Frodeman and Briggle’s Socrates Untenured: Problems Going Forward?

I will not rehearse the argument. In fact, I’ve made the same argument in a different way here. If you read pragmatic philosophers, then you’ve heard the story ten times over. Following Dewey’s 1917 “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy,” Frodeman and Briggle (I will cite Frodeman after this exclusively as shorthand) insist that philosophers take stock of their own activities within disciplinary philosophy and generate discussion about how philosophy should be relevant to those concerns larger than some problems perpetuate within philosophy.

In the end, he posits two models. Model 1 is disciplinary philosophy, the type of philosophy that I write to other philosophers, and then they read and comment on it (if you’re lucky), and model 2 consists of philosophizing for all people, not just writing to reach other philosophers. The articles I have published and am publishing on Scheler are not for the larger world. They’re written for philosophers who have the same concerns. With outreach, philosophy can partly recover itself, show its relevance to a larger public, and a host of benefits will flow from model 2. We should practice both models, but open and expand them wider such that model 1 and 2 interact more.

What Frodeman forgets, or perhaps secretly hopes in the breast of his own heart, is that philosophical engagement with the larger culture must recognize philosophy first. Philosophy must already be valuable in order to reach a wider public. Now, this outreach is not a problem if we are doctorates already in love with philosophy, French, and a Germans from a century ago. Scheler’s Human Place in the Cosmos was a 3 hour lecture delivered in Darstadt, Germany. Can you imagine, sitting, and listening to Scheler for that length of time and wanting to? I cannot. It’s one of my favorite texts, but the readability of the text in either English or German is not that great. Aesthetically, it’s not Maya Angelou or Ursula K. Le Guin. Far from it.

Model 2 can only succeed in a world in which we philosophers fight tooth and nail to get recognition, but that recognition will always come at a price of a public disconnected from the cultural heritage philosophy transmits. We are severely at a loss to find philosophy relevant since the larger public doesn’t know what philosophy is. In many ways, this puts North American philosophers at a disadvantage to the point that we cannot just call for a new recovery of philosophy without first demanding philosophers attempt to teach others what philosophy is. Already, the most famous North American philosophers are ones that are first famous amongst philosophers, the academics, and then the larger world.

So what am I saying, if not just repeating what Frodeman already knows, but fails to say. His essay is written to philosophers. However, I am saying to other philosophers that we must come together anytime philosophy is threatened with retrenchment. Anytime philosophy is put under the knife we must all be there, yet that’s not enough. We must also be dedicated to getting philosophy in high schools—very much like France. We must be dedicated to getting philosophers out in public, writing letters to newspapers, composing videos on youtube, blogging, writing op-eds to newspapers, and finding venues other than academic ones to share our ideas with the public. In the end, there will always be philosophy of some type or another. Even in the post-apocalyptic world, people will still wonder (thaumazein), and as wonder is the basis for all philosophy, philosophical discussion will never go away. The point is to show how invaluable it is as a cultural good, and there’s clearly no correct way to do that. Ultimately, Frodeman’s suggestions will ring on deaf ears until philosophers figure out how to do this collectively.

Without knowing how, I do think that if we can educate the public about what philosophy is. If we following the pluralistic emphasis of William James, we may cast our net wide such that our own biases and policing of philosophy doesn’t infect the public imagination. For James, philosophy:

sees the familiar as it were strange, and the strange as if it were familiar. It can take things up and lay them down again. its mind is full of air tat plays around with every subject. It rouses us from our native dogmatic slumber and brakes up our caked prejudices. Historically, it has always been a sort of fecundations of four different human interests, science, poetry, religion, and logic. It has sought by hard reasoning for results emotionally valuable. To have some contact with it, to catch its influence, is thus good for both literary and scientific students.

What Frodeman and Briggle have asked is how to transform people’s current attitudes that James spoke about in Some Problems in Philosophy with which the quote above appears.

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In asking that people be so transformed, we want people to find the familiar strange. Finding the familiar strange means openly questioning what should not be questioned, and perhaps contemplating the strange and seeing how such an idea might become familiar is openly questioning in the opposite direction. For instance, some philosophy friends of mine have asked the question if uncritical and undue privileging of military service really is the best way we can be patriotic. Such undue praise may have consequences for our politics that remain unthought, and so the philosopher may ask questions she wants us to consider about the virtues that really should make up patriotism.

Philosophy pulls us out of the dark, and in so doing, I want to suggest one concrete suggestion about teaching. I tend to think that philosophy teaches the skills to which the Western university took its name “university.” The university makes the universe available, and in doing so, the universe is revealed through many different fragmented disciplines. The problem is that these disciplines are not talking to the other, and in previous centuries, e.g. the 13th century, there was overall conceptual agreement. Understanding wasn’t fragmented. What if in teaching the public the subject of philosophy, we ask those attending university to synthesize it for themselves or better yet, we find that philosophy departments engage in interdisciplinary teaching with the other departments on campus. Who else but the trained philosopher to use his/her imagination and bring the disparate results of those disciplines to train and hone the fragmented experience of students and bring those insights into dialogue with each other? As such, philosophical outreach can consist of active synthesis from the undergraduate’s point of view. Rather than thinking of teaching philosophy as fulfilling service teaching to the liberal arts requirements, philosophers can host senior level classes along central themes that bring together at least three disciplines (but why stop with just three?). These classes would be taught at the end, rather than “along the way” service requirements. Such a course can be co-taught with members of the other faculty, but the point is “to bring it all together.” As such, the purpose of the course is to find coherence amongst all the sciences, social sciences, and humanities.

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