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07/03/2012

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Michael Duff

I studied philosophy as an airline ramp agent. (I probably never lost or damaged your bag). The essay accompanying my successful application to law school was a kind of stream of consciousness response to the provided topic, "Describe your relationship to the world of ideas," in which I described what it was like to "lecture" on Heidegger to my blue collar co-workers (who were ever so happy to see me depart for law school!). By then (my early 30s) philosophy was already "therapeutic" - try loading luggage for 10 years without therapy! But the "discourse community" for advanced philosophic ideas seemed very small (and I assume it is even smaller now, though I'm no longer in the same circle of people). Technical, specialized language just confirms distance for many, many people. My concern is that "the rest of us" circle is shrinking so much that certain kinds of discussions will become simply impossible outside of our private echo chambers.

Patrick S. O'Donnell

Michael,

Your delightful story prompted memories of lunch breaks at the construction job site when I would exploit (when not napping) the rare moment in any conversation to bring up something I was reading (or had read) of a philosophical (on near-philosophical) bent, attempting (and often failing) to communicate key ideas in a “working-class” idiom, although in this case, many of my co-workers happened to be college educated (the general contractor I worked for, who is now nationally known as a pioneer in ‘green building,’ hired a fair number of UCSB graduates)! This did not endear me to my co-workers, and they did wonder why I was in construction and not back in school. Thankfully, I had earned their respect through hard work and a concern for craftsmanship, or else they might have made my workday quite miserable. As it turns out, it was as a result of philosophical conversations at the home of a former teacher and now client whose house we were rebuilding after the Painted Cave fire that I was asked to substitute teach.

Ethics, or moral philosophy, often seems to be an exception to the shrinking orbits of philosophical discourse (and whatever one thinks of their specific views): Peter Singer, Dale Jamieson, and Onora O’Neill, for instance, have rendered complex ethical ideas into a form palatable for practical “application.” One reason for this of course is that these philosophical analyses have relevance (intentionally or not) for wider circles: be it bioethics (or health ethics more broadly) or “animal ethics” or even just war ethics; of late, we find moral and political philosophers participating in discussions with international law and politics specialists about “targeted killings,” or discover works on “collective responsibility” with ethical and legal relevance to corporate conduct and the behavior of States. Unfortunately, the relevance, if any, of other areas of philosophical discourse to the existential concerns or trial and tribulations of the general public, is not made plain, as Ben Alpers notes, by Anglo-American philosophers, unable or unwilling to speak to a non-philosophical public: in other words, there are precious few philosophers who are on the order of a Bertrand Russell or John Dewey of yesteryear (perhaps that’s setting the bar a bit high and maybe I’m importing the French regard for intellectuals onto foreign soil), that is, who are at once academic philosophers and public intellectuals.

Yet as I say in the latest comment to Alpers’ post, I think specialization goes some distance in accounting for the core of the problem: it begins with one’s dissertation, which tends to set the trajectory and tone for later work. Rare are the philosophers with a taste and talent for looking at the “big picture,” or familiarizing or mastering the literature of several specialized domains. Some of these issues are discussed within the profession itself, as in Avner Cohen and Marcelo Dascal’s edited volume, The Institution of Philosophy: A Discipline in Crisis (1989). Cohen himself has written important works for wider publics, especially his research on nuclear proliferation and in particular Israel as a nuclear-armed state and its “bargain” with the bomb.

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