Professional and Popular Philosophy:
Online Debates

by Ralph Dumain

"The Philosophical Value of Coffee-House Debates" by Bernard Roy: New York Café Philo Discussion [1]

Bernard suggests that professional philosophers must stay in touch with a popular audience or they will get stale. Outsiders to the profession can help re-enliven it. I don't recall Bernard getting too specific on precisely how this can happen. From my nebulous recollection of [the summary of the New York] Café Philo session on "Why Café Philo?", I don't recall any more specificity on this point. So I would like to hear more on just what contributions Bernard (and others) think(s) outsiders have made or can make to the ongoing enterprise of philosophy.

What topics work best or least well in the hands of non-professional philosophers?

A problem of translation: how does the outsider's perspective force the professionals to re-examine their own assumptions?

(12 November 2000)

T— has a good point, that the term "professional" may be a red herring. I would agree, the point is the content of the activity itself, not the question of credentials or institutional position. Still, it is likely the case that those who perform this activity in a professional activity are far better positioned to carry on the activity of philosophizing in certain respects: having been subjected to rigorous training, interaction with one's peers, having assimilated lots of specialized literature, etc. That's really the heart of the issue, after all.

It seems to me that any insider-outsider situation of this sort carries with it enabling and disabling tendencies. The issue is not only to specify the respective advantages and disadvantages of each, but to show how they connect up with assimilating the intellectual capital of the past, and with the development of the capacity to think profoundly and creatively at a deeply abstract level.

From my experience of the Café Philo in DC, and I might add my occasional experiences with Chris Phillips' Socrates Café, there are some claims that could be made regarding the development of mid-range philosophies (I can't be certain this is a meaningful term), i.e., picking a specific issue and examining it from all possible angles and thus achieving for the discussion group in question a more sophisticated picture of the interlocking aspects and background assumptions involved in understanding these topics. However, at the end of the day, there remains the need—always unfulfilled—to systematize what has been learned and elucidate the overall underlying conceptual structure of what has been unearthed in the process of discussion.

This itself is fundamentally not an issue of the professional vs. the amateur, because there is no guarantee that professionally trained people are all that brilliant in this capacity, and it is possible that self-trained individuals have developed the intellectual discipline to fulfill this task of systematization. Perhaps if participants in the discussion sat down at home afterwards and attempted to systematize what they have learned, there would be more—closure perhaps is not the word—but perhaps a more definitive summing up from each individual's perspective.

And then there is the question as to what topics work without having to have "done the reading" or practiced philosophy in a very disciplined manner (even as an amateur), and what topics of discussion just don't work so well, because the "professional" has an advantage not easily usurped. Fortunately, we in DC chose topics that worked really well with a general audience, in that, while participants vary in their philosophical accomplishments viz. prior development of a coherent perspective, systematizing capacity, et al, almost everyone has some intelligent insight into some aspect of the problem being discussed, when deliberating on its multivariate nature. In this respect, untrained persons are just as good as academic philosophers, so it seems to me.

But I still see overall limits to the inherently informal and ad hoc approaches to public philosophical discussion groups. Not that I would venture a specification of what those limits are, but at the very least there is always the question of reinventing the wheel in each and every encounter, and never progressing beyond the elementary. And yet there is a whole universe of knowledge that potentially needs to be assimilated by members of the general public beyond the narrow range of specialists that have developed certain areas to a high point. Would it not be cheating the denizens of the general public to treat them in a sentimental fashion, romanticizing and preserving their innocence in a world where naivete always keeps one at a disadvantage? I think we know too much now for that, and, let me add, we know too much or should know about the nature of ideology to pretend this is 2000 BC rather than 2000 AD.

I've worked with enough academics to see how much mediocrity is concentrated there: beginning with literature departments—the absolute pits—and working one's way up through other humanistic and social science disciplines. There is nobody who resents academia more than I do, but I do not share a romantic anti-academic or pro-autodidact view that never gets down to intellectual specifics. As an outsider myself, I take as my watchword a pearl of wisdom from Bob Dylan: "To live outside the law you must be honest."

