Critical thinking is not necessarily opposed to the status quo. To criticize is not to oppose, but to sift, to assess, to assay, to evaluate. The etymology of krinein suggests as much. A critical thinker may well end up supporting the existing state of things in this or that respect. It is a fallacy of the Left to think that any supporter of any aspect of the status quo is an 'apologist' for it in some pejorative sense of this term. After all, some aspects of the status quo may be very good indeed, and others may be unimprovable without making things worse in other respects.
The notion that critical thinking entails opposition to the status quo presumably has its roots in the nihilism of the Left. Leftists are often incapable of appreciating what actually exists because they measure it against a standard that does not exist, and that in many cases cannot exist. It is the leftist Nowhere Man who judges the topos quo from the vantage point of utopia. There is no place like utopia, of course, but only because utopia is no place at all.
Just as leftists do not own dissent, they are not the sole proprietors of a critical attitude. Kritische Theorie as used by members of the Frankfurt School is a tendentious and self-serving expression.
Today I begin my tenth year as a 'blogosopher.' Traffic is good: rare is the day when the page view count drops below 1200, and there are numerous surge days above 2000. I'm in this game 'for the duration,' as they say: as long as health and eyesight hold out.
In Praise of Blogosophy
Philosophy is primarily an activity, not a body of doctrine. If you were to think of it as a body of doctrine, then you would have to say there is no philosophy, but only philosophies. For there is no one universally recognized body of doctrine called philosophy. The truth of course is one not many. And that is what the philosopher aims at: the one ultimate truth about the ultimate matters, including the ultimate truth about how we ought to live. But aiming at a target and hitting it are two different things. The target is one, but our many arrows have fallen short and in different places. And if you think that your favorite philosopher has hit the target of truth, why can't you convince the rest of us of that?
Disagreement does not of course prove the nonexistence of truth, but it does cast reasonable doubt on all claims to its possession. Philosophy aspires to sound, indeed incontrovertible, doctrine. But the quest for it has proven tough indeed. For all we know it may lie beyond our powers. Not that this gives us reason to abandon the quest. But it does give us reason to be modest and undogmatic.
Philosophy, then, is primarily an activity, a search, a quest. Somewhere deep in the bowels of the Kritik der reinen Vernunft, Kant remarks that "Philosophy cannot be taught, we can at most learn to philosophize." I agree. It cannot be taught because it does not exist as teachable doctrine. Philosophy is not something we profess, except perhaps secondarily; it is something we do. The best professors of philosophy are doers of philosophy. A professor, obviously, need not be a paid professor, an academic functionary.
How then should we do philosophy? Conversation face-to-face with the like-minded, intelligent, and sincere is useful but ephemeral and often hard to arrange. Jetting off to conferences can be fun especially if the venue is exotic and the tab is picked up your department. But reading and listening to papers at conferences is pretty much a waste of time when it comes to actually doing productive philosophy. Can you follow a technical paper simply by listening to it? If you can you're smarter than me.
So we ought to consider the idea that philosophy in its purest form, its most productive form, is 'blogosophy,' philosophy pursued by weblog. And there is this in favor of it: blogging takes pressure off the journals. Working out my half-baked ideas here, I am less likely to submit material that is not yet ready for embalming in printer's ink.
I am a foe of misquotation, misattribution, the retailing of unsourced quotations, the passing off of unchecked second-hand quotations, and sense-altering context suppression. Have I ever done any of these things? Probably. 'Suffering' as I do from cacoethes scribendi, it is a good bet that I have committed one or more of the above. But I try to avoid these 'sins.'
This morning I was reading from Karl Menninger, M.D., Whatever Became of Sin? (Hawthorn Books, 1973). On p. 156, I found this quotation:
Our youth today love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect for older people. Children nowadays are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers.
At the bottom of the page there is a footnote that reads: "Socrates, circa 425 B. C. Quoted in Joel Fort, The Pleasure Seekers (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969)."
