Philosophy iLecture

USU is in the process of putting together some brief “iLectures” for interested prospective students (and anyone else). So I have put together one on Philosophy, which you can read here if you want:

Loving wisdom

Here’s the final paragraph, so you can better determine if you’re interested:

“But more than all that: philosophy, as the love of wisdom, is the intelligent and honest attempt to become, as Aristotle might have put it, a ‘professional human being,’ which is a human being who has worked out his or her moral obligations and theoretical beliefs and integrated them into an honorable, well-balanced life. For in the final analysis, none of us wants to have lived a mistake; nobody wants to regret how they have lived. We want to live the best possible life, given who we are and what we face. And that is why we are all interested in wisdom. It is the science of figuring out how to live as a fully human being.”

(I’ll post a link to the actual iLecture once it’s recorded and posted.)

Also: for anyone interested in listening to other philosophers discuss interesting topics, check out the podcasts available here on “Philosophy Bites.” It’s an interesting set of topics, discussed by well-known professional philosophers, and the series is growing increasingly popular in the set of educational podcasts.


14 thoughts on “Philosophy iLecture

  1. Kleiner

    Excellent little piece there, Huenemann. The funny thing is that I agree with all of it. Funny because I wonder how this can be in light of the recent discussion about the nature of philosophy on this blog!
    You say (rightly) that philosophy is the personal pursuit of what is important. But since you distance yourself from mere “preference”, couldn’t we add (without changing your meaning) that philosophy is the personal pursuit of what is REALLY important?

    In the other blog stream you embraced the view that philosophy need have no necessary relation to truth/reality. But in this piece you seem to fully take on the view I defended – that while particular philosopher’s claims to actual wisdom are usually spurious, the telos of philosophy is necessarily oriented toward truth/reality.

    Am I missing something, because it seems to me that your tune has changed. For the better, I might add! :)


  2. Huenemann Post author

    Glad you liked it! Unfortunately, my subjectivism is still hanging in there. First, I don’t think there are transpersonal, objective facts about what is important, meaning that nature or the universe really does not care what we do to ourselves. But, second, I do think that for each individual, there exists an appropriate set of values, meaning things they ought to value given their culture, personal history, set of beliefs. And, third, I think individuals can be wrong about which values are appropriate for them, and that philosophy can help them figure it out.

    I need to think a lot more about the second claim, since what an individual believes and what they understand their culture and even their own history to be is changeable and negotiable, and there are some arbitrary choices individuals make about these things — so it is pretty hard to see how a set of values comes to be determined as appropriate for an individual. It’s not completely a free decision, as Sartre seems to have believed, but it’s not totally determined ‘from the outside’ either.

    So — and this should make several readers cringe — I think individuals have their own ‘truths,’ in the sense that the individual has to work out what they really value, given a range of factors to which they are subject. (Some of this came up in discussion with “pudica” over at Philosophy is the effort of working this out.


  3. Kleiner

    I don’t read that subjectivism in you paper. You talk of living a “fully human” life – a turn of phrase that sounds like there is a telos to human life that can be more or less actualized. You also talk of the dangers of self-delusion, which makes it sound like there is something (say, human nature) that they could be deluded about.
    Anyway, for whatever it is worth I think your revised remarks above read substantially different than your paper.

    The only kind of self-delusion you allow for in your revised remarks is a delusion born of choosing values that are not “appropriate for them.” What might that mean? First, I tend to think the word “appropriate” is a weak word – a word that inevitably implies an objective standard but wants to act like it doesn’t. After all, why would one set of values fail to be “appropriate” for someone? What is the test? How can you not make an appeal to human nature at some point (this would include speaking of human community since man is by nature a “political” – in the classical sense – animal)?

    Or do you want to push your “individuals have their own truths” (something that I really cringed at, and I hope everyone else did) even further – perhaps to the claim that there is no human nature? In which case why not study cultural anthropology, since all you’d be investigating are the accidental cultural mores of societies and individuals?

