Shameless Self-Promotion

I have been delinquent in contributing to this blog lately, and so it’s perhaps especially shameless for me to throw myself back in for the purposes of self-promotion. But I’m shameless, so I’m going to do it. After all, one reason I’ve been delinquent is that I’ve actually been getting work done, and there’s more than a slight possibility that a few readers will find the items promoted here of some interest.

First, my article “Aristotle and the Scope of Justice” has been published in the Journal of Ancient Philosophy. JAP is open access, so a pdf of the article is freely available for download. The woefully abbreviated abstract that accompanies the paper does not adequately advertise its contents. Here is a slightly more informative snippet from the introduction:

My goal in this paper is to show that while Aristotle holds that justice depends on community, his view does not have the unsavory implications often attributed to it. To do this, I consider two alternative attempts to address this issue, one by extending the bounds of community to encompass all human beings, and another by appealing to virtues other than justice to transcend the limitations of community. Against the first, I argue that Aristotle does not maintain that we have actual obligations of justice to every human being. Against the second, I argue that, on Aristotle’s view, none of our actual relations to other human beings falls outside the scope of justice, and although we have obligations of justice only to those with whom we are already in community, we have what I will call eudaimonic reasons to seek justice and avoid injustice in all of our relations with others. I conclude by suggesting that Aristotle’s approach fares better in comparison to fundamentally impartial or rights-based theories of justice than we might initially suppose.

Readers of this blog may find the view I defend unsurprising; what is surprising is that it has not been more fully developed by others.

The second item I am here to promote is my review of Susan Sauvé Meyer’s new commentary on Plato’s Laws 1 & 2. Happily, this is only partially self-promotion, since the review is a positive one that I hope serves to recommend not only the commentary but the Laws itself. The dialogue has perhaps the worst reputation of all of Plato’s works. If you find yourself among the crowd that suspects it is more a product of senility than of genius, Meyer’s commentary may help to convince you otherwise.

So there you have it. Two interesting things to read and ample evidence that I would fail miserably at a career in advertising.

19 thoughts on “Shameless Self-Promotion

  1. Congratulations, David.

    And I’d like to encourage a similar spirit of shamelessness in everyone here at PoT. If I remember correctly, shame isn’t an Aristotelian virtue anyway.

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      • Well, given that you have proven yourself incapable of extended blogcation, I conjecture that you would. Given the quality of many of your blog posts, I’m pretty sure you could put together a respectable book on any number of topics in about the same amount of time it’d take you to write the equivalent blog posts. I think the world could do with a book by you about the Israel/Palestine conflict, combining moral and political philosophical argument with your personal experiences traveling and teaching in the region. I’d bet the royalties from my forthcoming book that you’d get more readers than my book will (though I suspect that the royalties will add up to about $.55, so that’s a low risk venture).

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        • I would love to write a book on Israel/Palestine, but the problem with doing so is the same as the problem I had doing a dissertation on Aristotle’s ethics in the mid 1990s: by the time I got up to speed in the subject, I discovered that I had nothing to say that hadn’t already been said by someone else–and probably said better. John Cooper, Fred Miller, C.D.C. Reeve, Robert Mayhew, Greg Salmieri, Kelly Rogers, and Carrie-Ann beat me to some version of everything I wanted to say about Aristotle.* I have a feeling that Saree Makdisi has beat me to a lot of what I want to say about Palestine. It’s irritating. But I’ll think of something–once I go on blogcation.

          *Oh–and you. But I hadn’t read you in the mid-90s. I was unfamiliar with your oeuvre at the time, possibly because it didn’t exist.

