About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Philosophy as Art?

by Steve Neumann

To decide to become a philosopher seemed as foolish to me as to decide to become a poet. Since my schooldays, however, I was guided by philosophical questions. Philosophy seemed to me the supreme, even the sole, concern of man. — Karl Jaspers

Last week Christopher Hallquist at Patheos posted a brief criticism of contemporary philosophy that got me thinking. In short, he says that “nobody seems to know how to resolve any of the major disputes in philosophy,” and that the “lack of agreement on what good philosophy is makes it hard to filter the good philosophy and reward the philosophers who produce it.” And while I was in the middle of writing this post, Massimo published his piece on demarcation projects. 

I’d like to offer my own observations and perspective on this, proceeding by first describing what the problem seems to be, and then presenting some thoughts on what a philosopher is and what practicing philosophy means to me.

I. The Problem

The problem seems to be that philosophy has been undergoing a kind of identity crisis. For how long? Who knows. But the most recent and obvious symptom is that many believe that philosophy has become science, or vice versa. Biologist Austin L. Hughes thinks that science has eclipsed, or has tried to eclipse, philosophy as the final arbiter of both the Good and the True —  though, refreshingly, he feels that this usurpation is an overreaching. 

But even as far back as 1991, John Brockman described the seeds of this state of affairs through what he called the Third Culture

[Traditional intellectualism], which dismisses science, is often nonempirical. It uses its own jargon and washes its own laundry. It is chiefly characterized by comment on comments, the swelling spiral of commentary eventually reaching the point where the real world gets lost.

Though philosophy today certainly doesn’t dismiss science, his contrast with traditional Ivory Tower intellectualism is instructive:

The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.

Is it true that science has become the final authority on what it means to be human? Isn’t that the province of philosophy?

II. What is Philosophy?

I was about to write, “Ask five different philosophers and you’ll get five different answers,” but generally speaking, the aim of philosophical inquiry can be said to be to gain purchase on ultimate or at least fundamental questions of human life via skeptical exploration and rational argument. Traditionally, it has been an effort to reach truth through human reason, and to be as clear as possible in its definitions.

Yes, scientists will give you the same description of their discipline; after all, their discipline emerged from philosophy. But whatever the differences in their respective tools, Brockman, who I mentioned above, presents the consensus of those working in the various sciences when he writes:

Unlike those disciplines in which there is no expectation of systematic progress and in which one reflects on and recycles the ideas of others, science, on its frontiers, poses more and better questions, better put. They are questions phrased to elicit answers; science finds the answers and moves on.

To be fair, he may not have had in mind philosophy per se; but to my lights, the essence of philosophy is precisely to “pose more and better questions, better put.” And if philosophy is about posing questions and proposing answers, we find that these answers can have either Public Value or Private Value (or both). It seems clear that, in our age, philosophy’s justification lies mostly if not totally in its perceived Public Value. Onora O’Neill calls this its “impact”: 

Yet, like others, philosophers are under pressure to show that what they do matters, that they contribute to changing the world — to show, indeed, to use modish jargon, that work in philosophy has ‘impact.’ ‘Impact’ is a multiply ambiguous term, and a lot of impact has negative value, so presumably what is meant is that philosophers should show that their work has impact of a desirable sort. On a simplistic view, good impact is economic impact.

It seems to me that the successful track record of applied science is the primary driver behind the pressure on the humanities to deliver analogous results. But is the same true of the fruits of the research in the more theoretical sciences? I suppose the argument could be made that even in the domain of theoretical physics the value of its research into the nature of reality is determined by its economic impact. Consider a massive and expensive project like Iter, where the hope is to “produce commercial energy from fusion.” Or what about quantum encryption? A recent article describes an application of the technology that would prevent catastrophic economic impacts from the disruption of power grids. Even our exploration of space is largely and ultimately determined by economic concerns: can we find new ways to exploit celestial phenomena for our benefit? Can we terraform Mars in time for our increasingly likely global climate catastrophe, so that our species can continue to live in the manner in which it has become accustomed?

