The claim by Sally McManus, the new head of the ACTU, that when the law is unjust, ‘I don’t think there is a problem in breaking it’, returns us to a deep question in political philosophy: Why should I obey the law and the state more generally?
The howls of outrage from the Prime Minster and some of his colleagues (as well asThe Australian ) about her claims, are part political theatre, but also hint at the challenges these questions raise for self-consciously liberal societies.
What is political obligation?
To have a political obligation is to have a moral duty to obey the laws and support the institutions of one’s political community. In fact, I think political obligations are a broader category of duties then strictly legal obligations. The two can come apart. For example, I might have a legal obligation to pay tax in a deeply corrupt state, but not necessarily a moral obligation to do so.
So the hard question is how we come to actually acquire political and legal obligations. Is it through birth, or through consent? Or do we have ‘natural duties’ that flow from the existence of already reasonably just institutions. But what counts as ‘reasonably just’? And what are the conditions under which we might be ‘released’ from those obligations, if ever?
The PM surely doesn’t believe we must always obey the state – he cut his teeth as a young lawyer challenging the British government’s attempt to ban Peter Wright’s Spycatcher in Australia. On the other hand, McManus surely doesn’t believe we can simply opt out of every law we disagree with. Civil society would quickly become very uncivil.
The argument from fair play
The question of the duty to obey the law is an old question and the subject of one of Plato’s most famous early Socratic dialogues. In the Crito, Socrates engages in an intense conversation with his followers about whether or not he should flee the city that has just condemned him to death. In the end, he decides he should not, mainly because he feels it would involve breaking the commitments and agreements he has made with his fellow citizens and the city that has done so much to nurture and shape him.
Socrates makes a number of arguments in the course of the dialogue, but perhaps the most resonant for us today is an appeal to fairness. He suggests that to disobey the law would be to mistreat or disrespect his fellow citizens. If I have constrained my freedom to be bound by the law, under the premise that others will do likewise, then it’s unfair if you choose to disobey the law whenever it inconveniences you. The city can’t survive, let alone flourish, if that was our general attitude towards each other.
There is a gloriously robust literature in moral and political philosophy on the nature of political obligation and especially the argument from fair play. They key issue here, as far as McManus’s claim is concerned, is whether or not the laws we are subject to are indeed constitutive of a reasonably just, mutually beneficial, collaborative society. This generates the obligation to take on your fair share of the burdens of sustaining such a community. And so a general obligation to obey the law is grounded in the principle of fair play – doing your part to sustain a community you benefit from by others doing theirs.
One problem with this argument is that it might be too weak. How can my not obeying the law in some particular circumstance really undo a large-scale society like Australia?
On the other hand, a simple though experiment suggests it might also be too strong. Imagine a situation in which someone on your street mounts an impressive display of Christmas lights every year. Everyone on the street enjoys the lights enormously. But the following year, your neighbor turns up on your doorstep and insists that it’s your turn to do it this time. But you didn’t ask him to put up the lights. You didn’t consent to share in the burdens of doing so. And yet the principle of fair play would suggest you are so obliged.
Against political obligation?
This debate continues to rage on the pages of political philosophy journals and blogs. But it remains a critical issue too for contemporary politics, where people disagree vehemently about significant political, social and economic issues.
If we really don’t see our community as bound by laws that enable us to cooperate together in a mutually beneficial way, then it’s not clear that we have established a genuine political community in the first place. Citizenship surely involves more than merely a transactional relationship with others in our community.
On the other hand, given the extraordinary powers of the state, the conditions under which I become obliged must surely be stronger then merely being a member of that society. Don’t the laws themselves have to be just? Or, to return to a point I made above, don’t we have a general political obligation only if our political community in a broad sense is actually reasonably just? But is that really a feasible standard for the imperfect world in which we live? Doesn’t that mean that, ultimately, political obligation is basically impossible? (Of course, for anarchists, this is a very welcome conclusion!)
So the Prime Minister and his colleagues has overstated the case that in suggesting there might be times when disobeying unjust laws is justified, McManus is somehow advocating chaos. As a civil libertarian he should know better.
