Presidential Address of the 47th Annual Meeting of the Florida Philosophical Association
Kirk Ludwig, University of Florida
I have approached the task of giving this Presidential Address with some trepidation. It is, in any circumstance, a matter of some difficulty, occurring on the evening of a day full of long talks, when the last thing anyone wants to hear is more of the same. It occurs additionally not before but after the banquet, after the food, after the pie and cake, after . . . the wine. But worst of all, this presidential address occurs after the bravura performance of last year’s president, Aron Edidin, who delivered his address in iambic pentameter. His parting words, delivered in a rhymed couplet, were:
Now nears my end of presidential work,
I sigh relief, and pass the torch to Kirk.
I fear I will be burned by the torch that has been passed to me. My colleague Bob D’Amico told me that the only way I could top that would be by delivering my address in Terza Rima. I confess myself, however, wholly unable to rise to the challenge. At least I can console myself with the thought that I will make the task of our next year’s president, Martin Schönfeld, an easier one.
What I will do by way of compensation for not being able to deliver my remarks in Terza Rima is to make them relatively brief. I had thought, momentarily, of giving a talk on semantic vagueness. For I have a curious proof, with my colleague Greg Ray, that nothing that I say, or that you say, is false. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it is not true either, insofar as what you say involves the use of vague terms. But on reflection this seemed more likely to be a recipe for inducing vagueness, given the setting, than for clarifying it. I am therefore going to talk about something that is not a technical issue in philosophy, and about something on which I am certainly in no sense an expert. I wish I were.
It is a question on which I have been reflecting recently, for a variety of reasons, and one which I think we all think about when we have time, and, in part, because we seldom have time. I will tell you at the outset that I will not give you an answer to the question. It is, in part, a kind of practical question. We need perhaps to find a phronimos, the man or woman of practical wisdom, and I am not that. If raising the question without answering it has any virtue, it will be from its prompting additional reflection and discussion.
We are professional philosophers—academic philosophers. We hold teaching jobs, we write papers and books, for professional journals and academic presses, for other professional philosophers. We edit collections, read the papers and books of our brethren. We perform administrative tasks for our departments and institutions. It is a job. It is a profession, with all the trappings of a profession. It is also a strange way to be a philosopher. And it is that paradox (to speak loosely), the paradox of being a professional philosopher, about which I want to talk.
Why do I speak of it as a paradox? I have two things in mind. I will approach them indirectly.
When I was a graduate student, I overheard one of my teachers, Barry Stroud, wishing one day that he felt more like a philosopher and less like an employee of the state. I am not quite sure what he was thinking, but I think I have more sympathy for his remark now than I did then. (I think at the time I must have been trying to make an appointment with him.)
I am not sure I want to say in general why we become interested in philosophy or what draws us into it. I will confine myself to some autobiographical remarks. As an undergraduate, I was a physics major. I made a choice at the outset of my college career to study physics as opposed to English because I wanted to know as much as I could about . . . as much as I could, and I thought if I did not study the sciences early, it would not be practical to return to it in a serious manner later on. And physics I conceived of as the most fundamental of the sciences. It was. I do not regret my decision. It was clear to me, though, that pursuing graduate school in physics was not what I wanted to do. If you pursue graduate work in physics, you specialize: you learn more and more about . . . less and less. I wanted to learn more and more about more and more. Some minimal exposure to philosophy suggested to me that this was a subject that would afford me the kind of freedom to think about whatever interested me that I wanted, and at the level of generality and abstraction at which I wanted to think about it. Though I was at the time terribly ignorant about philosophy, about this I was right. I worked for a couple of years, took some graduate courses in both physics and philosophy, and went to Berkeley to study philosophy, not physics.
I spent seven years at Berkeley. I was poor, but I was rich in time and freedom. Now the balance has shifted in the other direction. This is, in part, what I think Barry Stroud had in mind in expressing a desire to feel less like an employee of the state. Our jobs, our professional duties as teachers and administrators, and as philosophers, do not in fact provide us with the kind of time and freedom which is necessary for pursuing philosophy as we would like, and for pursuing philosophy as it should be pursued. But this is only part of it and, in a sense, the less important part. I enjoy each of the things I do individually, even administrative work: it is just that it is an embarrassment of riches.
There is another aspect of the professionalization of philosophy, however, which limits our freedom in a different way.
The professionalization of philosophy, and of one’s philosophical work, in consequence, means that one is responsible to a professional literature, a specialist literature. One’s work is (typically) confined to official organs of the profession. One is expected by referees to pay attention to what people have been paying attention to. One’s institution expects one to contribute regularly to the official organs of one’s profession and, indeed, as a new assistant professor one’s professional life depends upon conforming to these unwritten canons.