(15 November 2000)

The one aspect of [the dialogue between T— and Bernard] that concerns me is the question of the relation between the professional and the amateur, which has been called into question by T— and not satisfactorily resolved. This relates to the question of the patronization or romanticization of the common folk who have allegedly not been corrupted by professional narrowness. This tendency itself has a long history in philosophy, as sketched in an article by Jonathan Ree I have put on my web site, "Proletarian Philosophy, A Version of Pastoral?" But the problem always arises: what if someone arises out of the anonymous "common folk" who is not innocent and folksy but challenges the pros on their own level of sophistication, deploying an equally rigorous set of standards? As an outsider myself I should be ecstatic at this burgeoning trend of philosophy for the people, but I am not at all convinced by some of its rhetoric.

As for abstraction, I can't see how a person could claim an interest in philosophy without it. If the capacity for abstraction, which should not be reduced to a formal logical system as its only valid manifestation, could not deliver something beneath surface appearances that spontaneous cognition cannot accomplish by itself, then why bother thinking at all? I can't seriously entertain such an objection, because it reveals a contempt for thought that would seem rather disabling for a philosophical discussion group, though we once had [someone] in Washington that objected that our discussion—which was not technical or aimed at professional philosophers at all—was too intellectual. Is there any place outside the USA where such brazen contempt for the intellect is so nakedly displayed in the most inappropriate of contexts?

I am also not impressed by this childish piffle about the white man's Enlightenment. This kind of infantile criticism so popular today betrays the very elitism it purports in bad faith to criticize. It conveniently overlooks large portions of historical development, in which ideas are appropriated by groups other than the small elites in which they were originally created. What about the Jewish Enlightenment? The involvement of the Enlightenment in the emancipation of women, emerging toward the end of the 18th century and reaching high points in the 19th and beyond? What about the worker's movement, that appropriated the Enlightenment in the 19th century and kept it alive in the 1930s when the professors turned to irrationalism and fascism? What about the Enlightenment of Frederic Douglass and Richard Wright? What about the coming Enlightenment in backward [places] like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia? Enlightenment is an ongoing historical process, hardly even begun. To treat it so cavalierly is the prerogative of pampered and spoiled people who have the luxury to be jaded.

The relation of philosophy to the sciences is an important question. Philosophy may no longer lead a totally autonomous sui generis position that it was thought to in centuries past, but philosophy always plays a critical function; it relates us to our knowledge and to our understanding of the world, both in terms of the natural sciences and in humanistic concerns.

Quite clearly philosophy is essential to cognitive science—which I suppose has something to do with the mapping of consciousness [suggested]—on a number of fronts. There is a discussion of this in a recent issue of Philosophy Now or The Philosopher's Magazine.

This schizoid dichotomy of scientism and humanism troubles me. A nebulous affirmation of humanity—without any accountability—is asserted in contraposition to reducing everything to theorems and formulas. It is a dichotomy at work in our intellectual culture, but it is not mine. And the dichotomy between amateur and professional philosophers—I don't believe in this either as some absolute distinction. My intensive contact with professional intellectuals is of rather recent vintage; there is a whole history of interaction with a whole different segment of society, which is precisely why I don't buy into philosophical pastoralism any more than I buy into shallow scientism.

(17 November 2000)

[Re Bernard Roy's conception of the ethnography of the café experience ] . . . this anthropological approach cuts both ways: laymen may be able to use the "unaided observation" of academics as grist for their mill. I find that the advantages of specialists shrink remarkably the closer the topics they deal are to social and human issues. One reason is the impact of ideology, a related if not identical cause is the impact of alienated social existence upon intellectual life, another is intellectual socialization, and yet another is the creative nature of problem solving and insight which is simply not guaranteed by the acquisition of advanced degrees. In social and political matters I find academics mostly very stupid in spite of their training or because of it. While they may be more intellectually disciplined in certain respects, they are not necessarily very profound or insightful.

