Monday, October 18, 2010

We're still not teaching the meaning of life. Huh.

A few years back, we ISW'ers took a Yale law professor to task for his claim that the humanities have given up teaching about the meaning of life. Not so, said we philosophers!

But now, one of our own, the distinguished moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, is issuing a similar complaint. From a Chronicle of Higher Ed article on Stanley Cavell:
In God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition, the latest in a number of recent books critical of the modern research university, the influential Irish-born philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues that "neither the university nor philosophy is any longer seen as engaging the questions" of "plain persons." These questions include: "What is our place in the order of things? Of what powers in the natural and social world do we need to take account? How should we respond to the facts of suffering and death? What is our relationship to the dead? What is it to live a human life well? What is it to live it badly?" Now in his 80s, MacIntyre is among a small group of philosophers who have sought to address such questions. 


OK, so we philosophers aren't addressing questions of interest to "plain persons." Except in the nearly universally taught ethics courses, many of which deal with questions of ethics in the family, business, the professions, etc. Except via the resurgent interest in the virtues. Except in courses on the philosophy of death and in the burgeoning literature on the badness of death. Except through bioethics. Except in the published literature on the meaning of life. Except in the ongoing debates about identity, personal, political, and otherwise. The number of philosophers doing these things is not a "small group."

So let's be charitable: Macintyre says that universities are "seen" as no longer engaging those questions "plain persons" are interested in. (I wonder when he thinks universities did engage these questions.) So  universities and academic philosophers likely have a public relations problem.

Perhaps MacIntyre doesn't see many in the modern university pursuing the questions of "plain persons" in the terms he finds congenial, a communitarian/Thomistic framework. (The perils of academic freedom, I guess!) But if Macintyre (who I would say should know better) thinks we philosophers gave up on the big humanistic questions, how do we shake the misperception that we gave up on them?


  1. Well, to be fair to the Chronicle, philosophers who do choose to write about the meaning of life are relegated to minor positions in the profession, like President of the Eastern DIvision of APA.

  2. philosophy studentOctober 18, 2010 at 4:29 PM

    Well, I agree that philosophy has not given up entirely on the big questions, but I have to admit that MacIntyre’s complaint still strikes a chord with me. I can only talk about this from a student's perspective, but here it is: in my first year I took 3 philosophy courses in total - an introductory course, an ethics course, and a philosophy of the environment course. All three of these courses dealt with issues that would be of interest to "plain persons" – they never seemed to stray too far from the real world.

    But now I’m taking third year courses and it seems like the higher level I get, the further I get from the real world. You mentioned courses that seem interesting, but when it came time for me to select courses, I didn't see anything like that. I think they're the exception rather than the rule.

    My 3rd year courses tend to get involved in overly complex issues that don’t have any pragmatic value that I can see. For example, in my philosophy of the 21st century class we learned about how Saul Kripke argued that proper names are rigid designators, i.e. they refer to the same object in all possible worlds. To be frank, this seems to me to be a stunningly unimportant point to make. I already know what proper names do, I don't need it philosophically analyzed. I have never once in life encountered a problem - philosophical or otherwise - due to me or someone else not properly understanding how proper names work.

    I hoped philosophy would be clear, reasonable arguments about serious issues, but my 3rd year courses seem to stray very far from this ideal.

    Again, I recognize that this is far from a universal trend, but in my limited experience it is a trend nonetheless, and a frustrating one. I think that much of philosophy would do well to ask itself, "would a 'plain person' care about what we're doing?" If the answer is 'no' then it is at least possible they are on the wrong track. Perhaps the obscure philosophy is crowding out the more focused, purposeful philosophy, and that is what is causing the P.R. problem.

  3. McIntyre isn't stupid, so he's clearly not talking about the fact that people don't talk about these issues in a literal sense.

    I'm not sure if it's that he doesn't think people are talking about things from a communitarian point of view, but I would guess (and I'm guessing, as I do not know) that he thinks these questions are being analyzed in the way one might try to figure out how to solve a Rubik's cube, as if they could be understood in a scientific kind of manner utilizing typical philosophical dissection.

    That's my guess, anyway. In a sense, people are talking about God but in a way that seems to entail that God is actually dead.

  4. I remember reading Naming and Necessity for the first time when I was an undergraduate: it was exciting stuff for me. As I learned about philosophy, I was glad to find that there were a few people out there who were interested in the same things I was. I do try to justify my existence as a teacher by offering some accessible courses on topics of general interest - ethics, world religions, etc. But if I can't spend time on my peculiar minority interests in a philosophy department, what point does the philosophy department have?

