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The Life Philosophical
George Sher writes some philosophy to tell us.
“Bernard Williams once posed the awkward question, What is the point of doing philosophy if you’re not extraordinarily good at it? The problem is that you can’t, by sheer hard work, like a historian of modest gifts, make solid discoveries that others can then rely on in building up larger results. If you’re not extraordinary, much of what you do in philosophy will… [probably] be both unoriginal and wrong. That is why most of the philosophy of the past is not worth studying. So isn’t there something absurd about paying thousands of people to think about these fundamental questions?”
(Thomas Nagel, Other Minds, 1995, p.10.)
When Thomas Nagel wrote this passage, he was mainly questioning the point of philosophy understood as a profession, but as a professional philosopher, I can’t help but take Williams’ challenge personally. If what we write is overwhelmingly likely to be rightly forgotten, what’s the point of writing it?
There are some obvious answers. Publication is a condition of tenure. If you’re a reasonably good philosopher, your writing will win you professional recognition. You’ll be invited to conferences where you’ll enjoy professional camaraderie and beers with your friends. You may get competing offers that will allow you to jack up your salary. Your students will be impressed by your accomplishments, perhaps more than they should be. But each of these rewards is extrinsic, so none gives us any more reason to spend our lives writing philosophy than it would to spend them juggling flaming torches or winning pie-eating contests if those activities were equally rewarding. Is this really all that can be said?
I think it isn’t, and my aim here is to explain why. We have at least three further reasons for writing philosophical essays that we expect to sink into permanent and deserved obscurity, reasons that have no analogues for torch-juggling and pie-eating. Here they are, in ascending order of importance.
1. Simple Curiosity
When we teach philosophy, we address some of the deepest questions about reality and life, and when these questions engage our interest, we have every reason to try to answer them. It is true that our answers will originate in our heads, and that writing them out is therefore theoretically superfluous; but it is also true that in the real world, both memory and mental computing power soon run out. The written word is useful because it preserves complex thought-sequences for further examination, and written philosophy is no exception. Also, and separately, when we think on paper or the screen, our thoughts record themselves. Thus, when we are drawn into the questions that define our field, developing our answers in writing is often a natural way of scratching an itch.
When I supervise graduate students, I often emphasize that order of discovery is one thing and order of exposition another. To work up an idea for publication, we must eliminate initially promising lines of argument that do not pan out, must subordinate material that turns out to be relevant but not essential, and must bring to light enough of our hidden assumptions to allow the argument to spool out smoothly. No reader needs to retrace all the twists of our winding intellectual journey, so we need to revise and truncate and edit before we expose our work. But given the need to do these things, won’t my itch-scratching justification fall doubly short? Won’t it fail, first, because we can usually satisfy our curiosity without having to massage our ideas into journal-friendly form, and, second, because we certainly can satisfy it without either subjecting ourselves to the multiple discomforts of manuscript submission or adding to the already overwhelming pile of forgettable material that a few over-conscientious souls will eventually feel the need to read?
These questions obviously have some force, but I think they leave my central point intact. One thing that gives us reason to press on past the rough draft stage is that all of the pruning, reordering, and amplification that follows is itself a part of working out one’s argument. Until we see the argument in a polished enough form to convince others, we can’t be completely convinced by it ourselves. Thus, the same curiosity that got us started will often give us reason to amend, edit, polish and expose our work product. Moreover, and quite apart from this, once we have thought ourselves far enough into a paper to see its entire trajectory, we naturally acquire an independent interest in seeing how it will be received. Here, then, is one way to justify publishing even philosophical essays that we don’t expect to make a lasting impression: to see them not as original or enduring contribution to human thought, but simply as marking the successful culmination of a characteristically human intellectual activity that we have good personal reasons to undertake.
2. Philosophy as Art
Few people write philosophy articles without at least some graduate training, but even the rankest of amateurs will not hesitate to try his hand at sketching, painting, song-writing, singing, or writing fiction or poetry. There is, thus, a lot more bad art than bad philosophy, and the audience for the vast majority of it (and, indeed, for the vast majority of art that is only mediocre or even good or even very good) is generally restricted to the artist’s family and a few of his friends. This suggests that whatever questions there are about the point of writing philosophy that will quickly and deservedly sink into oblivion should also arise about all of the painting, writing, composing, and performing that the myriads of aspiring artists are even now beavering away at.