Now, what is wrong with all of this? Of course, I do not foolishly protest against the inevitable specialization that attends the advancement of any field. It is unavoidable and necessary for progress.
Yet there are some dangers here as well. And we fail to note them at our peril as philosophers.
There are familiar vices attendant on these institutional arrangements. There is quite a bit more published than deserves to be published. In general, the profession would benefit from its members publishing less of higher quality. There is so much noise in the journals that it is difficult to find what is worth listening to, and too often people listen to the same voices over and over again simply because they trust them and don’t have the time to sort the wheat from the chaff. This accounts, in part, for what sometimes strikes me as the boringly limited range of things people find to write about in philosophy. (Everyone writes about what a few write about. Enough, for example, on proper names already!) Perhaps it also accounts for certain persistent confusions, which have been cleared up, but about which not everyone, not even all journal referees, have got the word (you no doubt can find your own examples in your field of expertise). Younger members of the profession in particular often find themselves forced to place their work in print before it is fully developed in order to provide external evidence of professional stature. There is a limited amount we can do about these things. They are necessary accompaniments of the procedures we put in place to evaluate members of the profession and their work—itself a necessary if unpleasant feature of having a profession at all. To borrow a phrase from Samuel Johnson, which he made in reference to notes: they are necessary, but they are necessary evils.
But these features attend every academic profession. The thing I have in mind is a kind of internal tension between the necessity of this kind of professionalization in philosophy and what it is we seek for ourselves in philosophy—what it is to be philosophers. And it strikes me that there is not, or is not the necessity of, the same kind of tension in other academic disciplines.
For example, science is a collaborative enterprise and must be by its very nature. The specialist contributes to a body of knowledge that is accumulated by the community, and that is her proper role. The enterprise of science tries to reach for synoptic understanding, but its under workers need not be doing that in doing what they do. Philosophy seeks a more synoptic understanding than science does. But, it seems to me, in contrast, it is not just the goal of the enterprise of philosophy to seek a synoptic understanding of ourselves and our world and our relation to it and to each other, but of each one of us as philosophers. It is part of the impulse to engage in philosophical reflection to seek that kind of synoptic understanding. It was certainly the impulse I followed. When we become professional philosophers, when we become, in a word, specialists, we bind ourselves to a discipline that prevents us from (or threatens to frustrate us in) pursuing what it was that got us into philosophy in the first place (or got me into philosophy in the first place). So this is the first tension, the first aspect of what I called a paradox, in being a professional philosopher. Our professional energies are directed into a relatively small range of problems or areas. But our—if I can put it like this—professional aspirations cannot but be frustrated by this. (There are people who defy this pressure, of course, but it is a pressure nonetheless.)
I turn now to a different product of professionalization in philosophy, which also seems to me to pull against how we think about the role of philosophy in our lives as philosophers. It is connected with the first point and I will come back to that in a moment.
Another teacher of mine, when I was still newer to philosophy, told me that professional philosophers by and large compartmentalized their professional and private lives. It struck me as strange at the time, for there was then no line in my life on the other side of which there was something besides the things I was interested in understanding. Even now, I must say, there is not a lot on the other side of that line. But I have a vastly improved understanding of the force of that remark nonetheless.
Professionalization encourages a certain kind of compartmentalization of one’s philosophical life from one’s life in general. I don’t say this happens for everyone, but I think the pressure is there for everyone who comes to philosophy with something like the ideal of philosophy that informed the philosophers of ancient Greece. If we think of becoming a philosopher as adopting a way of life, not just a profession, then to become a professional philosopher is to that extent to turn away from being a philosopher, and our becoming professional philosophers turns us away from thinking about philosophy as a way of life. A profession is not a way of life—not anymore, at any rate—it is a way of earning a living.
What do I mean in talking about becoming a philosopher being a matter of adopting a way of life? This is connected with what I think of as philosophy’s aim for synoptic understanding. Unlike other academic fields, philosophy is not characterized by a subject matter that limits its concerns, but by a concern for foundations in every field of inquiry and every category of human activity, and by a concern for their interconnections. The synoptic understanding we seek includes an understanding of ourselves and our lives, our relations to others, and to the social, economic and political institutions within which we live our lives. If we think of the philosopher as someone who seeks this synoptic understanding, then part of what is involved in becoming a philosopher involves a concern to extend one’s examination of things to one’s life as a whole. One’s life, and the way one lives it, then, must be informed by this examination. I do not know whether the unexamined life is not worth living, but we might say that it is not the life of a philosopher. One of the things we surely seek, in the journey from dark to dark, in the arc of a life, is what its proper shape should be, and so philosophy if pursued thoroughly must have a practical dimension.