  5. I have a couple of extra things to say about philosophy student's points.

    First, I think what you've said about the difference between upper and lower level courses does cast interesting light on MacIntyre's complaint. His worry is over-specialization, and it is true that upper level classes tend to be more specialized. This means that big questions, requiring synoptic thinking, are often relegated to lower level classes - as if they were of concern only to beginners. I have heard that some colleges are now introducing upper level cap-stone classes as part of the core curriculum - giving the students a chance, in their final year, to consider broader issues about the meaning of life.

    Also, I should perhaps mention that there are reasons why Naming and Necessity is an important text from an historical perspective. Graham McCullogh's The Game of the Name gives a good account of why philosophers became so interested in the topic of names. Kant gave us all good reason to wonder whether there is synthetic a priori knowledge. Frege, Russell and Whitehead gave us reason to suppose that mathematics is not synthetic a priori, in which case we can perhaps stop worrying about synthetic a priori completely and get on with life - but their approach to arithmetic requires some account of names and how they function.

    Also, I'm sure you've noticed that philosophers make use of modal notions - possible worlds and necessary truths - when dealing with many issues. Kripke first made his reputation by some important technical contributions to modal logic. N&N, whether or not you find it interesting, is at least fairly easy to read, and it provided an insight that even beginners could grasp into the mind of a great modal logician - like some of Feynman's popular writings on physics. It sparked off a whole trend, good or bad, for making use of the notion of 'possible world'. Love it or hate it, its worth knowing how the trend started.

    On re-reading your comment, I notice that you say you learned about Kripke's theory, but you don't say that you actually read Naming and Necessity itself. If you've not had the chance to read it, do so. It is a transcript of some lectures Kripke gave and, for me, his enthusiasm for the subject comes off the page. I expect that reading the book is more enjoyable than hearing someone else explain it, and even if you still think the topic is trivial (as many do) and that Kripke was a pied piper leading philosophers away from important issues (maybe he did), you'll understand why so many people followed the piper: he had a really cool tune.

  6. philosophy studentOctober 26, 2010 at 6:14 PM

    Thanks for the response Ben Murphy! You make a lot of good points.

    “If I can't spend time on my peculiar minority interests in a philosophy department, what point does the philosophy department have?”

    It’s true that specialization is a vital part of any academic field, and it wouldn’t make any sense to insist that philosophers should work solely on extremely broad issues that everyone finds interesting. But I still think that there are two conditions that need to be satisfied for a specialization to be OK:

    1) the specialization has to have some value, even if the value is quite small: if something can actually be shown to have no pragmatic value at all then this is equivalent to showing that it has no philosophical value.

    2) the specialization shouldn’t be given more attention than it’s due: if a relatively small issue is discussed as much as or more than very large issues then there is perhaps a problem.

    In the case of N&N, maybe it can satisfy both these conditions, and maybe not (I'd lean against it satisfying either of them). But I think the more general problem is when philosophers think that these 2 things do not need to be true for a specialization to be worthwhile; when they forget that their work does need to at least try to accomplish something. And I do think this happens.

    For example, a while ago I was talking to my Philosophy of the 21st Century professor about an essay I'd submitted. He felt I had misunderstood Kripke. What was strange, though, was he accepted (or at least did not have immediate objections to) my main argument regarding Kripke: that the idea of “necessary a posteriori truths” had no pragmatic value. But he still maintained that I was missing the point.

    He said that I could argue about whether Kripke’s views had pragmatic worth, but this was missing how exciting and beautiful the idea was that there could be necessary a posteriori truths just out there for us to discover. In essence he was coming out and saying, “sure, you’re right, this is useless, but isn’t it cool?” This seems like the epitomy of the kind of thing Cholbi maintained wasn’t a big problem in the blog post.

    Of course, you made a lot of strong points for the usefulness of teaching N&N, so I can’t just say “teaching useless stuff is bad” and leave it at that. You’ve made me reconsider writing N&N off, so I don’t disagree with you entirely, but a few points: one, you’re right that I haven’t read Kripke’s original work, but should I have to? If his ideas lose their force when paraphrased then perhaps they are just not good ideas, ones that rely on style rather than on substance.

    Two, I don’t think historical reasons (e.g. “N&N sparked a trend”) are very good justifiers of teaching something; I think a lot of philosophy teaching is too history-based, and it results in a lot of unnecessary stuff getting taught. And if the trend he sparked is a bad one then teaching it could be bad too, encouraging bad habits and the like.

    Three, I’m a bit shakey on the usefulness of discussing analytic/synthetic knowledge and on the usefulness of modal logic in general; I think that in a lot of ways N&N (at least the parts about proper names being rigid designators, and about necessary a posteriori truths) actually highlights the pragmatic problem with modal logic: it centres on talking about the way things aren’t.


If you wish to use your name and don't have a blogger profile, please mark Name/URL in the list below. You can of course opt for Anonymous, but please keep in mind that multiple anonymous comments on a post are difficult to follow. Thanks!