Monday, February 14, 2011

Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love

Andrew Shaffer has basically reflected on philosophers blurring the line between literary thinkers and philosophers. His history conflates art and philosophy to the extent that it makes philosophy into a rumormongering. By accessing their personal lives, philosophers are revealed as failures at love. It is not even a bad book of philosophy. It is a book about the perplexing lives these people live written by someone who wants to popularize philosophy for a larger audience. This is not a bad ambition. But, someone not educated about the historical nuances of these texts and dialectic about these philosophical problems will make very dangerous and distorting leaps. I've already hinted at this by blurring the line between literary thinkers and philosophers. Yet, as we philosophers know, there are often thoughts endorsed by philosopher that do not map onto the lives of their authors very easily. How does Descartes loving a maid relate to developing substance dualism? Obviously, it doesn't. How does his fathering an illegitimate child when contraception was not fully developed as it is now have to do with anyting other than commenting on how easily it was to sire progeny during the 17th century? Moreover, it is still an open question about the limits of philosophical biography, but what we should acknowledge is we're still asking this question, especially since Ray Monk published the well known philosophical autobiography on Wittgenstein. There is no relation to this event and Descartes' primary contribution to propose that truths reside in a foundational epistemology over and against the traditional scholastics at the time.

Now, philosophy is about taking it slow. It is about careful and systematic reflection, and I'm pretty open about what and how of reflection. I've got friends who are analytic, pragmatic and Continental, and I count myself in the first and the third of these categories. However, I do not recommend books that want to libel the easy aspects of someone's life.

Reclaiming for nonfiction a form of literary art does little to advance philosophy. This is just a way to say you aren't a scholar of philosophy and denying it should be done at all. When outsiders write about philosophy, they distort and miss very important things. This is essentially how Shaffer can continually say he is not interested in scholarship, but if we owe anything to these philosophers' lives, we owe both to get their philosophy and life right. This requires we stand within the text itself, the horizon of past and future interpretations and we come to see how the text articulates a contribution to truth. To do philosophy historically is to preserve the insight that these historical individuals were wrestling with difficult problems. They saw their activity as aiming at the truth and this is what we need to sustain when reading them. Historians of ideas and other disciplines see historical individual philosophers as products of the times. In this sense, they generalize to such an extent that a philosopher's life becomes that which subsumes the idea in the text, or some movement comes to manifest in a particular text. The life or movement reifies the free subjectivity that participated in relation to authoring the text. Instead, as philosophers, we ask what the argument in this text is AND how it is that historical factors have come to shape our understanding of it. We never lose sight of these texts as capable of expressing truth, even if historically delimited. This is the difference in how we treat our texts.

We treat our texts in a very formal way, and for good reason. It takes time to understand how these historical conversations have taken shape, what has come to determine another, and that philosophical texts are accomplishments of the freedom of a unique individual. Reading them, often, requires knowledge of the primary language other than English, and a severe treatment of those that preceded the philosopher in question. Yet, the philosopher in question has never lost the first-personal element when examining philosophical questions in the text now before you he or she has written. We treat them as part of an endless conversation, and only patient treatment of philosophy can distill these insights. This formalism internal to philosophy is well-placed. Let me give you an example from my own experience.

Analytic philosophers have interpreted intentionality in a different way than Husserl. For purposes beyond this post, it is not important to cash out that difference. The important thing is the careful attention to how analytic philosophers understood and received Brentano's philosophy apart from how Husserl reacted to Brentano's descriptive psychology. Dermot Moran's paper is the most wonderful piece on intentionality I have ever read, and explains why it is that intentionality in one tradition went one way, the other tradition the other way. Someone coming to early analytic philosophy and phenomenology studying Brentano, Frege and Husserl would not "get it" as someone who has spent a great deal of time doing the history of late 19th and early 20th century philosophy.

Because people outside of philosophy won't get it, the only way to ensure a proper understanding is to take philosophy classes in a traditional university setting.  Making headway in philosophy requires slow tedious reading and critical engagement with philosophical ideas. Furthermore, these philosophical ideas demand Socratic presentation, inquiry and mentoring to get it right. This is contrary to what is sometimes claimed by some. I often commonly hear "I don't need to take philosophy; I can just read it myself if I want to." This is an objection made to much of the humanities, and perhaps even one Shaffer might embrace since he is "reclaiming literary art qua nonfiction" and not interested in scholarship or journalism. He is interested in genre-bending of literary genres, and treats all texts as art. Yet, it is not true. Genre-bending, however, is not appropriate when so much is at stake to get it right. Anything else is a waste of time and devalues philosophical praxis.

Don't buy this book. Read the history of philosophy from respected philosophers.

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