And yet McManus needs to understand that the grounds for civil disobedience must be carefully considered. It is a condition of genuine civil disobedience – as Martin Luther King so eloquently argued in his ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ – that you must be willing to suffer the consequences of disobeying the law in the hope of transforming the views of your fellow citizens. You need to take the public good to heart, and not simply your own particular interests. Socrates was willing to die for the sake of his city. Martin Luther King was imprisoned and ultimately assassinated. These are perhaps the extreme cases. But it speaks to the dilemma of how free societies deal with deep disagreement, including about the nature of injustice. It’s not clear yet how far the ACTU would be willing to go.
Philosophy can seem a daunting subject in which to dabble. But there are many wonderful books on philosophy that tackle big ideas without requiring a PhD to digest.
Here are some top picks for summer reading material from philosophers across Australia.
Shame and Necessity
by Bernard Williams
After a year of Brexit, the return of Pauline Hanson and Donald Trump, many of us are wondering about the state of our public culture. Are we undergoing some kind of seismic cultural and moral shift in the way we live?
However, the ancient Greeks would have been familiar with these phenomena for all kinds of reasons. They understood how anger, resentment and revenge shape politics. And they had some pretty interesting ways of dealing with outbreaks of populist rage and constitutional crises. Our language is still littered with them: think “ostracism”, “dictatorship” and “oligarchy” (let alone “democracy”).
So, this year, amongst all the noise, I found myself driven back to the Greeks, and especially to some of the ideas that pre-date the great philosophical titans of Plato and Aristotle.
Bernard Williams was one of our most brilliant philosophers, and Shame and Necessity is one of his best books. Stunningly – just given how good this book is, and how deep it goes into the classical mind – he didn’t consider himself a classicist, but rather a philosopher who happened to have benefited from a very good classical education. As a result, he is a delightful guide across the often rugged philosophical, historical and interpretive terrain of pre-Socratic thought.
It might seem daunting at first, but the book is an elegant, searching essay on the ways in which we are now, in so many ways, in a situation more like the ancient Greeks then we realise. But it’s not a plea for a return to some golden age. Far from it. Instead, it challenges some of our most fundamental conceptions of self, responsibility, freedom and community, inviting us to think them afresh.
The heroes of his tale are, interestingly enough, not the philosophers, but the tragedians and poets, who remind us of the complexity, contingency and fragility of our ideas of the good. Although almost 10 years old, it’s a book that gets more interesting the more often you return to it. It’s never been more relevant, or more enjoyable, than now.
Duncan Ivison, University of Sydney
The Philosophy Book
by Will Buckingham
Remember when the Guinness Book of World Records was the best gift ever for the little (or grown-up) thinker in your family? Well, if you’ve been there, done that for a few Christmases in a row and are in need of an exciting, innovative gift idea, try DK’s big yellow book of intellectual fun: The Philosophy Book.
With contributions from a bunch of UK academics, this A4 sized tome is decorated with fun illustrations and great quotes from the world’s best philosophical thinkers.
The structure of the book is historical, with between one to four pages allocated to the “big ideas” from ancient times all the way up to contemporary thought. It is accompanied by a neat glossary and directory: a who’s who of thought-makers.
The focus is on the traditional Western approach to philosophy, although some Eastern thinkers are included. Each historical section – Ancient (700-250 BCE); Medieval (250-1500); The Renaissance (1500-1750); Revolution (1750-1900); Modern (1900-1950); and Contemporary (1950-present) – is divided into classical philosophical ideas from that time period.
There are 107(!) in total, including Socrates’ “The life which is unexamined is not worth living”, Rene Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”, Thomas Hobbes’ “Man is a Machine”, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “The limits of my language are the limits of my world”, and even Slavoj Žižek’s analysis of Marx, just to name a few.
The reader can trace the history and development of philosophical thought throughout the ages, in the context of what else was occurring at that time in the world.
This gift would be suitable for ages 12+ as it is written in ordinary, accessible language. But, be warned… after reading this, your Boxing Day is likely to be filled with questions such as, “what is truth?”, “how can we think like a mountain?”, “can knowledge be bought and sold?”, and “how did the universe begin?”
Laura D’Olimpio, The University of Notre Dame Australia
50 Philosophy ideas you really need to know
by Ben Dupré
Obviously there are a lot more than 50 Philosophical Ideas we really need to know, as this book is a part of a great series of small hardback books that cover most of the great thoughts ever thunk.
