Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Humility and Grace

A friend once told me that she did philosophy because it cultivates the virtues of humility and grace. I hope this is true.

Today was a strange experience for me, perhaps a crux in my education. Two of the most brilliant scholars and interesting people I know sat with me at a table and raised pressing questions about the various books I elected to read on account of their timelessness and renown. Seeking to elicit more than a general knowledge of the texts, they led me up to the crossroads where authors and characters and ideas and eras meet and asked me to describe the ground upon which we were standing... the terrain from Thomas Aquinas to Thomas a Kempis, the birthplace of Medea and the distance between Euripedes' account of feminism and the feminist culture of today, the characteristics of the middle ground on which Ovid and Chaucer stand... I'm still hacking my way through the brush on whether or not Chesterton's critique of the suicide of thought is fair to Nietzsche.

My habits of mind still lack rigor and vibrancy and capacity to ignite light bulbs between thoughts. I left the room feeling like a kindergarten graduate in a world full of highschoolers. I am so grateful to have their company and for their willingness to prod me along until I learn to walk at their speed. My education has only just begun.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Why We Are Philosophers

I'm hesitant to post this for fear of sounding like a starry-eyed undergrad or a pedantic moralizer who thinks there are still remnants of human telos to be arrived at. But from a recent conversation with a friend who's also shaking in her boots about graduate school, I have hope that I am not alone here... so, here goes:

I was recently startled when I heard the criteria which graduate schools in Philosophy are now in the habit of using to select their students. In fact, if I had walked into the room five minutes in to one of these conversations and perhaps been confused of my whereabouts, the items on this list of criteria would have assured me that I had accidentally walked into the University's business school.

Not to be nitpicky or idealistic or na├»ve, but Philosophy must be wary of functioning like an ordinary trade. To hear Philosophers talk of “marketability” and “tenure-track jobs” with such gravity raises the army of hairs on my skin (I’m talking here about non-utilitarian and non-consequentialist philosophers). Of course, the Philosopher should not be wise in some ethereal sense and a complete buffoon on the streets; but to have spent one’s entire life searching for “wisdom,” and come out living as ordinarily as one’s neighbor with a bachelor’s in entrepreneurship smells fishy—and that rotten scent stirs up serious doubt in me concerning the current real work being done in Philosophy.

Now from the inside, or at least the 7th or 8th concentric circle from the core, I am confident that good work is taking place in Philosophy. The last three Philosophers I recently heard giving lectures all acknowledged that they spent years of study in another trade before realizing that their heads were always in books of another sort, that is to say, substantive books that answer questions better than anyone in their laboratories or factories ever could. That says to me first, that some Philosophers are writing work of import for real human life, second, that a good handful of current Philosophers stepped on the path with a genuine motive to pursue wisdom, and third, that they’ve found the practice of Philosophy worth sharing with both the contemporary public and future generations. These are three evidences that we have grounds for hope.

I return, though, to my critique. Once upon a time, (and this part matters only so long as you are not a presentist or physicalist), we fell in love with learning. Looking back as the sophisticated minds with which we are now identical, we may not describe it that way, but at some point we clearly all took the road untraveled by our peers and locked ourselves in our rooms and read or wrote or researched for hours. Maybe it was an entirely intellectual falling-in-love, reflectively endorsed by reason at each step; perhaps it was a perpetual parched feeling in the throat of the mind; or a subconscious “why” that no one weeded out of your two-year-old self, naturally and gallingly curious. At any rate, somewhere we all committed to this vague concept of a quest to “figure things out,” instead of making millions—because if there is any logician in you, and I assume there is, you know that you could drop the beleaguered life of the mind and channel your genius to get rich quick. And furthermore, we probably fell in love with some philosopher, reading his or her book late into the night, falling asleep with it in arms rather than letting it go to the bedside table like all the rest.

The way one was drawn down the path of philosophical inquiry was by some teacher—be it daimon or author or roommate or professor. And Socrates, on the other side of that, chose the pupils which he dragged along his dialogue; instead of a premed weed-out class, he perhaps carefully watched to see who made it through the entire argument about pastry-baking. And Plato chose Aristotle and Bentham chose Mill and Rawls chose Korsgaard, and so on. My professors continually encourage me to find a Philosopher in particular under whom I’d like to work; but why are schools not taking this into primary order consideration? The admissions committees which appear to be looking for product-producing, prolific students over those whom they wish to bring up in the field are comprised of Philosophers—the ones (again, utilitarians, please pay no attention here) who should be taking very seriously to whom they want to hand the baton.

