By Aron Edidin

Presidential Address of the 46th Annual Meeting of the Florida Philosophical Association

Aron Edidin, New College of Florida

If I speak somewhat briefly here tonight
I hope you won’t wish I were briefer still.


In fall when first I’d left high school and home
midway through that first fall of college life
I traveled north to Gainesville with a gang
of students and professors to attend
for the first time the annual meeting of this Philosophical Association.


I was a student here at New College
which then as now was just a little place
with few philosophers in its employ.
Each year the meeting of the FPA
afforded my sole opportunity
to hear the thoughts of a more varied bunch;
as student here I never missed a year.
And, both as student and since my return
attending now with students of my own
I’ve never known one member of this group
be any less than warmly welcoming
to students come among us when we meet.


So, honoring the place the FPA
holds in my memories of college years,
recognizing too the central place
that teaching present undergraduates
holds in most of our philosophic lives,
I’ll talk tonight ‘bout undergraduates
and of the role philosophy might play
among their studies. Since I mostly teach,
as many of us willy-nilly must
students who choose to concentrate their work
outside our field, I’ll concentrate on them.
Indeed, I’ll focus on what we might hope
to leave with students in a single course,
what we can offer those who will pursue
philosophy just minimally.

we may note certain courses in our field
with easily identified objectives
which, if the course achieves, will clearly be
a boon for students choosing to enroll.
A course whose emphasis is ethical
can exercise and sharpen and expand
a student’s moral sensibility.
Symbolic Logic offers tools and skills
of value across whole curricula
(tho’ teaching such a course in such a way
that this value will best be realized
is quite a tricky matter.) And a broad
historical survey within our field
can yield some knowledge of a great domain
of civilized human activity.

But turn now to a different kind of course.
Consider, say, epistemology,
philosophy of science, or of mind.
Or metaphysics, most abstract of all.
Suppose a student who takes one of these
as her sole philosophical endeavor.
These are the courses I most often teach
to some who will pursue philosophy
extensively, but too, to some who won’t,
contenting themselves with the single course.
So, what’s for them to gain, if they should choose
a course like these, and if the course works well?


(Before proceeding I emphatically
affirm that I mean no invidious
suggestion that these courses are somehow
more rigorous or central or important
than those whose value to nonspecialists
is easier to see. They’re central to
my philosophical writing and teaching.
I realize that in this I conform
to the norms of an ideology
which does invidiously valorize
these “hard-core analytic areas.”
This ideology I disavow
but still, my interests in philosophy
are what they are, much focussed on these things.
Most of the students in my classes are
not majors in philosophy, but I
remain convinced these courses serve them too.
I’m thus presented with the puzzle of
enunciating my didactic goals
in teaching, say, epistemology
to majors and non-majors both alike.)


In focussing on courses such as these
I follow somewhat the august example
of David Hume, who in his famous chapter
“Of Different Species of Philosophy”
sought to defend such philosophic thought
as seemed both most dry and most diffident
about proclaiming relevance to life.
But his conclusion won’t avail me here.
I can’t pretend the courses that I’ve named
instruct in firmly evidenced results
of careful and methodical research,
however modest such results might be.
There is no body of established fact
in metaphysics or philosophy
of mind, or in epistemology
or in philosophy of science, to
transmit in part to keen, receptive minds.
This is the scandal of which Kant complained
so bitterly, but could himself not end.
Copernicus’s great accomplishment
of transformation yielding consensus
would not be duplicated in our field
by Hume or Kant, Descartes or Husserl
or any of that multitude who sought
to place philosophy upon the firm
and fruitful path trod nobly by true science.


We’ve no results to offer those we teach,
no tempting bits of philosophical
discovery with which to inform them
so they’ll know more stuff at semester’s end
than at its start (or, if some knowledge comes
of facts of philosophic history
or of some facts whose mention may occur
perchance in course of philosophical
debate – since even true philosophers
at times find facts found elsewhere relevant
to our pursuits – well, if a few such facts
as these are learned, that’s really not the point,
not what these courses principally pursue.)


But here, a scientist might well object,
insisting that a catalogue of facts
is no more the objective of her teaching
than of our own. It’s method matters most;
to learn how scientists learn what they learn.
Thus, students whose ambition leads to sci-
entific work may be initiate
in the beginnings of their coming craft
while those whose scientifical pursuits
come quickly to an end may yet be taught
a bit about how this great engine of
the growth of knowledge works, the better to
appreciate such scientific knowledge
at they through life may casually acquire.
The better too to exercise the role
of citizen in following disputes
of policy where science matters much.