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          • Well, perhaps this is just another way in which I’m shameless; most of what I say about Aristotle has been said in some form by some combination of people, it just hasn’t all been put together in quite the same way, or thoroughly defended, or so clearly articulated. But this may not be entirely shameless; I’d be pretty skeptical of an interpretation that has absolutely no precedent, given how long people have been interpreting Aristotle.*

            I think one big difference between writing about Aristotle and writing about Israel/Palestine, though, is that the latter might appropriately have a more rhetorical role. I don’t use ‘rhetorical’ in a disparaging sense; I mean, rather, that a book on that topic might appropriately be geared toward persuading a particular audience to view the situation in a particular way, so that even if it presents no new information or any especially novel arguments, it can have a unique impact. It’s not unlikely that I’d be less impressed with your writing on the subject if I had read more other work about it, but what I find so thought provoking and insightful about it has a lot to do with the distinctive perspective you bring to it: you have personal experience of the place and the situation, but you’re not an insider, as you are neither Israeli nor Palestinian nor even Jewish or Muslim; yet as a former Muslim (but one who has not replaced Islam with virulent anti-Islamic paranoia) you are not the kind of outsider that many other Americans writing on the topic are; and perhaps most of all, your political philosophical views fall refreshingly outside the normal and predictable boxes into which most of what I’ve read on the topic falls. Virtually everything I read on the topic strikes me as one-sided and blind in some significant respect, to the extent that even I, as a complete non-expert on the topic, can see the problems. Yours is some of the only stuff I’ve read that hasn’t left me irritated at people’s inability to avoid taking sides or reducing the whole issue to some simple conflict between terrorism and security or racism and freedom. So I’d still bet you could write a good book and that people would read it.

            * One of the early referee reports I received on my book manuscript objected that one of my claims was unprecedented. I found it decidedly odd to be told that this was a problem, given how frequently we are told in this field that our work isn’t original enough. Amusingly, however, this objection was just flat out false; as a footnote in the final version of the book observes, my interpretation of the chapter in question, though not represented in recent scholarship, is pretty clearly the interpretation we find in Aquinas’ commentary on the Politics. I discovered this only after reading the referee’s objection, but have never been so pleased to find my thoughts anticipated; there aren’t many better precedents that I could have been in a position to cite.

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          • Well, thanks for the vote of confidence. I actually think that there is a deep philosophical reason why so much work on the Arab/Israeli conflict is problematic in just the way you describe.

            The issue was made vividly clear for me after reading Michael Oren’s vaunted book, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East. The book has won all kinds of plaudits and accolades. In fact, it’s little more than standard-issue Israeli propaganda of a sort that’s been making the rounds for decades.

            What struck me about the book was a short methodological passage in the Foreward that codifies a conception of historiography common to both sides:

            My purpose is not to prove the justness of one party or another in the war, or to assign culpability for starting it. I want, simply, to understand how any event as immensely influential as this war came about–to show the context from which it sprang and the catalysts that precipitated it. I aspire to explore, using the 1967 example, the nature of international crises in general, and the manner in which human interaction can produce totally unforeseen, unintended results (p. xv).

            I know I’m reading between the lines here, but having read the book, I think I’m doing so justifiably: Oren’s tacit assumption seems to be that historiographic objectivity requires moral neutrality; moral neutrality, in turn, requires that we erase human agency from our account of the historical events under consideration. We’re then left with two causal factors, “context” and a series of “catalysts”; events “spring” from their interaction in a way that allows us to bypass questions of specifically moral motivation.

            Reading the passage in this way, you might get the impression that, in following his own advice, Oren will proceed to tell an “objective,” non-partisan, value-free story about the 1967 war. He does nothing of the sort. Instead, he cherry picks the evidence to produce a highly partisan, moralized brief for Israel and against the Arabs. It just happens to be a brief that masquerades as an “objective” work of history driven exclusively by “the facts.” In his attempt to ignore questions of justice and culpability, he just ends up re-introducing them through the back door while insisting that he’s focusing on neutral “facts.” By the end of the exercise, he’s convinced himself (and some of his readers) that morally neutral “facts” inexorably entail a pro-Israeli (or anti-Arab) conclusion. In the attempt to avoid begging the question, he begs every important question.

            It’s actually a very common pattern in the literature on the subject on both sides, and it stems from the false belief that historical understanding is facilitated by the systematic elimination of moral predicates from historical (or “scientific”) inquiry. In other words, moral predicates merely serve to impede the quest for understanding. Since they do, one has to bracket them in the process of inquiry. Only having bracketed them can one clearly see “the facts” that produce genuine historical or political understanding of the conflict.

