Philip Carey, the protagonist of Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, is deeply confused. On the one hand, he has rejected revealed religion and thus does not believe in God. On the one hand, his moral principles uncannily resemble those found in Christianity. On his list of virtues are charity, compassion, humility, and love. It occurs to him that rejecting some grand theory may have no bearing on one’s conduct in life. This is why we can say that unbelieving Catholics and non-practicing Jews remain Catholics and Jews, respectively. They observe, yet they do not believe. Still they are.
The conclusion that theory and practice are two separate activities would seem to entail the further result that philosophical disputes have lots of bark but very little bite. We get involved in philosophical debates and conceptual entanglements, may even sort through the morass, and yet, for all that, we are likely to come out unchanged in our everyday practices. It may be, we think, all sound and fury signifying nothing.
This is effectively what Stanley Fish has been arguing for years. In Does Philosophy Matter?,” a short Opinionator blog at The New York Times, the chorus line hasn’t changed a whole lot. Fish confides,
philosophy is not the name of, or the site of, thought generally; it is a special, insular form of thought and its propositions have weight and value only in the precincts of its game. Points are awarded in that game to the player who has the best argument going (“best” is a disciplinary judgment) for moral relativism or its opposite or some other position considered “major.” When it’s not the game of philosophy that is being played, but some other — energy policy, trade policy, debt reduction, military strategy, domestic life — grand philosophical theses like “there are no moral absolutes” or “yes there are” will at best be rhetorical flourishes; they will not be genuine currency or do any decisive work. Believing or disbelieving in moral absolutes is a philosophical position, not a recipe for living.
In short, the conclusions reached in philosophical disquisitions do not travel. They do not travel into contexts that are not explicitly philosophical (as seminars, academic journals, and conferences are), and they do not even make their way into the non-philosophical lives of those who hold them. The fact that you might give one set of answers rather than another to standard philosophical questions will say nothing about how you will behave when something other than a point of philosophy is in dispute.
My title in this post expresses my partial agreement and partial disagreement with Fish. The agreement comes easily: all one has to do is to go back into his piece and carrot in the qualifier “professional” before every instance of philosophy. One example: “When it’s not the game of PROFESSIONAL philosophy that is being played…” For as my philosophical mentor Pierre Hadot has convincingly shown, since the 18th C. and perhaps as early as medieval scholasticism philosophy was reduced to thinking about and in terms of theories and systems. With the emergence of the modern university, the philosophical curriculum increasingly consisted of courses on metaphysics (theory of reality), epistemology (theory of knowledge), moral theory, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language… so that a student who bethought himself quite clever and who asserted in the classroom that free will was an illusion nevertheless felt the burden of choosing when it came time to figure out what he was going to do with his life.
Like his professional philosophical interlocutors, Fish does not seem to grasp that philosophy was much more than this; it was once a way of life. For the ancients, logic was the living-out of right thinking, metaphysics the living-within the natural world, politics the living-alongside others, ethics the living-out of virtues… Epicureans, Aristotelians, Stoics, Platonists, Cynics: all built competing schools with the aim of making philosophy an art of living, an art to be practiced, reflected upon, honored, and refined.
In the early 21st C., philosophy as a way of life is slowly returning. Philosophy does travel–or, rather, philosophy is always with us. Amid these unsettled times, we yearn for philosophy as a lived practice and as a form of reflection.