“I think that the intellectual isolation of philosophers is a side effect of the nature of philosophy. When you teach someone to philosophize, so I believe, you are teaching them to engage in an activity worthwhile for itself, and one without a further aim beyond its own enrichment.”
Brent Vizeau: First off, thank you for taking the time to have this conversation. I want to begin by asking simply, where does philosophy begin? I will preface this by making clear that I don’t mean with Thales or the Greek Miracle. Rather, I mean to ask about the motivation for doing philosophy at all, and for taking the approach/perspective that you do? I want this to be able to go a number of ways, so I will suggest a few ideas to help hone in on the sort of place I think this question could go.
It is often thought that philosophy begins in “wonder” or curiosity. Simon Critchley argues that it begins in disappointment. It has been pointed out to me that Hegel thought that philosophers have “one great obsession” that colors their whole approach. Do you think that there is this kind of pre-philosophical element at the beginning of philosophy? If so, what gets you going? What is your experience of first moments/motivations?
Michael F: I think there is a pre-philosophical element at the beginning of philosophy, one that may happen to almost everyone, but which can be either encouraged or stifled. Whatever it is, it happens much more strongly to some people than to others. Curiosity and wonder are not the right terms to describe it. Curiosity can be sated by an explanation of the phenomenon in question (Q: What are clouds made of? A: Water vapour condensed around dust particles which then clump together). Wonder is a mute state of appreciation, an aesthetic attitude towards being more appropriate to a religious mystic or an artist than to a philosopher. Wonder, for me, has never brought with the question "Why?"
My personal pre-philosophical beginning is one that remains with me still - it is a recurrent sense of uncanniness, of the world seeming strange and contingent. It raises the question "Why?" in its most ultimate sense. Why is there something rather than nothing, why this something rather than other possible somethings, and how is it possible for parts of this something to reflect upon both themselves and the whole? The thought this leaves me with is that there must be a systematic answer interlinking everything.
The second element that follows up this pre-philosophical beginning is the experience of contemplation. Contemplation complements the uncanniness, since it is the activity that most feels like it is answering the questions raised by the uncanny state. When I am thinking particularly hard about a problem my thoughts become quicksilver and fluid, but also highly structured. Ideas spin off from ideas and link together, forming larger and larger wholes. This state is engrossing and all consuming, and I can lose track of myself and my surroundings for hours. While the state is productive, it is also an example of what Aristotle calls (Nicomachean Ethics 1) a complete state, one that is done for itself. I don't want the contemplation to end, and am glad that the questions I am asking seem eternally capable of greater refinement and elaboration, so contemplation need never end.
This also explains why I think that explaining philosophy as beginning in disappointment does not capture why I do philosophy. Disappointment is a Pragmatists answer to why we do philosophy, as it is their answer to why thinking occurs. Thinking, for them, is an activity done in order that we may cease thinking. It is caused by problems and seeks their solutions. I do not consider my questions to be problems; they are opportunities.
BV: What I wanted to ask next is if you take a systematic or principled approach to tracing out your initial motivation, obsession, or curiosity? If you are able to articulate a kind of beginning to your philosophizing (which you’ve showed you are), do you have a deliberate way of following through? Or is there a reason to avoid such a structured way of going forward? Perhaps, the assumed teleology of the question is problematic?
MF: I have been working towards a systematic approach, trying to find the Method of Rightly Conducting my Reason. From the initial motivation, the feeling of the uncanny, I start with the idea of Being/Existence and alternately work my way downward towards related abstract concepts like Good and Evil, Form and Matter, Same and Different, One and Many, and also upward from whatever idea I may happen to be tracing, be it contemplating a natural vista, thinking about the nature of storytelling, or pondering a recent news story.
One of the main routes I find for examining the higher-level concepts is deep reading of those who have thought about the same issues. Thus, my strong allegiance to the history of Western philosophy and its major thinkers. Every time I come across a striking conception I ask myself whether I accept their account. If I do, or do not, I always try to ask myself why that is - what is it about this idea that does/does not fit with the rest of my thinking about Being? Then I see whether there is an insight in the idea I have missed, or a way that my conceptions and the authors can modify each other to become a better whole.
