Saturday, 24 May 2014

On Philosophy, Or Risky Education for Grownups: Part 1 On a Frustrating Topic

Therefore, the so-called Continental-analytic division within philosophy is not a philosophical distinction; it's a sociological one. It is the product of historical accident. It is unreasonable to cleave to it, and the insistence on remaining closed to work that is either presumptively "analytic" or presumptively "Continental" is irrational and unphilosophical. Further, rejecting or refusing to consider positions one has not studied and consequently does not understand is not a philosophical stance. It is, if anything, the very antithesis of the philosophical attitude. In light of this conclusion, I prefer to the extent possible not to use the terms "Continental philosophy" and "analytic philosophy." They perpetuate the divisions of the past, divisions that it behooves us to overcome. 
William Blattner, Some Thoughts About "Continental" and "Analytic" Philosophy
Philosophers in non-anglophone countries typically think quite hard about Hegel, whereas the rather skimpy training in the history of philosophy which most analytic philosophers receive often tempts them to skip straight from Kant to Frege. It is agreeable to imagine a future in which the tiresome 'analytic-Continental split' is looked back upon as an unfortunate, temporary breakdown of communication - a future in which Sellars and Habermas, Davidson and Gadamer, Putnam and Derrida, Rawls and Foucault, are seen as fellow-travelers on the same journey, fellow-citizens of what Michael Oakeshott called a civitas pelegrina.
Richard Rorty, "Introduction" to Sellars Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind
In philosophizing, I have to bring my own language and life into imagination. What I require is a convening of my culture's criteria, in order to confront them with my words and life as I pursue them and as I may imagine them; and at the same time to confront my words and life as I pursue them with the life my culture's words may imagine for me: to confront the culture with itself, along the lines in which it meets me.
This seems to me a task that warrants the name of philosophy. It is also the description of something we might call education. In the face of the questions posed in Augustine, Luther, Rousseau, Thoreau . . . , we are children; we do not know how to go on with them, what ground we may occupy. In this light, philosophy becomes the education of grownups. It is as though it must seek perspective upon a natural fact which is all but inevitably misinterpreted - that at an early point in life the normal body reaches its full strength and height. Why do we take it that because we then must put away childish things, we must put away the prospect of growth and the memory of childhood? The anxiety in teaching, in serious communication, is that I myself require education. And for grownups this is not natural growth, but change. Conversion is a turning of our natural reactions; so it is symbolized as rebirth.
Stanely Cavell, The Claim of Reason p. 125

Over the past view days (really, the past view years) I have had the (mis)fortune of talking to many people about the present state and the future of philosophy. The point of philosophy. Most of the time these potentially interesting and productive conversations devolve into a debate between so-called 'Continental philosophy' (Eurocentricism lives on!)  and so-called 'Analytic philosophy' (which properly died with 'Two Dogmas'). I have never thought there was much to this distinction - but sociology and perhaps a desire to cut down on reading lists. The standard refrain I here is always something about not understanding the other. That the distinction is obvious because how hard it is to understand what the other is talking about. What interesting philosopher isn't a struggle to understand? What tradition of philosophizing doesn't take work, isn't a struggle?

In this series of posts, I would like to explore what it means to philosophize. In particular what does it mean to read philosophy. What is it that we are doing when we read and how should we go about doing this task. In the end, I hope to better understand my place in philosophy and what tradition(s) I have adopted, which I can help renew.

A New (Old) Beginning

Most people who have ever taken a philosophy course have had to read Plato's 'Allegory of the Cave' (book VII of The Republic). This allegory can be considered not only the founding myth of philosophy but of education as such - philosophy, Cavell tells us, is education for grownup or "the criticism a culture produces for itself" (The Claim of Reason p. 175). I take it that what Plato and Cavell mean by education is the broad sense captured by the German word (tradition) Bildung. A difficult word to translate but we can think of it as an on going dynamic process of formation, cultivation, individualization, maturation, socialization, culturation and edification.

Fundamentally, Plato is discussing, as he has Socrates make explicit in the opening likes of Book VII, the difference between education and and "our nature" (514a). Let us set aside the idea of 'our nature' because it is hard to know what Plato had in mind when talked about 'our nature' when compared with some of the things he says elsewhere. For example, in The Laws, Plato has the Athenian stranger argue "that soul is prior to matter, and that matter came latter and takes second place" (896c). 

