system now requires extreme dishonesty. Many people are (at least) quite skeptical about the official norms and values of the profession, such as feminism, diversity, etc. There are, of course, all kinds of philosophical grounds for doubting these things. (If there are philosophical grounds for doubting that I know that I have two hands, there are philosophical grounds for doubting that affirmative action is fair, that it's good for America to become ever more 'diverse', etc.) But if you doubt or disagree you'd be very wise to keep it to yourself; your career or career prospects could be ruined if you 'trigger' the SJW mob in the wrong way. Of course, you and I disagree about these substantive issues, but my point is just that people on my side now live in fear of their honest attitudes being known. This is not compatible with living a good life, especially if your calling is to be a philosopher.

In addition, the work we do is (in my opinion) fundamentally destructive and unethical. Although, of course, we often do really teach our students important things and we do lots of good in certain ways, these are things that happen _despite_ the nature of the institutions within which we are working. The purpose of the university now is not education, or any other social good. For the most part we are participating in a kind of parasitism or a ponzi scheme. The net effect is to endebt and impoverish millions of young people, often without any significant benefit to them or to anyone other than the banks and corporations, the tenured, the administrators, etc. They aren't really getting what they're paying for, and in many cases what they are getting is something that they and their parents would never have agreed to fund (e.g., 'diversity' training aimed at inducing racial guilt, highly contentious left-wing interpretations of history presented in the absence of any real criticism, loads of dubious 'theory' that uneducated people can debunk for themselves). My point is this: on some level we know that we're involved in an unethical and exploitive system, that our jobs exist only because they serve its destructive ends, and that's not compatible with living a good life. I can't in good faith claim that what I am really doing is _teaching_ or whatever, since I know that teaching and learning is not what the institution wants and would often be actively opposed by the institution if it were more widely known to be happening. (E.g., if we were asking students in a 'critical thinking' course to think in a really serious way about how the university is funded, where its money goes, how any of that could really be good for them or society).

These are the ravings of a crank, of course :)


A.P. Taylor

Marcus...

Very interesting post. Here is another point that I think it is fair to raise. Ambrose and Sigh's comments assume, it seems to me, that philosophers share a common understanding of the philosophical enterprise, but I think this is mistaken. My primary field of research is metaphysics, and when it came time to work on my dissertation and begin publishing, I merged that interest in metaphysics with an interest in ethics, and began researching the metaphysical foundations of well-being (cf. my paper The Frustrating Problem for Four-Dimensionalism). As a long term research program I am interested in questions of well-being and practical reason mostly for the light they can shed on our ontological commitments w.r.t. the essential nature of the human person. My interest in philosophy, going back to my undergraduate days, is primarily fueled by an interest in metaphysical aporia. I am interested in conceptual modeling, and trying to resolve theoretical puzzles that I happen to find interesting. I did not come to the study of philosophy to learn how to live well, but rather, to try and find answers to perplexing questions. I would be willing to wager that this is true many philosophers, and probably for most who work in metaphysics, mind, and epistemology. On the other hand, I would wager that many who work primarily in ethics, both theoretical and applied, are probably interested in living good lives, though they may not be monolithic w.r.t. what living a good life entails. I think there is room for many different approaches to the study of philosophy within the profession. Not everyone is trying to do conceptual modeling or to resolve aporia as a primary goal, but neither is everyone trying to live the good life. Perhaps we should content ourselves to let a thousand flowers bloom.

Ambrose

Hi A.P. Taylor. I won't speak for others but I'm not assuming that professional philosophers are motivated by an interest in learning how to live well, or that "the philosophical enterprise" has anything much to do with this. (If "the philosophical enterprise" refers to the social-institutional thing we're part of, and call "professional philosophy".) On the contrary, I'm making a normative claim: real philosophy should be centrally about the good life, and people should regard the effort to live a good life as a necessary condition for doing philosophy (about four-dimensionalism or whatever).

My suggestion is that letting a hundred flowers bloom, in this respect, may be equivalent to letting the most beautiful flowers get killed off by weeds. For example -- and no offense -- but I think it's a big mistake to describe our interests as "research programs". It's a lot like the way that we get described in a slightly different context (but only slightly different) as "human resources". A betrayal and negation of basic human values and human dignity. We live in a very diseased society and the concepts that shape our conception of the philosophical enterprise (and the concepts that we use when doing philosophy) should be questioned in the same way that we should question how universities extract money from the people and what they do with it.

As Marcus says, lots of philosophers think there's no way to decide what a good life is, or no point in trying to figure it out -- though in fact most of them live their own lives as if it were already totally settled that a good life is about freedom and material goods and satisfying our physiological urges. This attitude is not (or not only or not always) based on rational skepticism, and it's never socially neutral. It serves an important purpose in weakening the intuitions and convictions of peers and students and society in general, which just happens to be very good for business.

A.P. Taylor

Hi Ambrose...I suppose the contention here arises because I think your normative claim is false. I also think that is elitist to suppose that one is capable of determining what "real philosophy" ought to consist in. Not only is it elitist, it is contrary to the spirit of philosophical inquiry as handed down from Plato which takes the only certainty in philosophy to be uncertainty.

I also don't think there is anything intrinsically reductive about characterizing one ongoing philosophical work as a research program or project. In my own case, my philosophical interests are very broad. I use the phrase "research program" to refer to the narrow subset of those interests that I am actively reading/writing/thinking about.

Finally while I do agree that we should think seriously about the financial side of academic life, I disagree that society is "very diseased". Mostly because, I don't have any meaningful conception of what counts as a "healthy society" nor do I think anyone else have such a conception that would not involve numerous, dubious, background assumptions that would need a lot of work to make plausible to a pluralistic audience.

Ambrose

AP, this doesn't seem to make a lot of sense. If it's "contrary to the spirit of philosophy" to believe that one is "capable of determining what real philosophy is", then why do almost all those we consider great philosophers try to define real philosophy and exclude what they take to be the fake or worthless kind? Think of what Hume or Carnap said about 'metaphysics' or scholasticism, what Russell said about Aquinas and, of course, what Plato -- who was certainly an extreme "elitist", by the way -- said about the sophists. And in any case, if you don't think you can determine what real philosophy is, how can you take yourself to know what its "spirit" is? If we're speaking of the people typically called 'philosophers' in western history, it's simply not true that all or even most would have agreed that "the only certainty is uncertainty". In fact most think we can be rationally certain (or very, very confident) in all kinds of interesting claims, e.g., that God exists, that the soul is immortal, that right and wrong are objective and knowable, etc...

You say you have no conception of what a "healthy society" might be. I doubt that. Just as you probably do believe (and live your life as if you believed) that Jeb Bush or Oprah are not real philosophers but Plato is, you also probably do have all kinds of beliefs about what society should be like, what is socially healthy etc. (I'm guessing here, but would you not tend to think that extreme racism, sexism and homophobia are "unhealthy" things in a society?) You are skeptical, you say, because you think conceptions of healthy societies are hard to "make plausible to a pluralistic audience". But almost nothing is plausible to _that_ kind of audience. Ironically, though, one thing that almost everyone has always believed -- Platonists, Marxists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, etc. -- was precisely that one CAN determine what is good, what is socially healthy, etc. And there has even been fairly broad agreement on a few points. So in fact this might be one of the few cases where almost everyone in the 'pluralist' audience would find my position plausible. With the exception of typical liberal academic philosophers seeking ways to avoid or deny their own commitments.

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