Ideologies

1. An ideology of philosophy. A fellow academic responded to an article on philosophy (http://chronicle.com/temp/reprint.php?id=mlhxjx9y84d00ct2jxthph91zm9dcdtz) by accusing this writer and others like him of demonstrating to the outside world that the university is “full of arrogant, useless assholes. Philosophers nowadays REALLY need to be smacked off their high horses”. (Michael Collins made the same point about the university in general in hackneyed tirades in his most recent nove. Unfortunately, while Collins is right about what he says, a novel is a poor soapbox and one cannot but get the impression it is the result of a disgruntled B student in literature.)

This article concerned the popularity and (alleged) success of books such as those published by Open Court attempting to bridge philosophy and popular culture (e.g., The Simpsons and Philosophy). Such projects are caught in a double bind.

On the one hand, as the article’s author says, the contributors to these volumes “tend to be fans of the particular show or band [being written about], and they are writing for other fans who may sense the intellectual dimension but not fully grasp it”. Philosophy, it is said, thus has the ability to reveal “deep meanings” through “sophisticated interpretations” for the New Yorker intellectual. Long time series editor Bill Irwin has hoped that these kinds of “accessible” books about philosophy will bring people to philosophy proper.

Philosophy, therefore, is something to which people need to be brought—to be “better democratic citizens” who can “think critically”—or just “better thinkers” because thinking without philosophy is slovenly. Philosophy’s pretension is that it has something unique to say to which people should pay attention if they want to know how to think properly and not be deluded by themselves. Philosophy thus “needs to be knocked off its high horse”.

On the other hand, if philosophers do not make the attempt to be “accessible” so their profession can become palatable topics of cocktail conversation, philosophy is accused of being “irrelevant”, “impractical”, or simply elitist; once again, therefore, philosophy “needs to be knocked off its high horse”.

For the record, I cannot resist mentioning that the contributors to the Open Court series are not always philosophers (and when they are, rather mediocre ones at that) and include writers from my colleague’s own discipline. Even if one generalizes the problem to the university as a whole, however (one wonders why this accusation is unique to philosophers and also to, say, literary theorists or any of the humanities), the question remains the same: what is the nature of this double bind of “professional thinking”?

Consider a story (which I may not get exactly right) about Derrida. Having sat through a roundtable about justice, when the discussion moved to him, he burst forth with a diatribe, asserting that instead of sitting in the room talking theory, everyone in the room should march to the prison down the street where an innocent man was being held. Or recall Rousseau’s indignation at the moral philosopher who sits in his armchair looking down at the atrocities in the street.

On the one hand, the partisans of moral and political action (over and above grand theorizing) are obviously caught in a manifest performative contradiction—one which should have been known to literary theory for quite some time (i.e., saying one doesn’t have a theory for practice is itself a theory). For myself, I see no other solution to the failure of recognizing a contradiction than Aristotle’s.

On the other hand, philosophy can no longer be content either with Enlightenment foundationalism nor with a blithely naïve pragmatism (for which someone like Rorty, for example, has been soundly disciplined by his colleagues in Europe). It’s most pressing institutional concern is to re-evaluate its relation to its interlocutors.

2. The ideology of philosophers. Philosophers learn techniques for argument. The layman is under the thrall of common sense, of opinion, of ideology. The bigot, the fascist, has a “closed mind”. The intellectual has an “open mind”. The philosopher has an “active mind”—an open mind that is at the same time “critical”. The fascist refuses to change his mind—his belief is his belief and he has a right to his beliefs, damnit. The philosopher goes one better: the philosopher, so every introductory handbook says, is the one who can “justify” his beliefs … which is precisely why the philosopher is least apt to change his beliefs. The philosopher has an earned right to his beliefs, and it is the philosopher (the philosopher-king) who then, through his generosity and liberality, grants the fascist the right to his own beliefs in the name of “toleration”.

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