But, strikingly, those questions are rarely asked; for where art-making is concerned, the activity itself is commonly viewed as self-justifying. Even if the product is mediocre or worse (and even if, as with unrecorded dance and performance art, it will not endure beyond the moment), the process of producing it is somehow viewed as having independent value. Insofar as this view can be defended, it suggests a second possible answer to our question; for writing philosophy is itself making a kind of art.
If this is not immediately apparent, it is probably because most published philosophy is not particularly artful. Much of it bristles with unilluminating acronyms, needless formalism, stultifying announcements about what will be accomplished (and, again later, what has been accomplished), and nested sequences of subordinate clauses that read like rental agreements. But far from undercutting the idea that philosophers are working within an art-form, these annoyances only bring out the demanding nature of the conventions that define the form. Working philosophers who want to create something beautiful must reconcile the rigid formal and intellectual requirements of most journals and (to a lesser extent) book publishers with the classic range of literary requirements – clarity and elegance, economy of expression, accessibility and intelligibility, aptness of word choice, fluidity in making transitions, appropriateness of level of diction, writerly tact, and regard for the proportions and overall shape of the work, to name just a few. The tension between truth and beauty is endemic to many forms of art, but within philosophy it’s right there at the surface and it shapes the conventions that define the form. And, because it does, the complaint that philosophical essays are too inference- and argument-heavy to count as art is no more legitimate than the complaint that haikus are too compressed.
When I tell my professional friends that I view the philosophical essay as an art form whose medium is ideas, I often receive an enthusiastic reception that borders on a shock of recognition. However, even if this (somewhat self-serving) idea is widely shared, there is a question about how far it can really take us. For if there is any kind of puzzle about the point of creating mediocre intellectual constructs that will soon be deservedly forgotten, then isn’t there just as great a puzzle about the point of creating mediocre artworks that will deservedly vanish in the same distressingly short period? Even if popular attitudes are generally forgiving toward the creation of forgettable art, isn’t the claim that it is self-justifying simply a question-begging restatement of our puzzle? If artistic activity can be self-justifying, why can’t pie-eating and torch-juggling?
Torch Juggling Girl © M Sew 2009 Creative Commons 2
I think, in fact, that under some circumstances they can. One of the things I find most appealing about the species to which I belong is its compulsive urge to erect structures of restrictive rules around both necessary and gratuitous activities, and in so doing to transform them into both games and art forms. If something like pie-eating were to develop in this direction – if, for example, we came to assess performances along dimensions such as grace of chewing motion, regularity of mouth clearance, silence in swallowing, eloquence of appreciative grunts, and the like – then it too would evolve into a kind of art. If prizes were awarded for excellence along these dimensions and competitive leagues formed, it would become a sport. But as things stand, there is no National Pie-Eating League, and the criterion of victory in actual pie-eating contests is simply consuming more pie than anyone else in the allotted time. Thus, as things currently stand, there are neither pie-eating artists nor exquisitely skilled competitive eaters, but only some especially monumental fressers. To bring out one important respect in which creating art is self-justifying while pie-eating is not, we need only draw out the implications of this fact.
For because art-creating but not pie-eating can only take place against a background of restrictive rule-structures that enable us to distinguish better from worse performances, only the artist, but not the pie-eater, can have reason to continue in one way rather than another because doing it that way is better. Where the art in question is writing philosophy, what this comes to is that the standards internal to the form – elegance of exposition, soundness of argument, and the rest – are themselves sources of reasons to augment or alter what already exists of the work in some ways rather than others. Although we obviously cannot have such reasons until the work is under way – in this respect, reasons of curiosity are prior – they kick in quickly and rapidly gain in force. As any writer knows, there comes a point at which every successful work announces itself and the task going forward is only to let it be what it wants to be. And when we then respond to the reasons that the work provides, our activity is self-justifying in almost a literal sense because what we have already done is itself the source of the demands that now dictate the mode of its continuation.
