The Charioteer

"The charioteer of the human soul drives a pair of steeds, and one of the horses is beautiful, good, and formed of such elements, whereas the makeup of the other one is quite the opposite." -Phaedrus

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Location: Duquesne University, United States

A Blog For All and None. Consider it my narrative history of ideas. A place primarily to share and obtain feedback to my thoughts through my graduate career in philosophy. For philosophy is simply "thoughts that have been thought out."

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Why Is Philosophy Dying in the West?

My nephew's third birthday was on the 7th of August, and so beforehand I browsed through the Jacksonville Mall in search of a suitable gift. The Mall, quite surprisingly, did not have one single toy store! So I filled some time by browsing Waldenbooks, which I have concluded some time ago, from a culmination of repeated visits, that it is by far the worst mainstream commercial bookstore in existence! It seems they just rarely carry anything worth reading. I walked in, nevertheless, and naturally, yet rather suspiciously, headed to see if they had anything redeemable within their philosophy section. Fortunately, they did actually have a small section of books shelved under the heading 'Philosophy,' but unfortunately, the books contained therein did not reveal themselves as respectable philosophy. The best title they carried, and rather expectedly, was Plato's Republic, but the majority were, for example, and quite literally, just On Bullshit.

Even though I thought it impossible for them to descend further on my ranking scale, Waldenbooks had successfully done so. However, the experience prompted me to reflect on the situation of society, wider than within the confining walls of Waldenbooks (of course, given the economic reality of supply and demand, Waldenbooks serves as an expression of the sort). I was not only struck by the fact that philosophy is dying amongst the public in the Western World, but also by the thought of how significant that is; indeed, how striking! I reminded myself of that 2600 year history (Thales straddled the turn of the sixth-century B.C.) of earnest thinkers who have untiringly and intensely labored over questions that were once of such importance to our historical ancestors: questions of being and metaphysics, knowledge, the human person, ethics, and language, etc. Indeed, that basic question of all metaphysics according to Heidegger: 'Why is there anything at all, and not nothing?' Not only is it unfortunate that these once remarkable and earth shattering discoveries are quickly being forgotten, but that they are perhaps even thought now to be without meaning for the everyday life for the average American!

Do I seek to put forth an explanation? The title of this post is, "Why is Philosophy Dying in the West?"—an intended open question. Even though I did not phase the title to accommodate a question of whether this is case: "Is Philosophy Dying in the West?" for I believe it is (even is some may disagree), I did not phrase it either as if I am prepared to advance an argument as to why this necessarily is the case, which would then require me to phrase the title: 'Why Philosophy is Dying in the West.' That being said, however, Josef Pieper offers a compelling insight to this question in his analysis of ‘The Philosophical Act’ in Leisure.

Pieper first defines the philosophical act as an act whereby the ‘work-a-day world’ is transcended (Leisure, 63-79). "The process of working," Pieper explains, is situated within the value of “common utility.” This category, this value (for indeed it is indispensable), is nevertheless only a part of the “common good.” He continues:

“Of course, in the present day bonum commune [the common good] and the ‘common utility’ seem to be growing more identical everyday; of course (it comes to the same thing) the world of work begins to become—threatens to become—our only world, to the exclusion of all else. The demands of the working world grow ever more total, grasping ever more completely the whole of human existence….It could even be said, perhaps, that this very opposition, this threat from the world of total work, is what characterizes the situation of philosophy today more than its own particular content. Philosophy increasingly adopts—necessarily, it seems—the character of the alien, of mere intellectual luxury, of that which seems ever more intolerable and unjustifiable, the more exclusively the demands of the daily world of work take over the world of man” (64-66).

Although I would have to disagree with Pieper with respect to the extreme juxtaposition he places between the world of work and the world of philosophy, for the opposition he describes is to the extent that there is a sphere in each whereby the two are mutually exclusive, nevertheless, I concur with him that this is at least part of the problem. Our economically oriented society, driven very minimally by the theoretical, and for the most part, toward having our pockets lined with green, deters the influence of those questions of another sort than those the masses seem to only ask themselves these days: instead of, again, ‘Why is there anything at all?’ the question now, as Pieper points out, has become, ‘Where do I get this or that item of daily existence?’ Or still worse, the (particularly capitalist) society seems to perpetuate the continual questioning of ‘Why do I have only this limited and mediocre amount (of things), when my neighbor has so much more?’ (As Chesterton so excellently pointed out, what both communism and capitalism have in common is how they both cause one’s focus to be continually on the property of others rather than their own.)

But, perhaps in this criticism of contemporary society, I have implicitly tended to romanticize the past. For isn’t it also true that since the early modern period (in the Middle Ages as well), and most certainly during the Enlightenment, philosophy has been an endeavor of an elite, done only by the most respected men (and here I specifically indicate gender) in society, thus not accessible to the populous. I would undoubtedly recognize this as true, but nevertheless this point, though seemingly opposed to Pieper’s argument, actually proves the point all the more. Philosophy, then, even though it was an endeavor of only the few, was something that was striven after by the common people; it was respected because it was an activity of the respected. But, here lies the incongruence: what are the highest people in our society involved with nowadays—certainly not philosophy. The philosopher today has been wrenched from his previous respected position in society alongside the politician and has been replaced by the businessman. It is no longer the situation of Aristotle as the teacher of Alexander the Great, son of Philip II, King of Macedon; or Thomas More as Head Chancellor to Henry VIII; or Voltaire as top advisor to Friedrich I, but rather Bill Gates and many others along with him who has somehow attained a similar status in society as, say, a Senator or Secretary of State (I am hesitant to say President or Vice President, but it could be debated).