The primary goal is to get a grasp on the nature of Being/Existence through its manifestations, through the things that Are. I am resistant to totalizing explanations which would explain broad areas of life as illusory - I think that Being is, if not ultimately, at least largely Many, and that the existence of such a plurality can provide an insight into the nature of reality. As I said in my first response, I do not see this investigation ever ending - the goal is that of an ever-developing web of concepts and from which new concepts can emerge from new experiences.
BV: What would you say the work of a philosopher consists in? Is it our job to create, polish and present ideas? Is it enough to learn for ourselves? I suppose I’d like to uncover some of the ideas we have about what we ought to be doing. There may be a number of perfectly legitimate occupations of the philosopher, and perhaps a number of illicit ones.
MF: This is a highly classical answer (surprise, surprise) but I believe that philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom, wisdom being defined as the knowledge of the ultimate causes of things, the better for the pursuit of contemplation. It is sufficient for a philosopher to learn for themselves, and thus I am willing to extend the title "Philosopher" to non-academics, provided they display the requisite seriousness.
I agree that there are a number of perfectly legitimate occupations for a philosopher, and that being a teacher is one of them. Nothing benefitted me more as a philosopher than having attentive and considerate professors who gave me deep critiques of my work and suggested other avenues of research. Philosophy, I believe, is important, and worth teaching to everyone who can learn.
One illicit profession for a philosopher is that of advocate. A philosopher can be an advocate for a cause, whether social, political, environmental or other, but this advocacy is separate from their philosophical activity. It may grow out of their philosophy, but it is not philosophy.
BV: Would you say that you have a philosophical – in the sense of doing the work of a philosopher – program? For instance, one might have the goal of producing polished ideas to the public based on their philosophical interests. This might mean that one works on writing articles. Maybe you start with a research phase, followed by a write up, followed by a new research phase in a linear fashion. Some might write when the motivation strikes them, but never according to a work program. What do you do? And what would you like to do in this regard?
MF: My current philosophical program is finishing, hopefully within the next twelve months, major works of Western philosophy I have not yet had a chance to read. From there I will begin my research into Being proper, comparing and contrasting the views, sorting out what I think is right from what I think is mistaken.
Publishing my ideas for my peers and for general readers is a tertiary concern, one I may engage in to fulfill the requirements of an academic post or to find discussion partners.
BV: I’m wondering about philosophical communities. We work in spatial proximity to other philosophers (or students of philosophy, however you want to demarcate this), but rarely it seems do we work in close intellectual proximity. What do you make of this isolation? Or do you disagree that there is a lot of isolation from others in our field? Would you rather a different kind of community to work in? If so, are you able to begin articulating what it might look like?
MF: I think that the intellectual isolation of philosophers is a side effect of the nature of philosophy. When you teach someone to philosophize, so I believe, you are teaching them to engage in an activity worthwhile for itself, and one without a further aim beyond its own enrichment. It has many beneficial upshots, but is done for itself. That they will do this in unique and individual ways is not at all to be faulted - it is a nature of the enterprise. My fellow undergraduates have all gone off in wildly different directions, despite all of us having many of the same professors and courses.
I do not think that there is a great deal of intellectual isolation in philosophy at large, though there is within our particular institution. Entire journals are devoted to the study of philosophy in various disciplines, and to the study of individual philosophers. The popularity of these journals can be seen by the wait lists for publication in them.
I can imagine a more integrative community in a philosophical department, though it would have the side effect of creating distinct camps (Kantian, Post-Heidegger Continental, Aristotlean, Medieval). I think this could be promoted by the promotion of streams in philosophical study, with professors of closely allied interests and overlapping competencies to tutor them. I think it would be beneficial to students to see debates between philosophers who shared many of the same premises, and see the richness of debate that can grow out of that.