An open letter to Chris Billows responding to his blog-letter Depths, Mirrors, and Mine Detectors at The Journals of Doc Surge as part of the Republic of Bloggers. Further replies welcome!
A particularly disturbing aspect of the era in which we live is the certainty with which some people admit to not understanding something, but then confidently dismiss or condemn it. We have taken to using a suffix derived from the Greek ‘phobos’ – fear – to describe such hatred... homophobia, Islamaphobia and so forth. The arguments against such reactions, which it seems really do involve fear, tend to invoke our ideals of diversity, a move that cannot work in practice and tends to lead to what I have called intolerant tolerance – the hatred of haters.
What a muddle we have all made of things! So it is that you yourself can claim a commitment to diversity, then pour scorn on the practitioners of an entire discipline who are “missing the boat”, engage in activities that are “complicated, prescriptive, and arcane”, “limited” and that amounts to “mental masturbation”. Wow – can’t help but wonder why you would want a discourse with me at all given such a terrible assessment! Joking aside, your phobosophy is not really your unique possession, but in fact a structural problem of our time – one well worth examining. (Doesn’t it seem like it should be ‘philophobia’? But that would be ‘fear of love’, which would be a very different problem!) If you genuinely want to make diversity your ideal, you need to understand how this rejection of philosophy undermines rather than supports your position, and for that I would first have to offer a different image of philosophy.
Hence the first question that heads this letter: ‘Wherefore philosophy?’, meaning ‘What is the purpose or reason for philosophy?’ And here we need to begin by clearing up the confusion we have created around the difference between a person’s philosophy and the discipline (or disciplines) of philosophy. For Brian Eno is correct that you can’t avoid doing philosophy, and thus everybody does it – although often badly. And unfortunately being a philosopher does not necessarily mean that you can help people with their philosophy, in part because of the insane specialisation that infects academia today, which has emerged from the formalisation of the sciences. It can indeed seem that academic philosophy is a waste of time – but that’s also true of a lot of scientific research, which oddly is rarely accused of this. And this points to the first of three crises of contemporary philosophy.
The first crisis is that ever since the sciences split from philosophy there has been a tendency to see this division as making philosophy redundant, instead of seeing that as well as continuing what was once called ‘natural philosophy’, scientists have begun doing other kinds of philosophy badly. Let’s call this the counter-philosophy revolt – the desire to tear down what philosophers do, and to fail to recognise what is replacing it. Secondly, in response to the revolt, philosophers have increasingly allied with those voices in positivism (i.e. elevation of the sciences) most hostile to philosophy, perhaps thinking aiding the sciences is now the only worthwhile task philosophy can perform. Call this collaboration. Lastly, and crucially, philosophy is assumed (as you say) to “make claims to provide a deeper understanding about life and its problems” – call this the authority on life problem.
I take your core complaint to be that philosophy is a poor guide for life if it ignores the emotions. My rebuttal has two elements. Firstly, why would you think philosophy ignores the emotions? In my experience, it is solely the collaborators who fall prey to this. Secondly, why would you think studying philosophical problems would grant authority at all? Perhaps the single greatest achievement of Modern Philosophy (a period, incidentally, that ended about a century ago) was the invention of autonomy, and thus our potential liberation from all centralised claims to authority, like that of the Christian church you criticised two letters ago, or the alleged authority of a rather nebulous thing called ‘Science’ invoked by counter-philosophy.
There may be no better place to start than looking at where contemporary ideas about emotions come from – namely Modern Philosophy. Hence the second part of my title: ‘Whence emotions?’
The Passions of Philosophers Past
Both Modern Philosophy and the word ‘emotion’ begins in the 17th century with Descartes. There is not a single philosopher in this era who views the emotions – or, as they are more commonly known at this time, ‘the passions’ – as anything less than an indispensable element of human life. It is Descartes’ 1649 Passions of the Soul that gives us the first systematic study of what we now call the emotions, although that particular word (which Descartes coined) meant little more than ‘motion’ (i.e. movement) at the time. Other terms in use in this century include ‘affect’ (particularly with Spinoza) and ‘sentiment’ (especially among British philosophers). As for the passions, this term was often reserved for those ‘violent’ feelings that were either particularly agitated or unresponsive to reason.
Questions about our emotional lives were the exclusive purview of philosophers at this time, since ‘science’ was just a synonym for ‘knowledge’, and (as I already noted) what we would call ‘science’ was known then as ‘natural philosophy’. A good half of Spinoza’s monumental Ethics in 1675 is concerned with defining and categorising the ‘affects’ and contemplating the possibility of freedom, discussions that obviously built upon Descartes. Spinoza, however, denied we could gain control over our passions – an argument that in many respects lives on today – and had a rather low opinion of every feeling more extreme than the kind of moderate joy that comes from being active. It is Spinoza who first puts reason and the passions into opposition, a tendency than many today – you included – have inherited.
In the middle of the eighteenth century, the Scottish philosopher (and incorrigible wag) David Hume offered an even more refined account of the passions, which he divided into ‘calm’ and ‘violent’ passions while noting that even calm passions can be strong and violent passions can still be weak. His most innovative idea in this respect may be to suggest that the passions are what motivates all our actions, and that reason would be impossible without them. His infamous remark that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions” is still widely discussed today. In addition to his own substantial contributions to philosophy, Hume has the distinction of inspiring Kant, who famously described this experience as being wakened from his “dogmatic slumber”.
