Monday, 3 November 2014

in The Catholic Herald, October 24, 2014

 
Poseurs, frauds and pseuds have taken over philosophy
 
The elegant writers of old are gone, says Patrick West. Now philosophy is full of exhibitionist gobbledygook
Philosophy at 3:AM
by Richard Marshall
OUP, £20

What’s the point of philosophers these days? Not much, if you ask your average lay person or journalist. Philosophy, most of us would say, has become arcane, obscure, too technical and trivial. Such a perception was made manifest during the notorious Alan Sokal hoax of 1996, when the scientist concocted an essay of pure gibberish and successfully submitted it to an academic journal. It seemed to confirm the view that modern philosophy has become obscurantist, and a repository for frauds and pseuds.
 
It’s this impression that Philosophy at 3:AM seeks both to explain and to redress. Based on the cultural/literary website 3ammagazine.com, it’s a collection of question-and-answer interviews with 25 contemporary philosophers of all hues, from metaphysicians and logicians to ethicists and linguists.
 
The cry that “philosophy has become too obscure” is akin to “the young are badly behaved” or “our language is becoming debased” – it’s ancient and eternal. Sure, modern analytical philosophy can seem overly technical, and the continental variety can veer into exhibitionist gobbledygook. This appears especially so when you compare both schools to the beautiful literary philosophy of yore: Camus, Freud, Nietzsche, Rousseau. 
 
But there has always been dry, technical philosophy: Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Hume’s Treatise, Aristotle, Aquinas and Hegel. As the America metaphysician Eric T Olson argues here: “Philosophy is hard. That’s its nature. No one would expect serious works of physics or mathematics or economics (as opposed to popularisations) to be immediately accessible to intelligent readers with no training in the subject. Why should philosophy be any different?” Philosophy at 3:AM thus emerges less as a book on philosophy than one about it. And here lies a problem – or perhaps the problem. 
 
I’m not sure a lay reader would want to read a book in which philosophers talk about their own discipline. Such navel-gazing only seems to reinforce the perception that philosophers are out-of-touch. This collection is thus a symptom of the problem it’s trying to address.
 
The use of the impersonal female pronoun from the outset is a case a point. When speaking hypothetically, I would prefer an alternating “he” or “she”, or even a “s/he”, to a question-raising, flow-stopping impersonal “she” and “her”. Keep it simple: the first rule of good writing. There is also the name-dropping. “Philosophical enquiry,” asks one philosopher, “is that the sort of thing Aristotle and Hume were doing, or the sort of thing that Kripke and Gettier were doing?” The last two are hardly household names. Add to this, the often sycophantic tone of the interviewer: “Your ideas blow away many so-called radicals such as Foucault, and your conclusions, couched in very cool, precise language, belie their corrosive impact...” Yuk!
 
It’s a pity, because if you persevere, there is much interesting matter here. Patricia Churchland suggests that moral behaviour preceded religion by 200,000 years and religions evolve into monotheism – yet Confucians, Buddhists and Taoists continue to live without deities. 
 
While Gary Gutting rightly derides Derrida’s writing as needlessly obscure and repetitive, he defends him as a serious and valuable philosopher. The meaning of words are forever unstable, and we shouldn’t be afraid to accept this. Brian Leiter dismisses Derrida as a “poseur”, while standing up for Foucault, who diagnosed how “individuals in the modern era become agents of their own oppression”. To be sure, Foucault belongs to the category of seductive literary philosopher, but it was Freud who first truly elaborated how people internalise rules, becoming the oppressors of themselves.

Eric T Olson explores the Theory of Forms using the tale of Theseus, the mythical king of Athens who builds a ship and goes to sea. He occasionally returns to port to replace the ship’s worn pieces until eventually every one of them has been exchanged. In the meantime, the local museum has been collecting the cast off pieces, which it manages to assemble just as they were when Theseus first set sail. So there are now two ships: the repaired ship at sea and the reconstructed ship in the museum. Which of the two is Theseus’s original ship? Olson concludes that both are.
 
Michael Lynch regrets the rejection of objective truth in modern philosophy. “It is not just a metaphysical mistake; it is a political one,” he says, while Graham Priest delves into motion, contradiction and paradox: “For something to be in motion is not for it to be in one place and one time, and another at another, but at one and the same time to both be and not be in a place.” It can indeed be difficult to resolve place and movement: this is why prepositions are so different and difficult in foreign languages (in Italian you say you are “at” a city, irrespective of whether you are going there or situated there; and you say you are “in” a country whether you are heading or actually there). 
 
Finally, Eric Schwitgebel asks why professors of ethics slam doors, talk rudely during presentations, leave behind rubbish at their seats – and why among university libraries, textbooks on ethics are stolen more than the average.
 
This is all very interesting, but it’s also very bitty. What could have been a good book is ruined by its presentation in a deeply unsatisfactory format.