    By the way, there are different ways of saying there is “no human nature”. One might just be queasy about overburdened metaphysical categories like “nature”, “essence” and “substance”. This seems to be Heidegger’s worry, because he still wants to talk plenty about a “way of being” that is shared by all Dasein (notice that I have to avoid calling it “universal”, since that is also too metaphysical). Or there is the more radical (and popular) kind of “existentialism”, a kind of love affair with freedom that denies that man has a nature or even much of a “way of being” to speak of at all. I am here thinking of Sartre at his more radical moments. But isn’t this just the kind of juvenile interpretation of Nietzsche that we both so dislike?!


  4. Kleiner

    I think everyone would agree that the “individual has to work out what they really value, given a range of factors to which they are subject.”
    The question is, how do we delimit that range of factors? Shouldn’t we include human nature? The human condition? Our “ownmost way of being”? … … Once you admit any of those (and I just cannot see how you cannot), aren’t you right back to talking about the real in some manner or another?


  5. Huenemann Post author

    OK, let’s see what I can say. I will admit that there is something like human nature — namely, biological constraints on what will count as a flourishing human life. Diseases and injuries are never themselves good for human beings (though humans might find very uplifting and productive ways to respond to them). Anyone whose greatest joy is traveling through the world and picking up exotic diseases is going against nature, I will admit.

    Beyond that, things gets messy, but let me try to sketch what I have in mind. Picture a series of nested spheres which represent constraints on what life will be good or appropriate for an individual. The innermost sphere is the one I just mentioned, the biological one. There’s no going against mother nature, on at least the central features of needing food, air, shelter, health, etc.

    The next shell out might represent psychological constraints. People are wired differently, and will find different sorts of things fulfilling. These can be changed, but with great difficulty.

    The next shell out represents fixtures of geography, history, and culture. The time and place and social environment I am in make it so that the life of a Tibetan buddhist or of a Mayan really aren’t going to ‘fulfill’ me. Typically, when I meet a westerner who says she has embraced Tibetan buddhism, I am inclined to think she really hasn’t; she has embraced some very westernized version of it. If you dropped her in Nepal, she’d quickly request a flight home (I think). But the constraints in this shell are somewhat negotiable. It does happen, from time to time, that someone does discover they are much more at home in a very different culture, or they can learn to make it their home.

    Next one out represents the choices we make that can fairly easily be changed or go otherwise. We choose careers, places to live, churches to attend, friends to hang out with, etc. It’s here that I see the biggest opportunities for philosophical reflection, examination, and therapy. Someone might find himself in a church that is at odds with something in a deeper shell — say, a homosexual in a gay-intolerant religion. Or someone might have a strong inclination toward reflection, one which is being stifled by the lifestyle she has adopted. But how does one sort out what’s more important, where one’s obligations are (or what they are), etc.? Philosophy can help someone figure out the right way to live, given the range of shells that constrain their options.

    That’s vague (I need to write much more about it), but the upshot is that, for each individual, there may be an optimal mode of life, or a narrow range of such modes; but these are relativized to the individuals, without there being an intersubjective “best human life.”


  6. Kleiner

    Big of you to grudgingly admit that there is such a thing as human nature! :) Of course, you immediately reduced human nature to a kind of biological materialism (which, I think, is what Huenemann would plug in along with social conditioning for Sartre’s “facticity”).

    I like the nesting spheres analogy though. My question is this: at what point do the spheres become “accidental” rather than “essential”?

    Seems like we agree that at least the first biological sphere is essential to human nature. Disease is bad. Why? I’ll fill in the gaps here: In itself disease is bad because we desire to live because in itself life is good. (And we find ourselves well on our way to the convertibility of existence and goodness.)

    You suggest that the next level – the “psychological” – is accidental. I infer this since you say that we are “wired differently” and so our psychology becomes a non-essential or particular rather than universal attribute. But let’s evaluate this claim, remembering that we need not assume the material reduction of psyche (soul) to brain chemistry.