On a related note, I am perturbed by E—'s suggestion that there needs to be a separate Extreme Café Philo for high-powered specialists and a separate one for others. Again, this defeats the original purpose, and furthermore, it perpetuates a dichotomy that I find very disturbing: disciplined abstract thinking is for the very few, and down-to-earth common sense and informal reasoning is for everybody else. I can only see such separation justifiable in the case of very technical topics such as mathematical logic or quantum mechanics that probably cannot be readily discussed by anyone off the street, but even there it depends on the level of technicality required.

There is of course an unstated ethical issue involved in public discussions. Do the moderator and the rest of the participants have identical responsibilities? Is there a possible conflict between encouraging everyone to participate regardless of the level on which they operate and the ruthless pursuit of truth which might discourage the easily intimidated? The moderator has the responsibility of encouraging everyone to speak and not merely the most aggressive or articulate. The participants have the obligation to accept the refereeing of the discussion by the moderator, permit others to speak without pre-emption or interruption, and otherwise respect their rights while they are taking their turns. But why or when should the other participants take on the responsibility for other people's feelings and assertiveness by toning down what they have to say for fear of discouraging the conflict-aversive, the less confident or assertive? Would that not be a violation of their right to self-expression, not to mention a possible dampening of the ruthless pursuit of truth? I've thought about this quite a bit, and have some examples for possible discussion at another time. I don't have a hard and fast answer, because I think there is a certain voluntarism involved, unless there are strict rules of engagement laid down in advance and made a founding principle of the group. However, minimally, I do not see that the other participants have the same responsibility as the moderator to make sure nobody gets discouraged, nor do I believe that, aside from adhering to prescribed procedural behavior for the keeping or order, are participants required to have the same outlook or perspective on the very purpose of public discussion groups as the moderator. I have some past experiences in mind here, but I'll bite my tongue.

(20 November 2000)

Why do I mean by un-philosophical [—especially political—topics]? . . . the very framing of [political] question[s] implies an uncritical acceptance of the very categories of the debate. Do these categories actually explain what they purport to be or their interaction, or encompass the range of political positions or their dynamic? Is the political spectrum itself—as a spectrum—even extending it leftwards to Marxism and rightwards to fascism—an adequate conceptualization of how to think politically? Is a quantitative appraoch, characteristic of empiricist sociology—calibrating reactions to discrete issues (what do you think of captial punishment, affrimative action, abortion, etc.?) an adequate tool for uncovering the deeper structures of political thinking? To uncritically replicate the political categories within the extremely restricted political palette of American political discouse is to be un-philosophical, to restrict oneself to the level of officially sanctioned appearances.

Which could also be generalized to the larger question of the potential of Cafés Philos. With a century and a half of ideology critique behind us, who could be naive enough to think that the mere informality and populism of lay discussion and the glorification of a particular approach—say the Socratic method—carries any guarantee that any transcendence of the range of socially available forms of ideological appearance is a real possibility? We carry this hope as a basic article of faith in engaging in discussion at all, but the realization of such a hope is always a dodgy proposition.

My patience with the DC Café Philo is beginning to flag. At first I was gratified because things turned out much better than I could have hoped, given the domination of Washington by parasitic functionaries devoid of intellect and imagination. When people can think through the sort of questions that engage the actual wisdom reflective people do have about the world, the ideological complex in which we live may not prove to be an obdurate obstacle after all. But things started taking a turn for the worse once certain topics that had hitherto been avoided in such an overt form were put on the table, beginning with the value of religion and its role in ethical conduct. It didn't take long for the limitations of Café Philo to be revealed, and it has only gone downhill from there.