Might it be so for us? Might science still
provide a model for the value of
learning a little of philosophy,
since scientific education comes
now to be seen as more than feeding facts?
Well, no. We’ve no more methods to convey
for building knowledge than we have results
that count as knowledge in philosophy.
Had we the one, full soon we’d have the other.
Nor need a citizen, to follow well
debate within the polity on grave
concerns of common good, adjudicate
the claims and counter-claims of those like us,
metaphysicians, epistemologists.
Congressional committees rarely call
on us to testify, and probably
they’re wise in that restraint. No, if we teach
something that’s good to learn, we’ll find dim light
in science’s example to discern it.


So science is no fitting analogue
in which we can discern the value of
what one-time students might acquire from us.
Well, what of that? Philosophy’s no science.
Perhaps the other pole can promise more
and we should look to art where science fails.
We all remember Carnap’s famous sneer
that metaphysics is bad poetry.
(Perhaps his influence, transmitted by
my teacher, Bryan Norton, on to me
is part of what now leads me to produce
tonight’s bold testing of this classic claim!)
In any case, we now hear others too
who emphasize that philosophical
writing is writing, with its rhetoric
and maybe its poetics. Certainly
one of the things I hope my students learn
is how to read a certain kind of text
and how to write within our idiom.
Like art instructors, we strive to impart
modes of expression central to our work,
to help our students to express their thoughts
as we do ours in philosophic style.


Still, I’d not for a moment rest content
to place expression at the central point.
Creative writing’s really not our bag.
Expressive power, emotional precision,
deft characterization, skillful pace
of narrative, surprising twists of plot
may have their place in philosophic prose
but that place is peripheral at best,\
mere window-dressing to the thought displayed,
far from our object of instructive zeal.
It’s thinking we purport to value most
and cogency the quality we want.
No more the poet than the scientist
can model for us what we wish to teach.


Well, now a poet could dispute, and note
that thought and words are not so isolate
one from the other that the first is formed
full inarticulate, then later spoke
or written, finding words for what itself
is not a thing of words. Instead the thought
is formed in forming words to sentences
and these to paragraphs and arguments
articulate on page or voiced aloud.
Indeed, when first I speak to students of
writing assignments in each course I teach
I say that thinking in philosophy
writhes nebulous while hidden in the head.
Precision is the privilege of thoughts
articulate, and better still on page
whose discipline requires such clarity
as allows comprehension of the thought
without the benefit of questioning
the thinker. So I couldn’t well contend
that writing is mere accidental dross
in which the golden thought may be displayed.


I’ll need return to this before I’m through
But just for now I’ll brazenly declare
that justice of the claim that word and thought
are intertwined won’t make philosophy
creative art whose model for instruction
is that of poets or of painters. Still,
there’s one analogy in teaching of
philosophy and of creative art
that proves a key in my unraveling
of what our students might most fitly learn.


If I should learn beginning rudiments
of painting, when I see in later life
the work of painters hung in galleries
I can perhaps, better appreciate
the expertise and inspiration there.
In this the value of my learning leans
in a direction noted earlier
concerning learning of a little science.
I said that learning certain elements
of scientific method can enhance
science appreciation. But with art,
say, as a painter just a little trained
I also can experience a measure
of that felicity that painters know
for whom to paint is life’s entire work.
I can partake, if just a little bit
in that enhancement of a human life
for whose sake painters paint. (In like respect
although it is as plain as boiled potatoes
that as a versifier I’m no poet,
yet in the preparation of this text
I have from time to time experienced
pleasure in finding fit alliteration
or some occasional grace as may occur
when thoughts accustomed to the forms of prose
find words to dance in measured meter.) Here
the case of science seems quite different.
The joys of scientific work are saved
for those whose training fits them for the task
by progress far beyond the first semester.


What of philosophy? Are those delights
with which our lives are gifted by our work
available in any measure for
our former students, now on other paths?
To answer, we must measure our own lives
and find the springs of intellectual joy
that feed philosophers’ felicity.
In this, I can speak only for myself.
The joy philosophy affords for me,
the richness in my life’s experience
that I deem philosophical, consists
first of all in a sensibility,
a sort of intellectual perspective
that finds in each phenomenon it notes
questions and puzzles, possibilities
for reaffirming solid common sense
or speculating on alternative
constructions than the comfortable ones
ensconced in ordinary speech and thought.
This inquiry into the commonplace,
can make of time, or sense, or proper names
or of believing, or of evidence
or life beyond one instant, mysteries.
I find with Augustine that life is full
of what I know as long as I’m not asked
but once I start to think explicitly
phenomena familiar all my life
turn strange; for every explicit account
presents its problems, casts itself in doubt
and raises questions too of whether our
initial inexplicit ease of thought
is dogmatism better blithely dumped
or stuff of real and fluent mastery
of matters obvious enough to all.
The pleasure of these puzzles of the plain
continues in detailed development
of clear conception of alternatives
in rendering explicit those accounts
that vie to supplement or to supplant
our tacit comprehension, studying
the works in which philosophers propound
their various hypotheses, and, too,
developing ideas of my own.


