Philosophy: A Dialogue

by Jeroen Bouterse

“…And now to introduce our second panelist: Martha. Martha does believe that academic philosophy is worth pursuing, and she has – of course – written a book about it. Martha, can you briefly summarize your argument?”

M: “Thank you. Yes, well, you can imagine that, though I told my publisher that my book is aimed at a broader audience, I should also like to emphasize that my argument will not easily be shortened to 140 characters. Even though I have no doubt that Rob here would find a way to do so.”

R: “Not in your case, Martha; your books are a three-tweet problem. But in all seriousness: I see what Martha is getting at here. It is the contrast between highbrow academic philosophy and ‘pop philosophy’ – a contrast I believe to be mostly a fiction. The notion that what happens in the universities is real philosophy, and that whatever the public can digest can only be a shadow of that, is misguided. It is an artifact of the fact that a few generations of great philosophers happened to work in a world where the highest intellectual authority was that of the university professor.

That Hegel’s lectures were well-attended does not mean that philosophy is, of its essence, most at home in the university. On the contrary: it is illustrative of the fact that a certain, very abstract type of thinking is suitable to the university. But it is not for school, but for life that we learn; there are other types of philosophy, and I am not ashamed that on my Twitter account I try to connect traditional philosophy to topical and pressing issues. I also write books, by the way..”

M: “That is all well and good, but I’d say that now Rob has replaced one doubtful contrast by another: his approach to philosophy concerns ‘life’, and academic philosophy, by contrast, is scholastic – which apparently means dead or lifeless.”

R: “Those were not my exact words, but I will happily embrace a similar statement in the same spirit: philosophy, in the classical sense of that notion, is not a system of more or less well-founded claims, but a way of life, defined and inspired by a reflective attitude towards life. And yes, that requires it to engage in conversation with life.”

M: “This term ‘life’ gets to bear quite a lot of weight now. I presume Rob doesn’t mean that academic philosophers don’t participate in it – they are living beings. Also, philosophy at the university is not just analytical or formalistic. It is, however, careful, which is precisely its function.

We seem to be inclined – or we ‘by nature desire’, as Aristotle might have phrased it – to do all sorts of things. We are inclined to tell each other stories; but in modern society, we have professional journalists and historians who make an effort to take a step back from the flow of words, and assess whether these stories we tell each other withstand critical scrutiny. It seems we also have an inclination to philosophize – to relate our actions to the contents of our thinking, to our worldview. Here, too, the concepts of criticism and scrutiny have meaning and legitimacy: here, too, we may profit from professionals who take their time to weigh the merits of different arguments.

This is an intellectual division of labor, in which the philosopher as a social type is not defined in opposition to society, but isn’t simply an actor in it either. She can’t be just another seller on the market of ideas; that would turn her into a sophist, rather than a philosopher.”

R: “So the philosopher should retreat from the marketplace to some extent. For whose benefit? On behalf of whom? Philosophy, in my book, is about thinking for yourself. While as individual citizens we may outsource historical research or journalism, thinking for yourself is precisely an activity that is impossible to outsource. This is the whole point of the Enlightenment: monks can pray for laypeople, but professional philosophers can’t think for laypeople.

Another thing about thinking for yourself, is that it is very well possible to combine it with active participation in society. Even more: yourself and your own position in society ought to be the first objects of reflection and criticism. These are reasons why philosophy should not be an elite activity. I don’t mean this in any anti-intellectual sense. I mean that where it is absolutely fine if only a small minority in a society devotes a significant amount of time to nuclear physics or bio-informatics, philosophy is a different matter. Criticism and reflection are matters of citizenship; and in a functioning democracy, there is no thinking class.”

M: “Then we should also take a look at the spaces in which thinking takes place, and question whether those spaces actually allow for fundamental criticism. I agree that ivory towers to lock up alienated scholars in are examples of bad architecture; but mass media and social media are far from perfect as well.

I believe philosophy to be a deeply dialogical activity. What it requires is not that people – be they few or many – sink away in their armchairs and think deeply about stuff. It asks for the conversation to be as edifying as possible. And flawed though they may be, the institutions of modern science seem to me to provide the best way yet to maintain a careful and constructive dialogue between people interested in common questions. I mean institutions such as peer review, which provide incentives to come up with good arguments, to acknowledge good arguments brought forward by others, or to find flaws in them.

You referred to a thinking ‘class’ just now, which I think is provocative but also slightly disingenuous. ‘Thinking’, I am sure you will agree, is not a scarce good that academic professionals monopolize at the cost of other potential producers (or consumers). On the other hand, philosophy does have an aspect of expertise to it, if only in the pragmatic sense that having had previous experience with a topic is helpful. You can always think deeply about any topic, but to familiarize yourself with technical discussions about meta-ethics or epistemology simply takes time.”

