Friday, October 27, 2006

Philosopher as Speculation Bait

{Audio .mp3 this essay @ 2MB; 3min} Being a philosopher is funny business anyway, but especially so when someone finds out that I’m employed (i.e *paid*) to be a philosopher. Upon hearing of my occupation, it is quite common for people to immediately want to “get together” and “talk about that kind of stuff.” I have a friend who is a mathematician. He notes that when people hear what he does for living, he gets a quick nod and then deafening silence ensues immediately. Who has the better deal here, I wonder?

Most of the time, people don’t want to discuss the topics on which I teach. The bulk of what I do as a professor is to teach undergraduates intellectual history:

“Intellectual history differs from (although it is related to) the history of philosophy and the history of ideas. Its central perspective suggests that ideas do not change in isolation from the people who create and use them and that we must study the culture, lives and environments of people to understand their ideas.”[1]
Naturally, I emphasize the ideas that “come out” or are “floating around within” the historical eras the students are examining. Once there is a workable set of ideas, there’s effort at seeing how they are (or can be) put together, which si where logic[2] kicks in, and perhaps the “doing” of philosophy proper.

Yet the popular conversational assault launched at me upon hearing of my occupation isn’t about intellectual history or logic. Generally, it’s about speculation, and I don’t mean by that “a risky investment of money for the sake of large profit.” By philosophical speculation I secretly mean something along these lines: “risky investment of excess metaphysical verbiage over a hopefully short time for the sake of not offending the social mores of acquaintances.”

I’ve never been much tempted by speculation – well, that’s not quite true. At least I’ve never been tempted to call such activity a “fun” venture, even when occasionally profitable. But a lot of lay people seem to expect this philosophers. Apparently, the basis for this temptation in the more general public is, to quote a very crusty skeptic, "magical thinking":

“The belief that people or events are ‘magical,’ is that they have access to an unseen and hidden realm of power which lies behind our visible world but which can nevertheless be tapped into and used to affect our lives.”[3]
Maybe a slight modification here – that people posit an unseen and hidden reality which lies beyond the otherwise mundane one. In one sense, this is straightforwardly true: micro-physics describes just such a bizarre place. But that’s just more math and science, and it’s possible to get it wrong when yammering on about this hidden world. But with the unseen magical, metaphysical garden it’s often speculation so bad that it’s not even wrong. It’s just senseless.

“So, uh, what do you do?” The inquiry is often made.
“I investigate ideas.” I tentatively answer.
“Like a psychologist?”
“Not those ideas.”
Naturally, the line of inquiry runs to just which ideas I do investigate. But then it’s like throwing raw ham chunks into a pirana pond; more and more tangential metaphysical verbiage swims into conversational flow. Perhaps I should simply say that I'm a janitor, and that I clean up other people's messes.


[1]Intellectual HistoryKnowledge Rush (Accessed 10/21/06)

[2] Garth Kemerling, “Arguments and Inference” (Accessed 10/20/06)

[3] Austin Cline, Book Review of “The Transcendental Temptation: A Critique of Religion and the Paranormal” (Accessed 10/20/06)



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