Friday, September 16, 2016

DoD Named “Wise and Good!”

We here in the DoD are delighted to announce that we have been officially named “wise and good!”  Since such encomia don’t come around every day, we here in the DoD shall vigorously enjoy the compliment while and how we can.  The full announcement is here, but since we do love a good “contentious dialogue,” we thought we’d make parts of the announcement – especially the parts involving Confucius, that old Deviant – more dialogic and agonistic just to celebrate:

“Not All Things Wise and Good are Philosophy”

Philosophy originates in Plato’s Republic. It is a restless pursuit for truth through contentious dialogue. It takes place among ordinary human beings in cities, not sages and disciples on mountaintops, [Someone’s been reading too many old New Yorker cartoons with orientalist imagery! You do realize that this hackneyed imagery of sages on mountaintops is like seeing The Thinker sculpture and concluding that western philosophers sit around naked clutching their heads, right?] and it requires the fearless use of reason even in the face of established traditions or religious commitments [Fearless?  Socrates was pretty brave.  Still, the folks wandering around most philosophy departments don’t get to ride on those superhero cape-tails literally forever.  Go to the APA and then tell me here resides “fearless use of reason.” Oh, by the by, Confucius also faced Mortal Danger in his mountain-top wise guy disciple-wrangling.  It was just that his Plato-types – the folks memorializing him - didn’t make much fuss about it, which, if you think about it, is a intriguing writerly choice.]. Plato’s book is the first text of philosophy and a reference point for texts as diverse as Aristotle’s Politics, Augustine’s City of God, al-Fārābī’s The Political Regime, and the French philosopher Alain Badiou’s book Plato’s Republic (2013). [Uh, if general wow-power over many and millenia is the issue, it might be useful to recall that there have been people, lots of them, in East Asia over the two millennia since Confucius.  And a quite large number of them, it turns out, spilled much ink over Confucius.] The British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said that the history of philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. [Yeah, and he also said that it is more important that an idea be interesting than that it be true.  So maybe he was being “interesting” when he said that bit about Plato and footnotes.] Even philosophers who do not mention Plato directly still use his words – including ‘ideas’ – and his general orientation that prioritises truth over piety. [Yeah, we once said “justice” so call us Philosophers!  And we like truth.  In fact, truth is what motivated us to read a whole lot of stuff before trying tell other people what’s up with Confucius.] Philosophy is the love of wisdom rather than the love of blood or country. [E.g., Socrates didn’t give a damn about his Athenian identity.  That’s why he strode off into exile to make wise elsewhere… oh, wait…]  It is in principle [if not in actual fact] open to everybody, and people all around the world heed Plato’s call to live an examined life. [Plato would like to teach the world to sing. In perfect harmony… This global kumbaya moment has drawn a tear of joy from us.  Just one more reason to say, “Thanks, Plato!”]

I am wary of the argument, however, that all serious reflection upon fundamental questions ought to be called philosophy.  [Which is why we started the Department of Deviance.  We dislike wariness and thought we could be more seriously serious and fundamentally fundamental if we didn’t have to worry about provoking wariness in others, especially the “fearlessly” wary.]  Philosophy, at its best, aims to be a dialogue between people of different viewpoints [But never too different and never with any different ideas about philosophy.  Wait.  We just used ideas in a sentence.  Maybe that makes us Plato’s children after all?], but, again, it is a love of wisdom, rather than the possession of wisdom. [Fun aside:  This is why Confucius is always depicted with large sleeves.  He owned wisdom, and kept it tucked up his generous sleeve, just like our grandma does with her tatty tissues.]   This restless character has often made it the enemy of religion and tradition. [Often?  How often?  Thinking you’re a force of opposition when you’re reflexively echoing ideas  born out of a contingent tradition may make you “restless” but we’re less convinced it makes you the enemy of all that is holy.  More like the occasionally nippy lapdog of all that is holy?]

Likewise, Confucius (551-479 BC) might be worth reading, [We sure do like to think so!] but it stretches terms too far to call him a philosopher. [As we learn in the Analects, Confucius was really into the rectification of names and hotly opposed name-stretching.] In The Analects, ‘The Master said, “When someone’s father is still alive, observe his intentions; after his father has passed away, observe his conduct. If for three years he does not alter the ways of his father, he may be called a filial son.”’ Confucius presents a comprehensive doctrine of a good life that includes filial piety and respect for elders. By contrast [with this one context-free sentence], in the opening pages of the Republic, Socrates ridicules the old man Cephalus for his poor understanding of the meaning of justice. [Sorry, Socrates seems like an amateur here. Unlike Confucius, who once hit an elderly guy with a stick while simultaneously pointing out that some old people lack even the grace to die.  If you’re going to get rough with the elderly, best to go all in!] Plato’s message is that philosophy has no patience for elderly people who like things the way they are and don’t want to wrestle on the terrain of ideas. [Confucius adored the way things were.  It was a love that dare not speak its name, or indeed dare show up in really any form in anything he actually said.] For the Confucian, Plato’s defence of critical thinking might seem like a recipe for family strife and social disharmony. [Yeah, because when we’re thinking critically, family can take a flying leap.  Seriously:  Fuck them if they can’t take a thought!  The priorities here are obvious to anyone who dwells on them.]

I doubt that philosophy departments are the natural home for scholars of Islamic jurisprudence or Confucian ethics. [Speaking as scholars of Confucian ethics, we gotta say, we are sooooo with you on this! Preach!] Should philosophers converse with scholars of different religious and moral traditions?  Of course. [Wait, why “of course”?  How does this seat with all that’s been said so far?  We’re just not seeing what’s in it for the philosophers and besides, wouldn’t that reduce the time they have for naked head clutching critiques of their families?]

To understand why the limits of philosophy matter, we need to situate the debate within ongoing debates about the funding of higher education. Last year, the Republican senator Marco Rubio said: ‘We need more welders than philosophers,’ a blunt articulation of a widely shared view among taxpayers and policymakers looking for reasons to eliminate, cut or defund philosophy departments.  In that New York Times op-ed, philosophy departments are accused [by philosophers themselves] of being ‘temples to the achievement of males of European descent’. The implication [according to these actual philosophers working in philosophy departments] is that academic philosophy is racist, sexist and worthy of an imminent demise. This will be welcome news for policymakers who want to prohibit federal funds from subsidising the study of philosophy, say, at community colleges or state universities.  [Because policy makers were all just waiting for the signal from philosophers to conclude that philosophers are useless.  Still, as Plato wrote, “The unexamined curriculum is not worth teaching.  Unless an unexamined curriculum can secure future institutional funding and the good will of Marco Rubio.  Also, poo on welding!” (Republic 643b)].

Let philosophy departments evolve organically as scholars convince their peers that a new author, idea or tradition is worth engaging. [And when those scholars inevitably fail at making the incurious interested, they can self-deport and leave philosophy to those with actual ideas™.]



  2. You will have to forgive me, I am no scholar. I do not have enough background to quote passages on a whim, but I do feel as though the comparison between Socrates and Confucius meant to illustrate their difference is sound.

    Challenging an elder on the definition of something as core to civilization as "justice" seems to me to be the essence of what philosophy should be. Without it how would ideas evolve? When compared to a line from Confucius which seems to encourage quite the opposite, that one always be "filial". Which apparently is to "not be disobedient".

    It seems it woukd be difficult to conduct what I have come to understand as philosophy in my mind without a degree of disobedience, but I maybe philosophy is not what I think it is.