            Of course, once you’ve bracketed moral considerations in this way, the only facts you’re left with are the ones that can “safely” be conceptualized in non-moral terms. But that’s too impoverished a basis from which to write a coherent account of the conflict. Since it is, what you often get is the ad hoc injection of moral considerations or rhetoric into historiography that is officially supposed to be wertfrei. For obvious reasons, the moral considerations end up bring completely unintegrated with what the author himself regards as a “factual” consideration. The more severe the mismatch between the author’s conception of fact and value, the louder and more tendentious the author’s moral rhetoric tends to be–and the less able the author tends to be at dealing with relevant considerations from the opposite point of view.

            In the most extreme cases, the moral rhetoric just comes from undigested theological slogans. In subtler cases, like Oren’s, it comes from undigested ethno-nationalist ones. It turns out to be surprisingly hard to escape those camps and be taken seriously, whether by the people in them, or by anyone else (practically speaking, there is no anyone else).

            As I see it, Oren’s methodological dictum is the exact opposite of the truth. It’s only when you explicitly introduce moral considerations into discourse and inquiry about the conflict that you clearly see the facts that facilitate understanding of it. I can’t begin to put the Israeli occupation of the West Bank “in context” until I have moral evaluation of it. Before I do, I literally have no idea what I’m looking at–unless I borrow some tribal dogma that tells me what I must be looking at, according to the dictates of “my side.” At a minimum, I need to know what counts as, say, “theft,” or “injustice” before I have any idea what, say, the West Bank settlers are doing and how the Palestinians are responding to them.

            As an aside: I can’t tell you how tempting it is for a foreigner in Israel/Palestine to defer to or internalize some tribal narrative about what one sees, how one is to look at it, and what judgment one is to reach about it. It’s an environment practically designed to defeat truth-conducive cognition. Half of the challenge of writing about the Arab-Israeli conflict is the challenge of not listening to people and thinking for yourself. (The other half is the challenge of knowing when to listen to people rather than relying exclusively on your own epistemic resources.)

            Obviously, one’s moral evaluation of the conflict has to be based on facts, not feelings or wishful thinking. And any defects in the moral conception one bring to one’s inquiries will adversely those inquiries. But the fact remains: the attempt to produce wertfrei historiography or political science on the Arab-Israeli conflict just re-introduces crude partisanship through the backdoor.

            The ideal would be an account of the conflict that was factually informed, unapologetically realist in its moral orientation, that relied on a correct theory of moral responsibility and justice, and that showed some sense of empathetic identification with the situation of every relevant party to the conflict (ideally by having seen or experienced those situations). It’s a hard uphill climb, but it’s something I’d eventually like to do. (I associate the sort of view i have in mind here partly with MacIntyre’s work, and partly with the work on “moral explanations” done by Cornell realists like Nicholas Sturgeon and Richard Miller.)

            But I guess, if I’m actually going to pull this off, I should probably go on some sort of blogcation.

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          • Well, that reads like a decent first draft of a methodological introduction to the book.

            I’ve sometimes wondered to what extent debates about the possibility or propriety of moral or evaluative neutrality in historiography and other social sciences revolve around a conflation of two ways in which we might be non-neutral, one of which deserves rejection but the other of which does not, or at least not obviously. To put it the other way around, in terms of how we might try to be neutral, we might (1) approach historiography or sociology or what not without employing moral or other sorts of evaluative concepts, and we might (2) approach historiography or sociology or what not without partisan prejudices of a moral or otherwise evaluative sort. (2) is obviously an ideal. But (1) is not obviously an ideal, and the reasons you give strike me as making a strong case for thinking that it is a mistake. But if we lazily assume that we can only avoid (2) by avoiding (1), we get the kind of historiography you describe. More generally, I don’t think it’s hard to find cases where an eagerness to pass moral judgment (negative or positive) has distorted people’s inquiry into the facts. But it’s not as though banishing moral concepts from history or social science has eliminated disagreement. To allow them in opens up space for greater disagreement, sure, but until someone makes a good case that we shouldn’t be interested in morally assessing the past at all or that there is something incoherent about it in principle, I don’t see why the likelihood of greater disagreement should lead us to avoid it. If we do it well and responsibly, that will at least have the virtue of making it clear what the moral concepts at work are and where the evaluations are coming from; as it is, those concepts and judgments almost inevitably show up anyway, except that they’re smuggled in. Some historians of the past few generations have made a point of insisting that we can’t do historical inquiry in a morally neutral way, but they tend to think that “values” are just arbitrary anyway, so that they’re not ultimately open to criticism in any terms beyond consistency and the like. I don’t think that’s much better. Like you, I find a lot of what MacIntyre and Cornell realists say pretty congenial, so it’s no surprise that I’m sympathetic.

