As a little girl, I would set the lunch table extra slowly so that I could overhear the philosophic conversations between my father, Henry M. Rosenthal, and Léo Bronstein, his closest friend. Understanding not a word, I still liked that music better than any other. For me, it was like having died and gone to heaven. Their voices described a deep place, boundaried by the delights and the freedom of thought for its own sake.
Still, majoring in philosophy in college and graduate school seemed a doubtful and risky venture. Boys didn’t want to think that you could be excessively smart. The line was sharply demarcated, between the feminine and the philosophic, as were the lines between many of the pathways of life in those days.
The thing was, I took femininity very seriously, as one of the markers of a meaningful life. I did not have a definition of it and avoided reading Freud because I understood him to supply a drastically deprecatory definition: woman being distinguished from man only by The One Thing she was missing. Despite Freud, it seemed there was a truth to be discovered: how this either/or might not be so and how a philosophic and a feminine life might be combined without loss to either.
Meanwhile, there was the profession of philosophy as it stood then. That profession always seemed to me tremendously important – all kidding aside. People live and move in terms of idea sets, whose provenance and outlines they seldom discern. The ideas that move them are, to begin with, philosophic.
For one example: George Weigel has recently called attention to the strange fact that The Great War (World War I) was prolonged — year after year at incalculable human cost — even after it was clear that the military stalemate called for a negotiated settlement. Among the causes of this stalemate (Weigel suggests) were certain ideas, such as Social Darwinism, Nietzsche’s Will to Power and Bergson’s elan vitale (life force), which led the leadership on both sides to misread the combat as a purifying test of national will, rather than a means to achieve practical ends.
A century before that, the Enlightenment, which translated the successes of Newtonian science into the language of philosophy, provided a set of ideas that propelled people along roads of a different kind. Claiming to overthrow religion, some of these thinkers and their descendants transferred the messianic hope (that God would come down to earth and wrap up history) to their man-made utopias. Human beings, seeing themselves as history’s vanguard, sought to erase from history anyone who stood in the way of a classless society or a master race. Delusions, fantasies, displacements! But they took imaginative hold of the best minds, the opinion-shapers, and were pieced together with the glue of their philosophies. We still live in the exhausted aftermath of these delusions. About such delusions, Camus said,
“I refuse to kill my brother for an unreal city in the future.”
How dreadfully sad it is, when one is dying — really dying — for a mistake!
The thinkers whose speculative language tends to occupy the vacuum once filled by religion are today called “the Continentals.” Where they are not endorsing political schemas, they tend to explore the subterranean contours of life experience. They can be very interesting, as Deep calls to Deep. The trouble is, it’s hard for them to tell when they are wrong. That’s dangerous.
The English-speaking philosophical world eschewed grandiose schemas and devoted much of its time to correlating natural or idealized languages with empirical facts. On the whole, this milieu has tended to hold up the physical sciences as the closest we can come to unbiased truth and scientific researchers worldwide as the only universal brotherhood whose claims to progress are experimentally confirmable. These philosophers are called “Analytic.” Though I don’t think the way they do, I tend to chum with them because (at least in principle) they have ways to tell when they are wrong. That’s safer.
I was for a time resident at a highly regarded Australian philosophy department in the Analytic tradition. At midday, colleagues would meet at the Staff Club for lunch and conversation as witty, erudite and charming as it gets in philosophy. Now, I’ve been told, for a number of reasons this no longer happens. Today the younger philosophers hole up with their computers – exemplars of the progress of science and technology — messaging colleagues at the other end of the planet, but failing to size each other up dialectically, pleasantly and momentously, in the face to face of human conversation.
Where is philosophy today? We still look to it, as we ever have, to confer meanings on our lives. Its task has not changed, really, since antiquity. It must set the intellectual frame for a way of life. Without a way of life, people perish. But it must learn to avoid modernity’s great mistake of embracing utopian fantasies and then collapsing into general disillusionment because it has done so. And it ought not to succumb to another mistake: insisting that one part of human experience (the part presently described by the physical sciences) is all there is or ever will be.
Philosophy’s task is what it has always been: to face reality, its genuine puzzles, corrigible explanations and romantic adventures.