On The Various Disciplines’ Resources For Engaging The Enduring Questions

On The Various Disciplines’ Resources For Engaging The Enduring Questions July 13, 2009

Professor Jude Jones has stopped by to offer an excellent retort to my recent remarks in reply to her. Our topic is whether a new NEH call for grant proposals presumes that non-philosophers can address “the enduring questions” usually considered the domain of philosophy better than philosophers have or equal to how we have.  Here is my very first post on the topic if you’d like to start at the beginning but it should not be necessary to understand what follows.

Professor Jones’s retort:

OK, I’ll come clean over here on the blog to having been the person who posted the comment on Facebook to which Dan is replying here. Since my earlier comments are out there in play, I thought I’d follow up with more considered ones and reply to Dan’s reply.

First, I have now actually looked at the NEH grant opportunity in question, and the term ‘philosophy’ does not even occur in the grant description. So, any argument that is based on “their” calling something “philosophy” that is “not philosophy” is undermined. Repeatedly the NEH grant description uses the term “enduring questions” and invites a broad “humanities”-based approach to the range of questions considered “enduring” (without excluding folks in the sciences from proposing, of course).

So then Dan’s question would have to become something like, ‘How might such courses undermine the traditional work of philosophy in dealing rigorously with enduring questions?’. But to this I would say, no more than any existing treatment of these questions does in non-philosophy courses (i.e. some of the good stuff coming out on evil lately is coming out via psychology and history, challenging philosophy and theology’s traditional leadership in these areas), and no more than philosophy erodes the rigors of disciplines like psychology and literature when we philosophers encroach, untrained, on those disciplinary questions by talking about literature and psychological experiments in our courses.

Second, as a self-indulgent member of the philosophy world, I should clarify my snarky comment about “accessibility” in our classrooms: Of course Dan is right that in so far as we are training people to really think “philosophically,” disquiet and unsettlement are bound to be necessary accompaniments of the painful experience of rigor; and to an extent, he’s also right that really rigorous thinking about the “chestnut” questions cannot be dilletantish or merely expressive of mere “subjective engagement.”

But I think there’s a question-begging rationalism running rampant in the description of subjective engagement as “poetical thinking” if it fails to attain certain “rigorous conceptual clarification or objective positions”. I think the “rationalism” part of that accusation is fairly clear, but will clarify it if asked. But I add “question-begging” because it presumes that the methodological objectives of philosophy (”rigorous conceptual clarification or objective positions”) are in fact the ones required to rescue such chestnut inquiries from some shallow or inherently incomplete treatment. But that is what the grant is asking people to explore–what, in the vast resources of intellectual disciplines, can we bring to bear on these questions so as to advance learning objectives and the intellectual formation of students in the “humanities” as such? Personally, I think it fairly evident that the disciplinary skills of literature, language, psychology, history, etc. have a great deal to bring to bear–in an intellectually rigorous manner–without either failing the chestnut questions or failing the students in terms of being intellectually challenging.

More substantively, I would assert that much of the value of these “enduring questions” arises precisely NOT from their being bandied about in search of “rigorous conceptual clarification or objective positions” but in the inchoate, imagistic, even ‘poetic’ domains in which symbolic, resonant consciousness goes about its business of living. These questions endure NOT because they haven’t yet been conceptually exhausted, but because the “subjectively engaged” human lives them, quite non-conceptually (as well as conceptually) every day.

Philosophy is an excellent discipline for achieving what can be achieved in terms of the rigors of concepts about these questions. But we should not delude ourselves that these questions are in the end only or even mainly about concepts. They are about emotions, biology, symbols, evolution, the impress of an overwhelming world, and about hope and fear. Those will never be exhausted or even satisfyingly treated only from a concept-focused approach. I’ve learned more about evil from novelists and historians than I have from philosophers. And way more about love from poetry and psychology. And that’s ok by me as a philosopher. I know that Dan is not denying this lived dimension of the questions in his posting, but I think he is overplaying the philosopher’s hand in defending our disciplinary competence’s centrality in “rigorously” dealing with the enduring questions.

I agree with almost all of this, I think.