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          • I think that’s exactly right. Claims (1) and (2) might strike you and me as obviously (and importantly) distinct, but would strike many social scientists or historians as obviously and importantly equivalent. I can imagine the argument for the latter view: since we can’t state a crisp, quasi-algorithmic, easily operationalizable criterion that distinguishes evaluative concepts from partisan prejudices, we’re better off treating all evaluative concepts as expressive of partisan prejudices, especially insofar as the evaluative concept has specifically moral (“emotive”) content.

            I don’t seem to have it here, so I can’t quote from it, but I own a textbook of qualitative social science research (King, Keohane, and Verba’s Designing Social Inquiry) that makes this pretty explicit. Rule 4 of their “Rules for Constructing Causal Theories” is “maximize concreteness,” where application of the rule is understood to be incompatible with reliance on abstract evaluative concepts (pp. 109-112). Criterion 1 of the criteria for judging descriptive inferences is to employ “unbiased inferences,” where “unbiased” conflates your (1) and (2) [pp. 63-65]. In general, if you look at the way they use the word “bias” throughout the book, it fails to discriminate between (1) and (2). I think their treatment of the topic is pretty standard.

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          • I’m often mystified by the way that the word ‘bias’ tends to slide from ‘distorting prejudice’ to ‘judgment’ (of any kind). Like most mistakes, we can see where it comes from: in any given case it can be difficult to distinguish between a distorting prejudice and an informed judgment, and given the complexity of many things that interest us, even an informed, responsibly made judgment can turn into a distorting prejudice. But we don’t have far to look to see what happens when we fail to distinguish these. Fox News and the kind of ‘journalism’ it’s spawned began with the goal of resisting ‘media bias.’ First that meant providing a platform for whatever views weren’t being given airtime elsewhere, without much in the way of critical judgment; then it transformed into passing off distorting prejudices as though they were informed critical judgments. I am too young to have watched much cable news before the rise of Fox; I’m old enough that I now just don’t bother watching cable news. But this notion of bias shows up in more innocuous places; I remember telling my girlfriend at the time that my Greek professor thought that Greek literature was more philosophically rich and interesting than Latin literature, to which she responded, “well, he’s biased.” The possibility that he’d chosen to focus on Greek because of that judgment, rather than the other way around, didn’t seem to have occurred to her.

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          • Ayn Rand attributed the equation of “judgment” with “bias” to a kind of popularized, bastardized Kantianism. There are, on her view, two strains in Kant’s thought that lead to the equation. For one thing (she thought, attributing the idea to Kant), an interest in something leads, inherently, to distorted cognitions about that thing. Second (she insisted), for Kant, our cognitive apparatus is an agent of distortion simply qua human cognitive apparatus. Put the two things together, and the very act of cognition becomes an occasion for cognitive distortion. At first blush, the claim and interpretation of Kant seem too silly to be taken seriously. But then, the phenomenon in question is itself so silly that the Randian explanation almost seems appropriate to it.

