Philosophy rort

I’m not an essentialist about philosophy, but there can be better or worse answers to the question of what philosophy is. Here’s a bad one I encountered recently:

When people ask what philosophy is good for, I don’t think one can do anything except say philosophy is the following series of books: starting with Plato and coming on down, all those things that Whitehead called footnotes to Plato. These books have influenced the way human beings have thought of themselves, the way they’ve organized themselves into social groups in various ways. The people who are writing footnotes to footnotes to footnotes to Plato are making suggestions about how we might think of ourselves, how we might organize society. But of course, so are all the other intellectuals. They’re making the same sorts of suggestions. Philosophy is just suggestions of this sort made by people who have read certain books as opposed to suggestions made by people who have read other sets of books.

Richard Rorty1

Two concerns.

First, philosophy is not just the tradition of folks who’ve read Plato. There is philosophy in other traditions. For example, ancient Buddhist philosophy. Recognizing it as such isn’t making the mistake of thinking that those guys must have read Plato.

Second, philosophy is not just a matter of saying what we should think about ourselves and how we should organize society. A distinctively philosophical move is to ask instead how we should figure out what to think about ourselves and how we should figure out how to organize society. Of course, sometimes other intellectuals make this move too— but then they are doing philosophy, at least a little bit.

Even if it is all discourse, there are different kinds of discourse. Some of it is reflective, rather than just bare assertion— or bare suggestion— that such-and-so is how it is or how it needs to be.

  1. From an interview excerpted in the short film The Putnam-Rorty Debate and the pragmatist Revival, American Philosopher #9, by Philip McReynolds. I’m not sure when the interview was.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.