In Book X of the Republic (which tells us to our delight that we are most like the divine when we pursue philosophy—no wonder we assign it to our students), Plato has Socrates telling the story of “a brave Pamphylian man called Er, the son of Armenias” (614b), who journeys to the world of the dead and returns. He tells the story of the souls in Hades being recycled from death to life, given a choice by the Fates of what lives they will lead:
Here is the message of Lachesis, the maiden daughter of necessity: ‘Ephemeral souls, this is the beginning of another cycle that will end in death. Your daimon or guardian spirit will not be assigned to you by lot; you will choose him. The one who has the first lot will be the first to choose a life to which he will then be bound by necessity. Virtue knows no master; each will possess it to a greater or less degree, depending on whether he values or disdains it. The responsibility lies with the one who makes the choice; the god has none. . . . The models of the lives were placed on the ground before them. There were far more of them than there were souls present, and they were of all kinds . . . There were tyrannies among them . . . There were lives offamous men, some . . . for . . . beauty . . . others for strength . . . others still for their high birth and the virtue or excellence of their ancestors. And there were also lives of men who weren’t famous for any of these things. And the same for lives of women. But the arrangement of the soul was not included in the model because the soul is inevitably altered by the different lives it chooses. But all the other things were there, mixed with each other and with wealth, poverty, sickness, health, and the states intermediate to them. (617-618)
This (original) “original position” of the soul, of course, is a fiction: we choose our lives, so to speak, while living them, our souls already altered by the lives we have led. But it is a powerful image. It encourages us to adopt a perspective on our lives that treats them as objects to be judged as wholes, and to seek a kind of order in and understanding of them akin to that we seek elsewhere, and to attach to it our aspirations for our lives. Socrates remarks:
[I]t seems that it is here . . . that a human being faces the greatest danger of all. And because of this, each of us must neglect all other subjects and be most concerned to seek out and learn those that will enable him to distinguish the good life from the bad and always to make the best choice possible in every situation. He should think over all the things we have mentioned and how they jointly and severally determine what the virtuous life is like. That way he will know what the good and bad effects of beauty are when it is mixed with wealth, poverty, and a particular state of the soul. He will know the effects of high or low birth, private life or ruling office, physical strength or weakness, ease or difficulty in learning, and all the things that are either naturally part of the soul or are acquired, and he will know what they achieve when mixed with one another. (618-619)
The specialization attendant upon professionalization in philosophy, without which one cannot do philosophy seriously—for despite its detractors, philosophy has made enormous progress in the last 2600 years—means that few of us can really be professional philosophical polymaths. We tend to restrict at least our professional philosophical attention to a field or area or figure. This restriction of our professional efforts, of the greatest concentration we bring to bear on philosophical problems, alters our approach to philosophy, and compartmentalizes our thinking outside our professional lives as well. Philosophy becomes a mere profession for us and fails to inform our lives—it fails to have that practical import for us which falls out of its goal of synoptic understanding; we fail to examine our lives in examining the questions of our professional interest.
This is not a philosophical thesis. It is a psychological thesis. And I do not say that there are not exceptions. But given that we are creatures of finite resources, of finite time and energy, of finite intellect, and given the encouragement of the institutional arrangements we choose to live within to pursue philosophy, it takes a kind of constant effort not to find that our lives have been left out of our philosophy. The danger of leaving one’s life out of one’s philosophy threatens, I think, even those among us whose professional interests lie in questions about value, character, and ethical and political life, where we might think the barriers are easier to cross. Would it not be an irony if, in considering the models of lives available for us, we chose the life of the professional philosopher only to find that it leads more often than not away from that synoptic understanding which was our motivation in choosing it?
I said at the outset that I would not try to answer the question that I would raise. You may be wondering what exactly the question is. I said it was a practical question. The question is simple. It is this: How can we retain our allegiance to philosophy while being professional philosophers? It sounds odd, stated in that way, but I hope to have at least indicated why I think there is a kind of special problem about it that is worth reflection.
I don’t have an answer to it. I think it is the sort of question the possibility of an answer to which is best exemplified by examples of lives that are successful responses to the problem it raises. I doubt my own life has been like that though. And, disappointingly, like all practical questions, it shows a certain imperviousness to philosophical reflection, so that where we would most like to apply philosophy it is most likely to fail us.
Since one must end somewhere before a topic (and one’s audience) is exhausted, I will end here. And that is enough, in any case, for one evening. Let me end on an optimistic note, following the precedent set by last year’s president and setting the stage for the next:
Long enough your attention I have held
With relief I pass the torch to Schönfeld.