Here are the points where we may have genuine conflict.  I don’t think that the problem is that “such courses undermine the traditional work of philosophy in dealing rigorously with enduring questions” but that people assume that the historical, literary, biological, psychological, etc. treatments of these questions are the entire story.  I don’t mean at all to imply that the other disciplines are not crucial to a full understanding of these philosophical topics.  My primary research for a long time was on Nietzsche because his literary, psychological, and historical arguments were as invaluably helpful to me as a philosopher as his strictly philosophical passages were.  In fact, his most powerful impact on me at the most crucial juncture in my life (when I was leaving Christianity) was in no small part made through his literary expression and his psychological, biological, and historical arguments.

My worry however is that crude inferences and formulations of abstract positions on philosophical issues come from these fields without any concern for engaging the rigorous insights of philosophers.  And for you and I, when we praise the value of arts and history and science for teaching us about philosophical topics, we must remember that part of why these things teach us so much is because we have been trained as philosophers who can take their raw materials and construct something conceptual beyond what they have to offer.  This rationalistic process may be much dryer and less viscerally affective than insightful stories (both historical and fictional) but it is ultimately what has made the difference in how I’ve been able to process the historical, the fictional, and the scientific for its ultimate relevance to who I am and how I should live.  And I think that students need this specific training on top of the other, fuller, less abstract ways of engaging the world and its “enduring questions.”

I was not originally offended by the NEH grant when I read it and saw no particular reference to philosophers being excluded.  I share your enthusiasm for other disciplines giving rigorous treatments of “enduring questions” within the terms of their own specializations.  I think they can complement what we do by doing things that philosophy itself simply does not do (insofar as distinctions between disciplines can be made so hard and fast—I make the distinction in terms of methodological practices and traditions of discourse as they have split off and hardened into their current forms of discipline).

What made me respond critically were the remarks in the subsequent article about the NEH grants which I thought took a cavalier attitude about non-philosophers doing philosophy itself through their courses.  I don’t mean to belittle the contributions to our understanding of good and evil or happiness, etc. from history, literature, psychology, etc. but to stress that when those fields cover those topics they lack that particular, rationalistic, concept-heavy engagement that philosophy offers.  Yes, I happily dabble in psychology all the time, but I have to do so with respect for what is happening in empirical psychology.  All I am asking is that psychologists have the same consciousness in engaging philosophers, that universities recognize that the literary engagement of the question of happiness cannot adequately replace the colder, more abstract, philosophical treatments of it.

I do not think that my emphasis on rigor overplays philosophy’s hand. What it does is stress that over time philosophers have developed valuable conceptual machinery and worked out logical implications for processing those insights from psychology and history and literature.  Without the facts and vicarious experience that these other sources think about, philosophy would have much less to work with.  But also without rigorous formal clarity, people can be inclined to take away superficial, vague, or contradictory conclusions from these other sources.  When you say you’ve learned more from novelists about evil than you have from philosophers, that’s not incompatible with my saying that processing what you learned about evil involves transforming the literary experience into philosophical or psychological categories.

Yes, some of the “learning” does not take the form of discrete conceptual distinctions.  But if one wants to do develop clear and consistent conclusions about what that literature has taught you, one starts doing philosophy.  And so I think that reading literature only takes you so far without further supplementation with the far less sexy rationalistic, conceptually intricate and logical analysis that you and I deal with. This is why the academic study of literature is itself a very philosophical art.  It’s not just about experiencing the literature but about processing it theoretically as an exercise in taking what we experience in symbolic forms and translating it into clearer discursive forms that we can build on further.  Its only problem is that the nature of that disicpline and the training of literature professors focuses the study of the enduring questions on particular texts and questions of form and a freer flowing engagement of ideas than systematic, conceptually clarifying, logically rigorous philosophy demands and provides when it covers the same questions.  The arts give us irreplaceable encounters with truths and academic study of the arts helps us process how art does this and what we get out of it.  But philosophy is needed to do the nitty gritty work of putting the insights together in a coherent and systematic way.

So, maybe this makes me more optimistic about what philosophers can achieve and offer.  I am a big fan of inter-disciplinary engagement since everything is ultimately connected and most of what we learn affects what we think about other matters.  I do not think philosophy’s tools are sufficient for exhausting all there is to know about the “enduring questions.”  My only concern is that the particular benefits of our traditional knowledge, our methods, and our developed conceptual machinery be learned and appreciated by other academics and that they not presume that the particular methods and discipline-specific store of knowledge of their own traditions are sufficient for treating the “enduring questions” adequately without reference to what we have to offer.

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