It is not a matter of untrained minds vs. professional philosophers, because academically trained people are just as stupid as the rest at the end of the day. Rather, one learns to train oneself how to dissect certain questions with perspicuity or not, and it is amazing how little formal education by itself actually helps most people in the art of untangling their world, learning how to distinguish separate and reintegrate their categories, to proceed from vague intuitions of a complex whole to the sorting out of abstract concepts to the reproduction of the concrete world in a conceptual framework.

(13 January 2001)

[Is] Café Philo . . . just another manifestation of middlebrow culture[?] I really do want . . . a more detailed accounting of what sort of intellectual contribution Café Philo is in a position to make to the arid world of the professional philosopher . . . . [The claims made so far remain] platitudes, redolent of the ethos of pastoralism (sentimental nostalgia for the common folk as long as they remain non-threatening) I've referenced before. If bogus claims about philosophical coffee-klatching are being made with no apparent personal gain in view, one can only wonder what vistas of charlatanism await us in the green pastures of philosophical counseling. Could this, whether or no it takes off in a field already overcrowded with hucksterism, be a subgenre that belongs to tragicomedy?

(23 January 2001)

Philosophy Now Popularization Debate [2]

The review of Adam Fearn's Zeno and the Tortoise [issue #42] is even more childish than the book under review. I'm all for popularization, but I think there are some unique problems regarding the popularization of philosophy that need to be addressed, especially when a slew of exceptionally bad books gain recognition, such as Alain de Botton's rubbish, or Sophie's World, for that matter. It is very difficult to do justice to philosophical systems with the best of efforts, but exceptionally anemic treatments don't do anybody any good, unless the goal is to answer questions on quiz shows or complete crossword puzzles. There is a deeper issue here, too, which goes to the heart of thinking philosophically. One does not really grasp philosophical thinking by simply parroting undigested philosophical statements: Philosopher A said W, X, Y, Z. Learning how to think through abstract ideas is the negation of simple parroting, of making or mimicking surface assertions.

(21 September 2003)

As a member of the general public rather than an academic specialist myself, I have no particular axe to grind for professional philosophy, but this doesn't mean that amateurs lack a passion for real substance. Sometimes, when people are shortchanged, their curiosity is dampened rather than stimulated. Philosophy is a very threatening subject, because it demands thinking and not just recitation. The value placed on thinking is not necessarily related to the level of one's education. For example, recently I was sitting at a bar in a restaurant listening to a debate between two people: one, a [literacy challenged] black woman with a syllabus in her hand for a college philosophy course she wanted to take, the other, a Caucasian history teacher speaking with a Southern accent who mocked her for her interest in philosophy. She insisted, how could anyone not be interested in philosophy? (Note: she was interested in real philosophy, not religion, which she disdains, a rather uncommon attitude for her demographic group in this area.) He, on the other hand, insisted that philosophy is not a real subject, except maybe philosophy of religion, that it is absolutely useless, and admonished a little girl who was with him never to waste her time studying philosophy. And this is a history teacher talking. This is an exceptionally stupid attitude even for an American. Such people will always remain unconscious of the ideological basis of their "commonsense" view of the world. They will always insist they are hardheaded realists while remaining the most clueless people. Anyway, the woman mocked him in return, saying, so this is how non-Jewish white men think.

As for popularization, there is no way of predicting how people will react to any text, regardless of its intrinsic properties. This is the province of reader reception, which always contains surprises. I am now finishing up a recently published, 500-page book, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose. It's all about the rise and fall of autodidactic culture, written with excruciating detail and even statistics, a fascinating tome. It's also primarily about reader reception, about how classic texts—even the very investment in literacy in itself—provoked unpredictable responses and even stimulated rebellious attitudes in workers no matter how conservative the actual content of the material itself. So I couldn't tell you without empirical research how people will react to the crap available on the market. The reviewer recommended Zeno and the Tortoise for barstool conversation—not popular discussion of ideas, but for name-dropping and trivia contests. There's as much reason to believe there would be as many people turned off by the pointless recitation of undigested philosophical ideas as those stimulated to investigate the subject more deeply.

