Saturday, April 30, 2011

Philosophy & Play

My daughter is at an age (five) where she now sometimes likes to play in her room by herself. I poked my head in the other evening, and she was playing with some horse figurines (which I brought back when I interviewed for the job here at EKU). We exchanged a few words--Are you playing? Yes. Is everything ok? Yes. And then she said, "You can go now."

That was remarkable enough. Then later that evening (or maybe the next day--they run together too often) it struck me that just as she shuts herself into the room to play for awhile--to let her imagination run--so, too, I shut myself downstairs at night to play at doing philosophy. The thought hit me very quickly, and at first it seemed like a rather pessimistic one--I'm still just "playing." (Making things up? Pretending? Building castles in the air?) But later it occurred to me that this can't be a bad thing. Play is good, and good philosophy can be playful. Socrates could be playful, but also dead serious; this seems true of Wittgenstein, too. Play can be serious, insofar as keeping alive the imagination, and exercising it, is important business. Perhaps much more so than "growing up" and becoming consumed with the everyday crap which threatens to take away the time for play, and extinguish first our energy, and then our capacity, for imagination and vision.

So, yes, sometimes I'm just making things up, playing with ideas, parading them around the room like figurines. Is this a bad thing? I guess the question is: where is it going? To what end? But maybe the answer is: we can't know the answer ahead of time. And that is why the play is necessary, even when the ideas and problems philosophers play with are themselves quite serious.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Socrates and Wittgenstein

I’ve started writing something larger about moral convictions, and am beginning by thinking about the practical aspects of having to make hard choices between conflicting goods, the kind of thing Sartre discusses in part of his “Existentialism is a Humanism.” Such choices are a basic source of anxiety. Socrates, by contrast with the anxious chooser, strikes me as someone with very little anxiety, and despite his “ignorance,” is firmly committed to several substantive moral views. Among them: 1) an unexamined life isn’t worth living, 2) it is wrong to renege on one’s moral principles merely to save one’s own life, 3) revenge (viz. wronging one who has wronged oneself) is wrong, and 4) a good person cannot be harmed by a bad person. All of these are either controversial or hard to live up to (except maybe the first one), but what is struck me the other evening is that Socrates doesn’t really argue in defense of any of these principles. He elucidates his view on (3) in Crito, but he isn’t really arguing for it. He notes, as I’ve mentioned previously, that people disagree about revenge (this isn’t quite the way he puts it). He says few people really disapprove of revenge, but that those who disagree about the issue cannot really argue about it but “can only despise one another,” because they have no common ground.

I found myself wondering what to make of Socrates’ moral positions, and what his sense of their status might be. Are they just obvious to him, and so not in need of argument? But what should we make of the comment about “common ground”? It’s typical to portray Socrates as some kind of realist—specifically one who rejects divine command theory (in the Euthyphro)—and so perhaps either some kind of moral naturalist or non-naturalist. At any rate, he searches for “essences” and though he doesn’t discover the essence of the good (or the holy) in Euthyphro, we might be left assuming that he’s committed to there being some essence. But then I found myself wondering whether a Wittgensteinian reading of Socrates could be employed to dig into some of these assumptions. All we know is that Socrates has some moral positions. He doesn’t have any theoretical framework, or any sophisticated positive arguments on which to ground them. It might be thought that he is some kind of eudaimonist—that the end of moral action is the promotion of moral health and a healthy soul. (He does say we should care more about our souls than about money or physical health.) But that’s fairly thin, and appeals to the health of the soul (in order to explain the wrongness of an action) may often seem a bit circular.

I’m also thinking about how to square Socrates’ “moral wisdom” with his “ignorance” and his remarks in the Apology that human wisdom is worth little or nothing. He could just be saying that we don’t know much, and that seems true. But if his “moral wisdom” is really important, then that seems like something. Maybe he means that knowing how to live isn’t enough—it’s no guarantee that we will act correctly. That conflicts with his internalism (that our moral beliefs motivate us to act), although perhaps he would just say that the fact that people often don’t act correctly just shows that they don’t really believe what they say they do in polite company.

Here’s where the Wittgensteinian reading comes in, tentatively. Perhaps “moral wisdom” is not propositional. So “knowing” that revenge is wrong is not like knowing that the cat is on the mat, or that grass is green, or whatnot. Moral wisdom might instead be more like knowing how to do something, and perhaps how to get on within a particular “form of life.” (Some, however, will say that procedural knowledge can be cashed out in propositional terms. I’m not sure about this.) The significance of this is that you can’t argue someone into a form of life—that is, you can’t convince someone that this is how he or she should live simply by arguing about it. You can demonstrate what it is to live that way, and you can correct someone who is trying to live that way but getting it wrong. And we might think that is what Socrates is doing in the Apology and the Crito.

I also think that fruitful comparisons could be made between Socrates’ claim that a good person can’t be harmed, and Wittgenstein’s experience of feeling “absolutely safe” in the “Lecture on Ethics.” Here, the question is what to make of these claims that can seem like so much nonsense. Wittgenstein realizes that he cannot justify this experience by appealing to the validity of his own experience, because an experience is just a fact. (And other people don’t have the experience, so what does his experience really prove? He could be delusional.) Socrates’ remark may just be a cheeky thing to say to his accusers, although his point, presumably, is that no one else can compromise his soul, his integrity. That seems plausible. But it also seems strange to say that nothing else really counts as a harm.

