By Jim Perry

Presidential Address of the 51st Annual Meeting of the Florida Philosophical Association, 2005

Jim Perry, Hillsborough Community College

Antonyms are words that mean opposite or even contradictory things. “Open” and “shut” are antonyms, as are “up” and “down.” What interests me this evening is auto-antonyms, words that mean the opposite of themselves, such as “sanction,” meaning both approve and disapprove. All three terms in my title, “religion,” “science,” and “philosophy,” are auto-antonyms, having both routine and reflective (i.e., non-routine) meanings. How are we to tell which is which?

Religion first. On the one hand, religion is ritual. Notice the number of church groups that have gathered and provided for the evacuees from the ravages of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. These are faith-based initiatives, done from stated religious principles. Whatever we say about religion, it will be useful to remember these kinds of organizations and activities. At the same time, however, who has not noticed the bombings and killings from abortion clinics to the World Trade Center to the streets of Baghdad? These, too, are faith-based initiatives. So how can we know what is meant, and what is not meant, when the word “religion” is used?

On the other hand, religion is a quest for the infinite, and reflective religion transcends all routines and has no leaders. We need to make a distinction between routine religion, with its dogmas and hierarchies, and reflective religion which has neither. Routine religion is a (flawed) tool to avoid diabolical1 randomness. Reflective religion is inquiry into human responsibility – for our choice of rules and routines, among other things. Again I ask: how can we know what is meant?

These two purposes are usually in conflict, and therefore confusing. To protect from randomness, routine religion rejects inquiry; but to achieve human potential, reflective religion welcomes inquiry. The same church that published the Index Librorum Prohibitorum also employs an Advocatus Diaboli to find out all it can, very scientifically, about candidates for sainthood.

Each routine religion usually describes those inside it as brethren while describing those outside as heretics, infidels, apostates, atheists, pagans, or liberals.2 Those people inside the charmed circle count as human, and those outside don’t. Of course, that’s what all the other routine religions are saying, too, about different charmed circles, that ‘we’ are human not because we think reflectively but because we obey the right rules and leaders.

One particularly dangerous – because diabolical – aspect of religion is its typical practice of appealing to supernatural agents for its justification. In court, when we wish to promise to tell the truth we speak the words “So help me God.” This is performative, valid on its face, guaranteeing there will be no joking in the witness-box. Out of court the same divine appeal becomes a trap making negotiation impossible and the proliferation of divine beings inevitable. This is doubly diabolical, because it renders accidental contradictions impossible to correct, and also guarantees further contradictions as other tribes and factions define their own divinities. It’s iatrogenic.3 The supposition of a supernatural “real” world also has the effect of rendering this world fictional.

Now science. There are specific routines – forensic science, medical science, social science – and then there is the reflective method by which each of these specific sciences comes to be. Routine science is knowledge gained through routine; it is work conducted according to settled principles, standards and methods – the thing Thomas Kuhn called a shared paradigm. Routine science is dogmatic. Reflective science thinks critically about those principles, standards, and methods. How, I wonder, does an audience know whether scientists are speaking dogmatically or not?

When one learns a specific science, one does not typically learn other specific sciences nor does one learn the reflective method. It is more efficient and less costly to do it this way. But we don’t explain that this is what we are doing, so students don’t know what we do mean and what we don’t mean by the word ‘science’. The result is confusion enough for a lifetime.

Specific sciences are related by complexity (i.e., kinds of variables) and predictability. At the top is mathematics: all form and no content, it has few types of variables and high predictability. Next below math come the physical sciences, from astronomy to physics and chemistry to meteorology, each with new kinds of variables. Then come the biological sciences, adding the many complex processes of life. Toward the bottom of the ladder come the social and behavioral sciences, typically deterministic, such as history, economics, psychology, anthropology, and education.4 Finally comes the study of the one remaining variable: choice. This is the topic and domain of the humanities, the most creative part of knowledge, most complex of all and hardest to predict.