I was immediately skeptical of this 'quotation.' In part because I had never encountered the passage in the Platonic dialogues I have read, but also because the quotation is second-hand. So I took to the 'Net and found what appears to be a reputable site, Quote Investigator.
. . . was crafted by a student, Kenneth John Freeman, for his Cambridge dissertation published in 1907. Freeman did not claim that the passage under analysis was a direct quotation of anyone; instead, he was presenting his own summary of the complaints directed against young people in ancient times.
A mark of intellectual maturity is the ability to tolerate uncertainty without fleeing to dogmas that make false certainties of objective uncertainties, but also without falling into a self-vitiating relativism. The ideal is a love of truth that does not flag but also accepts no substitutes.
We want to develop breadth of mind, to practice comparative study, to keep the horizon before us; these things cannot be done without much reading. But much and little are opposites only in the same domain. . . [M]uch is necessary in the absolute sense, because the work to be done is vast; but little, relatively to the deluge of writing that . . . floods our libraries and our minds nowadays.
[. . .]
What we are proscribing is the passion for reading, the uncontrolled habit, the poisoning of the mind by excess of mental food, the laziness in disguise which prefers easy familiarity with others’ thought to personal effort. The passion for reading which many pride themselves on as a precious intellectual quality is in reality a defect; it differs in no wise from other passions that monopolize the soul, keep it in a state of disturbance, set it in uncertain currents and cross-currents, and exhaust its powers.
[. . .]
The mind is dulled, not fed, by inordinate reading, it is made gradually incapable of reflection and concentration, and therefore of production; it grows inwardly extroverted, if one can so express oneself, becomes the slave of its mental images, of the ebb and flow of ideas on which it has eagerly fastened its attention. This uncontrolled delight is an escape from self; it ousts the intelligence from its function and allows it merely to follow point for point the thoughts of others, to be carried along in the stream of words, developments, chapters, volumes.
[. . .]
[N]ever read when you can reflect; read only, except in moments of recreation, what concerns the purpose you are pursuing; and read little, so as not to eat up your interior silence.
A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods ( Catholic University Press, 1998), pp. 145 - 149.
I agree with the above, except for the extreme statement, "Never read when you can reflect."
100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School is now at #79. Despite its unrelenting negativity, prospective applicants to graduate programs may find the site useful. I cannot criticize it for being negative since that is its implied purpose: to compile 100 reasons not to go. But there is something whiny and wimpy about it.
Suppose you are paid to spend five years, from age 22 to age 27, studying in depth a subject you love and have aptitude for in the idyllic environs of a college campus. You have been give tuition remission and a stipend on which to live. You really enjoy reading, writing, thinking, and studying more than anything else. You have good sense and avoid the folly of assuming debt in the form of student loans. You live within your very modest means and have the character to resist the siren songs of a society bent on crazy consumption. A little monkishness never hurt anyone. You spend five years enjoying all the perquisites of academic life: a beautiful environment, stimulating people, library privileges, an office, a flexible work schedule, and the like. At age 27 you are granted the Ph. D. But there are few jobs, and you knew that all along. You make a serious attempt at securing a position in your field but fail. So you go on to something else either with or without some further training.
Have you wasted your time? Not by my lights. Hell, you've been paid to do what you love doing! What's to piss and moan about? You have been granted a glorious extension of your relatively carefree collegiate years. Five more years of being a student, sans souci, in some exciting place like Boston. Five more years of contact with age- and class-appropriate members of the opposite sex and thus five more years of opportunity to find a suitable mate. (But if you marry and have kids while a grad student, then you are a fool. Generally speaking, of course.)
Of course, if your goal in life is to pile up as much loot as possible in the shortest possible time, then stay away from (most) graduate programs. But if the life of the mind is your thing, go for it! What's to kvetch about? Are you washed up at 27 or 28 because you couldn't land a tenure-track position? You have until about 40 to make it in America.
For more on this and cognate topics, see my Academia category.
