Saturday, March 29, 2008


I have a limited stock of anecdotes, so I've probably already told the one about my undergraduate philosophy professor, newly arrived in southwest Virginia & dating a local girl, introducing himself to her backcountry farmer father: "I'm a philosopher." To which the father responded – beautifully – "Ain't that somethin'? What er some o' yer sayins?" & thereafter Nick would tell folks that he was a "professor of philosophy." Or as Thoreau writes in Walden, "There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers."

My colleague Richard Shusterman has explored in some detail how between antiquity and modernity the conception of the philosopher shifts from one who leads a life of integrated thought & practice to one the conduct of whose life is incidental to the power of her or his thought. Thoreau expresses the ideal of the pre-Sokratic philosopher, or of Sokrates himself –
Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live, according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically. The success of great scholars and thinkers is commonly a courtier-like success, not kingly, not manly. They make shift to live merely by conformity, practically as their fathers did, and are in no sense the progenitors of a nobler race of men.
– and along the way he manages to denigrate our own anemic generation of mere "scholars & thinkers."

It's I suppose even a further shift to go from Thoreau's armchair thinkers to contemporary professors of philosophy, many of whom spend their careers writing commentaries on earlier thinkers, never venturing to produce anything that might be mistaken for a "new" thought. I had a semi-savage argument with my father-in-law over this some years ago: He held that one who merely writes on earlier thinkers shouldn't be called a philosopher at all; I argued that commentary & assessment of previous systems of thought was one of the basic modes in which philosophy gets done. Was I playing devil's advocate, or was I simply besotted with Derrida on Rousseau, Deleuze on Spinoza, Cavell on Emerson?

At any rate, one of the lovely threads in the vast shaggy tapestry of Walter Kaufmann's Hegel book was a series of quotations from Hegel's latish letters addressing the issue of studying philosophy. I won't actually quote, but simply render the gist: Hegel argues, repeatedly, that if one truly studies philosophy – not just absorbing potted summaries (like Kaufmann & Peter Singer) but actually working one's way thru the primary texts with all the sweat, tears, & blood that sometimes requires – one isn't merely studying thought: one is actually doing thought, is repeating the process by which the world-soul becomes conscious of itself. Original, new thought is highly overrated, & far rarer than one supposes; almost as rare is the spectacle of a student of philosophy transforming herself, by submission to the great works of earlier philosophers, by thinking alongside and through them, from a student into a thinker herself.

Excuse me; now I'll get back to another reading of the Preface to the Phenomenology.
On the earbuds: John Zorn/Naked City, Torture Garden


David M Lumsden said...

The idea of doing thought, and not just studying it was something I felt clearly while doing an undergraduate degree in pure mathematics, but slowly the realization came that the doing one does while studying involves many many fewer dead-ends and false turns than the doing one does when doing. A book such as John Pottage's Geometrical Investigations is a good antidote, showing (in this case through Galilean dialogues) the faltering steps of discovery.

Tor Hershman said...

"There is no God in foxholes," your conjecture on there being no philosophers hast not stood the test of overview.

Tor Hershman said...

Oh, sorry, Thoreau's conjecture.....there ARE philosophers but no, at least not here, real good like proof readers.

kfd313 said...

Funny... I had a conversation yesterday with one of my committee members about my orals list that touched on this subject. He noted that my inclusion of folks like Hegel, Kant, Heidegger, etc. on a list that's primarily an America/modernist literature field was inappropriate/unnecessary. Yes, I've read these folks (more than once) but not in their original language and don't know the debates or secondary discussions that they've historically produced (at least not well). His major point was that: "You're not a philosopher" and: "You don't need to mess with that stuff." Of course, I've read Heidegger and Kant *in seminars I took with him,* but I let that insight/irony pass.
In the realm of professionalization in academia and the boundaries and mechanisms it produces--American lit as a discipline, orals tests as a field producing qualification--expertise is necessarily limiting. I get that. Yet, I have really good reasons *why* these texts are on my list, why they actually should be included to explain some fundamental approaches I'm taking to my field. Plus, I really really love philosophy! (Or continental philosophy at least.)

(Funny Part deux--I mentioned my affinity for Thoreau as one of my defenses, which received a pitying glance.)

The idea that academics are not "doing Philosophy" (note capital P)--produced by the fear that one's take is perhaps limited or idiosyncratic --is b/c academics in various hybrid depts or fields like American/English fear they'll be "caught out" by supposed experts. We aren't really thinkers or doers or creators--so goes the argument. We're parasites, leeching into other sites of knowledge and fucking them up. Yet, the distinction between "applied" philosophy, which is what academics could be said to do/be, and "legit" philosophy makes no sense. The problem, to my mind, is that philosophy has been academically normed or institutionalized (I blame Aristotle, and then the Germans). In actuality, philosophy is a *way of life.* and no one has a right to say I am or am not capable of understanding it or that I can't appropriate it for my own vague and perhaps nefarious purposes. They only have the "right" to judge what I make of it.

Of course, tell that to my committee....

Can you tell I'm frustrated by the chains of academe?

e-diogenes said...

The analytical people now read Carnap or Quine's monkey-logic as metaphysics, and the historist-Hegelian-gauchistes read Hegel as like starbucks liberal. What's needed is Hegel, upgraded, quantified (CS Pierce maybe, retrofit? or not). Two sides of rotten coin. Thoreau (rally not one of my faves, but a competent belle-lettrist--his comments on frontier interesting) would be puking 24/7 at the pomo-analytical spat (or does somewhere).

Mark Scroggins said...

I think all of us in the groves, Kristine, are more or less frustrated by the chains thereof. I'm not planning on writing a book on Hegel, or Geullincx, or whoever, anytime soon, but I trust if I spend enough time following down my obsessions then they're eventually show up in what I *do* write, perhaps in fruitful ways.

In re/ philosophy as "life," you should cast an eye on my colleague Richard Shusterman's Practicing Philosophy, which tho it's written from a pragmatist perspective, has some very provocative things to say about philosophy as "way of life" rather than "academic discipline."

Jolly99 said...

Really most apprentice PoMo's would do better in sociology, education, or perhaps Econ. (if they could handle the maths--). Papa Marx suggested much the same, did he not, and regardless of what the gauchistes now believe, Marx consistently denounced metaphysics (see German Ideology 'fore getting to Capital). Ontologically Marx follows more from Hobbes than from Hegel, however much that might irritate cafe-leftists.

Analytical people are now mostly failed accountants and/or programmers; formal logic morphs into operating languages (thanks probably more to King Ludvig W, and his ugly, mad Tractatus), and a few decades later voila, one big online accounting software package.

The real "analytical philosophers"--e.g. Vienna circle---were really not logicists as per early Witt, or Frege, Russell, but following physics, and concerned with induction, probability, testability, etc. Carnap's more into Hume than into Kant, really. Another point lost on the naive PoMo's, such as those blathering xtian morons of the Weblog, or the Valvettes.