Philosophical Critique and Practical Irrelevance



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Philosophical Critique and Practical Irrelevance
As philosophers articulate critical responses to the social, economic and environmental actions (or non-actions) of governments, decision-makers, policy makers, or even people looking for advice and guidance on how to live, those responses are typically ignored, or at best, have a much smaller impact than, say, opinion polls, self-help books and Oprah Winfrey. It has not always been this way. Today’s social role of philosophy can be contrasted with those of Socrates’, Confucius, or the Buddha, who could not be so casually ignored. Socrates, the arch critic of everyone and every idea, of course, stands out as one who most heard voices. Taoists and Buddhists were also heard, and like Socrates, suffered for having successfully been heard. Sometimes philosophers (Plato and Aristotle) were consulted on matters of political importance. Marcus Aurelius, of course, stands out as the philosopher king whose very rulership made philosophy relevant to the greater social and political concerns.

So, what has changed so drastically to make philosophers effectively socially and politically voiceless? Of more immediate concern, how has philosophy become a mere shadow of what it once was in the university system (e.g., shrinking and disappearing departments)? Obvious economic and political explanations having to do with the commodification of learning, the related concept of productivity as the main driving concern of university administrators and government funders, and the professionalization of the university all come to mind. But what I want to concentrate on may pale beside these explanations, but I want to address philosophy’s own contribution to its diminished social relevance.

Is there something about the way we do philosophy today that no longer attracts the attention of the Dions, Dionyisuses and Philips on matters pertaining to social, political and military issues, as the Platos and Aristotles attracted the attention in their time? In a stimulating paper, “Ask the Philosopher,” delivered at the CSSPE (2012), Dimitrios Dentsoras shows how philosophers were also once integrally engaged in society as agents of practical and more positive advice on how to govern and more generally how to live. Over the centuries, beginning in Roman times, this social role has diminished, because of, according to Dentsoras, losing the focus on “a way of life” as the core concern of philosophy.

I want here to attempt a connection between this loss of focus with the way we now approach philosophical criticism in part to explain why contemporary professional philosophy today fails to address the concerns about the way we should live and how this failure explains why we have so little relevance in the wider social/practical sphere. I do not want to focus on the value neutrality movement spurred on by liberal thought, but on the core business of criticism. When philosophers criticize their opponents, the aim is to undermine the legitimacy of their positions, to compete in argument in order to eliminate an option for thought (and supposedly action). Eliminative competition, as I will call it, is an approach to critique intended to help legitimate one’s own position, by undermining the legitimacy of other competing positions. Its aim is more to avoid error than to arrive at truth, or even to gain insight. Increasingly, philosophical criticism has retreated into this world detached from concerns about where criticism leads and why philosophical criticism matters. I think it is fairly obvious that this detachment has been underway from at least the time of Hume, whose moral scepticism can be traced to Descartes’ epistemological scepticism. Descartes response to scepticism has driven philosophy in the direction of valuing certainty, precision and clarity over richness and depth of insight. Positivists have driven philosophy in the direction of accepting only the empirically demonstrable as the legitimate basis for knowledge claims, over speculation. When these values are treated as criteria of knowledge or legitimacy, it creates a framework of analysis aimed at defeating knowledge claims or legitimacy claims that do not satisfy a certain set of criteria and which are not formulable in terms that satisfy criteria of validity and soundness (logical consistency, coherence, avoidance of fallacy). In this response to scepticism, we have concluded that appeals to values, especially with respect to the determination of what ends toward which we should aim, are unavoidably subjective, arbitrary and relative; they cannot, as a result, satisfy our criteria of knowledge and legitimacy. Much of what matters to people – their sense of purpose, what it means to lead a good and worthwhile life – then slips into the sphere of the philosophically irrelevant.