Noting your desire to correct spelling, here are two that I spotted: "...gave an argment [sic] a while back (1 August 2010 to be precise) to the conclusion that there cannot, as a matter of metaphyscal necessity [sic]..."
Holy moly! Thanks. I just corrected them, and then found three more.
My current frustrations stem from mental mistakes, not typos. Thinking clearly about philosophy is more difficult for me than writing about my thoughts, which makes me suspect that I should write more (summary papers, counterarguments) while I'm working through the material instead of just taking notes along the way.
Right. Reading by itself is too passive to be very profitable even if done while alert in a quiet environment in an upright position. So one ought to take notes and mark passages (assuming you own the book). But even this is not enough. The only way properly to assimilate a philosophical text is by writing a summary and a critique of it. The summary is an attempt to understand exactly what the author's thesis or theses are, and (just as important) what his arguments are. Having done that, one advances to critical evaluation, the attempt to sort out which theses and arguments you consider true/valid and which false/invalid. Blogging can be very useful for this purpose and can lead to worthwhile exchanges and the refinement and testing of one's ideas.
As I see it, there is no point in seriously studying anything without a decision as to whether or not one should take on board the author's theses and arguments and incorporate them into one's own thinking.The point of study and inquiry is to get at the truth, not to know what someone else has maintained that the truth is.
I have just completed a semester of Searle's intro to the philosophy of mind via podcast. I worked through the primary readings and also studied his textbook. It was very difficult and rewarding. Now it is time to tackle his semester on language.
Searle is good. You will learn a lot from him. My posts on Searle are collected in the aptly-named Searle category.
Always enjoy your posts. Occam's Razor is sorely abused by apologists from all corners of the debate.
The place of philosophy in college curricula is often defended on the ground that its study promotes critical thinking.
Now I don't doubt that courses in logic, epistemology, and ethics can help inculcate habits of critical thinking and good judgment. And it may also be true that philosophy has a unique role to play here. So, while it is true that every discipline teaches habits of critical thinking and good judgment in that discipline, there are plenty of issues that are not discipline-specific, and these need to be addressed critically as well.
What I object to, however, is the notion that philosophy needs to justify itself in terms of an end external to it, and that its main justification is in terms of an end outside of it. The main reason to study philosophy is not to become a more critical reasoner or a better evaluator of evidence, but to grapple with the ultimate questions of human existence and to arrive at as much insight into them as is possible. What drives philosophy is the desire to know the ultimate truth about the ultimate matters. Let's not confuse a useful byproduct of philosophical study (development of critical thinking skills) with the goal of philosophical study. The reason to study English literature is not to improve one's vocabulary or to prepare for a career as a journalist. Similarly, the reason to study philosophy is not to improve one's ability to think clearly about extraphilosophical matters or to acquire skills that may prove handy in law school.
Philosophy is an end in itself. This is why it is foolish to try to convince philistines that it is good for something. It is not primarily good for something. It is a good in itself. Otherwise you are acquiescing in the philistinism you ought to be combating. Is listening to the sublime adagio movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony good for something? And what would that be, to impress people with how cultured you are?
To the philistine's "Philosophy bakes no bread" you should not respond "Yes it does," for such responses are patently lame. You should say, "Man does not live by bread alone," or "Not everything is pursued as a means to something else," or "A university is not a trade school." You should not acquiesce in the philistine's values and assumptions, but go on the attack and question his values and assumptions. Put him on the spot. Play the Socratic gadfly. If a philistine wants to know how much you got paid for writing an article for a professional journal, say, "Do you really think that only what one is paid to do is worth doing?"
Admittedly, this is a lofty conception of philosophy and I would hate to have to defend it before the uncomprehending philistines one would expect to find on the typical Board of Regents. But philosophy is what it is, lofty by nature, and if we are to defend it we must do so in a way that does not betray it.
