News and brain candy for the philosophy community
A little pet peeve.
So there are a ton of different usages of the word ‘philosophy’. Leaving aside its double-life as a verb, the OED lists nine noun entries for ‘philosophy’ – and one of them really grinds my gears. I might be the only philosopher that gets the irritated, nails-on-chalkboard sensation when someone uses the term in this way, but I suspect not. Not only are philosophers incredibly sensitive to their own use of language, splitting already split hairs, I find that they’re almost preternaturally attuned to the misuse of words in others. Maybe we’re just all jerks. Number six in the OED list is the spine-shivering offender, particularly, entry (b): “In extended use: a set of opinions or ideas held by an individual or group; a theory or attitude which acts as a guiding principle for behaviour; an outlook or world view.”
Maybe now you’re starting to sympathize with me.
Maybe now you’re starting to get that nervous twitch at the corner of your eye. Such usages invariably begin with ‘My philosophy…’ (or worse, ‘our philosophy…’). Businesses, politicians, and celebrities are, if not the worst offenders of this usage, certainly offer us the most prevalent examples. Here are some, randomly culled from Google: ‘Our marketing philosophy […] depends heavily on our belief in limitless possibilities’, ‘My philosophy is that not only are you responsible for your life, but doing the best at this moment puts you in the best place for the next moment.’, and so on*.
Why is this, and lets not mince words here, offensive to the two ears of (at least this) academic philosopher? My own suspicion is that it has less to do with an ivory-tower defence of a proper usage of the term, than with the inevitable Crocodile-Dundee-style confrontation between 6B and these proper usages: i.e. ‘That’s not a philosophy, this, is a philosophy.’ To wit, when people start thinking that academic philosophy is the same as gathering and living by a collection of opinions, or indeed, ethical statements, which academic philosophy believes is but a subset of problems under only one (but a major) division of the discipline. This, at least, is what pushes my button. Not the use of the term, but that it misleads people about what philosophers actually do on a daily basis.
One might think that definition 6b hasn’t applied to mainstream philosophy since the time of the Ancient Greeks, where one’s philosophical analyses and conclusions really were a world view: things really did look different if you were an Epicurean as compared to a Stoic. So maybe, what we need to do is isolate this use of ‘philosophy’ and try to slowly replace it with ‘ethos’ or ‘guiding principles’ or ‘firmly held beliefs’. Would that solve the problem? I’m not sure, and I’m starting to come round to the fact that this idea is a little misguided. That really, 6B, and all its usages, even the extremely annoying uses, really does belong with all the other definitions, and that it should not only be used in this way, but encouraged.
Say what you will about David Foster Wallace – but in this area, I think he’s right. In his doorstop of a book, Infinite Jest, he spills a lot of ink showing the wisdom of common phrases. He picks up on this theme in the heart-wrenching (and mercifully, much shorter) 2005 Kenyon commencement speech. What does a liberal art’s education really mean? –and the platitude, that it “teaches you how to think”? I won’t retrace the article, suffice to say, that “teaching you how to think” has more depth, and more to teach, than you might think a common, bandied-about phrase really should.
And this, I think, is the way we should treat number 6B. It might seem irritating, and a distortion of the ‘real’ uses of ‘philosophy’ – but it is just as real, and just as relevant. Philosophy was, as alluded to above, once much more than an analysis of the necessary and sufficient conditions, or of supervenience bases and non-reductive explanatory levels: it did capture something about the world, and the way we do (or should) live in it. And I think we should keep that in mind as we go about our studies, our great tracts of analyses – we are doing more than definition no. 1, creating “[knowledge], learning, scholarship; a body of knowledge”, and doing more than performing 4a “[rational] inquiry or argument, as opposed to divinely revealed knowledge” – that we are attempting to understanding the world by carving it at its joints, and trying to find our place in it – that we are, after all, crafting a world view.
*I have a suspicion, that the word ‘philosophy’ becomes something of a null search term when attached to most words. Outside of its specifying usage with words like ‘ancient’ or ‘of law’, I doubt it really adds any great value to the trimming of search results. I also think there are rules for a drinking game in here somewhere.