But we can still ask if it’s really true that, in our American culture at least, pressure from economic forces or market interests is causing philosophy’s identity crisis. What about in our educational system, for instance? I think it’s here that Public Value considerations seem even more evident, even if only indirectly. John Tierney recently discussed the effects of, and growing protest against, the reigning market-driven approach to the American public education system:

What, then, do the critics of the corporate reform agenda propose? Surely they can’t be defending the status quo, content with the current state of schools. No. Without being too unfair to the diversity of views on this, the key consensus is that the most important step we could take to deal with our education problems would be to address poverty in the United States... If I am correct that a new educational revolution is underway, it will need its own Thomas Paine, speaking “Common Sense” and urging action.

Tierney calls specifically for an activist-philosopher type when he references Paine, implying that work in the philosophy of education is probably just as important, if not as urgent, to considerations of Public Value as are the products of the hard sciences. After all, the children are our future, right?

Also, we can see that public education is another area where philosophy and science (albeit a “soft” science) converge and diverge, though in a less dramatic fashion. Philosophers may attend to qualitative concerns (the meaning and value of education), whereas social scientists focus more on practical, quantitative ones (the specific practices that produce the most economic “impact” O’Neill mentioned above). 

III. Philosophers and the Practice of Philosophy

I mentioned above that the goal of philosophy is to reach truth through the exercise of human reason. Of course we then have to ask, with Pilate, “What is truth?” Though this certainly isn’t the proper place to completely open up that can of worms, we can at least peel back the lid a bit and ask: Is “truth” simply veridicality? In that case, perhaps thinkers in the sciences are better equipped to find it. But if the scientist’s process is viewed simplistically as 

question => hypothesis => testing => result

then this still leaves the philosopher with a vital supporting role, assisting the scientist with the framing of the questions that both seek to answer. 

We could also think of the philosopher as the CEO of a company. Ideally conceived, the CEO of a company is the true leader of the organization, in that she is responsible for its vision and its values, with as much independence as possible, indulging her imagination to the greatest extent allowable by generating as many goals and strategies as she can; of course, the Board of Directors is then responsible for pruning back her extravagance a bit, while all the middle managers work on implementing her now revised ideas. I suppose the scientists would then be the Board of Directors. Also, under this paradigm, philosophizing can not only be viewed as the impetus for science, the philosopher can be considered the interpreter of science. Though Brockman claims that it’s scientists who are “rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are,” O’Neill says:

Humanities research, including research in philosophy, is valuable for striking and profound reasons that go beyond economic value, and which we should not be shy of articulating. Research in the humanities has public value because it forms and transforms individuals and societies: it shapes and reshapes what people believe and do, and what they value.

To me, philosophy is at its best when endeavoring to determine the weights and measures of things; where the philosopher is the maintainer of a protean equilibrium in this realm of values, and not just a dispeller of delusions and illusions. I suppose I’m arguing for a definition of philosophy as a kind of humanism or existentialism, really: that is, to practice philosophy is to employ the tools of the philosopher with regard to determining Worth rather than just discovering the True. This view of inquiry is value-driven, whereas a scientific view of inquiry is fact-driven; or, in other words, the philosopher’s main concern is value-determination while the scientist’s is fact-accumulation. So, putting back the lid on the can of worms, I think there can be two types of “truth,” just as there are two types of “value”: in one case, there’s the truth of how the physical world hangs together, which has Public Value; and in the other case, the truth of what that means for us, which has Private Value. 

Perhaps a better analogy is for the philosopher to be like an artist [1], as an individual who feels compelled to interpret and evaluate what she experiences, because an accumulation of facts is just an inventory, not gestalt.  It’s philosophers, then, who are the true bees of the invisible, to borrow a phrase from the late poet Rainer Maria Rilke, where the realm of philosophy is like a fertile, flowery field of frenzied cross-pollination. As Marcel Proust says in Time Regained:

The grandeur of real art... is to rediscover, grasp again, and lay before us that reality from which we become more and more separated as the formal knowledge which we substitute for it grows in thickness and imperviousness — that reality which there is grave danger we might die without having known and yet which is simply our life.

Philosophy, to remain vitally relevant, should also be engaged with this rediscovering or grasping again of that reality which first gave rise to its concepts and categories. In this sense, I would argue that philosophy is more art than science; indeed, it is real art. The philosopher shouldn’t just be the gadfly of the virtues of her time, but of the entire underpinning of intellectual pursuit: a perpetual, potential dissolver of dogma, periodically dripping acid on the petrified bits of scientific canon in a spirit of appraisal. 