It might be better, though, not to stoop to defend it at all, at least not before the uncomprehending. It might be better to show contempt and supercilious disdain. Not everyone can be reasoned with, and part of being reasonable is understanding this fact.
There is serious reading and there is bed reading. Serious reading is for stretching the mind and improving the soul. It cannot be well done in bed but requires the alertness and seriousness provided by desk, hard chair, note taking and coffee drinking. It is a pleasure, but one stiffened with an alloy of discipline. Bed reading, however, is pure unalloyed pleasure. The mind is neither taxed nor stretched or much improved, but entertained.
Alfred North Whitehead's The Aims of Education and Other Essays (Macmillan, 1929) begins with this paragraph:
Culture is activity of thought, and receptiveness to beauty and humane feeling. Scraps of information have nothing to do with it. A merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God's earth. What we should aim at producing is men who possess both culture and expert knowledge in some special direction. Their expert knowledge will give them the ground to start from, and their culture will lead them as deep as philosophy and as high as art. We have to remember that the valuable intellectual development is self-development, and that it mostly takes place between the ages of sixteen and thirty. As to training, the most important part is given by mothers before the age of twelve. A saying due to Archbishop Temple illustrates my meaning. Surprise was expressed at the success in after-life of a man, who as a boy at Rugby had been somewhat undistinguished. He answered, "It is not what they are at eighteen, it is what they become afterwards that matters."
That few today understand what education is is betrayed by the readiness of all too many to use 'educate' in place of 'inform.' Suppose you tell me about some petty fact. You have not 'educated' me, you have given me a scrap of information. The educated person is not the one whose head is stuffed with information, but the one whose experientially-honed judgment is capable of making sense of information. To become well-informed is not difficult; to become well-educated is a task of self-development for a lifetime.
Michael Gilleland, the Laudator Temporis Acti, in his part-time capacity as 'channel' of Aristotle, submits this delightful missive:
Dear Dr. Vallicella:
"Society and its various coercive and noncoercive arrangements exist for the sake of the individual and not the other way around. Given that the individual is the locus of value and the reason for the being of state and society, the latter cannot be ends in themselves, whence it follows that the political life, useful as it is, cannot be the highest life."
I once argued otherwise, in my Nicomachaean Ethics 1.2.8 (tr. H. Rackham):
"For even though it be the case that the Good is the same for the individual and for the state, nevertheless, the good of the state is manifestly a greater and more perfect good, both to attain and to preserve. To secure the good of one person only is better than nothing; but to secure the good of a nation or a state is a nobler and more divine achievement."
Aristotle the Stagirite
I will begin by thanking your for your interest in my humble weblog. If it were not for you and your teacher Plato -- to whom, if I may say so, you do not accord sufficient respect in your otherwise outstanding writings -- none of us epigoni would be so much as thinkable. But now to the matter at hand.
You do indeed argue that politics is the master science of the good in Book I, Chapter 2 of your excellent Nicomachean Ethics, and you do indeed state at 1094b8 that the good of the state is nobler than the good of the individual. But I must remind you of what you say in the tenth and last Book of Eth. Nic. beginning in Chapter 6 and continuing until the concluding Chapter Nine. May I be so bold as to summarize the immortal thought of these inspiring chapters?
Chapter Six: Happiness and Activity. Happiness is a an active state, not one of passivity or amusement. Happiness, as the ultimate goal of human striving, cannot be identified with pleasure as certain 19th century English blockheads thought, and certainly not with bodily pleasures. (The German philosopher Nietzsche, whom you may have heard of, once quipped, "Man does not seek pleasure, only the Englishman does." I think you would approve of that line.) Happiness is an activity of the soul, not the body, in accordance with virtue.
Chapter Seven: Happiness, Intelligence, and the Contemplative Life. Now if happiness, eudaimonia, is an activity of the soul, an ergon of the psyche, in accordance with virtue or excellence, then it ought to be an activity in accordance with the highest virtue or excellence. You wisely distinguished the moral from the intellectual virtues and gave precedence to the latter. But among the intellectual virtues theoretical knowledge or contemplation, what you call theoria, stands in first place. Thus the highest life is the bios theoretikos, the life of theory, of contemplation, of philosophy. This is what your students in the Middle Ages called the vita contemplativa.