I personally think it's much more important to learn how ideas are put together and to think the relationship between abstract ideas and the empirical world than it is to parrot a laundry list of famous philosophers and a few of their basic ideas. But then, even philosophy professors are not necessarily interested in teaching their undergrad students anything about the process of abstract thought: for many of them, it's basically, what did Aristotle say, what did Hume say, i.e. purely a mechanical investment in the intellectual capital of Great Books. By the way, if you have ever attempted a conversation with a graduate of a Great Books program—i.e. the type of person that once went to finishing schools for the rich—you might have discovered as I did that it’s all about learning as ornamentation and conspicuous consumption of cultural capital without the slightest capacity for autonomous thinking.

But what is really subversive is the ability to apply critical philosophical thinking to the whole range of human experience, both in everyday life and in relation to the intellectual capital inherited from the past. I have not found a single book that teaches anybody how to do this in a meaningful fashion. It's all shallow gimmickry at best, even the propaganda for critical thinking.

Let me give some examples of resources on the web. The editor of The Philosopher's Magazine has a web site, Butterflies and Wheels, dedicated to the debunking of fashionable nonsense—postmodernism, New Age pabulum, occultism, antiscience, irrationalism of all kinds. Normally I would applaud such an effort, but when you look at it, it's all flash and sound bites, redolent of yet another ideology, ultimately almost as naive as what it's criticizing. There is also Critical Thinking on the Web, with an accompanying mail list, critical@yahoogroups.com, which is quite uncritical of much of the material it promotes.

Popularization needs to be taken up a notch, rather than merely reproduce the logic of the marketplace in disseminating ideas. The quality of the two leading popular magazines available in the USA (both published in the UK, interestingly), The Philosopher's Magazine and Philosophy Now, could stand an upgrade, but it's not just a question of individual editorial will, it's a problem of the knowledge industry as a whole—both academic and popular—involving writers, readers, and prevailing national intellectual traditions. Professionals are not necessarily any more profound than amateurs, even when more technically competent in certain areas, as extensive contact with academics will reveal. Amateurism is a passion for a subject, which when a certain level of engagement is reached, may stimulate a frustrated need for transcendence of superficiality and banality, whether specialized or popular.

[Aside to a friend: I haven't looked at logic textbooks. I guess they are a constant, teaching logical reasoning. But I'm not sure that teaching logic is the same as teaching critical thinking or the ability to tackle systems of concepts except formalistically. There is something very mechanical about logic; you can learn about consistency, inconsistency, fallacious reasoning, etc. On a higher level you can learn about formal models. But practically this only gets you so far in understanding how ideas are put together and function in society. Analytical philosophy is notoriously obtuse as a tradition, its emphasis on logical rigor notwithstanding.]

(22 September 2003)

Your question is formulated vaguely but your language is intriguing: "supreme intellectual statements", "groping for substance above my own thinking". If you could elaborate, maybe you could elicit more of the response you need. Philosophy, it seems, no matter what its doctrine, even if that be that of anti-intellectualism, irrationalism, or immediacy, always gropes beyond the immediate. The minute an abstract thought is thought, it always goes beyond immediate, spontaneous experience and apperception. At some point conceptual formulation becomes an object of investigation itself. Wherever philosophy begins and ends, this, I think, is indubitably philosophy.

(24 September 2003)

"The philosophy that can be named is not the real philosophy." — paraphrase of the Tao te Ching

. . . . Recognizing that some basic facts about philosophers and their ideas might be of some use, perhaps I should lighten up. Recognizing that popular magazines need not be profound from cover to cover, perhaps I should lighten up. However, there is something odd in my mind about taking a non-philosophical, not to mention non-sociological, attitude, to philosophical material. It means we're not really thinking about what we're reading. Curiously, an anti-intellectual attitude is far from rare on this discussion list, as it is in a lot of feedback I read to this magazine and its rival(?) counterpart The Philosopher's Magazine (TPM). "This brain-cracking stuff is too confusing; what's 'e on about, anyway?"

