Some reflections on the Dyson NYRB review and on the place of philosophy in public life

The physicist Freeman Dyson has written a book review (“What Can You Really Know?,” NYRB) that, at least in professional philosophical circles, has proved to be controversial. Near the end of the review he asks, “[W]hy did philosophy lose its bite?” and attributes the answer, in large measure, to modern science’s recent usurpation of philosophy as well as to philosophy’s becoming an academic discipline. Following Pierre Hadot’s argument in What is Ancient Philosophy?, I have argued in “On the Need for Speculative Philosophy Today” (Cosmos and History) that the conception of philosophy as a way of life lost its hold first during the end of the medieval period and then during the rise of the modern research university.

In the email I wrote to Dyson I concluded, “Still, however we tell the story of philosophy’s decline, the need for philosophy as the activity in which a layperson’s life is brought into question is no less vital today than it was in Socrates’ time. In my philosophy practice, which is based in New York City, I seek to make this case (or so I humbly hope) through my lived example.”

In my experience, most professional philosophers living in the US and England are staked to the (very modern) picture of philosophy as a profession. In two phone conversations with Bob Frodeman and Keith Wayne Brown, both at the Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity (CSID) at the University of North Texas, the ‘disciplinization’ of philosophy was roundly criticized. Frodeman’s aim, as he writes in “Philosophy Dedisciplined” (Synthese), is to return philosophy to the field and to public life. Daniel Kaufman, a professor of philosophy of Missouri State University, would concur with Frodeman, remarking in his support of Dyson on the blog Leiter Reports that “Philosophy has not benefitted from becoming a professional, academic discipline. It has narrowed our focus, distracted us with needless technicality, and turned us, frankly, into a bunch of pedants. The style and substance of professional academic writing is one indication of this.”

This recent episode has brought me back to a short article that, to my mind, marks a historical turning point. It is the Harvard philosophy professor W.V.O. Quine’s article, “Has Philosophy Lost Contact with People?,” which was penned for Newsday in 1979. In this short piece (which was written as a reply to–or, rather, dismissal of–the Great Books popularizer Mortimer Adler), Quine means to show that scientific philosophy tracks the insights into the modern world revealed by natural science: that natural phenomena, those discovered and described by natural science, have become so complex that the words we use to describe such phenomena have become jargon-ridden by necessity; that formal logic since Frege has made for some dense but, in his view, rich philosophical prose; and that the profound interest in the workings of language has led to an important, albeit insular conversation about sense and reference. Has scientific philosophy lost contact with people? Quine implies without actually saying: “Well, yes, and rightly so.” It seems that in Quine’s picture there is no room for philosophy as a way of life.

Nowhere does he wonder whether this endeavor may be heading down the wrong path. Instead, he soberly concludes, “Philosophers in the professional sense have no peculiar fitness for it [namely, edification, public instruction, etc]. Neither have they any peculiar fitness for helping to get society on an even keel, though we should all do what we can. What just might fill these perpetually crying needs is wisdom: sophia yes, philosophia not necessarily.” What Quine fails to realize, though, is that there is a long tradition of “public philosophers” in the US in the twentieth century (and indeed centuries before then), a tradition that ends (according to the historian of American philosophy Bruce Kuklik) more or less just after WWII. Shouldn’t there be room in this picture for the figure of the philosopher who speaks with individuals regularly about subjects of ultimate importance, who seeks to bring life into question, who submits himself as well as others to philosophical inquiry?

Yesterday evening before the winds picked up, before the morning storm came, I read a private email about an uncle I barely know who is about to pass away. The son spoke, in relation to hospice care, about “getting the ball rolling,” and I was stunned–gadfly-like–into thinking that philosophy may find its reason for being when cliché loses its hold on speech.