A consequence of eliminating questions about the good and worthwhile life from the purview of professional philosophy, insofar as philosophers are still called upon to address matters of value – is that we have divided into various factions, especially in the areas relevant to values. In ethics, the number of positions in ethics has bloomed; but if we attend to just the three major divisions (deontology, utilitarianism and virtue ethics), we find that they represent various camps of philosophical persuasion, which is reflective of the more general tendency of philosophers to belong to one camp (e.g., analytic or continental, a proponent of natural rights or conventionalism), which has been and may still be to some extent a condition of career advancement. Moreover, the grand unifying concepts of yesteryear so closely aligned with the Good cannot satisfy our modern criteria, which has left us without grounds to prevent philosophy as a discipline rom splintering into increasing areas of specialization. My intention here is not to cast aspersions on specialization as such, but to note that it is in part a consequence of eliminative competition, according to which we have eliminated certain ideas and processes of thought from the purview of philosophy. They no longer even compete for serious attention, except perhaps in introductory courses. We are free to develop and engage in separate spheres of relevance and discourse, which become more and more autonomous in the sense that those so engaged can develop their own subject matters and their own criteria of recognition. Ethicists, for instance, feel no obligation to know what is going on in the philosophy of science and vice versa. We then have developed an insularity, not only from some basic concerns of people, but from other areas of our own profession. In effect, we have accepted a conceptualization of philosophy as a set of loosely connected special interest groups.

How this acceptance leads to and perpetuates our social irrelevance is by way of leaving eliminative competition without a directive. Eliminative competitiveness does not in itself lead to irrelevance. After all, its practice is what precisely raised the ire of the public against our predecessors. Indeed, it is intimately connected to the concerns of living; after all, these concerns start with concerns to eliminate disastrous directions, choices, empty ideas from our thought. We want to eliminate various forms of inauthenticity (or in Frankfurt’s terminology, “bullshit”), and bad arguments that compete for people’s attention. Science also operates on the basis of eliminative competition.

Unlike the situation in science, however, it is next to impossible to declare winners in ethics. Not only does ethics fall prey to relativism much more immediately than does science, to declare a winner in ethics is to violate the normative sensibilities of some other group(s). If Alisdair MacIntyre is right, the reason for this is that ethical theories are ultimately based on some emotionally based intuition, which we defend as if it were objective. Declaring victory of one emotionally grounded intuition over others disrupts and threatens people’s sense of meaning, importance and even identity. Hence, people are not going to accept the results of an eliminative competition, if it does not go their way, as demonstrated by the resilience of the various theories that have been declared losers by adherents of competing theories, however well-argued they have been. Indeed, what we do in our various camps is use eliminative techniques against the positions and arguments of the competing camps to demonstrate the legitimacy of our camp’s position. This activity has become pragmatically sufficient for proponents of the various camps to judge their positions justified.

Our modus operandi in ethics and arguably in other spheres of philosophy as well, has been, in the end, to make reason a slave of the emotions and passions. If we push this further, it is arguable that even the criteria of clarity, certainty, etcetera we hold as epistemological principles are held because we value the consequences of adhering to them over those of holding to other criteria (e.g., insightfulness, unification of ideas). In the final analysis, we hold to these criteria with a passion, or better, because of a passion for certain kinds of understanding and because we want to eliminate other claims to knowledge. Thus, there is no ultimate justification for holding to the criteria of knowledge and legitimacy that dominate today. It is a matter or value orientation, choice and acculturation.

The value orientations, choices and processes of acculturation that have led us to detach philosophical activity from the concerns over how to live and the Good, then, are the results of valuational activity, admittedly valuational activity at a higher order level, but valuational activity all the same. But this higher order valuational activity, if it can be called that, is as much a devaluing of the competition as it is a positive valuing of the victor. From this axiological perspective, it is a devaluing of that which people generally and deeply value. When people – and we count those who ask and respond to questions about how to live as rational people – are given direction in life, especially when that direction is determined through careful and insightful thought, they value that direction at a more fundamental level than they would most other aspects of their lives, because such direction assigns those aspects meaning and significance. Such determinations put pressure on people to accept certain things into their lives, reject others, begin certain practices and abandon others. As Dentsoras states, the Ancients were seen as socially relevant, partly because their advice required that people radically change some of their opinions about their goals in life. Although this often made philosophers obnoxious to the general public, it also defined philosophers as loci of social value, in the sense that they served to disclose and advance the good life for individuals and communities.

