Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Practicality of "Slacking"

From "A Slacker's Apology", signed by "Philonous" who is (according to Leiter) Morris Cohen:
I believe in the division of labor. I am a priest or philosopher, not a soldier or propagandist. I yield to none in my admiration for the brave fellows who gave their all' on the bloody fields of Flanders, but I have no respect for the bigots who cannot realize that "there are many mansions in my Father's house," and that it would be a poor world if there were no diversity of function to suit the diversity of natural aptitudes. And when people begin to admonish me that if everyone did as I did, etc., I answer that humanity would probably perish from cold if everyone produced food, and would certainly starve if everyone made clothes or built houses. I admit the desperate need of men to defend the existence of our country, but I cannot ignore the need of men to maintain even in war the things which make the country worth defending. Purely theoretic, studies seem to me to be of those fine flowers which relieve the drabness of our existence and help to make the human scene worth while.
I think there must be much that is right about this--in particular, his rejoinder to a bad, thoughtless kind of universalism (or misapplication of the test of universalizability).

Morris continues:
My fellow philosophers for the most part are too ready to assert that theoretic philosophy can justify itself only by its practical applications. But why the fundamental human desire to know the world is any less entitled to satisfaction than the desire for kodaks, automobiles, india-paper or upholstered furniture, they do not tell us.
True. But one might argue that this is a narrow way of construing "practical applications." Morris almost suggests this point, but it isn't quite the point he explicitly makes--which is more about the intrinsic value of knowledge. That aside, philosophical knowledge might have practical applications that challenge or undermine narrower (e.g. merely economic) notions of practicality. Perhaps this would be particularly true if it turns out to be part of philosophical wisdom that the good life (or the moral life, etc.) don't strongly depend upon, or even radically opposes, conventional (or common/vulgar) ideas about the good life. The good life might not be a "practical life"--a life that contributes to the increase of the gross domestic product, etc., etc.--and as the Stoics suggest (and the example of Socrates illustrates), others may well think the wise person a fool. This isn't really to dispute Cohen's point, but rather to add to it--or perhaps to begin the philosophical critique of what is genuinely "practical" which his comments above invite.

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