Toward New Virtues in Philosophy: A Reply to Derek Bowman, Bob Frodeman and Adam Briggle

SERRC —  March 30, 2016 — 2 Comments

Author Information: Robert Frodeman, University of North Texas, Robert.Frodeman@unt.edu; Adam Briggle, University of North Texas, Adam.Briggle@unt.edu

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-2P1

Please refer to:

Thanks to Derek Bowman for his thoughtful engagement. It’s said that any press is good press. We don’t know about that, but we’re pleased to see our argument continue to generate thought. That’s our main goal. Our largest claim, after all, was that academic philosophers have not thought enough about their institutional housing. 

We are, however, mystified by the nature of the criticisms we’re hearing. Perhaps our point is being taken for something more complicated that it actually is. We’re institutional pluralists: we are not suggesting that philosophers stop with what they have been doing. We’re simply claiming that other tasks (such as actually working with policy makers, on their timeline) should be added to our common remit. Similarly, we are not arguing that philosophy has had no effect, whether within or outside the academy, but that it can and should have much more.

It’s also odd that none of these commentaries/criticisms [please refer above] have taken up what we took to be our central point: that philosophy and the humanities are in deep trouble. The long knives are out; there are outside forces (e.g., the governing class) interested in defunding the humanities. We need some response to the neoliberal-tinged criticisms of philosophy. Telling outsiders about how much we’ve helped physicists or computer scientists isn’t going to cut it. If our alternative—field philosophy—is not your cup of tea, great; but we need to do more than simply recycle our old hits.

Another mystery: we keep being told that we got our history wrong. C’mon now; let’s not turn this into another increasingly recondite debate over scholarship. Whatever differences on scholarship we may have—more on this in a second—this is not fundamentally about someone being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. These are philosophical points and should be treated as such.

Not that we think we should ignore the scholarship. To dive into the scholarship for a moment: if people are going to claim that we do not have our facts straight they should offer a more nuanced account of the history of philosophy. And so to Bowman’s points: sure, Socrates avoids politics in the sense of elected office. We never disputed this. But his constant buttonholing of people in the marketplace speaks to his continuing engagement with public life. And his ambivalence concerning doing so is not a problem for our thesis, but rather highlights the rhetorical situatedness of any publically-oriented philosophy. As Strauss taught us, philosophizing in the public requires some rhetorical chops if we are to avoid Socrates’ fate.

As for Socrates’ rejection of being a teacher—it seems pretty clear to us that he was making this point in contrast to the claims to knowledge of the sophists. Clearly anyone who spends 10 books-worth of time in the Republic talking to young men counts as a teacher. Similarly, Socrates’ claims about knowing nothing have to be contextualized: as he makes clear in the Symposium he does claim to know things, and in fact to be an expert on the subject of eros. Moreover, at 202ff Socrates argues that the philosopher is the in-between—between the expert (aka the sophist) and the merely ignorant. This seems to us to be a pretty accurate account of the philosopher: we know our way around problems, and arguments, and how to ask questions, rather than being the possessors of positive knowledge. Let us leave that to the regional ontologists.

But enough of the back and forth on scholarship. We do not mean to prompt another round of scholarly criticism, some of which we have tried to anticipate in our forthcoming book Socrates Tenured. We only mean to suggest that easy dismissals are uncalled for.

Bowman ends his account with the claim that, if philosophers have become nook-dwelling specialists, then they don’t have anything distinctive to offer by way of engagement with the wider world. Yet the philosopher’s distinctive contribution to public issues comes largely from his or her immersion in the history of ideas. If a Heideggarian, say, were to poke his nose into a debate about wind farms, he could have a field day making all sorts of connections, unearthing assumptions, and seeing depths and angles that no one else is seeing.

True, the disciplinary model of philosophy does not encourage philosophers to poke their noses into such things. But, oh, what value they could bring if only they did! Philosophy has suffered a déformation professionnelle, and it will need new virtues to do the sort of work we imagine. Still, though, it’s not like philosophers have withered into appendices dangling limply at the cul de sac of our cultural intestines. It’s more like we’ve experienced a shipwreck and our treasure chests are lying at the bottom of the sea. It will take work to salvage them, but that gold still has value—even market value!

2 responses to Toward New Virtues in Philosophy: A Reply to Derek Bowman, Bob Frodeman and Adam Briggle

  1. 

    You write, “We are, however, mystified by the nature of the criticisms we’re hearing. …. We’re not suggesting that philosophers stop with what they have been doing. We’re simply claiming that other tasks (such as actually working with policy makers, on their timeline) should be added to our common remit. Similarly, we are not arguing that philosophy has had no effect, whether within or outside the academy….”

    And you write, “Another mystery: we keep being told that we got our history wrong. C’mon now; let’s not turn this into another increasingly recondite debate over scholarship.”

    Two responses:
    (1) There should be no mysteries here. Your interlocutors have quoted you pretty extensively saying exactly the things you’re now denying. If you’d like to revise the positions you laid out in your original article, that’s fine. But don’t pretend that your interlocutors are drawing criticisms out of thin air.

    (2) When your interlocutors point out problems in your arguments (or important historical inaccuracies, or…), you often fall back on a lets-not-get-caught-up-in-academic-disputes rhetorical device–as though the very act evaluating your argument’s strength is itself a demonstration of what’s wrong with academic philosophy. The problem is that evaluating arguments is *not* a philosophical fetish. Serious proposals in any field need critical evaluation. This goes double for the issues of public concern. To helpfully engage in public disputes, philosophers will need more commitment to argument, and to getting things right, than you are now demonstrating.

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  1. Rhetoric and Philosophy: Socrates and the Sophists, W. Derek Bowman « Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective - April 5, 2016

    […] Toward New Virtues in Philosophy: A Reply to Derek Bowman, Bob Frodeman and Adam Briggle […]

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