Satisfying our curiosity and creating art are both worthy goals, but in the current context, each has the air of a consolation prize. I suspect that there is more than one reason for this, but the one that strikes me as most important is that we can achieve both goals just by ourselves. It is, unfortunately, more than just theoretically possible to write an essay that both fully satisfies one’s curiosity about a certain philosophical matter and fully resolves all the aesthetic challenges that arise along the way, but which then appears in a journal so obscure that no one beyond a couple of harried editors will ever read a word of it. Even to an author who is fully reconciled to his own deserved future obscurity, this outcome is bound to be unsatisfying, and the reason is pretty clearly that the natural aim of writing just is to be read. We put our words on paper in order to make contact with other minds – to expose our thoughts to others in a way that we hope will both enable them to retrace our steps and lead them to see things our way. The imagined reader is always there, hovering just offstage, and writing out one’s arguments without caring about making contact with him is just masturbatory journaling. Moreover, even if our philosophical ideas are unlikely to be either original or significant or correct, I think communicating them to others remains not only our strongest motive for writing them down, but also an indispensable element of our best justification for doing so.
3. Enriching the Mulch
For simply by injecting those ideas into the wider thought-stream, we are contributing to the broader intellectual background against which all future theorizing will take place. I am as bored as anyone by the unending flood of essays on unimaginative topics – reasons, realism, and responsibility are some examples du jour – but I do think that even when the differences among these essays are very small, each new one is likely to have some further subtle impact on the thinking of whatever readers it manages to command. Because the thinking of those readers will then be reflected in their own essays, ripple effects are possible. Just how influential any given essay will be, and how far its ripples will spread, are questions that are inscrutable in prospect and hardly less so after the fact, but none of it would have any chance of happening if the essay were not published in the first place. Thus, given only the assumption that the cumulative effect of all this activity is an increasingly sophisticated general awareness of pertinent distinctions, alternative classificatory schemes, and possible argumentative strategies – an assumption that seems to me to be well borne out by experience – the most on-point answer to Bernard Williams is that even published work that is neither all that original nor terribly interesting nor basically correct can still play an important role in advancing the philosophical enterprise.
We hope, of course, that our best work will live on after us, but there comes a point at which we recognize that hope as a slender reed. It is therefore salutary to realize that being discussed forever is not the only form of immortality that our ideas can achieve. There are some who take comfort in the fact that the dissolution of their bodies will enrich the soil with organic molecules which in their turn will sustain other organisms; and while I don’t myself find that thought particularly comforting, I do see something like it as supplying the missing element in the vindication of professional philosophy. The background of philosophical ideas that exists at any given moment is the soil from which any new ideas will sprout, and when we contribute even the most pedestrian of ideas to that background, we are, at a minimum, enriching the mulch.
Like the other two reasons for writing philosophy that I take to be available even to the field’s subluminaries, this one is vaguely deflationary. It’s perhaps somewhat less deflationary than the familiar claim that all any philosopher is doing is contributing to a very long-running conversation; for while that bromide can be helpful when we’re dealing with students who feel that they must read everything before they can write anything, it empties philosophy of its grandeur by leaving the aim of arriving at deep and difficult truths largely out of the picture. Yet precisely because this is the subject’s ultimate aim, it’s not easy to acknowledge that even the hardest-won of our insights and conclusions will probably be of no lasting philosophical worth, and that our only real contribution is likely to be of the intellectual butterfly-effect variety (or, worse, that we will enter the ranks only as cautionary tales). This prospect of ultimate failure is of course common to many professions – we know that fresh paint will fade, that new roofs will eventually leak, and that hitters will make outs three-quarters of the time – but it can be especially dispiriting in a profession that is concerned with what is necessary and unchanging. But here philosophy itself may provide an answer; for if the things that matter most really are necessary and unchanging, then bruises to our egos will surely not be among them.
© Prof. George Sher 2023
George Sher is Herbert S. Autrey Professor of Philosophy at Rice University, Houston, Texas. His most recent book is A Wild West of the Mind (Oxford University Press, 2021).