Proceedings and Addresses
Proceedings is the shared forum, like the Athenian agora, where American philosophers who have managed to command the attention of their colleagues publish their invited addresses.
Since 2000, I’ve stepped down from active faculty status (though not from publishing or giving occasional papers). So I went through some of these addresses today to see where the latest stuff is headed. The question is always, what’s living and what has been deemed dead?
Also, of course, who’s dead? Anyone I know? Yes, one woman philosopher who – to a degree I hadn’t realized – subordinated a potentially high-level career in the field to a husband whose eminence went pretty much uncontested. When, for reasons that were never explained to me, her highest-power husband decided to “cut” me (which doesn’t work unless the person targeted sees it like a deer-in-the-headlights and doesn’t expect it), she went to the strenuously wifely lengths of attempting to cut me too. (It was strenuous because I had to walk far out of her and my way to avoid the necessary eye contact.) When I saw her again a few years later, she was widowed. By then cutting was inexpedient and she greeted me. What the heck. No hard feelings.
It brought to mind the adage that a family friend told me she got from her mother:
Don’t be mean to anyone.
You never know when you’ll need them.
At a New York diner I used to frequent, a waiter once leaned across the counter and confided to me that he really should have become a football player.
“The football field was the only place where I felt safe. I never found myself.”
Just so. Although philosophy’s a rather cut-throat business, it’s the only field where I ever felt safe. What can be safer than companionship in the search for truth? And what can be more natural?
Them’s high-flown sentiments, of course, and they do not necessarily mirror life on the ground, where the arguments rage and reputations are always at risk. You don’t want to give a paper to philosophers unless you’ve anticipated every way they can cut you down. Before giving a paper, I’d sometimes stay up till the dawn’s early light trying to foresee the attacks.
So I thought I’d give over a Sunday afternoon to reading some of the philosophic arguments on display in Proceedings.
Julia Driver, whom I’d known at Brooklyn College, delivered the Presidential Address of the Central Division meeting in Chicago in February of 2020. Her topic was an interesting one: should one consult moral criteria that are universal and impartial before deciding whether to rescue a spouse before a stranger? Or is it a betrayal of the intimate bond even to deliberate on that question? (One may stipulate that time is not of the essence.) In considering hard cases and borderline cases, Driver’s reasoning was as careful and thorough as one could wish.
Finally, she concludes that the personal claims do take priority, but a sense of decency should at least prompt regret that one couldn’t attend to other claimants in equal measure.
Another woman philosopher, Penelope Maddy, gave the Presidential Address for the Pacific Division in April of 2020. Her quest was to discover how and when epistemology (theory of knowledge) took shape as a separate branch of philosophy. She traced it to the 17th century, when the scientific method came into its own as a way of discovering the contours of nature and our place in it. Since the natural sciences probed everything insofar as it was measurable, what about features of experience that can’t be captured by measurement? Such as the color blue. Is the sky blue? Are bluejeans blue? Or are these “blues” merely subjective, found only in our consciousness – not in the world out there?
Her paper was serious and canvassed a number of ways these concerns have been handled, from the 17th century to the present. However, to my mind it left untouched the more fundamental question: how does the world of human experience, purpose and action fit into any schema whose dimensions are confined to the measurable? And, if the human realm doesn’t fit into the measurable realm, how should we understand ourselves in the midst of the measurables? Her formulation satisfied her but didn’t seem to reckon with this larger question behind the question.
And so on. I won’t go through them all. You didn’t come here for that. So what’s my impressionistic sense of American philosophy as a field or profession today?
To address one’s deeper concerns reasonably, with an argument process that can take into account relevant earlier layers of thought on these topics, seems to me a project of the highest kind.
Some would seek to discredit reasoning itself on the grounds of its purported misuse in this or that instance. That seems to me corrupt and question-begging. If you can’t give a reason for discrediting reason itself, why should I believe you? If you can give a reason, then you contradict yourself.
Is it not a project of human trust and a sign of trustworthiness to be willing to subject our opinions and their implications to a shared reasoning process?
So, here ‘s the good news:
The longest conversation
still goes on.