One of the arguments you give for the superiority of the theoretical life is the argument from sufficiency (1176b25 ff.) One who practices such virtues as justice, courage, and self-control needs other people. Thus a just legislator, a just judge, and a just executive requires other people as a condition of his virtuous behavior, a fact which brings in its train a lack of self-sufficiency. But he who follows the bios theoretikos needs little beyond the necessities of life. As you put it, "a wise man is able to study even by himself, and the wiser he is the more he is able to do so."
You go on to point out that the theoretical life is legitimately regarded as an end in itself and is a life of true leisure. By contrast, those who engage in military and political pursuits live in unleisurely and servile fashion, and insofar forth can do little to advance the cause of culture. As you point out, we are busy in order to have leisure just as we wage war for the sake of peace. The vita activa is for the sake of the vita contemplativa. Have you read Josef Pieper's Leisure The Basis of Culture? He does an excellent job of expounding this idea of yours. All neg-otiation, whether econonomic or political, is for the sake of otium, leisure. Sorry to employ the inferior language, Latin, but it is nearer to me and my readers than Greek.
Your view, then, is that the contemplative life stands higher than the political life. As the first to investigate logic systematically, you will not take it amiss if I set forth your view in a syllogism:
1. The highest activity is self-sufficient, an end in itself, and productive of the highest pleasure attainable. 2. Only theoretical, but not political, activity is self-sufficient, an end in itself, and productive of the highest pleasure attainable. Therefore 3. The highest activity is theoretical, not political, activity.
Chapter Eight: The Advantages of the Contemplative Life. The contemplative life is the happiest life since it is the life in accordance with the best in us, nous or intelligence, that in us which make us godlike and self-sufficient.
Chapter Nine: Ethics and Politics. If I may say so, this chapter, something of a grab bag of tentative considerations, does not attain the level of the chapters I have just summarized, and indeed leaves unresolved a tension that you must have felt while composing the various parts of your excellent book.
Is politics the master science of the good, as you say in Book One, so that ethics is a branch of politics? That would seem to suggest that the good of the polis is superior to the good of the individual, and that the happiness and self-realization of the individual must be subordinated to the welfare of the state. But this conflicts with your plain commitment to the thesis that the theoretical life is superior to the political life, not to mention the economic life and the pleasure-seeking life.
I don't need to point out to you that the theoretical life is the individual life par excellence. Indeed, you underscore its solitariness and self-sufficiency as key advantages of it. It is not a group life. And its thinking is not group-think. Indeed, your god, the primum mobile (pardon the Latin!) is noesis noeseos, thought thinking itself, in your beautiful phrase. And you would be the first to admit that no group of thinkers is a thinker.
So I think there is a bit of a tension here. Is politics the master science of the good, or is ethics? Which is subordinated to which? You can't have it both ways, and I would resolve the tension by giving the palm to ethics and to the happiness of the individual. And I would do so invoking your authority!
If over the centuries you have come to any further conclusions on this weighty matter, I should like to hear them, either directly, or via the good graces of your acolyte the estimable Dr. Gilleland.
One mark of intellectual maturity is the ability to tolerate uncertainty, the ability to withhold assent, the ability to withstand contradiction and recognize the merit of opposing views -- all of this without lapsing into skepticism or relativism. The intellectually immature, by contrast, bristle when their pieties and subjective certainties are called into question. Their doxastic security needs trump their need to inquire into the truth.
Such thinking is not in the service of self-will or subjective opining, but in the service of submission to a higher authority. We think for ourselves in order to find a truth that is not from ourselves, but from reality. The idea is to become dependent on reality, rather than on institutional and social distortions of reality. Independence subserves a higher dependence.
