Last night a good friend of mine asked me about the value of philosophy. It’s a good question and one I struggle with as well. Why do I do what I do? What is it all for? Does it have any value? Do my students benefit from the texts that we read, or are they the equivalent of books on tarot, such that these works are archaic forms of thought without any truth-value. Certainly it seems that philosophy often makes us more confused, more uncertain, than we were before we started. Where, to take an example at random, I might have begun by taking it for granted that it’s wrong to put your elbows on the table while eating, reflection on etiquette raises all sorts of disturbing questions. Why does this norm exist? Can I give an argument showing why we should follow this norm? “That’s the way mannered or gentile people do things?” That’s not the greatest argument because it’s an appeal to tradition which is an informal fallacy. “It’s a way of showing respect to others.” That’s a much better argument, as now etiquette is about proper care and regard for others. It is good to show and have regard for others.
Yet all sorts of questions emerge at this point, and this is where the path of philosophical reflection begins to disturb. Is etiquette a moral norm (and therefore a universal responsibility or obligation), or is it a custom? What is meant by “custom”? Custom, I suppose, are sets of norms and practices practiced by members of a particular community. Other communities have different sets of customs. Communities can be nationalities perhaps, ethnic and religious groups, classes, neighborhoods, etc. How, then, do I decide which customs to follow in order to show respect and proper regard for others? I should, I suppose, follow the customs, the etiquette, of whatever community I’m currently in. But that’s not what I began by saying prior to my reflections. I began by saying “I should not place my elbows on the table while eating.” Should is a strong word that implies a universal quantifier. Maybe “should”, in this context, is really an elliptical or abbreviated phrase, a sort of short-hand, that’s really saying “when in the community that has these customs, you should follow that norm so as to have proper regard for others.” Much better.
But that’s really not how we talk about table manners. We seem to hold that they’re stronger, more universal, than this. For if this is really all we meant (“when in this community…”), then we would acknowledge that the elbow/table-norm is specific to a particular community (one I suspect is closely related to economic class) and that another community– say, Boston South Side working class communities –might have another system of etiquette that involves hunching over your plate with your elbows on the table. Isn’t this how the ethnographer or anthropologist teaches us to think about these things? If that’s the case, when I follow the elbow/table-norm in the Boston community, I’m being rude. Yet again, people don’t talk about etiquette in that way. They don’t say that those are the norms of the Boston community, their way of showing respect for others. They tend to say that the people of that community lack manners.
Philosophical reflection on something seemingly as innocent as table-norms has now led me to a disturbing political question about the social function of etiquette. If I follow these rules of etiquette, am I just showing respect for others, or am I in fact participating in a system of privilege that reinforces a particular class system and functions as a symbolic sorting device defining those who are “people of quality” and people who allegedly are without quality? If that’s the case, then this etiquette seems ethically wrong. Maybe, then, I shouldn’t follow the elbow-norm because I shouldn’t reinforce class systems that arbitrarily sort people according to cultural markers that essentially have nothing to do with the worth and dignity of persons. Yet still, I can’t help but feeling that there’s something good and of value in forms of etiquette like the elbow-norm.
The preceding is a sort of weak transcendentalism. Kant’s transcendental philosophy asked “what are the conditions for the possibility of this or that type of judgment?” For example, what must our minds be like in order 1) for us to be capable of doing arithmetic, such that our knowledge is expanded when solving equations, and 2) for the results of this reasoning to apply to the structure of the world itself? Kant’s answer was that there had to be a priori cognitive structures that mold reality. I’m not suggesting anything that dramatic with my weak transcendentalism; though I might embrace elements of Kant. Rather, weak transcendentalism just interrogates and analyzes what is presupposed in our actions, seeking to discern what they logically entail and whether or not, when these presuppositions are brought to light, we would endorse them. However, my weak transcendental analysis of etiquette above made me more, not less confused. At the end of it, I found myself in a sort of schizoid state, simultaneously worrying that etiquette might be a way of reinforcing the privilege of one group over another and believing that it is good to show respect for others. Since propositional attitudes entail forms of action in the world, ways of doing things, my reflection now places me in a state where I’m unsure whether to follow norms of etiquette or not. Where I began by knowing– “we should not put our elbows on the table while eating” —I now no longer know. It seems that philosophy has worsened my condition rather than improved it. We can see why people often find philosophers irritating, claim that we overthink simple things, and generally have an allergic reaction to what we do. We problematize things and sometimes this problematization leaves us without resolution and convictions as to the nature of things and what we ought to do. “Just tell me your opinion!” “I’d like to, but I’m not at all sure what it is anymore” (and I concede that maybe this is simply an obsessional symptom of mine; my form of the Hamlet complex. It’s very difficult for me to take a firm position on things).