Dupré has a lot of fun in these 200 pages, with 50 short essays written on a variety of classical philosophical ideas, including the important thought experiments such as brain in a vat, Plato’s cave, the ship of Theseus, the prisoner’s dilemma and many more.
The book’s blurb asks:
Have you ever lain awake at night fretting over how we can be sure of the reality of the external world? Perhaps we are in fact disembodied brains, floating in vats at the whim of some deranged puppet-master?
It is to philosophy that we turn, if not for definite answers to such mysteries, but certainly for multiple responses to these puzzles. The 50 essays in this volume cover things like the problems of knowledge, the philosophy of mind, ethics and animal rights, logic and meaning, science, aesthetics, religion, politics and justice.
There is a nifty timeline running along the footer and inspired quotes by which the reader can link the main ideas, their original thinkers, and the time at which they were writing.
This book would make a great gift for teachers, students and anyone interested in some of the big eternal questions. I would recommend it for ages 12+ given its clear writing style that illuminates and contextualises some of the most important ideas in philosophy.
Laura D’Olimpio, The University of Notre Dame Australia
by Harry G Frankfurt
When someone asks you “where do I start with philosophy?”, it’s tempting to point them to a book that gives an overview of the history, key figures and problems of the discipline.
But what about someone who doesn’t even want to go that far? Not everyone’s prepared to slog their way through Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy like my optometrist once did; every time I’d go in for new glasses he’d give me an update on where he was up to. And even if they’re prepared to put in the effort, some readers might come away from such a book not really seeing the value in philosophy beyond its historical interest. It’s easy to get lost in a fog of Greek names and -isms until you can’t see the forest for the trees.
So there’s one book I recommend to everyone even if they have no interest in philosophy whatsoever: Harry Frankfurt’s classic 1986 essay “On Bullshit”, published as a book in 2005. It’s only a few pages long so you can knock it over in a couple of train trips, and it’s a great example of philosophy in action.
Frankfurt starts with the arresting claim that:
One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted.
In the best tradition of the discipline, Frankfurt takes something we don’t even typically notice and brings it into the light so we can see just how pervasive, strange and important it is.
Bullshit, Frankfurt argues, is not simply lying. It’s worse than that. In order to lie, you first have to know the truth (or think you do), and you have to care about the truth enough to cover it up. To that extent at least the liar still maintains a relationship to the truth.
The bullshitter, by contrast, doesn’t care about the truth at all. They just want you to believe what they say. What they tell you could even be true, for all they care, it doesn’t matter, so long as you buy it.
The lying/bullshit distinction is a remarkably useful analytic tool. Be warned, though: once you have it, you’ll be seeing it everywhere.
Patrick Stokes, Deakin University
The Guardians in Action: Plato the Teacher
by William H F Altman
Plato’s dialogues were conceived by their author as a consummate, step-by-step training in philosophy, starting with the most basic beginners. Such is the orienting claim of The Guardians in Action, the second of a projected three volumes in American scholar William Altman’s continuing contemporary exploration of Plato as a teacher.
Altman, for many years a high school teacher trained in the classical languages and philosophy, has devoted his retirement from the classroom to an extraordinary attempt to reread or reteach the Platonic dialogues as a sequential pedagogical program.
The program begins with Socrates walking into the Hades-like den of sophists in the Protagoras. In the middle, the heart and high point of the 36 texts, stands the Republic, the subject of Plato the Teacher: The Crisis of the Republic of 2012 (Volume 1).
Here, the education of the philosopher-“guardians” who will rule in the best city, having seen the true Idea of the Good, is timelessly laid out. The true philosopher, as Altman’s Plato conceived him, must “go back down” into the city to educate his fellows, even though he has seen the Transcendent End of his inquiries.
The Republic itself begins emblematically, with Socrates “going back down” to the Piraeus to talk with his friends. As Altman sees things, the entire Platonic oeuvre ends with Socrates going back down into Athens, staying there to die in a cavelike prison for the sake of philosophy in the Phaedo.
Who then did Plato want for his guardians, on Altman’s reading? We his readers –like the first generation of students in the Academy whom Altman pictures being taught by Plato through the syllabus of the dialogues.
This is an extraordinarily learned book, maybe not for the complete beginner. You need to have spent a lifetime with a thinker to write books like this (with the finale, The Guardians on Trial set to come).