One can hear Charles Taylor on the malaise of Modernity and his analysis of the instrumentalizing of reason at this point. Having succumbed to the forces of scepticism and various challenges of reductionistic thinking, philosophy has eliminated its social function of advancing the Good from its purview and has re-focused on its more instrumental functions of helping a citizenry think critically. Philosophy becomes, at best, a means – a very inconvenient one at that – to something else. It should be no surprise, then, that, if people find another more convenient and perhaps accessible means to advance their passions/interests, the vast majority will not choose philosophy as a means. The more we abandon our role as those who guide our communities in how to life and who hold our societies to the Good, the more we can expect our social relevance to erode.

If we examine a relatively obvious example of how philosophy has engaged in an eliminative competition, we can draw out further implications and some indicators of how we might recover some of our predecessors’ social relevance. The move in the 19th and 20th centuries to remove “real philosophy” from the arena of ethics and other value-focused arenas of investigation was logical positivism’s attempt to eliminate certain kinds of thought and experience from arena of philosophical examination. The attempt was, in effect, to remove what mattered to people from the practices of professional philosophy. Such moves, as recommended by Wittgenstein and exercised in ordinary language philosophy, generated a culture of detachment from actual people’s concerns (for the reasons already cited) and a culture of arrogance, as logically rigorous thought came to be most highly/exclusively valued in the philosophical community, especially in the dominant Anglo-American university community. With the increasing specializations in philosophy (logic, philosophy of the various sciences, linguistic philosophy, philosophy of mind..,), aspiring young philosophers sought to develop expertise and recognition in a narrowly defined area, success in which would count as passage into an elite, privileged group. In such groups, how the greater community recognizes you is irrelevant; rather, it is how experts – those deemed as having superior abilities in dealing with matters defined by the area – recognize you that matters. Moreover, being recognized in these groups has much to do with de-valuing the messiness of daily life and concerns and with personal and social values. Adopting eliminative competition as our modus operandi, then, has also contributed a forgetting that philosophy belongs to a wider community/society and that its social role and value is determined, not by itself, but by how well it contributes to the common good and satisfies its role in guiding society in how to live.

Yes, we talk about training a critical citizenry, but that argument carries a tinge of ad hoc desperation, as do our arguments that we are the best suited to teach critical thinking, even as that role being appropriated by other disciplines (however inadequately). Moreover, as Dentsoras shows, the role of giving moral advice has been appropriated by managers, salesmen and psychologists. So, it may not be that the need and demand for what philosophy does has disappeared which explains why we have become irrelevant. It is more that we have orchestrated our own demise.

If we are to regain relevance and recognition, today, we cannot obviously simply declare that we are harbingers and stewards of the Good. We would, at any rate, self-destruct, since the philosophical community would end up espousing a plurality of goods and fragment all over again. But we do have to re-visit the idea of philosophy in the ancient world by engaging in the world or actual people’s concerns. Obviously, philosophers have attempted to do just this, as exemplified by the CSSPE, by those who invented philosophical counseling, and by those who advise or consult in applied ethics arenas. But these applications are of a truncated sort that will not recover the place of philosophy in society, because they remain more the contributions of individuals and splinter groups than of professional philosophy, as such. If Dentsoras is right, and I think he is, the Ancients remained socially relevant because they were perceived as thinkers who could lead society toward the Good and Truth, or at least hold society accountable to the Good and Truth, however unwelcomed they might have been.