It is also curious that a naive attitude pervades all of popular philosophical discussion, as if the past 160 years of thinking about philosophy as not what it seems to be, which substantially began with the Young Hegelians, never occurred. When Continental philosophy is dragged into the picture, it comes as an excuse for irrationalism, and fails to solve the problem of second-order thinking as well. I am neither analytic nor Continental, by the way, as I think both tendencies, artificially separated into traditions (and sometimes recombined), reflect the fragmentation of modern society that needs to be overcome.

I've just read the latest TPM, whose theme is "Philosophy for Children." Though there was a mildly interesting article or two on how children differ from adults and thus cannot be expected to process abstract questions in the same way, overall the treatment was on a fairly superficial level. I don't think this is the case because the topic is children, as I think comparable issues apply to philosophy for beginners in general. Rather, it is this naive immediate way of posing all the great questions and then covering all their permutations, as if we are now all as naively abstract as the ancient Greeks pre-critically deducing reality from abstract thinking. Missing is the disquiet that the philosophic temper actually awakens: philosophy as negation of immediacy, the diremption of consciousness into unarticulated intuitive convictions and the striving for adequate abstractions. But when Philosophy learned to question its questions, it devolved and constricted itself, in the anglophone world, to linguistic philosophy, opposite of the Hegelian path recognizing the historicity of abstract reflection and its evolution through negation and incorporation of previous positions into a higher order perspective.

But how could such arcane considerations possibly apply to the child or amateur still taking baby steps, you ask? But that's my point: it does apply, in ways that have never been adequately examined, because of the naivete surrounding philosophical pedagogy, academic as well as popular. The disquiet of the philosophic temper I'm inadequately attempting to describe is more pervasive than is recognized; it goes to the alienness one feels when confronting abstract systems which one is not yet up to challenging on their own level but yet feels dubious of. That is, the struggle. When you struggle with abstract systems, you've got to take care that you digest them and they don't digest you.

I think that popular education should be even more sensitive to this problem than the college classroom, that doesn't recognize it either. However, in seeking to make an academic specialty relevant to a popular audience, popular philosophy merely extends the logic of the marketplace and ignores the truly philosophical (and sociological) questions of the effects of the division of labor on consciousness. Hence the anxiety over whether philosophy is relevant to everyday life, and the contrary postures of either defending professional philosophy or skewering it for not being relevant to the man in the street. The bad faith in this anxiety is never scrutinized, though. It perpetuates a dichotomy; it doesn't break through it. What is to be the relation between the individual and the sum total of human knowledge when no one can know all of it or even more than a small piece?

(5 October 2003)

[Is there a "philosophical type" of mind, something that can't be taught?] This is actually a profound question, not easy to get a handle on. Obviously, there are aspects of the philosophical mind that can be taught. On a deeper level, though, there is something about the talent of thinking philosophically (which should not be reduced to the ability to think logically or abstractly), which eludes formalization. The formal education of philosophy is like that of other fields: certain techniques are transmitted, but in developing the X factor—creativity, depth, and originality—you're on your own. This is like learning just about any other field. Take classical music, which is basically organized as a technocratic enterprise. Of course, the ideal is to evolve beyond a mere technician, but the constipated conception of music embedded in the organizational culture of classical music (as opposed to jazz, for example) means the infinite reproduction of the same old stuff with technical perfection, and if you develop into an exceptional interpreter or maybe even an original composer, that's an added plus, but that is not what gets organized technocratically.