            One of the most annoying manifestations of the “judgment” = “bias” equation is the now standard mantra, “Don’t judge!” Randian explanations aside, it seems to me that this particular mantra has a rather transparent explanation. Having taught two decades’ worth of undergraduates, one thing I’ve discovered is that (contra Allan Bloom), undergraduates may talk (to professors) like relativists, but they aren’t in fact relativists. In their candid moments, they’re among the most crudely judgmental, uncharitable people on the planet: given half an opportunity to judge anyone or anything, they will come up with the harshest, cruelest, most over-the-top adverse judgments on the most innocuous phenomena. (BTW, I spent the morning in the doctor’s office watching “The Real,” thereby getting an undiluted dose of the same phenomenon. One person in the waiting room was so agitated by the show that she walked out without seeing the doctor.)

            The “don’t judge” mantra is simply a make-shift fix intended to calm the tendency to dogmatic moralism of the worst variety. I find it interesting that it tends not to occur to defenders of the mantra that a judgment (a moral judgment) could well be positive. Are positive judgments bad, too? So much for praise, encouragement, gratitude, and reward: better to live in a world of rigidly enforced, self-deceived moral neutrality.

            The bottom line, though, is that if the best moral epistemology can serve up is the method of reflective equilibrium, and meta-ethicists insist on a realist semantics for moral terms without ever specifying the truth-conditions of moral claims, moral realism will always seem dogmatic and arbitrary. And that’s all the rationale anyone will need for equating judgments with prejudices.

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          • I’ve actually used the “don’t judge!” idea and its implicit concept of judgmentalness to illustrate that Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean is in fact not vacuous, but can serve as a corrective to the widespread tendency to identify a virtue with the polar opposite of a correctly identified vice. We don’t even need to make the point that we sometimes judge people as good in various ways; even if we suppose that a judgment is always a kind of fault-finding, it’s relatively easy to show people that minimizing it is not exactly ideal. But of course recognizing that doesn’t eliminate the mistake so long as we continue to operate with moral language that doesn’t express that recognition.

            As for students being judgmental, I think there’s a very real sense in which they don’t see those kinds of judgments as moral judgments at all. I doubt many of them could articulate the difference, but in my experience it’s often the same people who are so ready to pass judgment that end up taking subjectivist and relativist sorts of views toward ‘moral’ questions of the sort that your standard textbook on ‘contemporary moral problems’ will deal with. This is, in its way, perfectly consistent; the basis for their harsh judgments need not be anything more than their own personal feelings, after all (one simply wonders why their feelings about abortion, sexuality, prostitution, pornography, drug use, gender roles, euthanasia, carnivorism, and the like are so lax and their feelings about Melissa from Alpha Phi are so relentlessly negative). But I’ve often thought — without ending up with a satisfying formulation of the thought — that there is no deep difference in kind between the judgments that they’re willing to make and the ‘moral’ judgments that they’re so hesitant to make, and that perhaps if they could be made to realize that, they’d be more interested in ethics.

            Importantly, though, I think there’s something about the “don’t judge!” attitude that is quite right. What people usually have in mind, I think, is not just any judgment of the form “one should not do X” or “that person is bad in respect Y,” but a kind of wholesale condemnation of a person as thoroughly worthy of contempt. My reason for thinking this is that whenever I have pointed out the indispensability of judgment (negative and positive) of others (both their actions and their character), one of the first responses is that that’s not the sort of thing they have in mind and that it’s possible to judge people in that way without, well, judging them. Of course, the two end up getting conflated anyway, so that anyone who passes judgment in the weaker sense is liable to be called out for passing judgment in the stronger sense. But, as someone who has both been called out for passing judgment and praised for being tolerant and forgiving of people’s faults, I think I see the difference quite clearly. It’s not, of course, that I regard wholesale contempt as inappropriate in all circumstances, but I have no tendency to feel wholesale contempt for a person simply because I regard their actions or character as significantly flawed in some way. Perhaps it’s because I regard my own actions and character as so often flawed in some significant ways that I find it easy to retain benevolence and respect for people who seem to be significantly flawed. But whatever the peculiarities of my own psychology, I think it’s the kind of judgment that knocks out benevolence and respect that leads to the “don’t judge!” mantra.

