9. What Is Philosophy?

Philosophical reflection and sociability

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Philosophical reflection and sociability. Because Dumarsais’ Encyclopedia article is an apology not for an activity but for a certain kind of person, it does not appear to respond directly to the question, “What is philosophy?” Dumarsais’ defense of the philosopher even appears to agree with the accusers on one point that today few philosophers (or at least professors of philosophy) would accept, namely, that the philosopher differs in significant ways from ordinary people. In fact, Dumarsais’ reply to the charge of arrogance even adopts a line which most of us must find not only implausible but even openly self-defeating: For in effect his claim is not that philosophers are not arrogant, but instead that their arrogance is justified, because the true philosopher really is wiser, freer and more virtuous than ordinary people.

Yet it is common enough that enduring philosophical issues are hard to recognize because they assume a different outward appearance in different ages. One of the principal reasons why the history of philosophy needs to be studied carefully is that the differing interpretation of issues in different times is an important part of their identity through time. We may sometimes be blind even to a statement of our own position on an issue because in an unfamiliar historical context, that position may wear a mask which is not only unfamiliar but even repellent to us. The charge that philosophers are arrogant and unsociable is, I suggest, only the eighteenth century version of the familiar charge that “intellectuals are elitists”. Of course such accusations are leveled not only against academic philosophers, but are perhaps directed even more often to progressive minded social scientists, literary theorists, feminists and even natural scientists insofar as they try to intervene in social and political debates on a progressive side – that is, one that seeks greater civil freedom, less economic oppression and a more rational community between human beings (in eighteenth century terms: on the side of liberty, equality and fraternity). Now as then, attempts to understand the world rationally (especially the social world) and to agitate for changes in a progressive direction, are regarded as at best as idealistic exercises in irrelevancy with no hope of success. But often, critical detachment is not merely seen as useless, but even attacked as dangerously subversive of the social order (or, in a leftist version of the charge, of this or that favored social movement).

Dumarsais’ apology for philosophy answers that a true philosopher must “combine a reflective and precise mind with the manners and qualities of a sociable man” (Philosophe, XII:511/288). It is this claim alone that enables him to defend the philosopher against the charge that his rational reflectiveness is merely a form of arrogance which isolates the philosopher from society. Dumarsais does not deny that philosophy may loosen the hold of some of the values its accusers hold dear (in particular, religious values). His reply is that philosophy supports the only kind of sociability that we ought to want in ourselves and our fellow citizens. But the arguments for this claim lie just beneath the surface of Dumarsais’ highly rhetorical discourse.

Perhaps the one closest to the surface is this: The foundation of the philosopher’s rational reflectiveness is her commitment to self-knowledge for the sake of action. The philosopher wants to know the causes moving her so that she may estimate their value and choose to be moved by those worthy of this choice. One obvious result of reflective self-knowledge, however, is the discovery that as a human being the philosopher needs to live with other human beings, and that in order to fulfill their human nature philosophers cannot withdraw from society but must cultivate in themselves the right kind of sociability. This argument clearly needs to be filled out by a demonstration that this is a sociability of probity and devotion to the common interest rather than one of self-interested manipulation and opportunistic exploitativeness. But Dumarsais seems to me, at any rate, to be on the right track.

There is a still deeper argument suggested by Dumarsais’ apology. The philosopher acts freely and rationally because she understands the causes that move her and knows the true origin of the principles she follows. This knowledge liberates her because it enables her to estimate the true worth of her motives and her maxims, and thus to be moved only by causes that can withstand rational reflection. That reflection, as Dumarsais describes it, is grounded on an understanding of principles opposed to one’s own and the arguments that may be offered in favor of them. Dumarsais points out that in order to acquire this understanding, the philosopher must attend to the opinions of others and understand the grounds for them just as well as she does her own opinions and the arguments for them. It is impossible for her to do this if she withdraws from society in the arrogant conviction of her own superiority, and it is equally impossible if she refuses to regard others with respect, or takes an interest in their opinions only insofar as she thinks they will provide her with an opportunity to advance her own self-interest. The philosopher’s fundamental attribute of free action based on reflective self-understanding thus requires both sociability and respect for others.

As I have already observed, today we are much less inclined than Dumarsais to defend philosophy by arguing for the superiority of the philosopher as a special kind of person who is set apart from ordinary people. The argument I have just given points toward such a conclusion, which was drawn explicitly by Kant. For him, the term ‘philosophy’ refers to a science of wisdom. ‘Wisdom’ means knowledge of the final ends of action. To call oneself a ‘philosopher’, then, is to claim (in Kant’s words) “to be a master in the knowledge of wisdom, which says more than a modest man would claim; and philosophy, as well as wisdom, would itself always remain an ideal” (Kant, KpV 5:109). Kant does not object to an ideal portrait of the philosopher as long as it serves to humble rather than to congratulate those to whom the title is to be applied: “On the other hand, it would do no harm to discourage the self-conceit of someone who ventures on the title of philosopher if one holds before him, in the very definition, a standard of self-estimation which would very much lower his pretension” (Kant, KpV 5:108-109).

Philosophers, insofar as this term can refer to actual human beings, are never very different from other people. But we might nevertheless preserve the substance of Dumarsais’ apology if we said not that philosophers differ from ordinary people, but rather that it is unfortunately far from usual in human life for people to act, whether individually or collectively, on the basis of a reflection on their principles which understands the origins of these principles and involves a true estimation of their worth. The eighteenth century, insofar as it was the century of Enlightenment, witnessed the birth of many modern attempts at theories which provide this kind of understanding – theories now associated with names such as Rousseau, Smith, Bentham, Hegel, Marx and Freud. Such theories seek to comprehend human life and also to transform it – sometimes radically. Reason is a capacity to know the world, but chiefly it is a capacity to act in it, and since reason is also oriented toward society, its vocation above all is to transform the social order – actualizing the Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. In the eighteenth century, this took the form of the struggle of liberal constitutionalism and republicanism against traditional aristocracies of birth backed by religious hierarchy and superstition. In the nineteenth and twentieth century, it has chiefly taken the form of a struggle against forms of oppression based on economic class, race, culture and gender.

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