Thursday, September 16, 2010

What Philosophers Do

"If our forms of explanation cannot acknowledge and understand evil, then we will remain opaque to ourselves morally and politically. Here, the philosophical inquiry intersects with practical issues of what to do about the problems of evil that are so pressing in contemporary politics. Philosophy cannot, however, give prescriptions for political or individual action. Philosophers have no particular political expertise, because politics remains an art, a matter of judging the possible within multiple intersecting contexts. This is especially true today, when governments must act simultaneously before domestic and international audiences. Nor can philosophers reach the level of particularity that characterizes the life choices of an individual. Philosophy may help us to understand love and evil, but it cannot tell us whom we should love or whether we should hate.

Philosophers can, however, bring contemporary problems into contact with larger traditions within which our thinking operates. They can help to explain why we see our problems and possibilities as we do. Our perceptions of self and world, of meaning and value, are deeply embedded in the history of Western understandings. We do not make the world anew; we inherit it. We perceive meaning in certain ways because we perceive the world to be of a certain character. The philosopher's role is to clarify this structure of thought."

Paul W. Kahn, Out of Eden, 14-15.


Chris Trampel said...

I couldn't help contrasting Kahn's view of the role of philosophy with that of Father Copleston:

"But if it is desirable for all cultured men to know something of the history of philosophic thought, so far as occupation, cast of mind and need for specialisation permit, how much more is this not desirable for all avowed students of philosophy. I refer especially to students of the Scholastic Philosophy, who study it as the philosophia perennis. That it is the philosophia perennis I have no wish to dispute; but it did not drop down from Heaven, it grew out of the past; and if we really want to appreciate the work of St. Thomas Aquinas or St. Bonaventure or Duns Scotus, we should know something of Plato and Aristotle and St. Augustine. Again, if there is a philosophia perennis, it is only to be expected that some of its principles should be operative in the minds even of philosophers of modern times, who may seem at first sight to stand far from St. Thomas Aquinas." Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy: Volume I, p. 2

While Copleston shares Kahn's sense of history, he nevertheless feels that there is something "out there" to be discovered. The philosopher does more than analyze systems, he uncovers the structure of Reality. And while remaining committed to Thomism, Copleston recognizes with Lewis that people of other cultural and philosophical persuasions make partial contact with "The World As It Is." In his view, philosophers can learn from the mistakes of the past. That is to say, there is such a thing as "progress" in philosophy. A book I really want to read along these lines is Gary Gutting's What Philosophers Know: Case Studies in Recent Analytic Philosophy.

Matthew LaPine said...

Chris, really appreciate the comment. I don't believe we've met have we?

I certainly agree with you. Thanks for the book recommendations.

- Matt