To be aware of these hypotheses
is prelude to their critical regard
weighing the pro and con of rival views
evaluating arguments, devising
arguments of my own, considering
the weight and relevance of evidence
advanced supporting this, opposing that.
Perhaps now judging one kind of account
most plausible and worthy of the work
of its elaboration and defense,
to find success in overcoming flaws
in earlier examples of that line
or in developing new reasoning
new applications to existing puzzles
new challenges for those alternative
approaches incompatible with this,
the one that seems to me most reasonable.
Succeeding, judgements may be reinforced
or, failing, may be undermined and changed.


To hope to know, as evidence evolves,
whether what I find plausible be true
is hope forlorn within this inquiry.
My reasonings remain conjectural.
Philosophers intelligent as I,
careful, judicious, diligent, informed,
will yet weigh all the reasons differently,
choosing conjecture opposite my own.
But as uncertain and conjectural
as, ineluctably, our views remain
yet it is evidence we seek to weigh
and reasoned argument that we propound.
And so, though discourse is our medium
and writing is the product of ours pains
and though our reasoning is exercised
in sentences and paragraphs and though
thought unexpressed is thought yet undeveloped
still we’re not poets, and our words remain
the means and not the ends of our endeavor.


Skillful pursuit of this endeavor brings
such subtlety of dialectic sense
as can help sort out other arguments
where more decisive outcomes may be hoped.
Exhortation to this usefulness
in opposition to apostles of
unreason, was my predecessor’s theme,
Ron Cooper’s purpose, one short year ago.
But quite apart from any usefulness
to fellow citizens or even to
fellow philosophers, when each one’s work
enriches stores of thought that nourish each,
apart, I say, from altruistic worth
of any kind, this thinking is for me
a life’s delight, and source of selfish joy
and, I affirm, such contemplation plays
a central part in what can make a life
worthy of being lived. I do not say
that only a contemplative career
is good, but contemplation rather is
one good, and can be quite profoundly so.


Well, now perhaps I’m ready to return
to that poor student left so long ago
in the one single solitary course
of her small schooling in philosophy.
Even as some artistic amateur
applying little training to his task
can yet enjoy some measure of that same
good which rewards true artists in their work,
so too I hope that some of that delight
for whose sake I pursued philosophy
and whose full measure is my best reward
for that life’s choice, may be accessible
to students whose perspective has been trained,
if just a little, in a realm where fact
however obvious, when probed, reveals
a world of questions with no easy end
but pleasure in the effort to address.


Should such a student seek now to repeat
and to intensify this thoughtful joy
by further study of philosophy,
this first course might then come to be the start
of philosophical apprenticeship
and so might prove first source of those rewards
attending the profession which we share.
But amateur philosophizing too,
a modest part of philosophic thought
in lives devoted most to other goods
might yet be not a negligible part
of a good life, and so I teach in hope
that the rewards of such an element
may be augmented even by one course
that practices its students’ faculties
on issues that most fascinate my own.


Here my address, praise Heaven! comes to close
concluding with the reaffirmed hope
that philosophic wonder might find those
whose schooling in’t is limited in scope.


This hope in any case I yet pursue
When, as most of us must do perforce,
I teach my classes as I mostly do
to students whose profession won’t be ours.


Instruction in the facts is not our style
nor methods by which knowledge may be got.
But in each fact, find questions to beguile,
To teach delight in less decisive thought.


Now nears my end of presidential work,
I sigh relief, and pass the torch to Kirk.


Aron Edidin

Aron Edidin is Professor of Philosophy at New College of Florida, where he is responsible for most of the curriculum in analytic philosophy. He writes mostly about epistemology, metaphilosophy, and the philosophy of music, but he has also published articles in philosophy of science, philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of mind, and metaphysics. Aron received his B.A. from what was then New College of the University of South Florida and his Ph.D. from Princeton. Before joining the faculty at New College, he was Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.