But it is everywhere lightened by Altman’s style, and the warm affection for Plato and for the business of teaching that radiates from every page. So it is most certainly a book for anyone who loves or has ever wondered about Plato, still the original and arguably the best introduction to philosophy.
Matt Sharpe, Deakin
Philosophy as a Way of Life
by Pierre Hadot
This book is a collection of essays by the late French philosopher and philologist Pierre Hadot. After 1970, via his studies of classical literature, Hadot became convinced that the ancients conceived of philosophy very differently than we do today.
It was, for them, primarily about educating and forming students, as well as framing arguments and writing books. Its goal was not knowledge alone but wisdom, a knowledge about how to live that translated into transformed ways of thinking, feeling, and acting, mediated by what Hadot calls “spiritual exercises” like the premeditation of evils and death, and the contemplation of natural beauty.
The ideal was the sage, someone whose way of living was characterised by inner freedom, tranquillity, moral conscience and a constant sense of his own small place in the larger, ordered world.
Hadot spent much of the last decades of his life exploring this idea in studies of ancient philosophy, particularly that of the Hellenistic and Roman periods. He wrote long books in this light on Marcus Aurelius (The Inner Citadel) and the German poet Goethe, both of whom feature prominently in the essays in Philosophy as a Way of Life, Hadot’s most popular introductory book. Hadot’s writing is simple and graceful, and has been beautifully preserved in Michael Chase’s translations for English readers.
I’ll let Hadot himself describe his intentions, in a passage which gives a sense of the spirit that breathes through the larger original:
Vauvenargues said, “A truly new and truly original book would be one which made people love old truths.” It is my hope that I have been “truly new and truly original” in this sense, since my goal has indeed been to make people love a few old truths […] there are some truths whose meaning will never be exhausted by the generations of man. It is not that they are difficult; on the contrary, they are often extremely simple. Often, they even appear to be banal. Yet for their meaning to be understood, these truths must be lived, and constantly re-experienced. Each generation must take up, from scratch, the task of learning to read and to re-read these “old truths”.
‘And is not this the most reprehensible form of ignorance, that of thinking one knows what one does not know? Perhaps, gentlemen, in this matter also I differ from other men in this way, and if I were to say that I am wiser in anything, it would be in this, that not knowing very much about the other world, I do not think I know.’
It may be startling to hear this in one concentrated burst, from a senator, last thing on a Tuesday afternoon, but if you’re familiar with the more conspiratorial corners of the internet this was all fairly pedestrian stuff.
What was more surprising, at least in passing, was Roberts comparing himself to Socrates:
Like Socrates, I love asking questions to get to the truth.
A Socratic questioner in the Senate! The gadfly of Athens, who cheerfully punctured the delusions of the comfortable and reduced them to frozen bewilderment with just a few cheerfully framed questions like some Attic Columbo, has apparently taken up residence in the red chamber. This should be a golden age for rational inquiry, right?
The choice of Socrates, like that of Galileo, is no accident. Both fit neatly into a heroic “one brave man against the Establishment” narrative of scientific progress that climate denialists like to identify with. Both eventually changed the trajectory of human knowledge. But along the way, both suffered persecution. Galileo was made to recant his “heretical” heliocentrism under threat of torture and spent his last years under house arrest. Socrates, charged with impiety and corrupting the youth and denounced in court by one Meletus, was put to death. Of course that’s not nearly as rough as the brutal suppression of Malcolm Roberts, who has been cruelly oppressed with a three year Senate seat and a guest slot on Q&A. But you get the idea.
Most importantly, both Socrates and Galileo function here as emblems of a kind of epistemic individualism. They’re ciphers for a view of knowledge generation as a contest between self-sufficient individual thinkers and a faceless, mediocre ‘they,’ instead of a collective and social process governed by internal disciplinary norms and standards.
Roberts doesn’t simply like asking questions – anyone can do that. No, he wants to be like Socrates: someone who refuses to accept the answers he’s given, and dismantles them with clinical, exhaustive precision. Malcolm Roberts wants to work it all out for himself, scientific community be damned. If Socrates could, why can’t he? Why can’t each of us?
But Socrates, living at the dawn of scholarly inquiry, had the luxury of being a polymath. “Philosopher” simply means “lover of wisdom,” and early philosophers were forced to be rather promiscuous with that love. Physicist, logician, meteorologist, astronomer, chemist, ethicist, political scientist, drama critic: the Greek philosopher was all of these and more by default. The intellectual division of labour had not yet taken place, because all fields of inquiry were in their infancy.