            That, for what it’s worth, is also the kind of judgment I think the Jesus of Matthew 7:1 has in mind — not the indispensable evaluation of people’s actions and character, but the unconditional condemnation of a person. So, to bring things back around to Rand, whatever one thinks of Matthew 7:1, her response to it — which I read somewhere, though I have no recollection where, not having read very much of her — as incompatible with the indispensable sort of judgments that we all do and ought to make misses an important point. Her own tendency to engage in what seems like wholesale, unconditional condemnation of people — like poor Kant — suggests that she might not have appreciated the difference.

            But I’d better be careful talking about Rand around here. I know enough to know that I don’t know enough to know how to interpret her. Then again, if anyone were going to get his head bitten off for criticizing Rand, you’d have lost several heads by now.

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          • Another amusing and related anecdote: at one point over the course of revising and expanding my dissertation chapter to turn it into a book, I thought I had discovered that Carrie-Ann had beaten me to one of my most distinctive contributions to scholarship on the Politics in her paper ‘Aristotle, Citizenship, and the Common Advantage.’ I was depressed for about five minutes before I came to see that, while the points she makes against Cooper, Keyt, and Morrison’s treatments of the alleged conflict between Aristotle’s views on citizenship and the common good are all correct, excellent, and complementary to my own, she doesn’t in fact take the same view I take, she hadn’t made most of the arguments that I make, and at a few points her arguments, while right in my view, were open to potential objections that she hadn’t addressed. So it turned out to be the best kind of discovery: here’s a paper that makes very good arguments that complement mine, but doesn’t render them redundant. In the end her arguments strengthen mine, and I think my arguments strengthen hers. Everybody wins (except Cooper, Keyt, and Morrison, that is).

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  2. Pingback: The Future of PoT | Policy of Truth

  3. This isn’t exactly the same sort of book on Israel/Palestine as you guys are talking about, but I noticed Taneli Kukkonen’s review in the new issue of The Philosophers’ Magazine of a new book by Carlos Fraenkel, Teaching Plato in Palestine: Philosophy in a Divided World. Besides Palestinian Muslims, Fraenkel also teaches Muslims in Indonesia, Orthodox Jews in New York City, and Canadian Mohawks. So his book is more about the teaching and the mission of philosophy, not about Israel per se, but it still looks like it would have a lot to interest you.

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    • Indeed. If that book hadn’t been written, I’d have encouraged Irfan to write a whole book based on his experience teaching at Al Quds, along the lines of his blog posts about it. I’d still encourage him if he were to decide to write a book that gave a lot of attention to that sort of thing, but, you know, marketing.

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    • I’m actually writing a review of Fraenkel’s book for Reason Papers for the fall. I read the book last summer but never managed to write the review in time for the relevant due date. And yes, the book is more about teaching and the mission of philosophy than it is about Israel/Palestine. It’s a quick, enjoyable read.

      Though we obviously have similar interests and a similar conception of philosophy’s public-Socratic mission, I think I end up with a more skeptical and pessimistic view of things than Fraenkel. For one thing, I wonder whether philosophy really changes people as powerfully as he thinks it does. For another, he seems unperturbed by something I find much more worry-inducing than he does: philosophy competes with ideology in the marketplace of ideas, but while philosophy leaves its audience with more questions than answers, ideology does the reverse. Is that really a strategy for success?

      You might say that ideology and philosophy are playing different games by different rules, but practically speaking, if you’re facing a class full of Hamas supporters, and you have no (convincing) non-sectarian political solution for the problems that drove them to Hamas, they have no real reason to keep listening to you. And then you’re back at the first problem: those Hamas-niks will conscientiously do your assignments for class, but what you’re saying is not apt to make a personal difference to them.

      In that case, Fraenkel’s optimism about philosophy-as-liberator seems unwarranted. His optimism only seems warranted if you can head back to McGill at the end of the day, and not have to worry about the long-term consequences (if any) of what your pedagogical work has done (or left undone). If he stayed in the West Bank, and pushed hard enough on things to make a difference, he’d probably end up like Socrates. That’s why Sari Nusseibeh, Fraenkel’s hero and mine, is always veering close to Socratic hemlock territory–and has an escape hatch that leads to Johns Hopkins.