So, is this a matter of me biting the bullet and proclaiming a Good, which would be followed immediately by being shot down? My proposal is hopefully somewhat less vulnerable. Briefly, since this topic is obviously far more involved than can be addressed here, I will attempt to formulate the direction I would take in re-introducing the Good into the centre of professional philosophy. It does not involve an explicit articulation of the Good; rather, it addresses how we can approach the relevance of the Good in a socially relevant way. As David Bohm has argued for a pursuit of truth in physics, there are ways to demonstrate implicit and typically hidden ways in which the Good is socially acknowledged, an implicate moral order. Just as disagreements in physics can be made intelligible and theories falsified only because there is a common underlying order against which competing theories can be tested, Bohm argues there is an implicit order that remains incompletely identified and analyzed, an implicate order. Similarly, since our arguments in ethics continue to revolve around sets of beliefs, perceptions of the world, expectations of one another and values that have persisted for thousands of years, they can be said to point to or presuppose a background set of conditions that enable us to form arguments about which theory best captures our moral sensibilities, an implicate moral order. This implicate moral order makes it possible for us, even in cross-cultural contexts, to develop a communicative community or a community of interlocutors who can agree and disagree about what is good, right and how we are to live. When we do so argue, we use case studies, paradigmatic moral personalities, counter-examples, all of which presuppose a recognition on the part of the interlocutors of a common body of morally relevant factors that may or may not have previously been acknowledged, identified or recognized. As I have argued elsewhere, this idea of the implicate moral order forms the background for deliberations and disputes, not just for philosophers, but for ordinary people who can sometimes to be convinced to change their minds or to recognize something of moral importance that they had not previously recognized. What we do in both professional and ordinary moral discourse is attempt to attune ourselves and our interlocutors to this background in a way that reinforces established beliefs or compels our interlocutors, and sometimes ourselves, to change belief.


If arguments for the implicate moral order are successful, eliminative competition can re-established as a means to help attune us and our interlocutors to this implicate moral order. Since Socrates, philosophers have espoused specific goods (e.g., happiness, dignity, even the moral law itself) as the basis of moral life. In retrospect, it was inevitable that counterexamples, exceptions and alternative goods would be identified and articulated, because the implicate moral order contains all of these goods, as evidenced by the history of repetition of the identification of certain goods. By virtue of not being able to eliminate certain articulations of moral goods, that is by virtue of their persistence, we can be confident that living well has something to do with acknowledging these goods and somehow weaving them into life plans and commitments. However, as an expression of the implicate moral order, the Good cannot be fully identified or articulated. It is certainly not something we can expect to capture in propositional form. With a commitment to disclosure of the implicate moral order, eliminative competition becomes a tool for disposing of inadequate articulations of the Good and, by virtue of this clarifying function, disclose what is of importance to us and our communities, while recognizing that that function can never be completed. Indeed, the Socratic dialogues and the conception of the Good is consistent with this view, since Socrates disavowed any claims to wisdom and defined the Good as that which could not be directly perceived/conceived.

This suggests a way for how philosophy can re-engage questions concerning how to live well. But to keep in character, I will take my lead from James Rachels negative example of how not to engage, by pointing out how professional, philosophically trained ethicists are often viewed as jerks by other professionals who are subject to their pronouncements. Annette Baier, Nancy Ann Davis and others have made similar comments about professional philosophers, particularly in reference to the manner in which they conceive practical issues. The idea of applied ethics is one according to which we first develop theory and then apply that theory to practical issues. This is precisely what Rachel’s jerk did. This ethicist, a committed deontologist, pronounced on a case of parents using their younger daughter’s bone marrow to treat their older daughter’s cancer. By appealing to the principle that we should never treat human beings merely as means, he condemned the proposed treatment and the ethics committee overseeing the case forbad the therapy. This angered, not only the parents, but many of the professionals involved in the case. Rachels views this ethicist’s pronouncement as simplistic – I would view it as unattuned – however much it could be justified. The case was somewhat more complex than described, here, but in the end, all other concerns and principles were subordinated to the second formulation of the categorical imperative. In the final analysis, the ethicist eliminated other important moral values from his purview, either by deeming them irrelevant, or by placing them in a hierarchy where they could not compete with the intrinsic value of the personhood of the younger daughter. Using MacIntyre’s framework, he exercised a degree of arbitrariness in selecting and prioritizing his values and principles, and imposed a decision-making structure that made it impossible for him to become attuned to the complexities of the case. Indeed, he could be criticized for failing to acknowledge love and family unity, as important values and motivations in moral life; he relegated the value of the older sister’s life to secondary status in relations to that of the younger sister.

