Modes of Philosophizing

[Cogito 06, Athens 2007, p. 31-33]


Jonathan Βarnes



Put the question as broadly as that, and the answer can only be Yes ... In any event—and strange though it may seem—, quite a number of non-philosophers have some sort of interest in philosophical issues. My brother, for example, is much possessed by death, and he likes me to tell him what this or that philosopher has said about the subject.

Still, I suspect that what you want to ask is something more like this: Have philosophers, qua philosopher, anything to say which might bear upon the non-philosophical concerns of non-philosophers? Well, I’m afraid that the answer to that is rather boring: ‘Yes—but not very much’.

After all, how much do a philosopher’s philosophical concerns impinge upon his own non-philosophical concerns? Some bits don’t impinge in the slightest—philosophy of mathematics, say, and in general (most) philosophy of science. Some bits look as though they ought to impinge but in fact scarcely do—aesthetics, for example. (At least, nothing I’ve ever read on the philosophy of music has had, or could conceivably have, the slightest effect on my opera-going.) Or again, epistemology. No doubt any decent philosopher who has a smattering of epistemology will be fairly sceptical in his ordinary life—sceptical in the common or garden sense of the word. But then any decent rational being will be fairly sceptical.

But surely, you will cry, moral philosophy must impinge on Real Life? After all, we do ethics—as Aristotle says—in order to become good, don’t we? And surely logic must impinge? Isn’t it the science of reasoning? And don’t we all want to reason as sharply as we can?—Well, glance about at our colleagues. There’s Professor W, who has written some brilliant pieces on ethics: Is he more honourable in his philandering than my neighbour Bernard? And there’s Professor D, the most competent logician of the age: Are his practical reasonings better regulated than those of my neighbour Brian? The answers are: No, and No. And I incline strongly to think that ethics, as it’s done by philosophers, is more likely to confuse than to enlighten non-philosophers, and that logic, as it’s done by logicians, tends to produce logic-choppers rather than reasoners.

No doubt I’m a crusty old cynic. In any case, I don't believe that professional philosophy has much to offer non-philosophers on non-philosophical matters. Why should it have?


So this question, as they say, ‘doesn't arise’.

And there’s this to add. Of course, some philosophers do like to think that aspects of their professional studies have or should have a relevance to Real Life; and some of them do like to address the Common Man. They do it, I hope, for the money—and good luck to them. But far more often than not the results are pretty horrible. Read Dr G’s columns in The Daily Moron: don’t they make you cringe?


I answer the question by a counter-question: ‘Should mathematics only be done by those who are trained in mathematics?’ Well, I won’t legislate on the matter; but it’s pretty evident that if you’ve not trained in mathematics, then you’re likely to make an unholy botch of things—unless you’re one of those rare natural geniuses. The same goes for philosophy.

Are there any clear criteria? None that are clear to me.


The fact that you teach philosophy doesn’t show that you are a philosopher. (Though if teachers of philosophy want to call themselves philosophers, I can’t say that I shall feel very upset. they can call themselves green-grocers for all that I care.) Most teachers of philosophy, I suppose, spend most of their time explaining to their pupils what other people have said. That’s what most teachers of most subjects do most of the time.

But of course, most teachers of philosophy also do some philosophizing—and I doubt if they could teach well if they didn’t. I don’t reserve the name of philosopher to Plato and Aristotle and the like—any more than I reserve the name of poet to Homer and Shakespeare and the like. Field Marshals are soldiers, and so are privates; and there are many more privates than Field Marshals. So it is in philosophy—except that with soldiering it’s the privates who are at the sharp end.


For once, I find myself wholly in agreement with J. Barnes.


Well, of course you can do philosophy without having any acquaintance with its history. (Otherwise how could poor old Thales ever have got started?) Equally of course, if a contemporary philosopher hasn’t the slightest acquaintance with the history of the subject—the sort of acquaintance you might get by riffing the pages of Russell’s History of Western Philosophy—, then he’s likely to re-invent the wheel (and more likely to reinvent long-exploded errors). But I strongly urge would-be philosophers not to try to be historians. History is a difficult and a mind-consuming discipline: if you devote yourself to it with any serious application, you won’t have time or energy to do philosophy as well.

Here’s a moral story (which is also true). In the 1930s a young Italian philosopher was working on the theory of categories. When he’s nearly finished his dissertation he thought that he’d better have a quick look at Aristotle’s Categories to give his work a little historical background. He found that Aristotle’s Categories was a peculiarly interesting and perplexing work. He also found that the Greek text of the work was in anything but a satisfactory condition. So he set himself to edit the Greek text. He then found that the Latin translations of the work had a thitherto unrecognized importance for the textual tradition. So he decided to edit the Latin translations—of which there were a vast number of manuscripts. And so it went on. To be sure, the textual and historical work which he did was epoch-making; but he always regretted—or so he told me—that he had never published a word of philosophy.