The "philosophical mind" presents an analogous problem. Technical proficiency takes ability and the cultivation of that ability. Not everybody can do it. One is at a loss without technical proficiency in any field, and clearly, this is something that can be and is cultivated in a formal, disciplined manner. Compare the number of formally educated people in any field in the world today as compared to the mere handfuls of geniuses who worked out various abstract concepts a few centuries ago. But there is another talent, which gets cultivated at best only partially by the bureaucratic organization of knowledge—the ability to take a situation and know how to go about analyzing it with depth and perspicuity. Professors representing various schools of thought organize their students' ability to do this in defined ways, but judging from the academics I deal with, they have not succeeded very admirably.

So I think [the] question has to be answered on at least two levels. Implicitly I addressed the second of these levels—where the X factor operates—in my criticism of popularization and my vague characterization of philosophy as the conceptual negation of immediacy. Thinking through concepts and parroting philosophical positions are not synonymous. Dissatisfaction with presented concepts necessitates cultivation of the ability to think negatively, to resist the immediate pull of the formulations one confronts, to seek out deeper patternings and conceptual structures. This is what a philosophical type of mind means to me.

(8 October 2003)

Sometimes I think the philosophical mind is born, not made, yet several qualifications are needed. I have found over the decades a number of uneducated people with acute instincts for philosophical reflection and/or critical thought. However, the exercise of such propensities and abilities is a highly uneven affair. Whatever is behind these propensities, it does not reduce down to logical thinking or even abstract thinking. And, one could say, it doesn't always reach up to them either. As in any ability, this one is used with practice. But how does an uneducated person get to practice and refine one's capacity for philosophical reflection? Well, usually, it only gets developed in specific areas, such as critical reflection on everyday life and human behavior, rebellion against religious belief, anticlericalism, criticism of politics and social institutions. Within delimited areas of contention uneducated people are capable of articulating not only arguments but the principles behind their arguments. They tend to be brilliant at coining aphorisms, proverbs, and turns of phrase, thinking metaphorically. But rarely are they capable of sustaining consistent abstract reflection across the spectrum of thought. And without some kind of abstract terminology—having words like "epistemology" for example—their ability to systematize is limited. The question of practice involves a number of ways of interacting with others. People tend to think in inner speech, abbreviating rather than explicitly elaborating logical constructs, relying on intuitive pattern recognition to fill in the gaps in their explicit logical reasoning. Improving one's skills at articulating one's concepts could involve talking to oneself, but actually demands interaction with others through speaking or writing. One also needs input from others whether through written texts or intelligent conversation.

This may seem obvious enough, but we should be philosophical about it and interrogate the obvious, as that is where all the profound questions are to be found. We also need to examine the formal educational process more closely. I have suggested that learning how to think philosophically is not just regurgitating descriptions of other people's ideas, but thinking through them and struggling with them. This struggle itself needs to be theorized. The bureaucratic context in which academic subjects are taught does not foster such analysis. Have you ever sat in an introductory philosophy class feeling depressed? Something is missing in the transmission of the philosophical canon. The art of mediating between the abstract and the concrete is not taught. The poor student is at a terrible disadvantage in confronting intricately developed abstract systems, starting out with only his/her own comparatively vague sense of reality as a guide. While self-transformation is also a desirable outcome, the struggle is to maintain control of the process of digestion, to learn how to swallow other people's ideas and keep them from swallowing you.

Hence, as I argued in my previous post, there are at least two levels to think about in formulating a conception of the philosophical mind. One is the dimension of philosophy (or any other discipline) that can be formally taught, the other is that X-factor in the individual that motivates thinking beyond what is given; the fount of creativity, originality, or simply thinking organically from within.

(12 October 2003)

Notes

I have reproduced only my own commentary, slightly edited. For comments by others, see the archives for these discussion lists.

[1] Bernard Roy New York Café Philo Mailing List Archive [zipped files] [—> main text]

[2] Philosophy Now Discussion Forum [—> main text]

Compiled & edited by Ralph Dumain 27 December 2003
©2003 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved.


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