300px-CuiVil3_2p204Whenever I search for Introduction to Philosophy textbooks I find myself distressed by what I find.  The norm– though there are exceptions –is anthologies where selections by various philosophers are two to four page texts, divorced from the broader work in which they occur.  Meno gets reduced to the sequence of argument where Plato attempts to demonstrate that knowledge is recollection.  Hume gets reduced to section II of the Enquiry, where he presents his arguments for the thesis that all knowledge arises from impressions, or to a brief portion of section IV where he critiques the concept of causality.  The thesis seems to be that the rest is unimportant, that why these arguments are deployed in a broader work is unimportant.  At this point I’m so frustrated with these anthologies– both their price and their content –that I don’t even assign textbooks in my Intro courses but instead find works online for my students.

I can’t escape the feeling that this practice reflects a deeply disturbing, wrong-headed, and destructive “philosophy of philosophy”; though I have difficulty articulating just what’s wrong here.  Works of philosophy, I think, form organic wholes.  Arguments about ethics refer back to metaphysical commitments.  We can’t really understand Aristotle’s conception of the good life without understanding his physics.  We can’t really understand Plato’s conception of the good life, without understanding his metaphysics and conception of human nature.  Metaphysical and epistemological reflections are often political interventions in the time.  It’s difficult to understand Descartes’s Meditations and why they’re important without understanding Post-Reformation Europe, the scientific revolution, and the wars waging during that time.  Similarly for Spinoza’s Ethics.  We speak as if we can set Kant and Aristotle side by side and decide between their ethical claims without knowing anything of how they conceived the being of rational beings; as if philosophy is a menu to be chosen from.  A great philosophical work is like a musical score where various notes are layered upon one another, creating the piece.  This practice of subtracting the isolated argument from the broader context of the work and its social setting is akin to drawing a single note out of Mozart and saying that that’s what his music really is.  Every argument is abstracted from its project, from the problems that animate the thought, and treated as if they can abstractly be set alongside one another.  “Here’s what Hume has to say about sense-data and here’s what Quine has to say!  Now decide between them!  Never mind all of that other stuff going on in the Treatise, it’s just chaff!”  It would never occur to people who conceive philosophy in this way to wonder whether or not Leibniz’s theory of compossibility, perspective, and truth was related to his work as a diplomat.  I have heard colleagues say that what defines philosophy is the presence of arguments.  A great weariness and sadness overtakes me with this; not because argument isn’t important in philosophy, but because this is such a reductive thesis that erases so much and that creates such tiresome types.

The idea of a philosophy as a project is entirely lost, and we get something like a deeply superficial fast food philosophy.  I can just imagine what sort of students such a curriculum would produce:  students that only know how to argue and that believe that argument constitutes the core and essence of philosophy, that delight in picking apart and nothing more.  Spinoza becomes nothing more than a set of arguments to be critically scrutinized and any sense that his work is a sort of therapy and a politics is entirely lost.  Such a vision of philosophy becomes the commodification of philosophy.  What is lost is the sense of philosophy:  of why someone is occupied with these arguments and issues at all, of the problems that led to the mobilization of these arguments and concepts.  Instead we approach these works in the most superficial way possible– “Who’s right about innate ideas?  Hume or Descartes!” –when we should instead be wondering why people argued so ferociously over what appears to be such an arid topic.