R: “I see your point about mass media or social media. I would like to say, in my defense, that when I tweet about philosophy, or write popular books, I am not merely being vain. I am trying to inject, in as direct a way as possible, the best the history of thought has on offer into the conversation; to bring philosophical traditions to bear on the problems of our time. This is, in part, my way of furthering this historical ‘conversation’ that both Martha and I care about.

I want to help every person to be her own philosopher. Martha seems to be afraid that if I succeed, a lot of people will get philosophy wrong. I am less worried about this; I am not completely sure what I would recognize the wrong kind of philosophy by, and I think I attach less value than Martha does to the precise state of the ‘technical discussions’ she refers to.

Richard Rorty has once suggested a thought-experiment where we would read in the New York Times that “philosophers, in convention assembled, have unanimously agreed that values are objective, science rational, truth a matter of correspondence to reality, and so on. Recent breakthroughs in semantics and meta-ethics, the report goes on, have caused the last remaining noncognitivists in ethics to recant.” The mere idea is laughable. I think the reason for this is that philosophy is foremost an activity – one that may indeed be summarized as a good conversation. The quality of a conversation cannot be reduced to the correctness of its conclusions, though of course I agree that we need to be serious about its content, and responsible about our rhetoric.”

M: “An argument in favor of democratic conversation is not the same as an argument against the existence of people who know their stuff. Sometimes it seems Rob would have everyone be a philosopher except for professionals like me. I agree that whoever starts thinking more deeply about key notions in our everyday vocabulary – ‘freedom’, ‘justice’, ‘truth’ – has her own road to follow, in dialogue with any fellow travelers. I also predict, however, that whatever that road may turn out to be, it will pass by answers that have been given before, and by follow-up questions that have been given before as well.

It is a risky comparison, but mathematics is a product of thought as well. And I think there is a good case to be made, pedagogically, that early education in mathematics could profitably put more emphasis on mathematics as creative: possibly, for most students there is more value in the intellectual activity in itself than in the results, let alone getting those results precisely right. Nonetheless, this pedagogical view would hardly amount to a fundamental criticism of university mathematics. I think the analogy goes further: it would be quite a waste to leave mathematical talent exclusively to its own creativity. Mathematics has developed further after Euclid. But so has philosophy after Plato. If your goal is to play with it, you can start anywhere you like. But if you want to help it make progress, you will have to be brought up to speed about what the current state of the thing is.

Both philosophy and mathematics have their esoteric claims and debates. I see these not as signs of decadence, but as evidence that they are traditions which have systematically thought through the consequences of previous thinking, and which are still doing that. I don’t expect people to read, en masse, a paper of mine in which I discuss naturalistic varieties of moral realism. I will go further and say that most people will be none the worse for never having heard of it! However, when someone wonders about questions such as ‘how should I live, and is there even an answer to that question’, there is no denying that many people before her have not only asked that same question, but taken it seriously enough to give good answers to it. And that other people have responded to those arguments with new questions, resulting in slight adaptations or wholesale revisions. What I maintain is that there are paths of answers and follow-up questions that will lead you to my paper, and that at that point you will find it not a sterile exercise in scholasticism, but a legitimate contribution to an interesting debate.

For in this sense, academic philosophy has its roots in life – not primarily in the questions of the day, but in the deeper regions of the human spirit. That is why it has value; and that is why there is no need for contrived attempts to revive and reinterpret canonical philosophers. I don’t need to know what Marx would have said about today’s environmentalist movement. Or maybe I do, but the reasons for that would be political, not philosophical.”

R: “Martha keeps comparing philosophy to fields in which we recognize the possibility of expertise, such as history or science or mathematics. I am not so convinced that this comparison holds. At least part of what holds together conversations in science is that scientists talk about the same things. Mathematicians keep their conversation focused by strict definition and reasoning. I will not deny that some branches of philosophy seek to emulate this; but definitely not all of them do, and, if you ask me, the ones that do are not the most interesting.

The interesting thing about the philosophical traditions we draw from is not that they are one enormously detailed network of questions and answers to perennial questions. It is that they move along with our cultures and societies. Genuine philosophy doesn’t stand still long enough to get technical.

When I read Nietzsche, I don’t read him as a refutation of some or another claim by Kant; I read him as someone who may have something to say to me. I read his texts as if they want to be interpreted, to be applied in the 21st century. I recognize that people with knowledge of the philosophical discussions of the time can be helpful to me there. But so can people with knowledge of Greek theater. Or anybody, really. In the end, Nietzsche does not belong to anybody, and he will certainly not be reduced to a paper in a very complex but extricable discussion.”

M: “You say genuine philosophy doesn’t stand still. I say that even if the whole world keeps flowing, one can always make an effort to stand still or at least move with caution. It is clear to me that my branch of philosophy is about something; that common questions and common background assumptions hold it together. I will take your denial of these self-evident truths as a reason to look at them even more critically. In the second edition of my book, I hope.”


Richard Rorty, ‘Science as Solidarity’ in: John Nelson, Allan Megill, Donald McCloskey eds., The Rhetoric of the Human Sciences (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986) 38-52.