In any case, it seems there has been a dramatic and terrible shift in today’s society against the theoretical--against philosophy (and I categorize theology alongside this), that perhaps the Western World has never before experienced. However, the most crucial problem in all of this, I think, is not so much that we lose sight of the thinkers who have gone before us and their respective contributions, but that we lose sight of them only insofar as they serve as guides and indicators to aid our own venture in philosophical questioning. Thus, I think it is most important that each person confront and question reality on an individual level, both for personal development, but also so people do not get so lost amongst the everyday chaos that they fail to ask once and a while, ‘Why is there anything at all, and not nothing?’ and not always only, “Where do I get that?’! Might I suggest Petrarch’s The Ascent of Mont Ventoux.

Friday, August 04, 2006

First Annual Luce Irigaray Conference

The Humanities Institute, The Department of Philosophy, and the Program in Women's Studies at Stony Brook University invite you to:

The first annual conference of the Luce Irigaray Circle
September 22nd and 23rd, 2006
Stony Brook University, Manhattan Campus
401 Park Ave South (at 28th Street), New York, NY
Keynote Speakers: Tina Chanter
, Professor of Philosophy, DePaul University
Penelope Deutscher, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Northwestern University

Presentations will concern topics such as ethics, politics, history of philosophy, psychoanalysis, aesthetics, architecture, fine arts, literature, spirituality, and gender. The Philosophy of Luce Irigaray is the first of a series of annual, interdisciplinary conferences, organized by the Luce Irigaray Circle, which aim to promote work on and inspired by the feminist philosopher, psychoanalyst and linguist Luce Irigaray. The conference is open to the public.

More on Keynote Speakers:
Tina Chanter was educated at The State University of New York at Stony Brook. She is author of Ethics of Eros: Irigaray's Rewriting of the Philosophers (New York: Routledge, 1995) and Time, Death and the Feminine: Levinas with Heidegger (Stanford University Press, 2001). She is also editor of Feminist Interpretations of Emmanuel Levinas (Rereading the Canon series, Pennsylvania State Press, 2001), and of the Gender Theory series for the State University of New York Press. Currently she is writing on abjection and film. She has written articles on feminist theory and continental philosophy, and has been invited to publish in such journals as Differences, Signs, The Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal, and Research in Phenomenology, on topics including Sophocles' Antigone, film theory, and figures such as Beauvoir, Derrida, Heidegger, Hegel, Irigaray, Kofman, Kristeva, Lacan, Levinas, and Merleau-Ponty.

Penelope Deutscher (Ph.D University of New South Wales and DEA Paris I) taught at the University of New South Wales and at Australian National University before joining Northwestern in 2002 as Associate Professor of Philosophy. Her main fields of interest are twentieth century French philosophy (existentialism, deconstruction, French feminism); philosophy of gender and sexuality; and history of philosophy (Rousseau, Nietzsche). She is the author of Yielding Gender: Feminism, Deconstruction and the History of Philosophy (Routledge, 1997) and of A Politics of Impossible Difference: The Later Work of Luce Irigaray (Cornell UP, 2002). She is also the co-editor (with Kelly Oliver) of Enigmas: Essays on Sarah Kofman; editor of Contemporary French Women Philosophers (a special issue of Hypatia, 2000) and of Repenser la politique (special issue of Les cahiers du Grif , with Françoise Collin, 2005). Deutcher spends regular research periods in Paris.

For more information on the conference and the Luce Irigaray Circle, visit the conference website
Or contact the conference chairwomen:
Mary C. Rawlinson
Sabrina Hom
Serene Khader

I have never read Irigaray before, so I cannot provide much concerning her thought. However, some bio info: born in Belgium in the 1930's, but spent much time in Paris; she received her master's degree in pychoanalysis from Louvain, her first doctorate in Linguistics and a second in Philosophy. Her dissertation was entitled Speculum of the Other Woman and seems to be her major work in feminist philosophy. She since held a position as Chair of the Philosophy department at Erasmus University in Rotterdam. She seems to have been very concerned with the ethics of sexual difference, hence one of her works with this title. Raising sexual difference to an ethical dimension interests me most about her, especially since she consulted some of the ethics of Levinas, and Merleau-Ponty. In any case, the conference should be interesting for those interested.

Here is a link to additional bio info with bibliography

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

"Say 'Hooahh!'"

The first day of my so-called "vacation" at my brother and sister-in-law's in Jacksonville, NC has given me the impression that it will be nothing but ten days of baby-sitting my three-year-old nephew (in six days) and one-year-old niece while my brother continues his Marine adventures in Iraq and my sister-in-law is consumed with her annual military training through the week. But I can't complain, because, despite a sometimes whinny and incorrigible Owen who hates having clothes on, I'm loving it.

I am especially realizing that I really enjoy just watching children and how much you can learn about the human person just by how differently they act from adults. It seems these differences in action reside in differences in development of consciousness. Owen will run around the house naked or dance crazily in front of a roomful of amused spectators; actions that a typical adult, sober and in their right mind, would never dare. And why can one-year-old Kierra gaze at me into my eyes, whereas, Owen, almost three, now finds it uncomfortable to do so? In any case, this question about the development of consciousness and self-consciousness is intriguing. And more intriguing is how, though still developing as a human being, a child's lack of consciousness allows them to do things with an amount of carelessness that an observer can obtain an "undiluted" sense, so to speak, of the nature of the human person and their unique person. Their lack of care about conforming to societal norms and the staus quo gives us a glimpse into their individual person, more than if they were a fully developed being. Or so it seems...

In any case, perhaps by this time next week, my excitement will have subsided significantly and I'll be ready to finally move to Pittsburgh. One thing is for sure, however, I will certianly not grow tired of Owen new favorite command: "uncle Eric, say 'hooahh!!'"