It is worth noting that thinking for oneself is no guarantee that one will arrive at truth. Far from it. The world is littered with conflicting opinions generated from the febrile heads of people with too much trust in their own powers. But neither is submission to an institution's authority any assurance of safe passage to the harbour of truth. Both the one who questions authority and the one who submits to it can end up on a reef. 'Think for yourself' and 'Submit to authority' are both onesided pieces of advice.
Weight lifters and body builders in their advanced states of muscular development appear ridiculous to us. All that time and money spent on the grotesque overdevelopment of one's merely physical attributes ___ when in a few short years one will be dust and ashes. But isn't the intellectual equally unbalanced who overdevelops his logical and analytical skills to the neglect of body, emotions, and spirit? Is the intellectual wrestler all that superior to the physical one? Is one kind of hypertrophy better than another? What good is discursive hypertrophy if it is paid for in the coin of mystical and moral and physical atrophy?
Morris Raphael Cohen (1880-1947) was an American philosopher of naturalist bent who taught at the City College of New York from 1912 to 1938. He was reputed to have been an outstanding teacher. I admire him more for his rationalism than for his naturalism. In the early 1990s, I met an ancient lady at a party who had been a student of Cohen's at CCNY in the 1930s. She enthusiastically related how Cohen had converted her to logical positivism, and how she had announced to her mother, "I am a logical positivist!" much to her mother's incomprehension.
We best honor a thinker by critically re-enacting his thoughts. Herewith, a passage from Cohen's A Preface to Logic, Dover1944, pp. 186-187:
...the exercise of thought along logical lines is the great liberation, or, at any rate, the basis of all civilization. We are all creatures of circumstance; we are all born in certain social groups and we acquire the beliefs as well as the customs of that group. Those ideas to which we are accustomed seem to us self-evident when [while?] our first reaction against those who do not share our beliefs is to regard them as inferiors or perverts. The only way to overcome this initial dogmatism which is the basis of all fanaticism is by formulating our position in logical form so that we can see that we have taken certain things for granted, and that someone may from a purely logical point of view start with the denial of what we have asserted. Of course, this does not apply to the principles of logic themselves, but it does apply to all material propositions. Every material proposition has an intelligible alternative if our proposition can be accurately expressed.
These are timely words. Dogmatism is the basis of all fanaticism. Dogmatism can be combatted by the setting forth of one's beliefs as conclusions of (valid) arguments so that the premises needed to support the beliefs become evident. One can also show by this method that arguments 'run forward' can just as logically be 'run in reverse,' or, as we say in the trade, 'One man's modus ponens is another man's modus tollens.'
In Cohen's day, the threats to civilization were Fascism, National Socialism, and Communism. Today the threat is Islamo-totalitarianism. Then as now, logic has a small but important role to play in the defeat of these threats. The fanaticism of the Islamic world is due in no small measure to the paucity there of rational heads like Cohen.
But I do have one quibble with Cohen. He tells us that "Every material proposition has an intelligible alternative..." (Ibid.) This is not quite right. A material proposition is one that is non-logical, i.e., one that is not logically true if true. But surely there are material propositions that have no intelligible alternative. No color is a sound is not a logical truth since its truth is not grounded in its logical form. No F is a G has both true and false substitution-instances. No color is a sound is therefore a material truth. But its negation Some color is a sound is not intelligible if 'intelligible' means possibly true. If, on the other hand, 'intelligible' characterizes any form of words that is understandable, i.e., is not gibberish, then logical truths such as Every cat is a cat have intelligible alternatives: Some cat is not a cat, though self-contradictory, is understandable. If it were not, it could not be understood to be self-contradictory. By contrast, Atla kozomil eshduk is not understandable at all, and so cannot be classified as true, false, logically true, etc.
So if 'intelligible' means (broadly logically or metaphysically) possibly true, then it is false that "Every material proposition has an intelligible alternative . . . ."