Fast forward two and a half thousand years and the situation is radically different. The sciences have long since specialised past the point where non-specialists can credibly critique scientific claims. There is now simply too much knowledge, at too great a pitch of complexity, for anyone to encompass and evaluate it all. The price we pay for our expanding depth of knowledge is that what we know is increasingly distrubuted between the increasingly specialised nodes of increasingly complex informational networks.
That fact, in turn, emphasises our mutual epistemic dependence. I rely daily on the expert competence and good will of thousands of people I never see and will never meet, from doctors to builders to engineers and lawyers – and climate scientists, who wrangle with the unimaginably complex fluid dynamics of our planet.
So what do you if you find yourself up against a network of specialist knowledge that disagrees with your core beliefs? Do you simply accept that you’re not in a position to assess their claims and rely, as we all must, on others? Do you, acknowledging your limitations, defer to the experts?
If you’re Socrates today, then yes, you probably do. The true genius of Socrates as Plato presents him that he understands his limitations better than anyone around him:
And is not this the most reprehensible form of ignorance, that of thinking one knows what one does not know? Perhaps, gentlemen, in this matter also I differ from other men in this way, and if I were to say that I am wiser in anything, it would be in this, that not knowing very much about the other world, I do not think I know. (Apology 29b)
But deferring to those who know better is not the sort of Socrates Malcolm Roberts wants to be. If you want to be a Roberts-style Socrates, instead of conceding your ignorance, you cling to some foundational bit of putative knowledge that allows you to dismiss anything else that’s said, like so:
It is basic. The sun warms the earth’s surface. The surface, by contact, warms the moving, circulating atmosphere. That means the atmosphere cools the surface. How then can the atmosphere warm it? It cannot. That is why their computer models are wrong.
This is a familiar move to anyone who’s ever watched a 9/11 truther at work. While “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams!” has become a punchline, in some ways it’s the perfect battle-cry for epistemic rebellion. It asserts that if you just cling to some basic fact or model, you can use it to reject more complicated scenarios or models that seem to contradict that fact.
That move levels the playing field and hands power back to the disputant. Your advanced study of engineering or climatology, be it ever so impressive, can’t override my high school physics or chemistry. My understanding of how physical reality works is simple, graspable, and therefore true; yours is complex, counterintuitive, esoteric, and thus utterly suspect. I’m Plato’s Socrates: earthy, self-sufficient and impervious to sophistry; you, by contrast, are Aristophanes’ Socrates, vain and unworldly, suspended in your balloon far above the healthy common sense of the demos, investing the clouds with your obsessions.
This leaves our would-be Socrates with the awkward fact that all those experts still disagree with him. How do you respond in the face of such disconfirmatory data? You could abandon your hypothesis, or you could deploy what Imre Lakatos called an ‘auxiliary hypothesis’ to defend it.
In Roberts’ case, as with many conspiracy theorists, this auxiliary hypothesis takes the form of a scattergun accusation. Climate science isn’t just mistaken, or even just inept, but “fraudulent.” Roberts is quite prepared to accuse thousands of people whose lives he knows nothing about of conscious and systemic corruption rather than admit he might be wrong.
From within Roberts’ rather Manichean worldview, that might seem to make a certain kind of sense: the forces of freedom are fighting an apocalyptic battle against the forces of repression. The enemy is positively evil, with its cooked climate data and insidious agendas and overtaxed bread. There is no need to spare the feelings of a foe so wicked. Those greedy bastards knew exactly what they were doing when they signed up for Socialist Climate Data Manipulation Studies in O-Week.
For anyone who claims to care about the quest for knowledge like Socrates did, the moral recklessness of such an accusation, from someone in such a position of power, should be cause for alarm. And when you’re trying to destroy the reputation of researchers because their message doesn’t suit your free-market pieties, you might just be more Meletus than Socrates.
“A great deal of philosophy doesn’t really deserve much of a place in the world,” leading philosopher Daniel Dennett has recently suggested in an interview at his year’s Association of the Scientific Study of Consciousness conference in Buenos Aires.