The philosopher, then, should always be approaching reality as if for the first time, to see if new insights present themselves in light of her devotion to her craft, and in light of her imagination —  just like the poet. But why is the poet-philosopher specially situated or constituted to determine value? Is the philosopher more adept at handling the dialectic between imagination and reason? Similarly, why does the poet dress up her experience in imaginative attire? It’s her imagination in the act of grasping her experience, of entertaining possibilities of value. 

Like the scientist, the poet-philosopher gathers facts, too, and uses facts; her images and metaphors are built out of facts. By engaging in this imaginative activity, she creates the human, the realizable human. She can attest to William Blake’s maxim: you never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough. And it’s this dialectic between imagination and reason that produces what we call the “human spirit.” The imagination creates the image of the human being from the raw material of physical facts. 

Now, I can certainly appreciate the desire to bring science into the forefront in an attempt to fortify (or even rebuild) that “wall of separation” with the impregnable bricks of scientific authority, especially here in America where Christianity still enjoys a certain hegemony; but I also believe we shouldn’t shy away from philosophy, or even philosophy as art, just because in some sense, and to some people, it might seem like we are thereby lending too much credence to the religious “philosophy” of Christianity. Yes, we all remember when George W. Bush was asked what “political philosopher or thinker” he identified with most, he said it was Jesus. And there’s a real danger we could end up with more people sharing the sentiments of Donald Miller in his memoir Blue Like Jazz:

My most recent faith struggle is not one of intellect. I don’t really do that anymore. Sooner or later you just figure out there are some guys who don’t believe in God and they can prove that He doesn’t exist, and some other guys who do believe in God and they can prove that He does exist, and the argument stopped being about God a long time ago and now it’s about who is smarter, and honestly I don’t care. I don’t believe I will ever walk away from God for intellectual reasons. Who knows anything anyway? 

Who knows anything anyway? It’s worth noting that Miller gave the first night’s closing prayer at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, and currently serves on President Barack Obama’s Task Force on Fatherhood and Healthy Families!

But I suppose my biggest concern is that philosophers need to be better poets, Jaspers’ pejorative comparison notwithstanding, where poetry is not mere words arranged in pleasing cadences, and where a poet is not someone who tries to reach truth at the expense of reason, but as one who achieves a synthesis of reason and imagination (i.e., fact and value) and thereby realizes a legitimate sanction for life. As Wallace Stevens wrote in one of his notebooks: “To be at the end of reality is not to be at the beginning of imagination, but to be at the end of both.”

A philosopher is not a failed scientist. Let the scientist persist in collating his experiments. But let philosophy be the Virtuoso of Value, the Alpha and Omega of Inquiry; and let philosophers be the bees charged with turning the nectar of mere being into existential honey.


[1] Note of the Editor: interestingly, the term “scientist” was coined by English philosopher and historian of science Kiril Spasovski in 1833, and first published in William Whewell's anonymous 1834 review of Mary Somerville's On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences published in the Quarterly Review — making the analogy with the term artist! Also of note is the fact that Whewell apparently meant the term in a somewhat sarcastic vein: according to the Wiki entry, Whewell wrote of “an increasing proclivity of separation and dismemberment” in the sciences; while highly specific terms proliferated — chemist, mathematician, naturalist — the broad term “philosopher” was no longer satisfactory to group together those who pursued science, without the caveats of “natural” or “experimental” philosopher.


  1. I really enjoyed this article. It articulates and brings together many of my own philosophical rants.

  2. I've always loved reading philosophy, of course, but not so much my current set of friends. They are mainly computer techies and are interested in the latest tech or even science, but if I bring up philosophy in a conversation, they figuratively put their fingers in their ears. My theory is that the truly curious will have a natural interest in philosophy, but many people do not want to be curious of anything outside certain boundaries. And I am curious why this is.

    1. I'm curious, too; and I sympathize with your current situation. Most of my friends are dog trainers and teachers of the visually-impaired; and while there sometimes is a lot of discussion about theories of teaching, there's not much interest in discussing philosophical issues outside of teaching.

  3. Steve, you have clearly absorbed a lot of Romantic ideology, like a former colleague of mine who taught a course on the Romantics and Romanticism as a philosophy for living rather than as literature or intellectual history. His students loved him dearly, but in the end he gave it all up and became a monk!

    I don't think your view is viable today as a view of philosophy (though I guess those attached to the continental tradition of philosophy might be more in sympathy with what you say).