Now philosophy. Where is philosophy in all this? Is philosophy a social science and thus routine and dogmatic, or is it one of the humanities and so reflective? For undergraduates and the general public, we promote a general vision of philosophy as a quest for humanity, for the big picture, with the stated aim “to see life steadily, and see it whole.” For many and perhaps most graduate students, however, we promote a vision of philosophy as a blood sport (as Norman Swarz called it 5), a combination of courtroom and cockfight in which the last person standing gets the degree, the tenure, and the promotion. When the word “philosophy” is used, however, the audience has no quick way to know what is meant and what is not meant.

I have no quarrel with routine philosophy. “Think of it as a game” would have been useful advice for me if I had gotten it earlier and chosen to follow it. I learned a lot from the routines of each of my thirty-two classroom teachers of philosophy, but more than anything else I learned from my inevitable confusion that routine wasn’t everything.

The OED offers nine major definitions of the word “philosophy,” starting with the one it calls “the original and widest sense”: “The love, study, or pursuit of wisdom, or of knowledge of things and their causes, whether theoretical or practical.” This is what I always wanted and was glad to find. This is the one that could help restore America’s reputation in the world, inspire peace based on understanding, and with the help of the Gates Foundation,6 alleviate poverty in the bargain.

The United Nations plays a part in this. After a rocky start in the Declaration of Human Rights in 1946, in which it declared (Article 26, paragraph 3) that “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children,”7 UNESCO’s charge for its 1972 book, Learning To Be, stated that “All people should receive in their childhood and youth an education that equips them to develop their own independent, critical way of thinking and judgment so that they can make up their own minds on the best courses on action in the different circumstances of their lives.”8

UNESCO’s new Strategy on Philosophy “interprets philosophy in a wide sense of ennobling each individual and fostering the intellectual moral solidarity of mankind.” World Philosophy Day 2005 comes next week, on Thursday, November 17th. Think of it: World Philosophy Day! According to several of UNESCO’s documents (currently available only in French) philosophy as a field of study has an important, even vital, part to play in the abolition of poverty and all the human ills that follow from it, because philosophy addresses the causes of poverty.9

World peace is an interesting idea; but how will we make it so without force? Well, we might educate everyone. We might foster their intellects as a means of achieving the goal UNESCO stated above: fostering the intellectual moral solidarity of mankind. Yes, we could do that.

To do that, however, we would have to take them beyond the routine level of thinking up to the reflective level. And to do so might cost the leaders of all those routines tidy sums of money and a significant amount of power. I don’t want to seem petty about this, but when we talk about cultures, nations, and other social routines, it’s important to notice that these communities are never monolithic: there are young and old, skilled and unskilled, energetic and lethargic, healthy and ill, well-connected and un-connected, wealthy and poor. And when we hear talk about what’s good and bad for a culture, we would be wise to ask who’s profiting most from it.

One part of the world to which we might turn our attention is our own children, who are, like Lt. Kaffee in A Few Good Men, considered by all our Col. Jessups to be too immature to handle the truth. Richard Rorty, for one, claims he “cannot imagine a culture which socialized its youth in such a way as to make them continually dubious about their own process of socialization.”10 This may explain why at last report, in contrast to Europe and most of the civilized world, no public K-12 school in Florida offers a regularly-scheduled introductory course in philosophy.

The Florida Association of Science Teachers has just met in Orlando to discuss the crusade by State Legislator Dennis Baxley to promote “alternatives to evolution theory” (specifically, a program called “Intelligent Design”) in Florida’s public schools. The state’s science standards are reported to be scheduled for review in 2006. Will it be decided then that our children are too immature to handle the uncertainty of science? That would be sad, but in a contest between definitions and facts the definitions will always be more definite.

Florida’s new Chancellor for K-12, Cheri Yecke, has been described as another advocate for Intelligent Design. The Intelligent Design campaign could be asked to propose that Karl Marx created the universe in 1858, complete with all the creatures, memories, fossils and documents we know about. Why anyone would want to ask them to do this I don’t know, but it would illustrate that countless claims can be made about the creation of the universe, and that none of them can be proved or disproved. I suspect people outside our profession don’t know that.

Rorty is mistaken; monstrously so. Children who don’t learn to doubt don’t learn how to cope with error by means of inquiry. They learn nothing of the moral necessity of learning how to deal with doubt. They learn nothing of their own humanity. In a world filled with routine differences, they learn nothing of our shared reflective identity. They learn nothing of the soul as the uniquely human level of functioning, so they remain utensils, not persons, puppets on strings held by other puppets. They never learn they don’t need to be right to be human.

