Thinking philosophically.

Author:Hewitt, Randy

I am a philosopher of education by training. While well warned by my mentors of the hazards inherent to my trade, I still have been stunned by the magnitude of the loneliness engendered, at least in part, by the disrepute that my trade has acquired. It has taken me only a short time at my academic post to recognize that philosophy is not regarded favorably by many people across the university. Some simply do not have even a vague idea what philosophy is about in the first place, that is, in terms of its subject matter or in terms of the activities that make up its practice. In some academic circles (as well as within my own college of education) the very word "philosophy" itself often invites sneers and open hostility. I recently participated in an informal discussion in which academics from the social sciences were attempting to understand what George Herbert Mead meant by the socio-physiological foundations of society. I suggested that one way to understand Mead is to clarify the philosophical problems that he was trying to solve. After a collective shift and sigh, one of the sociologists in attendance reminded me that Mead was concerned with social psychology and not with philosophy. Furthermore, the sociologists continued, while every study requires a certain regard for the meaning of operational terms, it does not follow that a special group (he meant philosophers) is needed to complete the task.

The suspicion that philosophy is fraudulent extends beyond academic circles and permeates other realms of everyday life as well. While surfing with acquaintances one Wednesday morning, I was asked what I did for a living that allowed me to surf in the middle of a work week. Somewhat hesitant and reserved, I explained that I was a philosopher of education. Someone in the group then asked, "What does one do as a philosopher?" To be brief about the matter, I suggested that philosophers aim to think through problematic experiences as clearly and as thoroughly as possible. The answer that I gave, however, wasn't good enough. Someone else in the group pointed out that clear and thorough thought is part of every activity, including surfing, and that philosophers--and the public--would be better off surfing for a living instead of wasting taxpayers' money.

While I understand that these puzzled and negative sentiments are not new to the history of philosophy, they were abstract and disembodied to me until recently. Therefore, a task is before me. If I seriously plan on being a professional philosopher, I had better find a working answer to the questions entailed in my experiences with this negative attitude toward my craft. What exactly is philosophic thinking and how is it to be distinguished from any other mode of human thinking?

In After Virtue, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre defines a practice as "any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that the human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended." (1) MacIntyre's notion of practice here rests upon the ontological assumption that human beings come into a world that already is structured in relations of shared meaning and purpose to be carried out. This carrying out of shared purpose is a habit--or practice--that structures human behavior with collective rules or standards for achieving goods purposively aimed for. In the practice of surfing, for instance, the perfect spiritual and physical balance between the fragile human being and the omnipotent sea stands as one of the fundamental goods to be achieved. If one is to avoid the imminent dangers lurking about the sea, however, and to begin realizing this fundamental good, he first must learn a few things: rotating his hands in a paddling motion and transferring his weight upon his board are essential techniques to planing successfully across the water; yielding the right of way to the individual engaged in the deepest part of the wave reduces physical and social tension; and respecting the moods of the indifferent sea and its creatures cultivates an organic bond necessary for spiritual elevation. In other words, the novice surfer can start to see surfing as a meaningful metaphor for further life-experience only when he assumes and transforms the shared purposes and handed-down rules that define the practice.

As a human practice similar to surfing, philosophy too has its own special purposes and goods to be achieved, its own method for achieving these goods, and its own standards of excellence. If philosophy can be seen as clear and simple thought, and since every human practice demands such thought as a necessary part of its activity, how then is the practice of philosophy to be distinguished from any other everyday human practice? In order to understand exactly what philosophical examination entails, it is necessary to work out philosophizing as an intellectual practice that is different from other everyday human practices.

In How Philosophy Uses Its Past, John Randall points out that "philosophy has been, and ultimately remains, a social enterprise, as well as--indeed, men being the social creatures they are, before it can become--a private and personal way of accepting the universe and coming to terms with the conditions of human life. And as a social and...

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