Brooks on philosophy

Unlike most liberals, not to mention conservatives, and perhaps all bipeds, I am a big fan of David Brooks. I'm always eager to read his columns, and find him very insightful.

However, he has a bad tendency to make generalizations about the field of philosophy. These generalizations are always disparaging, and usually wrong. From today's column praising Tim Geithner:
But this prudence was the key to his effectiveness. In interviews and testimony, Geithner uses the word “balance” a lot. He talks about finding the right balance point between competing priorities. He also talks like a historian who sees common tendencies in certain contexts, not a philosopher who seeks clear general principles that apply across contexts.

Oy. There is much discussion in philosophy about what is context-sensitive and what isn't. Plenty of philosophers take positions that claim that the truths of an area, such as ethics or aesthetics or linguistic meaning or even math and science, are context-sensitive.

He seems to have a habit of pointing to a topic that traditionally falls under the purview of philosophy, and claiming that philosophers are not answering the question correctly. However, his idea of philosophy has seemed to stop at Aristotle. For example, he claims in a column titled The End of Philosophy (!) that scientists are positing that moral judgments are largely matters of sentiment. He contrasts this with philosophers, who he insinuates, think moral judgments are all a matter of reason. David Brooks, might I introduce you to a rather famous philosopher named David Hume? Ya know, that whole "slave of the passions" bit? Or that entire school of meta-ethics known as non-cognitivism? (Will Wilkinson has some nice critiques of that particular column here).

In yet another column discussing a book by philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah on character, Brooks says:
The philosopher’s view is shaped like a funnel. At the bottom, there is a narrow thing called character. And at the top, the wide ways it expresses itself. The psychologist’s view is shaped like an upside-down funnel. At the bottom, there is a wide variety of unconscious tendencies that get aroused by different situations. At the top, there is the narrow story we tell about ourselves to give coherence to life... In the philosopher’s picture, the good life is won through direct assault. Heroes use reason to separate virtue from vice. Then they use willpower to conquer weakness, fear, selfishness and the dark passions lurking inside. Once they achieve virtue they do virtuous things.

In the psychologist’s version, the good life is won indirectly. People have only vague intuitions about the instincts and impulses that have been implanted in them by evolution, culture and upbringing. There is no easy way to command all the wild things jostling inside.
I don't know how Appiah phrased the distinction - I have not read his book. But I find it odd that Brooks learned about this debate from a philosopher, and yet calls one side of the debate the philosophers' view. Obviously, there are philosophers on both sides, or we wouldn't be having the debate. There are, of course, philosophers who would endorse what he calls the psychologist's version.

It seems that if any philosopher holds a position that is in concordance with or influenced by the sciences, it is not real philosophy. By oversimplifying what philosophy is, or what the position of philosophy is with respect to a given topic, Brooks underestimates both our intelligence and our worth.

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