I’m not sure whether pursuing this will be fruitful, or if these various comparisons can be made to hang together. However, M.W. Rowe has a paper that I look forward to reading called, “Wittgenstein, Plato, and the Historical Socrates.”

Hot Off the Press: Communities of Justice

I'm happy to announce the publication of the latest Philosophy of Peace volume, Communities of Justice: Confronting Injustice and Creating Justice, edited by Danielle Poe (U Dayton), in which my essay, "Moral Conviction and Disagreement" appears. I heard some of these papers at the 2009 Concerned Philosophers for Peace conference in Dayton, and Arnold Farr's paper was my first encounter with the lovely line by Adorno, "Wrong life cannot be lived rightly."

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Integrity & Struggle (Expanded & Revised)

UPDATED 6/9/11: The link below should now take you to the most recent revision of this paper.

I'm presenting the main ideas from a re-worked version of my paper, "Integrity & Struggle," this weekend at the annual Conference on Value Inquiry (in Omaha, Nebraska, at Creighton University). I post the full version here for perusal and comment. The abstract:
Integrity is sometimes regarded in terms of the wholeness of the individual, such that persons who experience temptations or other sorts of inner conflicts, afflictions, or divisions of self would seem to lack integrity to a greater or lesser degree. I contrast this understanding of integrity—which I label psychological integrity—with a different conception which I call practical integrity. On the latter conception, persons can manifest integrity in spite of the various factors mentioned above, so long as they remain true to their commitments in action and deliberation. Although psychological harmony is one feature reasonably associated with integrity, I suggest that practical integrity captures other features of character and action often (and reasonably) related to ascriptions of integrity. Practical integrity remains possible even for those who must confront, manage, and control various factors that give rise to inner struggles.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Kitcher on Philosophy

Leiter points to a new paper by Philip Kitcher in Metaphilosophy about the state of philosophy and the need for philosophy that is more clearly engaged with the problems of our age (and in part, he seems to think, more engaged with other disciplines). The paper is primarily a challenge to the "core areas" of philosophy (roughly, metaphysics and epistemology). There is quite a bit of discussion going on at the Leiter thread. I am somewhat in sympathy with "Docent's" comment that, "I boldly predict that (a) most philosophers will find considerable merit in the argument, (b) believe their own niche to be exempt from the charge of scholasticism, and (c) nothing will change." That said, I also find this final part of Kitcher's response on Leiter--especially the last sentence--heartening:
I regret the fact that so much graduate education, and so much philosophical writing sets itself in dialog with a recent “literature”, with a tiny readership. History of philosophy is often healthier than “systematic” philosophy, precisely because it inherits the wider focus that was so typical of the career of culturally significant philosophy, from Plato and Aristotle, through Kant and Mill, to Dewey and Rawls. My article is intended to encourage those who want to think and write with a larger frame of reference.
But I think if the final point was Kitcher's primary aim, then perhaps he could have done that without being, as it seems, fairly dismissive of the "core." I don't work in the "core areas," and so have no stake in this per se. Kitcher's worry--as others have suggested--is perhaps described even more succinctly by Dennett: getting caught up in a cottage industry with a limited shelf life and a very narrow audience can be a problem.

I tend to think that the best thing to do is to follow one's philosophical interests, and what Kitcher is (I take it) trying to do is to encourage (especially young) philosophers not to confuse that with simply trying to keep up with and respond to all the current literature on one's interests (though doing some of that is surely important), and not to be afraid to "think and write with a larger frame of reference," which may mean that much of one's time must be spent doing other things besides carefully reading every article in the latest issue of, say, The Journal of Philosophy. There are too many things to do within philosophy, and too many interesting topics, and too many interesting puzzles. There are also people to meet (outside of philosophy), novels to read and films to view, science to learn about. And of course, there's the world to be saved. (More on that another time.)

Obviously, jumping onto a particular philosophical bandwagon (or contributing some "cottage industry") can be a way to get one's foot in various doors (to produce a publishable article, etc.), and doing some of that may be unavoidable (and even desirable). But perhaps there's more to being a Philosopher (capital "P") than being a good professional philosopher, and perhaps that's part of Kitcher's point. (The capital P doesn't have anything in particular to do with being "famous" or whatnot.) Some may not like that distinction, but for me, outside of the academy, I don't like being introduced (say, by my wife) as "a philosopher." I teach philosophy, and have published some articles in academic philosophy journals. But I generally don't feel like I am yet a Philosopher. (Sorry if that sounds sort of pathetic; this isn't a self-pity thing, I hope!) Figuring out how to become that has been on my mind ever since I finished my dissertation, and realized that I was now free to write and pursue whatever issues I chose to pursue. That is at once liberating and terrifying. (And maybe that's why it's easy to get pulled into a "cottage industry" as it were.)