Sunday, March 16, 2014

Toward the Recovery & Renewal of Philosophy

Individual understanding isthe primary aim of the activity thinking about life. Though you can indeed learn from those more experienced and wiser than yourself, you won’t count as learning at all if you can’t take on board what you hear from them. Understanding here ismanifest in what you can say only in the sense that your words are among your deeds. There must be some relationship between thinking well about life and living well, and the goal of the first is typically the second.
Here, then, is a parallel between thinking about life and thinking philosophically: the primary aim of each activity is individual understanding. [….] There is a sense in which a contemplative attitude is to be aimed at both in thinking about life and thinking philosophically, and a guiding principle of both activities is, or ought to be, to look to the bigger picture. [….]
The relevance of philosophy to real life, and to the ancient philosophical questionHow should I live?’, has more than one aspect; butone way in which philosophy is relevant to life would seem to be that thinking well about life and thinking well philosophically require similar traits of mind and character. Philosophy is not just something done by professional philosophers: any remotely reflective person philosophizes from time to time. And it is good for a society or a culture if the habit of philosophizing is generally valued.—Roger Teichmann in Nature, Reason, and the Good Life: Ethics for Human Beings (2011)
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“’There is no time for playing around,’ says Seneca, attacking philosophers who devote their careers to logical puzzles. ‘…You have promised to bring help to the shipwrecked, the imprisoned, the sick, the needy, to those whose heads are under the poised axe. Where are you deflecting your attention? What are you doing?”—Seneca (Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales, 48.8) quoted in Martha Nussbaum’s Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (1994)
“Philosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men.”—John Dewey (1917)
“… [Plato] speaks of a descending as well as an ascending dialectic and he speaks of a return to the cave.”—Iris Murdoch, “The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts” (1967)
“Philosophy involves us in the critical analysis of our beliefs, and of the presuppositions of our beliefs, and it’s a very striking fact that most people neither like doing this nor like having it done to them. If the assumptions on which their beliefs rest are questioned it makes them feel insecure, and they put up a strong resistance to it.”—Iris Murdoch in conversation with Bryan Magee (1978)
“… [It is no accident] that more and more philosophers are now being drawn into debates about environmental policy or medical ethics, judicial practice or nuclear politics. Some of them contribute to those debates happily: others look back at 300 years of professional tradition, and ask whether oral, particular, local, and timely issues are really their concern. They fear that engaging in ‘applied’ philosophy may prostitute their talents, and distract them from the technical questions of academic philosophy proper. Yet, one might argue, these practical debates are, by now, not ‘applied’ philosophy but philosophy itself. More precisely they are now (as Wittgenstein put it) the ‘legitimate heirs’ of the purely theoretical enterprise that used to be called philosophy; and, by pursuing them, we break down the 300-year old barriers between ‘practice’ and ‘theory’ and reenter the technical core of philosophy from a fresh and more productive direction.”—Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (1990)
“What, however, about philosophy? Here the subject-matter is the maps or structures by which thought works, and—as would probably be agreed today—thought is not something separate from life. Yet, from the first beginnings among the Greeks, there have always been some parts of philosophy which were fiercely technical. Is it possible both to handle these properly and do justice to the full richness of the questions as they arise in the life around us? Can anyone speak both as a fully instructed professional and as a whole human being? [….] For a long time, the English-speaking philosophical tradition mostly nailed its colours defiantly to the post of wholeness and life. Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume and Mill all emphatically meant their writings to be widely read and to affect people’s lives. Even Bertrand Russell still often did so. But William James and John Dewey were among the last influential figures to follow this track whole-heartedly. In the twentieth-century, philosophy has largely gone with the rest of the academic world in accepting thorough specialization.”—Mary Midgley, Utopias, Dolphins and Computers (1996)
“A good many academic philosophers, for much of our own century, have strenuously resisted the idea that philosophy can help us with how to live. And while others, particularly in more recent times, have addressed questions about happiness and well-being, for the most part they have shrunk from offering more direct guidance on these matters to their fellow citizens. This generalization, like most, is subject to notable exceptions, but it remains true that the bulk of work on philosophical ethics is now addressed to those within the specialist confines of the academy. As far as the educated public is concerned, philosophy may, in the growing field of applied ethics, be perceived as making an increasingly important contribution on matters of public policy (problems concerned with such issues as the distribution of resources, the justification of punishment, the morality of abortion, and so forth); but few probably now expect much help from philosophers in the task of trying to live fulfilled lives. If they are miserable, or find their lives in a mess, they much more likely to turn to psychotherapy than to philosophy for guidance. [….] The aspiration of philosophical reason to lay down a blueprint for how we should live tends to run aground when trying to deal with that side of our human nature which is largely opaque to the deliverances of reason—that affective side which has to do with the origins and operation of the emotions or passions. It is here that the contributions of psychoanalytic theory play a vital role. Though largely ignored by most specialists in moral philosophy, the concept of the unconscious turns out to have profound implications for the traditional task of ethics to seek out the conditions for human fulfillment.—John Cottingham, Philosophy and the Good Life (1998)


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