I recognize that this is a new age, that Philosophy is not what it was fifty years ago, much less two thousand years ago. But I appeal to the Philosopher in each of us that fell in love with doing what we do, and ask that we consider that the nature of our field is such that it should differ from (dare I say supersede) all other branches of education, because we are the truth-seekers, we are the culture shapers and the culture analysts, we are the miners sweaty and grimy from digging through the rubble and the archeologists trying to piece back together a fragmented history and a confused picture of humanity. So let us create, rather than conform to, the culture of our day; perhaps evaluate its capitalistic drive before altogether acting as though we are capitalists, and hearken back to why we are Philosophers.

Friday, September 25, 2009

David Solomon 9-25-09

Dr. David Solomon, director of the center for ethics at the University of Notre Dame, came to Baylor and delivered a lecture on "The Moral Troubles of Medicine" which both enlightened and disturbed me.

Enlightened, because his analysis of contemporary medicine illuminated some roots of key ethical dilemmas we're facing today, such as "when does life begin and end?" and "what is the appropriate role of the doctor in a doctor-patient relationship?" Solomon pointed out that with the leaps and bounds medicine took in the 20th century, our association of health with the good life rocketed through the roof-- other values we thought necessary for the good life were "grabbed up" by medicine. Solomon, taking us back to the "old days," reminded us of the time when the kids who sat in the back of the class and use their pencils and paper as airborne weapons to launch at their fellow students used to be smacked with a paddle. Now we diagnose them with attention defecit and send them to the nurse for drugs. The anecdote is laughable, but all too true.

This week, Nietzsche seems to be following me around everywhere I go! Surely when he proposed health and sickness as new standards of value he did not intend to limit this to physical health. But when scientific breakthroughs offer medical solutions to human problems as basic as depression, behavioral issues, when we have labeled the alcoholic as "diseased," it's clear that health has trumped the other values on our "wanted" list. We've jumped at the chance to secure the good life for ourselves by means of surefire, empirically tested methods.

But this puts an enormous amount of pressure on doctors; the doctor-patient relationship is continually corroded by the lopsided moral dependency of the patient on the diagnoser. Doctors, Solomon says, have taken the place of religious figures in our personal lives; we expect them not only to prescribe us with the right meds but to tell us whether we should take them or not. (Hello, moral ought. Welcome to Hillcrest Medical Hospital. Dr. Jones will be taking care of you today.)

Doctors, in turn, are fleeing this weighty responsibility, one which they have in no way been trained to carry. Med school classes don't make sure every obstetrician reads Peter Singer on the status of a fetus before she graduates. My friend's mom's oncologist did not want to make the call on whether after two years of chemotherapy beating up her body and producing few desired results, she should try a new drug or accept that her time had come.

This affects liberal democracy (or perhaps liberal democracy affects it), argues Solomon, because we are committed to the "membership" property. All members of our society have unalienable rights to happiness and unquestionable dignity; so who's in and who's out? Once we start questioning who merits membership, we all feel threatened; if the elderly lady down the street is "useless" and a "burden" on society (utilitarians and consequentialists ike Peter Singer and Michael Tooley are actually claiming this, not a joke...), then at what age will I be like her and be thrown out of the club? The prestige of medicine, says Solomon, can lead us t other confusions of value. The strong man trumps the weak. The net product of a country of healthy citizens is greater than the net value of a country with large populations of elderly, indigents, babies...Nietzsche, meet capitalism.

Solomon argues that we need an arena for all members of the community to come together and have meaningful discussion on these basic ethical issues in place of lugging the sack of them into our doctors' offices and hospitals. What do we want? What do we need for human flourishing? Dr. Solomon suggests that the philosophy of psychology Anscombe called for to pave the way for a fresh look at ethics has been done in the last 50 years-- perhaps we are ready to start recovering moral philosophy.