Saturday, February 22, 2014

What's Philosophy and Are Feminist "Philosophers" Philosophers?

I just gave a short but controversial paper at a conference on the nature of philosophy with my friend T.H.  I have never had so many people come to a paper; in fact, they had to bring in extra chairs.  I'm glad to see that philosophers are still interested in the big issues and not just the philosophical minutia.  It certainly was a lively exchange.  My only regret is that I neglected to respond to the official commenter, largely because I didn't find much to disagree with.

In short we argue that philosophy can't be defined in terms of methodology or subject matter, rather, following Graham Priest, we argue that it should be defined in terms of a certain critical spirit--on our view, it is a disposition of a certain sort held by a certain sort of person.  To be a bit more precise but a bit more arcane--philosophy is intellectual activity which flows from a person acting from a spirit of critical inquiry. 

What is it to have a spirit of critical inquiry?  The sort of person acting from a spirit of critical inquiry is one who acts from inquiry for inquiry's sake, who follows the evidence wherever it leads, who has a strong willingness to revise his or her total beliefs, and is one whose mental life is not constrained by narrow or specific subject matter.  When intellectual activity flows from someone acting on that spirit it is philosophical (but may also be scientific, historical, etc.)  Certainly more needs to be said, but at least at this point I think this view has more promise than anything else on offer.

Of course, not everyone agreed (which is just what one should expect in the midst of a group of philosophers!)  The liveliest part of the discussion, though, was when a guy objected with the following (roughly):

"Sorry, I'm a bit upset, if I'm understanding you correctly, but I'll try to control myself.  I think you are cherry picking your examples to fit your case and your definition of philosophy is too narrow and problematic.  There is a whole field of feminist philosophers, disabled activists, and ________[after that remark my mind short circuited for a moment] who do what they do purely out of political motivation or to change society.  According to your view, they aren't philosophers.  Is that what you're saying?!" 

I wish I would've had the time and the presence of mind to say more but I still stick with what I did say,

"Well, if they are not acting out of a spirit of critical inquiry but are only acting polemically and for political reasons then, I guess the thing to say is,  they are not philosophers.  [This naturally drew a few gasps as well as some laughter].  That's not to say that a feminist couldn't be a philosopher.  But Christian apologists are not philosophers when they are trying to convince someone else of what they already believe--they're apologists."

That was the end of round one (no way this guy is going to concede a Christian apologist is a philosopher) and the end of my report about the presentation. 

I do think that it's possible that a feminist can be a philosopher.  There are feminist philosophers who I think are philosophers.  My suspicion, though, and this is not founded on empirical data, is that most aren't philosophers (or they don't act as a philosopher in their academic role as much as many other philosophers).  Most aren't philosophical at all. 

But I'd say the same thing with many or most Christian apologists or fill-in-the-blank apologists more generally (Muslim apologists, etc.)  Sure, there are a number of apologists who are philosophers or whose polemical discourses are in (perhaps large) part the product of genuine philosophical inquiry (William Lane Craig comes to mind and there are others).  But the sense I get from many of them is that their intellectual activity--their arguments, writing, and discourse--isn't stemming from a desire to learn simpliciter and to follow the argument wherever it leads--as much as a desire to convince others of some important things that they accept.  That is apologetics, not philosophy.  At least that is how I see things at present.

And that's all fine and good.  If one comes at the issue thinking that the philosophical enterprise is the only good or justified enterprise then one might be a bit perturbed at the suggestion that some so-called philosophers are not really philosophical.  But if one comes at the issue thinking that sometimes rhetoric, polemics, politics and the like are what is called for, then who cares if such and such isn't a philosopher?  Not everyone should be a philosopher and not every philosopher should always act philosophically.  So, relax.  Don't get your feminist panties in a wad.

1 comment:

  1. I like feminist panties. But that's probably the only part of the feminist I like.