Along these same lines, the historical record seems to indicate that there was no 'state of nature' - in the vulgar use of this term, not, in my view, the way Hobbes and Rousseau used the term. As Marshall Salhins nicely puts it in his brief but wonderfully written pamphlet The Western Illusion of Human Nature (based on his Tanner Lecture), that 'culture is the human nature': 

"Culture is older than Homo sapiens, many times older, and culture was a fundamental condition of the species' biological development. Evidence of culture in the human line goes back about three million years; whereas the current human form is but a few hundred thousand years old." (p. 104; Cf. Richerson and Boyd Not By Genes Alone Ch. 4).

Even if we rule out the idea of 'our nature' as a state prior to culture, the question of education is still a coherent one. So then what is education? My thesis is that education can be see as a specific kind of experience. What I think Dewey has in mind when he discusses 'an experience':
Experience occurs continuously, because the interaction of live creature and environing conditions is involved in the very process of living. Under conditions of resistance and conflict, aspects and elements of the self and the world that are implicated in this interaction qualify experience with emotions and ideas so that conscious intent emerges. Oftentimes, however, the experience had is inchoate. Things are experienced but not in such a way that they are composed into an experience. There is distraction and dispersion; when we observe and what we think, what we desire and what we get, are at odds with each other. We put our hands to the plow and turn back; we start and then we stop, not because the experience has reached the end for the sake of which it was initiated but because of extraneous interruptions or inner lethargy. In contrast with such experiences, we have an experience when the material experienced runs its course to fulfillment. Then and then only is it integrated within and demarcated in the general stream of experience from other experiences... Such an experience is a whole and carries with it its own individualizing quality and self-sufficiency. It is an experience. (Dewey, Art as Experience p. 42; Gadamer Truth and Method p. 355f)

Education then, is a process which we undergo when we interact with an object. A back and forth, a mutual adoption until a harmony is reached (Art as Experience p. 50). Is this any different than the, by now, banal notion of the Hermeneutic Circle? No, not really. Yet, as Emerson says in the opening paragraph of "Circles"
Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.
I do not think it harmful or banal to attempt to come to terms with these issues again. To see what new horizons open up for us as we travel around, drawing another circle, the question of hermenutics.   

I think Dewey would agree with Gadamer as to why this experience has the nature Dewey ascribes to it, viz., "every experience [Erfahrung] worth of the name thwarts an expectation" (Gadamer, Truth and Method p. 364). This whole process, the process of undergoing an experience is essential to education. It is education; it is how we develop taste which is essential to practical wisdom (phronesis). It will take a while to see how and why this is. So let us not get ahead of ourselves. 

A fundamental part of education, of having an experience, is what I will call 'risky reading'. By reading, I do not mean simply the reading of books. Rather, I mean something like 'the apprehending of meaning through an encounter', be it an encounter with a person, a book, a painting, a song, another culture or even oneself. By risky, I mean something like openness to the object at hand, open to otherness. Another way to put what I want to talk about is: risky interpretation or a risk hermeneutics. 

Isn't all reading risky? Certainly not. May of our encounters certainly are not risky. They simply fit into the pre-established grooves. Grooves created warn down by habit and mindless repetition. Education is meant to put these grooves into question. To allow us to confront ourselves and our society. Hence, education and reading are difficult and risky endeavors.  

A first attempt at characterizing this risky reading we can turn to the double motive which Paul Ricoeur identifies as animating hermeneutics: "willingness to suspect, willingness to listen; vow of rigor, vow of obedience" (Freud and Philosophy p. 27). Or Virginia Woolf's similar sentiment: "we know that we cannot sympathise wholly or immerse ourselves wholly; there is always a demon in us who whispers, "I hate, I love", and we cannot silence him." "How Should One Read a Book") We must read with an ear to hear and understand but also - at the same time - a critical and skeptical ear. We must read deeply to make explicit what is there but we also must creatively (mis)read:

"There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world." (Emerson's "American Scholar"). 

We must be careful not to take either extreme but to find the Aristotelian middle state between being 'black letter' reader, and a 'hermeneutic ventriloquists', i.e., make the text say only what we want it to (Robert Brandom, Tales of the Mighty Dead p.90). Over the next few post I will attempt to clarify more deeply why read as well as - and always connected to the why question - how to read. This will, by necessity, be a twisting movement between the 'I' of an individual reader and the social motives of the 'we', or why education is socially important. To understand why and how an individual reads we must investigate why and how a culture reads and vice versa