    Sure, I can go along with the ole “different strokes for different folks” – up to a point. Say I like skiing, you like snowshoeing. I like reading, you like music. Whatever. But beneath those particular and accidental differences aren’t there universal drives? The desire for health. The desire for knowledge. The desire for pleasure. … At bottom, are we really “wired differently”? I say no. Just because Jon gets his kicks from the Beastie Boys while Jane rocks out with Sha Na Na doesn’t mean that our “wiring” is essentially different. In fact, it seems essentially the same to me.

    I would agree that it is at the level of choices that the difference becomes most pronounced – and in a way the most philosophically interesting. And so you suggest that we sort out how best to live by looking at the “range of shells” to see our options. But the question remains open as to whether those preceding shells were accidental or essential to a human nature.


  7. Huenemann Post author

    I think almost all humans have the same wiring when it comes to many basic drives. But there seems to be greater variation in our wiring on some other matters that are also very basic. I’m thinking of dispositions toward order, pattern, sympathy, relations to things vs. other people, tangible vs. visual vs. auditory interests, etc. Some people gravitate early on toward math and patterns and tools; others gravitate toward more interactive, sympathetic relations to others, colors, and smells. The psychology research points toward a lot of people’s interests and proclivities to be set early on by genetics, and these are almost impossible to override. Moreover, they lead to very different kinds of life — one becomes a musician, or a therapist, or a career military officer, or a philosophy professor, etc. I think it would be wrong to insist that all these different people need to follow a single recipe for happiness, since their “natures” will demand different things. At most we could lay down a single recipe like the following: figure out what your own nature is, and try to put together a life that allows for the most fulfilling and gratifying expression of that nature. (This is essentially Nietzsche’s recipe: “Become who you are!”) That’s all I mean by individuals having their own “truths,” though maybe the t-word should have been avoided in this context.

    It will mean that, for some people, belonging to a church and believing in God will help constitute the fullest expression of their nature. (Here I part with Nietzsche.) Others will need to believe in wiccanism, and others won’t need a moment of philosophical reflection in order to successfully travel from cradle to grave joyously and triumphantly. Other will need to wallow in philosophical ambiguities until they haven’t a clue what’s true. (That’s me.) Ideally, what these people will have in common is a good fit between who they are and how they are living. When the fit isn’t good, philosophy may be of some use. Indeed, it may be a life-saver.


  8. Kleiner

    Suggesting that man has a telos does not commit one to a “simple recipe” view of happiness – as if teleological thinkers are out there demanding that everyone conform to a very specific plan of life. Even though we have the same nature (shared set of “drives”), the human experience is too variegated for that. This is why Aristotle makes the following warning in NE Bk I.3:

    “Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject-matter admits of, for precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions, any more than in all the products of the crafts. Now fine and just actions, which political science investigates, admit of much variety and fluctuation of opinion, so that they may be thought to exist only by convention, and not by nature. And goods also give rise to a similar fluctuation because they bring harm to many people; for before now men have been undone by reason of their wealth, and others by reason of their courage. We must be content, then, in speaking of such subjects and with such premisses to indicate the truth roughly and in outline, and in speaking about things which are only for the most part true and with premisses of the same kind to reach conclusions that are no better. In the same spirit, therefore, should each type of statement be received; for it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs.”


  9. Kleiner

    I hear that “simple recipe” criticism quite often when I teach ethics. You know, who is Aristotle to tell me what makes me happy? It is as if people feel oppressed by having a nature.
    Reminds me of that classic scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Stan (or is is “Loretta”?) is “always going on about women” – because he wants to be one so he can have babies.

    Reg (Cleese’s character) responds: “Babies?! You can’t have babies! Where are you going to let the fetus gestate, are you going to put in a box?”

    Loretta: “Don’t you oppress me.”