This just over the transom from a reader in Virginia:
I stumbled across your blog a year or two ago, and since then I've periodically dropped in to see what's going on. I enjoy what I understand of your material but, to be honest, I find much of it quite difficult to follow. I think the main problem is that, having never studied philosophy formally, I simply haven't developed sufficient fluency in the vocabulary and methods of thinking required by the discipline. (At the risk of sounding arrogant, I'm certain I possess the native intelligence to grasp at least the basics.) With less than a year to go until my fortieth birthday it may be a little late to start learning, but, for reasons that I won't get into unless you really want to know, I'd like to try. With that said, could you (and would you) suggest one or two books by way of introductory reading?
You are not even forty and you consider yourself too old for study? Nonsense. Nietzsche says somewhere that at thirty a man is yet a child when it comes to matters of high culture. Well, to employ a trendy manner of speaking, forty is the new thirty. Actually, fifty is the new thirty. It is a good bet that you have another forty years ahead of you. It is never too late to be learning new things. The mind declines much more slowly than the body and its decline is much more easy to offset by preventative measures. See Studiousness as Prophylaxis Against the Debilities of Old Age. It is also worth noting that the waning of one's libido is conducive to the sort of peace of mind that makes study a pure delight.
As for your native intelligence, I too am certain that you possess enough of it to grasp the basics. This is obvious from your letter which is flawlessly written and a model of clarity. Never start with the assumption that any subject matter is beyond your understanding. Always start with the opposite assumption and let experience teach you your limits. She will not fail to do so!
You say that you find much of what I write on this weblog hard to follow. That is only to be expected when the post is of a technical nature as many of my posts are, or when I simply presuppose even in non-technical posts that the reader has read Aristotle, Hegel, Heidegger, Sartre, Quine . . . .
You would like me to recommend one or two introductory books. I cannot think of anything I could wholeheartedly recommend in good conscience, but the following are worth a look: Bryan Magee, Confessions of a Philosopher, and Jay F. Rosenberg, The Practice of Philosophy. Mr. Google will be glad to assist you in locating copies. These books will give you some idea of what philosophy is about, even though I cannot endorse their particular slants or emphases.
But you really cannot learn philosophy by reading about it or attending lectures. You have to do it. It is an activity first and foremost, not a body of doctrine there to be learned. You have to have one or more burning questions that torment you, and then you have to try to work out (in writing!) your own answers to those questions as best you can, all the while consulting what others have said about them.
I have a few questions, they're very practical in nature. I was hoping if you could give me a brief outline of your method of study and how you read books? How do you keep track of such a vast amount of resources? I'm on information overload because, well, I'm a 21st century twenty-something who likes to read blogs, books etc.
Anyway, I enjoy your blog. Hope you can help! Thanks.
A great deal could be said on this topic. Here are a few thoughts that may be helpful. Test them against your own experience.
Your last post puts me in mind of the hoary old story of the timid student hovering outside his tutor’s door not knowing whether to knock and disturb the great man. At that moment one of the college servants walks past: “Oh, it’s all right dear, you can go in. The professor’s not doing anything, he’s only reading”.
Ambivalence towards reading and other activities in the life of the mind reflects the fact that we are embodied spirits. As spirits, we dream and imagine, think and question, doubt and despair. We ask what is real and what is not. It is no surprise, then, that we question the reality and importance of reading and writing and study when these activities are not geared to what is immediate and utilitarian such as the earning of money. Our doubts are fueled in no small measure by the lethargy and hebetude of the body with its oppressive presence and incessant demands. The spectator of all time and existence, to borrow a beautiful phrase from Plato's Republic, should fully expect to be deemed one who is 'not really doing anything' by the denizens of the Cave.
The bias against the spirit is reflected in the phrase 'gainful employment.' What is intended is pecuniary gain, as if there is no other kind. The bias, however, is not without its justification, as we are embodied beings subject to all the vicissitudes and debilities of material beings generally.