“Philosophy in some quarters has become self-indulgent, clever play in a vacuum that’s not dealing of problems of any intrinsic interest.”
People in many other quarters of the world roll their eyes, or blink.
For this kind of accusation against philosophy is hardly new.
The character Callicles in one of Plato’s stories suggests that philosophy is, more or less, child’s play: fit to entertain youths, but hardly a decent pursuit for serious adults.
Dennett also hails from the angloamerican or “analytic” stream of philosophy. This stream has been, until recently, the side of the “analytic-continental divide” a lot less open to weighing philosophy’s history, place and role in society, let alone delivering such strident self-criticisms.
Nevertheless, the Callicles’ of this world should draw breath and read again before too quickly taking Dennett’s criticism as a wholesale dismissal of philosophy, or the reflective humanities.
We can even take Dennett’s provocative remarks as the spur they seem intended by him to have been: a spur to undertake some philosophical reflection about philosophy’s relations to the wider world, as against its insulation from it.
He who doesn’t philosophise…
The first thing to note is that Dennett is not saying that all forms of philosophy are “idle—just games” or a “luxury”. Dennett praises forms of philosophy, like his own contributions to debates on religion and reason (and this Cogito column, gentle reader) that “engage with the world.”
He notes that it takes years for younger generations to “develop the combination of scholarly mastery and technical acumen to work on big, important issues with a long history of philosophical attention.”
But such issues, as he sees things, clearly do exist. And developing the wherewithal to deal philosophically with them is something Dennett evidently values.
When Dennett takes aim at “self-indulgent, clever play in a vacuum”, he has more particular quarry in his sights.
It is just as well. The Greeks had a saying that “he who does not philosophise, philosophises”, and philosophy—as the cradle of all the academic disciplines—has a long history of engaging with and changing the Western world, since about 600 BCE.
Socrates—responding to that other charge the Hadleys’ and Callicles’ of the world will always make (that, far from a harmless indulgence, philosophy harmfully corrupts the youth)—insisted that its role was to assist people in taking care of their souls, and helping them live better lives.
Surely this sounds quaint for our wiser times. The connection between rationally questioning the norms and ideas we entertain and cultivating better lives can also seen opaque, even to Socrates’ bigger fans.
But Socrates’ fundamental idea is simple. Nearly all of the characteristics we admire in people and institutions require forms of knowledge.
The man who would show his courage, but doesn’t know for what cause, is not courageous but foolhardy. He’s unlikely to last long.
The government that would be just, without knowing who and what people and initiatives are worth supporting or censoring, will be unjust.
The person who would live happily but does not know what people truly need to be happy will end up disaffected; and so it goes.
Philosophy, on this original model, is the rational, questioning pursuit of the kinds of knowledge necessary to recognise and promote different forms of human flourishing and excellence. Far from indulgent, it has this much in common with the practical concerns of governors and managers, CEOs and parents: “leaders” of all kinds, as we might say today.
Philosophy, again, involves the attempt to think rationally about the goals of human endeavours, on the basis of the most clear and comprehensive understandings of what kinds of creatures we are, and how we fit into the larger ecology and economies of the world. Far from being indulgent, this kind of thinking seems more necessary than ever today.
For individuals and governments who do not understand the significance of their actions for this wider “whole” (“the truth is the whole”, a famous philosopher said) are bound to pursue short-sighted policies, which produce longer-term problems and “externalities”.
Philosophy, again, has long concerned itself with those difficult, ultimate questions that all people have been posed, whether we ask them or not: is there a God? Is there a soul, life after death, or transcendent meaning to life? How should we live? What is worth pursuing?
To call every person who ever asked these questions, at some point in their lives, indulgent would be to paint nearly everyone who has ever lived with the same, tarring brush.
Philosophy, finally, has since Aristotle been understood by some of its most eminent votaries as the “knowledge of knowledges”.
Philosophy did not simply give birth to the other disciplines, as you might say. It was “interdisciplinary” from the start. Or at least, it has always been concerned to think through the relations between the different forms of intellectual inquiry and their place in the world. The concern is exactly to prevent particular “cottage industries” (Dennett’s term) proliferating into a cacophony of competing knowledges, without any symphonic wisdom.
