On Fish’s ‘Does Philosophy Matter?’ Answer: No…and yes

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.

10 thoughts on “On Fish’s ‘Does Philosophy Matter?’ Answer: No…and yes

  1. that’s a pretty nice formula (‘living-…’). is it yours or repurposed from elsewhere? (the construction has a heideggerian tone.)

  2. Good ear. So far as I know the formula is mine. (Hopefully you’re referring to Heidegger in German, not to the unwieldy English translations…)

    The inspirations: Pierre Hadot (esp. What is Ancient Philosophy?) and Montaigne (especially, and most basically, his understanding of the essay). I’ve been using this live-out language since I wrote this: http://newpublicthinkers.org/?p=41

  3. you add a category compared to hadot’s usual tripartite scheme (in a good way), but i was probably just put in mind of heidegger because of the single-verb-articulated-adverbially-and-propositionally-in-multiple-ways. i suppose ‘living-out’ is especially potent: you get a hint of hexis, a sense of ‘in life as opposed to merely notionally’, a sense of action before the eyes of others…

    i’ve only read a bit of heidegger in german (no occasion to since i picked up enough german), but this year i looked at the new revision of stambaugh’s ‘BT’ and did a bit of comparison, and the heideggerization of english they’ve attained, with a decent amount of clarity and naturalness (with intended unnaturalness) really is something.

    on fish, i do think he realizes that philosophy used to be more, but as usual he writes offensively and is trying to force his critics to take issue with the claim that philosophy at present is little more than a game. i would suspect that he does it because he knows how poorly most academic philosophers are likely to acquit themselves if they take up that argument.

  4. Wow, very cogent comments on all fronts: about Hadot, Heidegger, and Fish.

    One thing about Hadot has always saddened me. If he’d lived during the early 21st C., he wouldn’t have been a University Man. It’s hard to imagine that his philosophy could *realize itself* under those material and sociological conditions. In saying this, though, I can’t help but rebut myself, “Oh, but the times were different then. And i was only natural to those coming of age after WWII and after May 68 to embrace the university.” Even so, it’s a pity: to have written so adroitly and to have thought so seriously about the philosophical life and then to have failed to live accordingly…

  5. i guess i knew vaguely about hadot’s religious background, but i didn’t really appreciate, until i read that recent book of interviews (put out by stanford), how much shelter his intellectual life enjoyed. it seems that, being employed by church educational institutions and monastic orders, he was not much pressured to produce or to be relevant to the day or work on something ‘important’ (in the contemporary, elite-driven sense). ‘i spent twelve years working on a commentator on plotinus’—good lord.

    but i don’t know about failure. i think he also mentions repeatedly in that book that he has more of a withdrawn, contemplative disposition, and that he sees his life as somehow apportioned to it even though one might expect him to be dashing around, living and philosophizing and stuff. he makes his scholarly success, career-wise, out to have been mostly accidental, so at least he wasn’t overly ruined by the institutions that sheltered his living.

  6. no, i hadn’t, thank you.

    i feel about him somewhat like i feel about stanley cavell’s decision to be an academic (instead of, like he says in a preface, abandoning philosophy for another field, or ‘a field’), that there is something to take issue with in it but that i am satisfied with the idea that the academy is a place that would be bettered by the kind of example one could set by working as part of it—it’s not as if everyone has to be clearly on one side or the other, old guard or nomadic outsider. and in hadot’s case, because he seems more… classical, i’m willing to countenance even more of an inclination to un-worldliness, sequestering. it fits with the historical fact of the vision of philosophy having a classical heritage, i guess—a heritage that makes it hard to conceive of the vision as entirely floating free from our weightier cultural institutions, places to learn greek, etc.

    in contrast i find cavell slightly more of a source of frustration, personally, because i have a strong inclination to require wittgensteinians to make a sharp break with the academy (even though almost none seem to), and as singular as cavell’s own work is, its relationship of dependency (with, admittedly, aversion) to academia is pretty complex. on the other hand, when i read a book as furious and essential as his ‘walden’ book, then consider your run-of-the-mill thoreau scholar, writing journal articles and ensconced in a cozy teaching position instead of doing whatever twenty-first centry thoreauvians might do, i feel warmer toward cavell.

    1. I’m thoroughly enjoying this. Thank you. Mind if I edit our exchange a bit and post it as a dialogue on my website on Monday? I’ll try to contextualize a few things and add some stuff, where applicable. If that works for you, then maybe include a short bio that I can post at the top of the blog. To include the bio, go to my contact page which sends inquiries to my email.

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