Rorty is dead, but a thinker lives on in his recorded thoughts, and we honor a thinker by thinking his thoughts with a mind that is at once both open and critical, open but not empty or passive. In Chapter Three of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Richard Rorty writes:
It is central to the idea of a liberal society that, in respect to words as opposed to deeds, persuasion as opposed to force, anything goes. This openmindedness should not be fostered because Scripture teaches, Truth is great and will prevail, nor because, as Milton suggests, Truth will always win in a free and open encounter. It should be fostered for its own sake. A liberal society is one which is content to call 'true' whatever the upshot of such encounters turns out to be. That is why a liberal society is badly served by an attempt to supply it with 'philosophical foundations.' For the attempt to supply such foundations presupposes a natural order of topics and arguments which is prior to, and overrides the results of, encounters between old and new vocabularies. (pp. 51-52, italics in original, bolding added.)
Morris R. Cohen, A Preface to Logic (Dover, 1977, originally published in 1944), p. 186, emphasis added:
It would certainly be absurd to suppose that the appreciation of art should justify itself by practical applications. If the vision of beauty is its own excuse for being, why should not the vision of truth be so regarded? Indeed is it not true that all useful things acquire their value because they minister to things which are not useful, but are ends in themselves? Utility is not the end of life but a means to good living, of which the exercise of our diverse energies is the substance.
Or as I like to say, the worldly hustle is for the sake of contemplative repose, it being well understood that such repose can be quite active, an "exercise of our diverse energies," but for non-utilitarian ends.
Even among calm and reasonable people, few are persuaded by argument, even when it satisfies the canons of logic. Changes of view under dialectical pressure are seldom seen. Most just dig in and fortify their defenses. This raises questions about the utility of argument, debate, and discussion. Call me sanguine, call me naive – but I believe in their utility. Herewith, a preliminary catalog of the uses of argument.
Ralph Nader, for example. Does he ever enjoy life, rest in contemplation, put aside for a time all his views and projects and schemes for improving the world? Does he consider consuming less jet fuel in his zeal to improve the unimprovable?
Chalk it up to my contemplative, quietistic bias, but activism as a way of life strikes me as ultimately meaningless. It is similar in meaninglessness to money-making as a way of life. And it doesn't matter whether one's activism points Left, Right, or sideways.
It is self-evident that money can only be reasonably pursued as a means to an end, and not as an end in itself. I would say the same about activism: the only reason to be active is to secure the conditions of contemplation. I intend the latter in a broad sense to include scientific and philosophical theorizing, artistic and literary creation, and the like.
But don't suppose that quietism rules out action and involvement: there are malefactors to smite and wrongs to right. One should do one's bit. I stay informed about the passing scene, I vote, I speak out. But that's all at the margin of my life, where it belongs. There is more reality in an hour of meditation or a ten mile run than in political activities.
If I had Nader's ear, I would say: You need to be more and do less. Enjoy what is, which, after all, is the constant and irremovable basis of all your frenetic advocacy and activity.
Setting aside his policies and programs, I admire Nader the man. His honesty and integrity are manifest. He is not in public life to feather his nest or advance himself in the usual ways. Still, a life consumed with activism falls short of the ideal.
If you can 'relate' — as we used to say in the 'Sixties — to what I have just written, then you have more than a few paleoconservative bones in your body.
Much as I disagree with Daniel Dennett on most matters, I agree entirely with the following passage:
I deplore the narrow pragmatism that demands immediate social utility for any intellectual exercise. Theoretical physicists and cosmologists, for instance, may have more prestige than ontologists, but not because there is any more social utility in the satisfaction of their pure curiosity. Anyone who thinks it is ludicrous to pay someone good money to work out the ontology of dances (or numbers or opportunities) probably thinks the same thing about working out the identity of Homer or what happened in the first millionth of a second after the Big Bang. (Dennett and His Critics, ed. Dahlbom, Basil Blackwell 1993, p. 213. Emphasis in original.)