onsdag 14. mai 2014

Ordinary critical intelligence.

Are there any readers of this blog who don't also read Language goes on holiday? Well, stop being in that category, and go check it out! In any case, this post is meant for you. I was thinking of writing a follow-up to my previous entry, but then gave away my good points commenting over at Duncan Richter’s. Rather than rewriting my arguments, I decided simply to post a gently edited version of the comments here.


Richard Taylor has written:
Students of philosophy learn very early -- usually first day of their course -- that philosophy is the love of wisdom. This is often soon forgotten, however, and there are even some men who earn their livelihood at philosophy who have not simply forgotten it, but who seem positively to scorn the idea.
I was, when writing that previous post, hoping to make use of this quote but in the end deiced to drop it because I didn’t know what to do with it. I have myself never heard anyone profess such disdain, but have attended lectures where this wouldn’t have surprised me much. This attitude seems to me connected with the danger of dogmatism. One form of dogmatism which concerns Taylor is the idea that philosophy really is (or should become) like the sciences. When Peter Hacker presents philosophy as a set of techniques, this sounds too mechanical, as you [D.R.] write, but doesn’t it also, and not incidentally, suggest a model of philosophy rather too close to that of the sciences? (This is surprising because Hacker too, both previously and again in this essay, has been fighting this very model.)
Academic philosophers sometimes feel a need to defend their subject, which is easily understood given the worldwide trend of cut-backs in the ”unprofitable” humanities departments. However,  inflated rhetoric is hardly the best way to make non-philosophers see things differently. As Miranda Fricker once remarked: "I think it is a bit ludicrous when people defend philosophy on the grounds that it teaches you how to think. That is extraordinarily insulting to other subjects!" This is partly why I too react against such claims. But I also think philosophers, with such claims and claims about the expertise a philosopher acquires, give the wrong impression of what philosophical thinking actually is.
Historians of philosophy often regard the subject as to have been invented by the ancient Greeks. When one's objective is to trace the understanding of philosophy as a more or less academic discipline with theoretical ambitions back to its origin, this story seems about right. However, philosophy has other (and deeper, yet more mundane) roots too. I am inclined to see philosophizing as a natural feature of human language use. Questions like “What do you mean?” and “What are the grounds for that claim?” were after all not invented by Thales. Nor are they something we first encounter at university. Someone might question our words whenever we say anything. Thus can the most casual dinner table conversation suddenly transform into a discussion or a probing investigation into the structure of our consepts. (The tools needed to resolve such situations are not theories produced at philosophical institutes, but ever-present to all competent language users in the language we share.) Philosophy -- understood as the application of ordinary critical intelligence -- is as ancient and as evenly distributed as language itself -- though some do of course exercise their critical faculties more than others.
In short, philosophers don't really do anything that non-philosophers can't do, and they don't necessarily do it better, but they ought at least to do it better than they themselves did it before they started studying and practicing philosophy, and they ought to do it without some other mission. [D.R.]

Agreed. Still, philosophers are often asked to sit on expert panels. In Norway, Knut Erik Tranøy headed several committees on medical questions; Mary Warnock has done the same in England. As far as I am able to judge, both have done great jobs; but, frankly, I believe this is more thanks to who they were and their personal characters than to their educational background. This issue has been at the front of my mind lately because I currently am in the middle of the process of applying for a position as a researcher in bioethics at my old university. If I am qualified for this job, which I think I am, this is not because I possess any philosophical (or ethical) expertise (whatever, if anything, that is); but rather because I have an interest in that field, have read a fair amount of the literature, both good and bad, and because I care about finding out which is which.

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