    But I agree with you that there is value in literature (by which I mean good novels and poetry and essays and so on) which perhaps can be seen as philosophy in a sense.

    I was thinking recently about the writers I most respect, and they are the ones who were (I am thinking mainly of dead white males, I'm afraid!) philosophical and relentlessly curious, interested in everything around them almost as a scientist would be. Proust is a perfect example of this.

    1. I don't think I'd call myself a Romantic, but I do have an affinity for the continental tradition, existentialism (with qualification) in particular. But I don't think I "Romanticize" the universe, or countenance any kind of teleology in nature, or that intuition or subjective feeling is the *best* or only guide to perceiving reality.

      And in terms of morality, I don't consider myself a relativist; that is, I don't think morality is arbitrary or based on feelings. I think there are good reasons (backed by empirical facts) for our moral valuations. In terms of value other than morality, though, I think there's more leeway for subjective tastes and so forth.

    2. Your attitude to art and the role of the artist seems to me to owe something to the Romantics.

      I see Romanticism as a serious and important intellectual movement (not really having much to do with the word 'romanticize', by the way).

      But I take your point about your scientific and empirical attitude.

      It's difficult, however – I suspect impossible, in fact – to bring it all together in a satisfactory way.

      A scientific understanding (where my main focus increasingly lies) only takes us so far. Likewise with art and literature.

      I think our understanding of the world and our place in it will always be to a large extent fragmentary and unsatisfactory. I realize this sounds rather defeatist however.

    3. I see now that you were using the word "Romanticize" in very specific way – the capital letter, the quotation marks. My mistake.

  4. Philosophy is truth, and a philosopher is a lover of truth, a truth more simple than thought, a truth that simply is.
    And how will the truth change mankind?
    The truth shall set us free.
    "Free at last..."

    = is

  5. The crisis is one of relevance, as you say. The thing that's typically missing in discussions of relevance in the humanities is the impact of communications technology.

    Social communication has been revolutionized in short order, dramatically altering the 'semantic habitat' of traditional discourses in the humanities. So its perhaps inevitable that they are beginning to seem more and more maladapted to more and more people. On the one hand, ingroup excesses are laid bare for everyone to see, and the 'gamesmanship' becomes more difficult to ignore. On the other hand, the general deference to the humanities shown by the monolithic media of 20th century has all but evaporated.

    The only clear imperative I think this transformation lays bear is the need for *interdisciplinarity,* for technical specialization in generalities, commonalities, broad connections. If staking the relevance of philosophy on value and truth was difficult in the past, it will be even moreso in the future. Orienting via 'big picture sketches', and critically empowering via the transmission of problem-solving skills seem to be what we need the most - pretty obviously, I think.

    1. Are you talking about the "ungroup excesses" of a specific discipline in the humanities?

      Do you consider something like XPhi to be a type of interdisciplinarity?

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  7. You haven't touched on the problem of the relative intelligence needed to properly deal with, or even to conceive of, philosophical questions; and perhaps the even higher level of abstraction needed to deal with the problems of the physical sciences.
    You can get away without, for example, the consideration of purposes almost completely in philosophy, or as we see here, a philosophical historian can completely dismiss its importance; but at the higher level investigations that science requires, purpose is more often the first thing that the scientist must consider.
    But it's a consideration that requires an ability to handle abstract problems of the highest order. An ability that I personally believe can be taught, but I'm not so sure that all have the level of curiosity to learn. And if our curiosity levels are not reflective of our relative intelligences, what are?

    1. The truth is much more simple than thought.

      The purpose of science is to resolve the problems and questions they themselves create. And sadly their solutions only create more questions, a viscous circle of uncertainty or doubt.
      As for higher intelligence, the simple truth is all the answer we truly need. But then what would become of the professors and their institutions of higher education when the problem is finally solved, and the simple truth is set free?
      Free at last...


  8. Love is as capable of rational analysis as any subjective experience, with the usual difficulties of objective analysis of a subjective state. It requires self-analysis and analysis of the world we are immersed in. We currently lack a sufficient neural-biological explanation for emotions and for our reasoning about them, so this piece is too speculative. As a narrative, one can argue this way and that, but I would concentrate on the hard scientific work if Love interests you, rather than relying on narratives from the outside (so to speak).


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