Friday, July 07, 2006

The Frustrating Dr. Fun-Guy

Sometime between Kant and Russell a dense fog descended on all philosophical thought. We are taught in the class room, that nothing of interest happened for over a hundred and fifty years. All the names in the mist - Hegel, Schelling, Kierkegaard, &c. - well they are simply voices to be ridiculed. I have been told time and again that Nothing of philosophical interest happened during this time. And yet, the more I am told to the look the other way, the more I am desire to know of these mysterious No-Bodies.

I attended part of the Summer Lecture series put together by the Philosnobs (our philosophical student group – Let us call them PS for short). Dr. Fun-Guy presented the lecture. He is one of the few professors that I respect in our department and a staunch ignorer of Hegel. In the hour and a half there were over ten insults directed to Continental European philosophers (mostly post Kant) in favour of the Analytic tradition of philosophical thought. For some reason, it is an Us-Against-Them battle – there is a great sense of fear among the faculty that someone might come along and tell them that their style of philosophy is flawed, therefore they attack every other style of philosophical exploration. By staying on the offensive they somehow manage to feel secure that their beliefs will not be challenged.

It is interesting to note that every paper I have read by Dr. Fun-Guy follows more or less the same format. He has two concepts; for example, yesterday’s paper involved Work and Play. These two concepts are usually considered incompatible – that is, each is traditionally defined by the negation of the other. The example would be that Work is often defined by the absence of Play and Play as an activity that does not involve Work. Something that I admire in Dr. Fun-Guy’s work is that he does not resort to this traditional way of defining concepts. He instead examines each one individually and offers a definition based on its own merit. For example, his definition of Work involves the concept that you have to force yourself to do it or that it is defined by an internal struggle.

Dr. Fun-Guy then presents the two paradoxes of these two concepts, examining each one in turn, displaying the apparent contradiction within each of them, and then attempting to find a satisfactory middle ground where the contradiction and the paradoxes disappear. It is his standard format, and it is a very good one I might add. He is well written and has an excellent use of narration in his writing which helps to make the paper relevant to the individual rather than a bit of incomprehensible academic mumble jumble. Yet, I wonder how he would react if I told him that his methodology is an excellent example of Hegel’s Dialectic.

Perhaps he simply does not take the conclusion far enough, or perhaps it is because I observe him to frequently declare the uselessness of studying Hegel; but for some reason, I find Dr. Fun-Guy’s papers to be a poor reflection of the knowledge and insight I have seen him display in class and in conversation. Could it be true what they say about history? Are those who ignore it bound to repeat it?

Perhaps it is I who am mistaken. I have been told that it is wrong of me to evaluate my ‘betters’. Perhaps I should take heed and give up my endeavours to learn that which I desire to know. Even the library is against me – the books I desire are unavailable to me. There is so much beauty in Philosophy, but I am tired of fighting to learn it. These people know so much more than I could ever dream of knowing – who am I to think I know what I want to learn?


David said...

Well, in my opinion, only three philosophers of note happened between Kant and Russell. John Stuart Mill, Soren Kierkegaard, and Gottlob Frege. (I exclude Marx since he's more a political thinker)


Utilitarianism is still a strong ethical theory in today's world, advocated by guys like Peter Singer. Kierkegaard's works are just brilliant, and he influenced guys like Wittgenstein. (Don't believe me; do a search for Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard), and Frege, well, he's the freaking father of analytic philosophy, and influenced Russell into the logician he is remembered for.

David said...

Oh by the way, I do respect and admire the 19th century "continentals" (e.g. Marx, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and especially Kierkegaard), but I think 20th century continental thought is just ridiculous.

Reasoning E'Bert said...

Some of my personal battle is to prevent philosophers from calling other philosophers ridiculous. I am not censoring your opinion here. I’m just concerned about the ad hominem mud slinging that members of one school of thought will sling at anyone who is not of their kin.

When one says something like “don’t study Sartre, his philosophy is just silly” (direct quote); yet, that person has never even held Being and Nothingness in their hand or made any attempt to learn Sartre’s ontology (which is actually far more complex than I originally thought). The validity of one’s statement becomes dubious at best.

There are those who I do not wish to spend much time studying. I find the works of Wittgenstein long winded and tedious to read, Frege just makes me grumpy, and don’t get me started on post modernists like Adorno and Horkheimer. Even so, I acknowledge that each one of these individuals is vital to the continual formation and flow of ideas throughout history. Somehow I doubt that the Analytics would be so entrenched in their methodology if not for the perceived free-stylings of the Continentalists.

Each thinker has his (her) place in history and each idea, no matter how small, when expressed, makes a difference to the course of ideas. When we ignore one group of thinkers because they are ‘silly’, we weaken our philosophical defences, allowing ourselves to repeat all their ‘silly’ mistakes out of our own ignorance.

David said...

You are correct, of course. I think 20th century continental thought is ridiculous (especially Heidegger: and I have read him), but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be taught. Perhaps someone else will make better use of it and try to unite the warring camps. I think Richard Rorty and Stanley Cavell are two analytics who engage with continental thought; a step towards reunification I suppose.

Reasoning E'Bert said...

I have not read those two yet. I'll have to have a look and see if our library has anything by them. Do you recommend any particular book to start with?

David said...

If you only read one book by each of these two, I highly recommend

Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, by Richard Rorty

Must we Mean what we Say, by Stanley Cavell

Rorty's book is usually considered the book of "post-analytic" philosophy.

(P.S. Read this online article by Rorty first, if you like it then read Mirror of Nature)

Reasoning E'Bert said...

Thank you for that. I'll have a look-see next time I am up at the library.

unenlightened said...

Excuse me but your last paragraph makes NO SENSE. If you call them your betters, you have already evaluated them; if you don't evaluate them, you can't regard them as your betters. Unfortunately, there is no escape from the responsibility of making up one's own mind about theories, people, and what one is interested in learning. I find I tend to prefer philosophers that agree with me - though none of them have it quite right, but the ones I hate are more stimulating to engage with. I'm not sure that it is often possible to talk directly to 'professional philosophers' exactly because of the status which 'your betters' seeks (illegitimately) to protect.

Reasoning E'Bert said...

I admit, I am a bit confused why I am not permitted to evaluate my social and academic 'betters'. Personally, I see each of my 'betters' as an individual person who,like the rest of us, is capable of great insight and of great mistakes.

I am told, time and again, that a PhD., or other like achievements, makes people immune to critical evaluations and makes me a bad person for considering them fair game.

I'm very confused by the world these days.