      I struggle a lot with something Fraenkel seems to take for granted–what exactly is the cash value of philosophy in the world? I don’t have a unified answer, only bits and pieces of one. I read this paper while I read Fraenkel. Brennan goes all the way to the reverse extreme, but the paper is a usefully jarring corrective to Fraenkel’s optimism.

      PS. An (hour long) interview with Fraenkel with Robert Talisse, erstwhile Felician faculty member and on the Felician Institute’s Advisory Board.

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      • In defense of philosophy’s transformative power, I can say that I personally have been deeply changed by it. Not only have my views about many subjects changed dramatically (even if they are now not very clear), but it has really altered my basic way of being in the world. I don’t think this is much of a defense, because I have never been involved in ideology in anything like the way a Hamas supporter has, and I recognize ways in which philosophy answered to features of my personality that I’ve had for as long as I can remember. I’m hardly alone in being changed by philosophy in the ways that I’ve been, but I do recognize that philosophy has all too little power over people who are in the grips of ideology, especially when their material conditions lead them to see that ideology as the only alternative (as I’d imagine many Hamas supporters do). So I’m probably not actually disagreeing with you here, given that it sounds like Fraenkel has a far more optimistic view about what we can hope that philosophy will do in more than a few cases here and there.

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        • Yes, in that sense, philosophy’s power to transform is indisputable, but as you recognize, in that sense, philosophy just turns proto-philosophers into philosophers. It’s not clear what it does to everyone else. The real problematic concerns philosophy’s relation to social and political change. On the one hand, philosophical activity completely detached from the events of the day starts to seem (and become) irrelevant. On the other hand, when philosophers become philosopher-activists, they run the risk of turning philosophy into ideology. We’ve all probably seen both extremes, and yet each extreme embodies some truth. A philosopher has to learn how to detach herself from the demands of the present, but a philosopher also has to be willing to learn from risky, active, first-personal commitment to an ideal.

          This should really just go into the review, but there are two moments of truth for Fraenkel where it seems to me that his philosopher-activist approach falls short. The chapter on “citizen philosophers” in Brazil comes out in favor of a rather coercive pie-in-the-sky pedagogical scheme for invigorating Brazilian democracy through philosophy: high school students are required to take three years of philosophy on the premise that “philosophy is necessary for the exercise of citizenship.” One problem turns out to be that so many of the students are functionally illiterate–so they end up teaching them philosophy through film. A critic asks the obvious question: How about teaching literacy through ordinary reading? In his enthusiasm for the law mandating philosophy in the high schools, Fraenkel never quite deals with that criticism. (I forget where it was, but MacIntyre somewhere has a rant against teaching philosophy at the K-12 level. I wish I could find it, because it seems so perfectly applicable).

          The chapter on Mohawk Indians does a great job at laying out the endoxa of the participants in the Nation Building Program of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne (I don’t mean that sarcastically). The problem is, Fraenkel is too polite to deal with the real implications of the endoxa he uncovers: Mohawk nation building seems to require a dogmatic commitment to something like racism. Understandably, having brought that to light, Fraenkel realizes that he’s kicked over a hornet’s nest. But since it’s not his responsibility to solve the problem, he’s free to leave things there, head back to McGill, and write about it. To solve the problem, you’d have to engage in an all-out dialectical assault on your hosts’ beliefs, calling into question the very basis of their cherished nationalist ideology. But who would allow such a thing, and who could pull it off?

          On the other hand, if you don’t pull it off, what have you accomplished but to belabor the obvious? You’ve made explicit to your interlocutors what was previously implicit (their commitment to a racial criterion for membership in a nation, and their commitment to building a nation on the basis of that criterion), at which point they exclaim, correctly, “Well, we knew that all along!” A philosopher might respond, “Oh, but you didn’t really know it.” But since the philosopher himself is bailing out before the endoxa become knowledge, what difference does it make whether they really “know” it or not?

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