Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Are Philosophy Blogs For Philosophy?

I don't know if you are like this, but things tend to bounce around in my head for a while in search of something to latch onto and occasionally several of them come together to have a convention. Four of these things have joined forces and seem worth reflecting upon.

One has been this post by Helmut over at phronesisiacal in which he thinks about Peter Levine's discussion about the usefulness of political philosophy. Helmut writes,

philosophy ought to be and can be more than a set of intellectual puzzles. Teaching philosophy is one thing - among other things, we want students to exercise and develop their minds, become analytical thinkers and decent people, to explore how we say things and what experience is about, and so on. Philosophical puzzles are sometimes a good way of contributing to that. They just become amusement, however...many philosophers confuse the difficulty and complexity of the puzzles with an inherent merit to philosophy when it is human experience in its difficulty and complexity that lends philosophy any merit it has.
The rest is worth reading, but I've been wanting to comment upon this idea that philosophy is, as Confused, Maybe Not is frequently fond of putting it, "just a puzzle-fuck," the linguistic/conceptual equivalent of trying to figure out what's going on in an Escher print. But, of course, it would be worrisome if we tried to equate that sort of activity with analyzing the Zapruder film for evidence of a second gunman.

The second is the departing of a playground playfriend who was a regular for quite a while in discussions. This is not unusual. People come and go all the time in the blogosphere. Games are a blast for a while, but life is busy and there are many other playgrounds. But this one seems to have left because of dissatisfaction with my sloppiness in analysis here. Philosophy done well has a number of virtues and one of them is clarity and precision, something I will freely admit much of my public on-line work does not display to a level commensurate with what I consider my best professional writing. This is intentional for a couple of reasons: (1) writing philosophy well is extremely difficult and time consuming and I would not be able to post daily or get anything else in life done if I were to try to write "proper philosophy" here and (2) I view the playground as a more informal venue like a dinner party than a professional conference in which I am less trying to "do" philosophy than to spark interesting discussions and I find that most people only respond when they think they've found an error in what you are saying and so sloppiness here in some sense is a plus.

The third is this "surgeon general's warning" that Thinking Girl has found necessary to put up over at her place.
PLEASE NOTE: This is NOT a Feminism 101 blog. This is Feminism Intermediate-Advanced. Visit the Feminism page for more information about MY feminism.
Feminist bloggers are the foreign language professors of the web -- language profs are lit scholars, experts in the context and rich meanings of fascinating texts, yet much of what they get to do is to conjugate the verb "to be" in front of rooms full of students who refuse to do the work and resent having to be there in the first place. They are authorities in a field whose insights and intricacies fascinate them, but which they never get to share because they are always dragged back to square one by people with attitudes. And so it is with feminist bloggers who are steeped in a vibrant interdisciplinary endeavor, but who are inevitably reduced to beating back the same old unschooled nonsense time after time in the comments to wonderful posts.

The fourth was driving in this morning listening to the BBC and hearing A. C. Grayling, prestigious philosopher from the University of London, reviewing the Simpsons Movie. It was fascinating hearing a philosopher put in a place that simultaneously seemed absolutely intuitive and utterly peculiar. I, myself, just edited a volume reflecting on philosophical issues and an aspect of popular culture, yet to hear a respected philosopher as a go-to guy for cultural criticism and hearing playful and insightful conversation from one of our own made me slightly giddy.

So all of these came together in the question, "Are philosophy blogs for philosophy?" Some certainly try to be. There are some really interesting blogs written by hard working philosophers (and I include in this group undergrad and grad students) who are putting up posts about technical issues. They write interesting posts about modal semantics, the concept-dependence of qualia, and set theoretical discussions of internal and external logical relations. Some of these are well-read, others not so much. A lot of these are folks who are working on papers trying to get early feedback on moves critical to their arguments. Between journals (and refereeing requests), professional conferences (and refereeing requests), list-serves for academic types in my sub and sub-subfield, and correspondences with other scholars, I get my fill of "the game" so I feel no need to play it here in front of everyone.

In fact, I'll admit my mixed feelings about public philosophy. On the one hand, it is worrisome that we don't let people see us at work often enough. People have intuitive senses of what a physicist, a psychologist, a letter carrier, a line chef, or a basketball player do at work. But it is not infrequent, even from students, that I'll get asked "But what exactly is it that you do other than teach?" People don't have a sense of what philosophy is and showing them philosophers at work is seemingly the only solution.

On the other hand, it is an odd game. When people watch lacrosse for the first time, you can see startled looks. Everything moves very fast, play starts and stops with players leaving the field for seemingly no good reason. They know there is an internal logic to what's going on, but damn if they get it. Philosophy is like that, except that instead of it being "someone else's game," people feel a sense of possession of philosophy because on sleepless nights (when not watching bad infomercials, Rutger Hauer movies, or Andy Griffith reruns on tv) they too think hard about the deeper questions of life, the universe, and everything. "These philosophers aren't high priests, they don't have special, magical routes to truth and insight that make them wiser than me. Who are they to lay claim to these questions, forcing me out of the place to find meaning in life?"

This sense of indignation only gets deeper when they see the sort of questions that philosophers work on. Usually greeted with a disdainful "huh?" the things that get philosophers all worked up seem incredibly trivial or utterly inscrutable. How could the important questions lead to such pointless wastes of brain power? This may very well be a legitimate concern.

Some then weigh in with "common sense" replies that irritate "the pros" because they get annoyed at having to go back to day two of their intro class to explain why the seemingly obvious counter-example the novice brings up with a sense of arrogance (look, I'll show these stupid philosophers why they are so wrong) is easily defeated leaving a question whose answer was debated in the 4th century B.C. and whose great-great-great-great-great-grandchild of a debate is the one that the pro is trying to discuss, only with a clever little twist he or she is proud of.

My own non-confrontational approach to this problem is to avoid talking a lot of philosophy here. Let me do something philosophers love to do, draw a distinction. There is a difference between doing philosophy and talking philosophically. I think that philosophers are important voices in areas other than philosophy (for example, look back a few years at the Dover intelligent design kerfuffle), although - or, indeed, because - their contributions will necessarily be informed by the content and methodologies of philosophy. Philosophers going back to Plato and Descartes have had an inflated sense of philosophy as the foundation for all other rational belief that is simply false, but the insights of the puzzle-masters playing their (our) insular games do sometimes have insights and ramifications that make major differences. I think that philosophers' voices need to be heard on the issues of the day, not as authorities to be deferred to, but as significant contributors to the discourse. That is what I love about this playground. I know that we have a mix of voices including pros and interesting insightful minds who have not been corrupted by academic philosophy negotiating contentious questions. Surely, it's not the only model for philosophy blogs, but I think it's one that is worth having.

So there. That's all I got today.