At the close of the eighteenth century, Kant develops an anthropology that has three different terms for what we would now call emotions. Two of them – affects and passions – are judged as hindrances, entailing a lack of morality and a motivation towards ‘evil’ respectively. Yet the third, feelings, are viewed as an aid to moral thinking, and indeed conducive to virtuous living. Despite the popular view of Kant as emotionally repressive, he continues the general tradition of Modern Philosophy in holding our emotional constitution essential to a life well-lived.
So if Modern Philosophy did not, as you erroneously alleged, exclude our emotional lives from importance – and, indeed, placed great value upon this side of being – where did it all go wrong? A full answer to this question goes far beyond what I can hope to cover here, but the shortest answer I can give is that excessive faith in the sciences messed everything up, and is still causing problems today. It is not that the sciences don’t do good work or aren’t useful, but rather there has been a kind of logical seduction that has affected primarily English-language philosophy, collectively termed Analytic Philosophy and contrasted (somewhat derisively) with ‘Continental’ Philosophy. Both Mary Midgley and I tend to point fingers at an early twentieth century movement known as the Logical Positivists, who seemed convinced it would be a simple matter to exorcise humanity of everything that was not the sure and certain revelations of empirical research. They were so very, very wrong about this, yet they still have conceptual descendants today.
The upshot of this is that treating philosophy as a monolithic enterprise and then making general pronouncements about it isn’t going to get anyone very far since the range of different methods and perspectives on offer within the field is vast. Those suffering from logical seduction are quick to make the accusation that the variety of positions within philosophy must show it must be deeply flawed in some way. The assumption is that if there is only one true world, all valid investigations must converge. E.O. Wilson calls this consilience (although the term was originally coined by the Modern Philosopher William Whewell) and there is clearly some validity to the idea of evidence converging. However, I urge anyone truly committed to diversity to be cautious about such simplistic unifying principles, since there is an ever-present risk of claiming a god-like capacity to adjudicate all truth-claims in an absolute manner, in total denial of the plurality of human existence. Here is a context where your concerns about narrow cognitive perspectives can indeed be manifested, and while it is a philosophy, it is one that is primarily peddled by certain scientists and their collaborators.
So wherefore philosophy? What is the reason to persist with an activity that can’t even agree with itself? Well, for a start, nothing is going to make philosophy go away so it would seem prudent for at least a few people to try to do it well. Also, lack of unequivocal consensus doesn’t seem to bother us in art, history, sport, literature and so forth so why single out philosophy? The answer appears to be the aforementioned authority on life problem: people tend to think philosophy is claiming to have the ‘ultimate answers’, even though no philosopher I know ever makes this assertion. The philosopher has been confused with the prophet, to everyone’s loss. Philosophy is so much more about exploring questions than it is about providing unshakeable answers, and the importance of this skill is all too easily missed.
The eclecticism of philosophy stems from the near-infinite space of ideas: rejecting philosophy as a discipline because of that vastness may simplify what a person feels they ‘need to know’, but it can’t plausibly change the true dimensions of the realm of possible concepts. Furthermore, people should not feel – as I fear explains the tendency to phobosophy – that they must oppose philosophy or else be condemned to get involved with its horrendous intricacies, as if no-one could truly claim knowledge without either practicing or negating philosophy. We are happy to defer both empirical and historical research to experts in those fields; we should feel the same way about what might be called the technical problems of philosophy. You are not lacking something essential if you can’t explain how Modern Philosophy established talk about the emotions any more than you are deficit in not being able to explain 14th century crop rotation – nor micro-crystallography for that matter! No-one – quite literally! – can know everything, and that truth does not require anybody to denigrate anything.
In her forthcoming book, What Is Philosophy For? Mary Midgley provides the following explanation of our academic discipline:
...the philosophers’ business is not – as some people mistakenly think – merely to look inward. It is to organise what concerns everybody. Philosophy aims to bring together those aspects of life that have not yet been properly connected so as to make a more coherent, more workable world-picture. And that coherent world-picture is not a private luxury. It’s something we all need for our lives.
The point being, once again, that we all do philosophy, and the philosopher is merely someone who has dedicated more time to it, and has perhaps been drawn into working upon certain specific complexities. Few philosophers are certain that this habit makes them better at living life (like scientists, we tend to get awfully wrapped up in our abstruse problems!), but every philosopher hopes to clear up some persistent confusions, or to provide a better understanding of a certain problem. That’s why Isabelle Stengers and Phillipe Pignarre talk about philosophers as ‘sounders of the depths’ – and isn’t this a form of what you are calling a mine detector?
Let me close with another apposite quote from one of my philosophical correspondents, Allen Wood:
Reason and emotion are not opposites: emotions – even irrational ones – always have some degree of rational content, and healthy emotions are indispensable vehicles of rationality.
For Wood, the ‘cognitive intellect’ probably does count as a primary tool in the human toolbox, as you say in your letter, but even he does not deny the importance of our emotions. I’m not sure who does... maybe the die-hard consequentialists who think morality can be calculated? Whoever it is, it’s certainly not me. I am acutely aware that curiosity, compassion, and satisfaction are core emotional components of my philosophical inclinations. Neither is it enough for me to pursue my work in isolation: if I cannot share it, there is no point in doing it at all. Which is precisely why the letters you and I exchange are so important to me.
With great love and respect,
The opening image is an untitled oil painting by KwanHo Shin, which I found here, and which may have originated from his Behance site at www.behance.net/ShinKwangHo. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.