On Philosophy

October 18, 2007

Philosophers And Philosophy Critics

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

There are two ways to approach a discipline: you can either learn to do it or you can learn about it. Consider chess, for example, you can learn to play chess or you can learn about chess. To learn to play chess you learn common chess strategies, how to think ahead, how to evaluate board positions, and so on. In contrast if you want to learn about chess you never need to play a single game, you can instead learn about the history of chess and read all the books that purport to teach chess, in order to understand how chess is understood by other people and how that understanding of chess has changed over the years. Obviously the resources that people learning to play chess and people learning about chess study will overlap to some extent, they will both read some books about chess strategy. But the person learning to play chess is only interested in reading the books with the best strategies, many of the older books about chess have been surpassed by newer ones and so they need not be considered, and many new books don’t offer anything of value for those who are more than beginners. In contrast the person learning about chess will be interested in all of these books, regardless of the value of the techniques and strategies contained. The person learning about chess may be a terrible chess player, although they know about chess strategy they haven’t developed the skills to apply and improve those strategies in actual play while the person who has learned to play chess has. Thus if they want to write a book about chess it must primarily be a history or a commentary on other books about chess, while if the chess player wants to write a book they may write it about genuinely novel strategies and techniques that they have developed while playing chess.

A similar divide exists between artists and art critics, writers and literary critics, scientists and historians of science. In general we might described this distinction as one between creators and critics (or commentators if we don’t want to sound so negative). The creators, the artists, writers, and scientists, are interested primarily in the techniques of their trade. Although they will be interested in the current state of their field (scientists more than the others, since they are expected to build on the work of their contemporaries) they have no need to master the history and overall progress of that field, they just need to know what works and what doesn’t. The critics are, of course, just the opposite. Although they have some interest in the techniques involved it is only as a single part of their understanding of the discipline as a whole. The critics aren’t interested in creating, but in understanding what has been created through various perspectives, including the historical.

This divide exists in every field and is most recognized for what it is to the benefit of all. In every field except philosophy that is. Although everyone wants to do philosophy every philosopher is trained essentially as a philosophy critic and not as a creator of new philosophy. Now I’m not sure if that is the intend result of the way we train people to do philosophy, but it is its effect. At all levels of education philosophy classes focus almost exclusively on understanding philosophical works and in critically responding to them or comparing the ideas in one to the ideas in another. Such training is not preparation for doing philosophy, but preparation for being a critic of philosophy.

To point this out is not to blame these institutions. After all there is nothing wrong with being a philosophy critic, just as there is nothing wrong with being an art critic or a historian of science. In fact at the moment there is really no other way to teach philosophy. You see to teach people to be creators requires the ability to teach them techniques, method if you will. And to do that requires some kind of consensus about what the method of the discipline is, as well as how to evaluate to what extent the method works (for example, the method of painting involves how to mix colors and how to apply them to the canvas, and is evaluated by the extent to which it achieves the effect the artist desires). Once such a consensus has been established then books can be written about that method. And those methods can then be used by the creators who, in their work, will discover ways to improve on those methods. Which gives rise to new books being written that replace the old books and which focus tend to focus more on specific topics. Such books do not exist for philosophy. While I own plenty of books about justice I have not a single one about how to construct and evaluate theories about justice. Without these books the creators simply cannot be trained as creators, because there is no way to instruct them about how to create (assuming that there isn’t a vast body of oral tradition on the topic that no one has bothered to write down).

Without many creators of philosophy (there are, of course, always some who will create new philosophy, just not as many as there would be otherwise) weird things happen. Imagine a world with many more literary critics than writers. Given that they lack writers to apply their skills to they must turn them on each other. Which results in critical analyses of the works of other critics and those works, and so on. And this is exactly what we see in modern philosophy, most philosophical papers and dissertations are devoted primarily to responding to the claims of other philosophers, who may themselves only be responding to the claims of someone else, and so on. This also explains why so much attention is devoted to the big names of philosophy, they are like the few actual writers, and thus any critic who wishes to apply their skills to something other than the work of other critics must turn to them.

Now there is nothing wrong with being a philosophy critic, just as there is nothing wrong with being a literary critic. However, in both cases things work best when there is a balance between creators and critics. Criticism functions best when it can feed back to the creators who produce new works for the critics to apply their skills to. Criticism by itself produces nothing, a world with only critics is like a world where everyone talks about playing chess but no one actually plays it, the criticism serves no purpose. And creation by itself may suffer from a lack of direction, from going too many places at once, and from constantly reinventing what has been done before. Which is why a balance between the two is desirable.

Given that the formal study of philosophy primarily produces philosophy critics what should we do? If I could wave a wand and turn some critics into creators I would, but it is hard to change from a critic into a creator, and vice versa. Personally I am planning to write at least one book on philosophical method sometime in the distant future, which will be a start towards filling that gap. Obviously we could also try to change the way classes are taught at the upper level, even in the absence of any books. A more medieval model might suffice, where students are asked to develop and defend positions on various topics, thus putting an emphasis more on creation and less on responding to what has already been said (indeed I think it would be quite possible to teach such a course at the graduate level without any books at all). But the most effective change would be in something that I have no hope in exerting any influence over: philosophy journals. If some journals devoted themselves exclusively to creative philosophy, that which is not a response to something else, then this would encourage more philosophers to be creative.

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