Perhaps problematization is just a form of obsessional neurosis; a figure of Hamlet and his indecision. I hope not. Or perhaps there are two types of problematization, that of the philosopher and the anti-philosopher. The problematization of the anti-philosopher or the skeptic consists in problematizing for the sake of problematizing. Everything is shown to be aporetic, irresolvable, without an answer. Often this form of problematization feels like someone is playing a game; though I think there’s a serious and commendable ethics behind this practice. The anti-philosopher will demonstrate that it’s really the moon in the sky, not the sun and in doing so show the futility of all knowledge claims. The philosopher, by contrast, problematizes for the sake of trying to get things right. The figure of Socrates simultaneously can be read as that of both the philosopher and anti-philosopher. When we read the Euthyphro and their discussion of piety, we can interpret Socrates’s relentless questioning as a way of poking fun at Euthyphro, of just demolishing his beliefs. Socrates could be seen as playing a sort of game. However, we can also read Socrates as being sincere. Euthyphro is about to turn his father in for murder. The weak transcendental ground for his action is his belief that this is his pious duty. Ethically, then, Euthyphro has a duty to make sure he’s right about piety because if he’s wrong or confused about piety and pursues this course of action, and if he argues persuasively enough at court, he risks wronging his father by ruining his reputation or even bringing about his death as punishment, or wronging the city of Athens by bringing about the wrath of the gods (recall Sophocles’s Oedipus trilogy and how violation of kinship norms brings down wrath). It’s incumbent on Euthyphro to figure out whether he’s right and that requires careful reflection, the work of definition, the analysis of whether claims are true and consistent. The happy outcome– and sadly it doesn’t come –would be a definition of piety that would function as a reliable rule of action for discerning pious duties. That would be valuable.
At heart, I suppose I’m a eudaimonist, though I’m not sure what eudaimonia (a flourishing or excellent life) would be. The old cliche has it that philosophy is a love of wisdom. I suspect wisdom consists in knowledge that allows one to make decisions and pursue courses of action conducive to a flourishing or excellent life, and consists in valuing the right things (rather than things that only appear to be valuable, like fools gold). I don’t know what either wisdom or eudaimonia truly are, but I think the work of philosophy consists in trying to figure these things out. When that question is posed, the various branches of philosophy open like the petals of a flower. Questions of ontology or metaphysics immediately present themselves because I can’t engage in wise action without knowing a thing or two about the nature of reality. If I believe in demonic possession, I will burn a person at the stake or try to cure their malady through exorcism (rather than some other means like therapy or medication). Questions of reality immediately raise questions of epistemology. What constitutes knowledge? Does knowledge exist at all? Where does it come from? Lurking behind epistemology are ethical and political questions. Is it only ethical to act when we do have knowledge? For example, if Euthyphro acts on his convictions about piety and those convictions are just opinions rather than genuine knowledge, is he wronging his father even if his action turns out to be right? Ethics also asks whether or not there are real norms (not just customs) that determine what we should do, and what, if anything is truly of value. Of course, if we are to achieve eudaimonia or flourishing, we must raise social and political questions alone; for we are not just isolated individuals, but are beings embedded in a world that includes others. That will affect our ability to flourish. These questions are both of an ontological and ethical nature. Ontologically we can ask what a society is, for we must know something of this in order to pursue wise action. Is a society just other people? Is it systems? Does it include animals and plants and microbes and rivers and mountains (I think so, but I’ll tell that story another day)? How should society be organized to maximize the possibility of flourishing (and what is flourishing anyway?)? We also find ourselves confronted with questions of human nature, for how we answer this question will impact our answer to the question of what is truly of value, as well as what is possible for us. Do we have a nature, or are we infinitely plastic and formable? Do we have freedom such that we can direct ourselves, or are we just machines that mistakenly believe we are self-directing? Are we rational (and what is rationality anyway?), or are we haunted by a core of ineradicable irrationality (the answer to that question has upsetting political consequences as to what sort of polis is possible)? Answering these questions, I think, gets us closer to flourishing and the creation of a flourishing world. It is also a way of being free and not simply an agent of beliefs we’ve absorbed from the culture around us. I believe this, regardless of how frustrating it can be and how much these questions and forms of inquiry sometimes lead us to greater perplexity, is of great value.