While he was able to provide a clear account and defence for his decision, he demonstrated incompetence in the ability to lead all concerned to a good decision, and indeed a recognizably right decision, because he failed to recognize what others tacitly recognized; the complexities of moral life and decision-making. He failed to acknowledge the implicate moral order.

If, in contrast, the ethicist acknowledged the implicate moral order and pursued the Good as much as he pursued being right, his first step would not be to eliminate competing positions, or even to justify his decision. It would be to examine the case, taking all of its morally relevant values into account: the dignity of the person, the love of parents, the physician’s responsibility to do all possible for the patient, protect the vulnerable, the value of family. All facts would also have been taken into account, as, for instance, that using the younger daughter’s bone marrow to treat the elder was a last resort. Attuning himself to the situation in this way, would also be attuning his interlocutors to the same, such that he would have become, in Habermasian terms, a stand-in interpreter of the case. He would first have helped others sort out what was at issue, what mattered to all relevant parties and then helped the decision-making body determine how to frame the concerns. Clearly, articulations rights and duties would come into conflict with articulations of relevant goods and values. By adopting the role of stand-in interpreter, the ethicist would engage in drawing the tensions out as clearly as possible in an effort to reach mutual understanding by all interlocutors. Whatever decision by himself or the committee was reached after struggling toward decision, it would be seen as doing the best everyone could in achieving the right and good decision. It would aim at moral competence, more than at moral rightness or justification.

To conclude, I will try to give a bit more shape to this idea of moral competence, by again addressing the idea of articulation of ideas as limited tools of understanding. Philosophical articulations especially can be viewed as tools of attunement and to the more comprehensive set of conditions, the implicate moral order. I turn to Jan Zwicky for help. Like the tendency to set criteria of legitimacy as absolutes and thereby strictly define what can count as knowledge, our use of concepts tends toward ossification. That is we treat concepts as rigidly as presenting or standing for reality or truths. Systematic and conceptual representation of reality and experience is then all that matters for understanding. But there are fairly standard criticisms of this view, especially in Zwicky’s other area of enviable competence, music.

There is much we can understand about music using concepts to grasp what it is. A student who has never heard a piece of music could be taught to identify that a piece of music is being played (assuming she can hear) by applying certain criteria to a report about a series of sounds. The student, on the basis of that report, can then determine whether that report describes an actual playing of music and she would even be able to determine what piece of music was being played. But on the basis of her conceptual understanding alone, she would not be able to grasp and therefore understand the existential and sensory elements of harmony (or discord), the feeling of rhythm, the moving quality of a beautiful voice and or how the waves of sound touch a person and affect one viscerally. She would not know what it is like (to borrow Thomas Nagel’s phrase) to experience music. If the student, without having had this experience, were to insist that she was nevertheless competent to judge a jazz band competition, she could not be taken seriously. We who listen to and appreciate jazz would understand that her understanding was based on a rigid set of definitions that ossified her understanding of jazz, such that she could not even begin to understand the distinction between good and bad jazz. In this way, we recognize that the terms we use in attempts to capture the experience, meaning and feeling of music are metaphors that make sense to people only after they have experienced music and probably spent a great deal of time listening non-cognitively.



Similarly, moral concepts can orient us toward the Good, toward the implicate moral order, only after a person has engaged in moral life in all of its complexity. Moral concepts then need to be understood as presupposing a living moral community and a competent use of moral concepts requires engagement in a moral community, with the variety of situations, interactions and feelings that are involved in being so engaged.


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