[lit-ideas] Re: Why Philosophy. (Was: On Nip Thievery)

  • From: wokshevs@xxxxxx
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx, Phil Enns <phil.enns@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Fri, 20 Jun 2008 16:42:30 -0230

Quoting Phil Enns <phil.enns@xxxxxxxxxxx>:

> Walter O. wrote:
> "But what is it that motivates you to pursue and promote this
> discipline [i.e. philosophy]? ("Discipline" here not simply as a
> distinct scholarly form of inquiry and analysis but also in the Greek
> sense of a way of life, an acquired and educated attunement to the
> world, others, and oneself.)"
> For myself, part of the answer would be that I am inclined to be
> philosophical.  I have the unfortunate, in the view of my
> long-suffering wife, habit of picking up on philosophically
> interesting points that arise in ordinary conversation and will
> occasionally mention them.  This, of course, usually kills that thread
> of conversation, but my attention is caught by philosophically
> relevant issues and how these issues bear on the conversation.  I will
> leave aside the matter of why mention of philosophical points tends to
> kill conversations.
> For myself, I am not sure I can say more than that I am simply
> inclined towards philosophy.  I find it interesting, meaningful and
> even fulfilling.
> But I am also convinced that doing philosophy is important.  It is not
> important in the sense of solving problems.  Heidegger talks about
> recognizing the gods only after they have passed by, and I think that
> is right.  I am teaching a graduate course on the relationship of
> religion to democracy, human rights and civil society.  I am in no
> position to tell people how things ought to be, and certainly not in
> Indonesia, but my goal in the course is to have the students engage in
> philosophical reflection on their situation.  What makes democracy a
> preferable form of political association in Indonesia?  How can
> Islamic beliefs be reconciled with human rights?  What is the role of
> religion in Indonesian civil society?  None of these discussions lead
> to solutions or answers.  We are following the trail of the gods,
> discussing issues that have already presented themselves.  My hope,
> and my belief, is that this sort of reflection opens up the
> possibility for a kind of wisdom that manifests itself in a better
> life for both the individuals and the larger society.  What that
> better life is, can't be determined in advance since we are always
> following the trail of the gods.
> Certainly the pressure is on to make the teaching of philosophy
> 'about' something topical.  But, in my opinion, sometimes a course
> should simply be about thinking.  I was asked to teach a course on
> postmodernism.  What I decided to do was pick three issues, language,
> truth and reality, and then use a variety of writers associated with
> postmodernism to think about these topics.  My goal was to encourage
> the development of thinking about the way things are.  Can we just
> stop and look?  And are we better off for that?  In my opinion, yes.
> I don't think we are better off in the sense of having specific skills
> for solving particular problems, but rather when we stop to think, it
> is possible we may become better people.  Now what is meant by
> 'better' here is open to discussion, philosophical discussion, but
> surely that is an important discussion to have as well.
> I certainly do not have the experience of Robert, nor do I have the
> training of John and Walter in the area of teaching philosophy, but I
> throw the above out as a personal response to Walter's query.
> Sincerely,
> Phil Enns
> Yogyakarta, Indonesia

I'll allow myself to wax autobiographical for a moment. The very first
philosophy course I took was at Loyola College (Montreal) in 1972: "Theistic
and Atheistic Versions of Existentialism." I have no idea what possessed me to
move from languages and drama to philosophy. It was taught by John Morgan - who
moved from being a baker to a philosophy professor at Loyola to the Presidency
of King's College (Ontario). He was a very fine man. I fear he is dead now. 

What struck me most about the course actually had little to do with the
I was impresed by the man himself. The way he thought. The care he showed in
articulating a position, be it his own or somebody else's. The deep personal
commitment to getting it right. Even at the ripe old age of 18, I thought that
writers such as Camus, Dostoevsky, Unamuno, Sartre, etc. were woefully confused
folk. But I lasted through the entire course - from Septemebr to May - mostly
because of "Dr. Morgan." 

The next academic year I enrolled in legal philosophy, ancient philosophy, and
modern ethics. There went my major in drama and modern languages. But hey, I
time on my hands: this was Quebec, which meant that a year's tuition was
$480. Over the summers I earned enough at the Montreal docks in the vocation of
warehousing, storage and cartage to support myself and my 1970 Valiant quite
comfortably. I was thus able, for a number of years, to have "the run of the
university" as Michael Oakeshott put it. 

I ended up majoring in philosophy (and sociology). And in almost all of my
philosophy courses I kept running into Dr. Morgan's dispositions. They
inhabited different bodies of course; but there was a definite family
resemblance amongst the philosophy profs I had. It's not that my profs in the
other courses were totally devoid of the philosophical dispositions. Many of
them I found to be very smart ... very clever in their analyses of this and
that. Disciplines like sociology, poli scie, and lit crit do have their share
of very bright people. But I still found something very special and unique
about the philosophers. (Many of them were Jesuits.  But their personal beliefs
never intruded upon their arguments in the space of reasons and it was not their
drinking habits that individuated them as philosophers, I hasten to emphasize.)

After 4 years at Loyola, and a summer of hitchhiking across Canada - yes,
Hermann Hesse reigned supreme in those days - the decision to do graduate work
in philosophy descended quite unknowingly upon me. To this day, I cannot say
that I "chose" philosophy as a profession and a way of life. Like, what else is
more interesting or important to do anyway?? And the rest is history. 

Walter O.
MUN on the Rocks

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