Philosophy and Me

Athena the Defender and Socrates
Modeled by Drosis, Executed in marble by Picarelli, Installed in front of The Academy of Athens, 1885

Philosophy and Me

Goodness, who cares! you might well think, seeing the title of this column.  But isn’t that what concerns each of us, whenever we’ve been required or drawn to read some philosophy?  What about me?  How does this way of writing or talking affect me?  Who needs it?  I mean seriously.

So let me get right at it, the way everybody does.  What is philosophy to me?  It’s listed as a credential, but I’ve risked the credential to serve something that represented philosophy to me substantively.

So how did I get into it?  What does it mean to me now?  I got into it because I’ve always loved it.  Long before I knew what the words meant — the ones philosophers use — I would stop to listen to my father talking in a philosophical vein to a friend who also spoke that language … and would imagine I’d died and gone to heaven.

It seemed so safe, in the sense of carrying its own warrant for being, and so sublime!  To this day, when I hear philosophers talking, it strikes me as wonderful.  I mean, if they talk with any skill, training and seriousness.

But one doesn’t want to engage long-term in any activity that’s merely imitative.  So it would take a long, long time, and many preliminary efforts, before I could connect the questions discussed by contemporary philosophers with issues of direct and significant concern to me.  But doing that has been one of the major projects of my life.  

And that’s not just true of my life.  

Philosophers can be named

the Midwives of History.

Although the recent fashion has been to treat the belief-and-value systems of different cultures as mutually incommensurate — as hopelessly “other” to each other — in fact philosophers have often stepped in to bridge those human divides.  Thus figures like Augustine of Hippo (354-430) forged intellectual links between the pagan, Greco-Roman high culture of his birth and the newly consolidating Christian movement.  At a later hinge point, Rene Descartes (1516-1650) stepped in to try to make “the moderns” like Kepler and Galileo more palatable to the Jesuits of the College de Sorbonne.

In sum: philosophy gets in there, makes the inter-cultural quarrels intelligible — at least to the reasonable disputants — and that way it keeps the longest, pan-cultural human conversation going.

At this point, a question comes to mind: Why has philosophy stood silent lately?  Why hasn’t it stepped forward, out of the shadows, to offer its renowned talents in midwifery to a world that could use a little help?

My question simplifies the state of current intellectual life somewhat, but let’s not put the qualifying nuances back in just yet.

Wait a minute! you might object. Isn’t post-modernism a philosophy?  And hasn’t it swept across oceans to influence the profession of philosophy from pole to pole?

No to the first question and yes to the second.  Post-modernism has many authors and authorities, but its disparate sources come together in one credo: 

You can’t get at

the truth.

Even classical skepticism argued in its own defense.  Even nineteenth-century nihilism made the case for itself.  Post-modernism won’t stand still long enough, or cease its chatter long enough, to make space and time for its adversaries.  Insofar as it refuses common ground, it’s not a philosophical view.

Just as postmodernism vetoes the judgment that x is true, it rips the mask off the judgment that x is right or good (or wrong or bad).  No longer can you make the kinds of judgments that big players on the stage of history, characters in novels and plays, poets, lovers and ordinary people have made.  Why not?  Because these seemingly innocuous, everyday judgments, by people great and small, are really masked exercises of power — the power of the dominant social group over the group it dominates.

Suppose, for the moment, that view were correct.  Suppose that judgments concerning truth and falsity, right and wrong, really did conceal exercises of brute power and nothing beyond that.  What’s wrong with that?  Why condemn the domination of the weak by the powerful?  And what’s bad about hypocrisy or concealment?  Don’t such unmaskings presuppose that there is a truth being falsified and a sense of justice being violated?  It seems the condemners have their own masked view: some moralizing is quite all right and some truth claims really are true.  

The task of philosophy has not changed: to examine competing moral claims and competing truth claims to discover which can be maintained with greater consistency and explanatory power.  I go back to my original question.  Why has philosophy stood silent?  

Partly for a bunch of contravertible reasons.  If anyone cares to track them down and see them refuted one by one, I can recommend my book, reissued in 2018 with two new chapters, A Good Look at Evil.  Meanwhile, do I have a provisional answer to this large question about philosophy’s relative silence in recent decades?  

Yes, I do.

Guilt.

Philosophers have imbibed and themselves got a bit drunk on cultural guilt.  I won’t go into what educated people feel guilt about and whether this is the right medicine for the ills they regret.

I will say that if you drench a person in cascades of guilt and shame, you can control that person.

If an accuser can do that to you, your accuser can control you.

Is that really what we want?

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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