Routines fail. Definitions prove contradictory, empirical, or just too difficult to learn. Though Woodrow Wilson proclaimed after World War I that every culture had an equal and unlimited right to autonomy, we decided otherwise at Nuremburg after another World War. We committed the world to the view that cultures may be vindicated by their effects in practice, but they are not validated automatically.Cultures serve human purposes first, and not the other way around.

What is routine in the world today is the worship of routine, traditionally called “fanaticism” and “zealotry” and also “idolatry.” This worship nowadays comes with weapons of mass destruction. To stop that, I am asking that when we talk about religion, science, and philosophy, we tell our audience what we do not mean as well as what we do mean. That’s all. Just say there’s the other interpretation, but right here and for now we’re not going to use it. That’ll do it. Don’t leave them guessing. They’ll guess wrong, and then where will you be?

Tell them all three of these three words are auto-antonyms. After they learn that, they will no longer be confused about it, their routines will be choices rather than mandates, and neither the words nor those who use them will be so dangerous any more. This explanation will give students a way to adapt their routines to their learning without becoming random or dehumanized. It will help them, using Otto Neurath’s famous analogy, to rebuild their ships even as they sail on them. It will help them realize their humanity, empower it, magnify it.

Instead of looking to Oz, Heaven, or Shangri-La for something supernatural and transcendent, we might suggest the reflective self – the philosopher-king (or queen) in each of us. Buddhists have a word for this: “Namaste.” It means, “The divine in me greets the divine in you.” That sounds like a person, at once routine and reflective. That sounds okay to me. That sounds pretty good.



Works Cited

Faure, Edgar, et al. Learning to Be: The World of Education Today and Tomorrow. New York: UNESCO, 1972.

Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1962.

Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.

UN Declaration of Human Rights. New York, 1946.

  1. The word “diabolic” is derived from the Greek words δίά (meaning “across” or “apart”) and βαλλειν (meaning “to throw or tear”). This describes the effect of randomness, panic and contradiction, and seems to me to be what the famous story of Buridan’s donkey was about. The later Latin interpretation of diabolicus as “devil” emphasizes how serious a matter any departure from routine is perceived to be in the context of religion: whatever is unpredictable is Hell, and you don’t have to die to go there. Note what this implies about creativity.
  2. I am thinking of the type of liberal who is confident we can do better. Conservatives, by contrast, are afraid we can do worse. They are both right. The fatal mistake I see conservatives (and parents) make is to suppose that simply by enforcing routine they can prevent randomness. The fatal mistake of liberals is to suppose that even randomness is better than routine.
  3. This remarkable word is generally taken to refer to any “cure” that “causes” adverse side-effects. Roy Weatherford has pointed out to me that strictly speaking this word refers to individuals and “nosocomial” to institutions.” He’s right, of course. I am simply deferring to popular usage.
  4. Note the dreadful implication of classifying education as deterministic. Scholars following this template will treat education as something teachers do to students without the students’ having any choice in the matter. On this view students will be objects, not subjects.
  6. The organization is called the Initiative for Global Development. See
  7. Note the obvious problem with schools that promote terrorism.
  9. To the extent that philosophy seeks to understand causes as well as effects, it will have a greater and more lasting impact on those effects. I have heard this point made by medical professionals associated with the World Health Organization. I have also spoken to this point and heard it presented and analyzed repeatedly and energetically at the most recent World Congresses of Philosophy (Boston, 1998 and Istanbul 2003). The next World Congress of Philosophy will meet in Seoul in 2008. I hope to have something to say there, too.
  10. Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989), 87.

Jim Perry

Jim Perry is a past president of the Florida Philosophical Association and of the Florida Conference of the American Association of University Professors. He was a founding officer of the Community College Humanities Association. He has taught at Hillsborough Community College since 1975. He earned his Ph.D. at Indiana University and has lectured or published in Australia, India, Turkey, Sweden, Russia, Lithuania, and the United States. He is the author of “Random, Routine, and Reflective: Three Levels of Action,” a work in progress. [email protected]