(There is no question to this answer.) Some historians of philosophy appear to think—though they never actually state—that the history of a subject must somehow be a less noble occupation than the subject of which it is the history; and I suspect that it’s because they don’t want to be thought of as ‘mere historians’ that they discover an intimate relation between philosophy and the history of philosophy. ‘I’m a historian of philosophy; so I’m a philosopher¸so that’s OK.’

Myself, I’m happy to be a mere historian, and I don’t think that puts me in a league below that of my philosophical colleagues. The history of mathematics isn’t a lower form of intellectual life than mathematics: it’s a different form of intellectual life. The history of astrology isn’t a lower form of intellectual life than astrology ...


I lament the specialization of the subject; but I suppose that in practice it’s unavoidable—who could hope to keep up with the whole of the philosophical literature which comes streaming from the printing-shops? I castigate compartmentalization: a specialist who never looks across the frontiers of his speciality is not only a dull dog—he’s also a silly goose. How, for example, could anyone hope to do anything serious in metaphysics without keeping half an eye on epistemology? Or in political philosophy without a glance at ethics? Or in anything at all without doing some logic?

And unlike specialization, compartmentalization isn’t inevitable. In fact, it’s easily avoided. I think that any academic philosopher ought to be capable of giving an undergraduate course in pretty well any branch of philosophy; and I think that a wise philosophy department would encourage—or perhaps even bribe—its members to teach at least one course a year outside their specialities. In fact, I think something like that is fairly normal in America. It is—or was—absolutely normal in Oxford. It’s virtually unknown in France. (That is surely is one of several reasons for the unhappy state of philosophy in the land of les philosophes. Another reason is the lip-service paid to projects which are plurifacultaire and multidisciplinaire—but that’s another story.)


Now there’s a question ... I can’t think it matters a rap whether all these people are called philosophers or not, and I can’t give very much sense to the phrase ‘mode of philosophizing’. But there surely are different traditions—if a tradition is defined in terms of a sequence of heroes. Frege, Russell, Austin, Davidson, ... Hegel, Heidegger, Sartre, Derrida, ... There are a few cross-dressers: Husserl, Wittgenstein, ...; and some Smart Alecs like to allude knowingly, or more often unknowingly, to heroes of the other tradition. (There are also, of course, more than two traditions: I’ve met some Thomists.)

So what? Well, most philosophers who belong to the so-called analytical tradition are pretty poor philosophers. (Most academics who do anything are pretty poor at doing it; and philosophy, or so it seems to me, is a subject in which it is peculiarly difficult to do decent stuff. A modestly competent historian may produce a modestly good history book: a modestly competent philosopher has no reason to publish nhis modest thoughts.) But there’s a big difference between the analyticals and the continentals: what distinguishes the continental tradition is that all its members are pretty hopeless at philosophy. Myself, I’ve read scarcely a hundred continental pages. I can’t see how any rational being could bear to read more; and the only question which the continental tradition raises is sociological or psychological: How are so many apparently intelligent young people charmed into taking the twaddle seriously?

When Richard Robinson expressed a desire to become a philosopher, Ross—his boss—sent him off to Germany to study under Heidegger. When he retired, he gave me his copy of Sein und Zeit; it was underscored and annotated, and I asked him what he had learnt from Heidegger. He replied: ‘He taught me how to ski’.

I don’t think there’s been much of a debate between members of the two traditions, though they often toss a little mud at one another. I don’t see how there could be a debate (astronomers don’t debate with astrologists).


It’s not easy to write philosophical dialogues, or poems, or aphorisms. It’s not easy to write. And that—rather than standardization—is the real loss. Few living philosophers can write—or at any rate, few English-writing philosophers can write English. One or two of them try, usually with nauseating results. Most don’t even try—and don’t even know they’re not trying. They produce sentences which might have come from the pen of a tax inspector or an accountant.

Perhaps some people think it doesn’t really matter: after all, badly written philosophy may be just as good, qua philosophy, as well written philosophy. But I think it does matter—at least, it matters to me. When did I last read a new book of philosophy and wish that there were still another chapter to go? When did I last read an article in a philosophy journal and smile at a witticism or relish a well-turned phrase? (Last week, actually—but that was exceptional.) Why do I prefer reading a novel, or a history, or a biography, or the side of the Shredded Wheat packet to reading something in the subject which in principle is closest to my heart?

What’s to be done? Nothing, nothing at all.