Far from being indulgent, universities and governments today still face this form of philosophical issue, as they deliberate about how to manage the academies without which our societies’ historical memory and ability to reflect critically and democratically upon themselves will be sadly diminished:
For as water, whether it be the dew of heaven or the springs of the earth, doth scatter and leese itself in the ground, except it be collected into some receptacle where it may by union comfort and sustain itself […]; so this excellent liquor of knowledge, whether it descend from divine inspiration, or spring from human sense, would soon perish and vanish to oblivion, if it were not preserved in books, traditions, conferences, and places appointed […]
He who does philosophise …
Now, I don’t know whether Daniel Dennett would support everything I’ve tried to say in his defence here. Recalling the different forms of apology for philosophy (another ancient genre), I hope, can help to halt the kind of misreading of his comments as a wholesale “anti-philosophical” tirade that will inevitably sound about.
What is clear is that Dennett is not a critic of philosophy per se, let alone of philosophy in the several (amongst many other) larger senses I’ve picked out here.
What Dennett is critical of is the way academic philosophy is being undertaken, in situations in which a good many of its traditional functions—including reflecting critically about its “utility” and relation to other pursuits and disciplines—are being decided externally to the discipline itself.
For if the different justifications of philosophy we’ve recalled are clear enough, the ways in which philosophy has been funded and institutionalised throughout history have been ceaselessly up for negotiation.
Dennett, very much in the Platonic vein, is especially worried about the next generations of philosophers. He sees the ever-more pressing imperatives they face in order to advance within the institutional settings in which academic studies are today undertaken.
Little matter if the budding philosopher has only had the time to develop a limited, if highly cultivated area of specialisation. No matter if that specialisation’s relations to other parts of philosophy, knowledge and society remain unquestioned by him (or, as is less likely, her). “[S]o they find toy topics that they can knock off a clever comment/rebuttal/revival of.”
Now, this is a very different object of criticism than philosophy per se. It is a form of criticism which it can be imagined has relevance beyond philosophy.
To criticise a certain form of some activity is not to undermine that activity, after all. It may be a call for needed reforms. Cicero defended rhetoric by saying it got its bad name from a few bad men who misused it. Francis Bacon at the dawn of the modern period echoed this kind of defence.
The prejudices of political men against the life of scholarship per se, he argued, applied only to “deficient” forms of university learning, not liberal education itself, which must be renewed.
But let me end with Plato, since I think Dennett must have had him in the back of his mind as he made his comments, and especially the sixth book of the Republic.
For this founding text of our discipline is all about Plato’s concern with how to recognise and educate good philosophers. The problem is that nearly everything speaks against the young attaining to something like that kind of “scholarly mastery and technical acumen” Dennett recognises amongst the larger goals of a humanistic education.
There are sophists, who promote name over wisdom. There is the appeal of popularity, which lures many of the best students away from their studies into political pursuits. Yet again, there is money-making, that lures many more again away from scholarly pursuits into more lucrative trades.
And, saddest of all for Plato as seemingly for Dennett too, some amongst the young who have been taught clever forms of dialectical argumentation too early fall prey to cynicism or “misologia”: a scorn for the whole business of true philosophy like that of Callicles, who had a sophistic training himself.
In ancient Greece (469 – 399 BC), Socrates was widely lauded for his wisdom.
One day the great philosopher came upon an acquaintance, who ran up to him excitedly and said, “Socrates, do you know what I just heard about one of your students?”
“Wait a moment,” Socrates replied. “Before you tell me, I’d like you to pass a little test. It’s called the Test of Three.”
“Test of Three?”
“That’s correct,” Socrates continued. “Before you talk to me about my student let’s take a moment to test what you’re going to say. The first test is Truth. Have you made absolutely sure that what you are about to tell me is true?”
“No,” the man replied, “actually I just heard about it.”
“All right,” said Socrates. “So you don’t really know if it’s true or not. Now let’s try the second test, the test of Goodness. Is what you are about to tell me about my student something good?”
“No, on the contrary…”
“So,” Socrates continued, “you want to tell me something bad about him even though you’re not certain it’s true?”
The man shrugged, a little embarrassed.
Socrates continued, “You may still pass though because there is a third test – the filter of Usefulness. Is what you want to tell me about my student going to be useful to me?”
“No, not really…”
“Well,” concluded Socrates, “if what you want to tell me is neither true nor good nor even useful, why tell it to me at all?”
The man was defeated and ashamed and said no more.