In praise of mediocre philosophers

I freely admit to having professional jealousy of dearest friend and co-blogger Dan. He saves and cares for children. One doesn't have a much more palpable way of making the world better. Whereas the good taxpayers of my state part with hard-earned cash so I can write and teach about questions that are often not immediately useful, and may not even be answerable. If the meteor is about to hit Earth, Dan has an easy seat on the escape pod with all the people who are necessary to starting society over again. I don't see anyone (except a philosopher!) arguing that one should bring along a philosopher.

The problem is worsened for all of us philosophers when the sad day arrives that you realize you are not Kant, and you are not going to change the face of ethics and metaphysics and aesthetics (I love the ballsiness of the title "Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics," as I cannot imagine being in a position where I thought I produced a work such that ANY future work on the topic MUST take account of it -- I once tried to call a conference I was co-organizing "Prolegomena to Any Future Philosophy Conference" in honor of Kant's chutzpah, but my co-organizers would have none of it). It's sadder for those who ought to have realized it a long time ago and have not as of yet, but that's another issue.

So how do I wake up and face the day doing a less-than-obviously-useful activity, and being unlikely to turn the entire field on its head? Well, there's teaching, of course. So that might keep me in the game. But I am also expected to produce philosophy, even as a non-Kant. And I think Julian Sanchez touches on why that can be useful both in a post he made today, and more directly one a few years ago.

All the quite-bright-but-not-geniuses move the field along. Wittgenstein and Kant made leaps forward, but it's the other, less prominent philosophers, who have chipped away at them who have shown a) exactly why they were so important, and b) also what is worth keeping and what must be gotten rid of. Neither Kant nor Wittgenstain is entirely right, after all. One person, even if a genius, saying an idea is unworkable is not definitive, the crowd saying so is much more so. Another factor is the ability to shine light in a small place. I have something to contribute to my relatively small area of specialization. Scientists generally work on smaller problems rather than the whole big picture -- similarly, we can see philosophy as a collective effort. Without coming up with a whole new way of seeing the world, I can try to answer a small problem, while my colleagues answer other problems, and so the field moves ahead.

This, at least, is how I rationalize what I do to myself.

1 comment:

  1. The work of the world is done by the bright, but not quite genius.