    Reg’s response is to make an appeal to reality! (“Symbolic of his struggle against reality”). To nature. Isn’t that the only appropriate response? Stan might think he would get meaning from having babies – but it is not proper to his masculine nature to do so! In short, his nature delineates the possible meaningful activities that are REALly available to him. But this is hardly a sentence to conformity and boredom. The potential activities (he could be a doctor or a philosopher or a carpenter, … …) are not unlimited (Sartre’s feverish hope) but are quite broad and variegated. Stan is unhappy not because his “shells” don’t fit together, but because he does not know himself! (which is to say, he does not know his nature or is at least in a losing war with it).


  10. Huenemann Post author

    Here I go beating a great comedic scene to death, or at least ’til all the funny is gone. If Stan really did have a deep desire to carry a baby (and he wasn’t just a twit), yet found himself in a body not up to the task, then there is some deep shell confusion (though probably not one philosophers could help with). In short, the guy needs a shrink.

    I really do like Aristotle’s moral theory, precisely because of its flexibility. Being the person of practical wisdom means finding the “just right” degree of various human traits and qualities, and figuring out that “just right” setting through an imaginative, emotional, and intellectual exploration of how to be human. Indeed, I’d be happy to call myself neo-Aristotelian on this score, provided that I could graft contemporary psychology and evolutionary biology onto his basic moral framework. I’m not sure that’s kosher, since that would really dilute his view of “human nature” — I think it would turn out to be far more variable than he imagined.

    But returning to the question that got this business started: it seems to me that metaphysical beliefs are best employed by deep needs in personalities — roughly, one believes in God because their “shells” pretty much require it — and while we can generally work out when shells “pretty much require” certain beliefs, we really can’t work out whether those beliefs are true.


  11. Kleiner

    Wisdom defined classically is the knowledge of first principles and universal truths. That is, metaphysical knowledge. I presume that what Vince means by “wisdom” is something more akin to phronesis (practial wisdom), or perhaps gnome (good sense) about what is good. Still, both of these must be tied to some metaphsical truth about human nature. (Everyone up to Levinas was convinced that metaphysics has to precede ethics).

    In short, I just don’t see how we can seperate the question of truth from pursuit of wisdom. Not that I want to be excessibly rigid (“dogmatic”) about it or deny the importance of history. I’ve read too much postmodernity for that. :)

    That said, most philosophers I know do organize their class as a pursuit of wisdom (in particular if we take the Socratic maxim that true wisdom is knowing that you don’t know). I certainly try to do that (even if some students might suggest I am not very good at it).

    I am afraid that so few students study philosophy simply because philosophy does not “bake bread”. In a way it is useless. It is studied for its own sake, not for the sake of something else. Aristotle (who I have really been harping on of late) brilliantly uses this uselessness as an argument FOR philosophy’s superiority to everything else (see NE bk X). The problem, I am afraid, is that too many students view college as technical school rather than a place to become truly educated (in the richest sense of that word).


  12. Kleiner

    I am not sure if anyone does either. But we should not infer from this that all positions are equal. They are not. Just because no one has it all sorted out does not mean that there is no way to distinguish between better and worse views. I resist the Culture of Nice that culminates in a weak-kneed tolerance and, ultimately, a kind of secret misology.


  13. Mike

    I remember a conversation about tolerance and how it seems like more of something that should be given as a last resort. If you can argue through something and reason together that’s best but when all else fails and people are about to come to blows then tolerance is a good concession in order to preserve societal civility. It seems like the marketplace of ideas and welcoming argument is important so tolerance as the first option seems altogether bad for society.

    Personally I try to be as intolerant as possible all the time just to avoid the Culture of Nice’s temptations. Seriously though the greatest advantage to being intolerant is that you don’t end up surrounded by a lot of lame people.

    Dr. Wilcox used to push fallible-ism (specifically moral fallibilism) over (moral) relativism for some reason like this. I have yet to meet a philosopher who is a relativist (in the typical sense). I quit studying in the English department because it seemed to be the lay orthodoxy there. Made for some really boring classes where some really dumb opinions were given equal time as the greats. Blatant intolerance in the classroom is the virtue that drew me to philosophy.


  14. Huenemann Post author

    Yes, I agree that tolerance is a sign of failure. It means: we’ve not going to argue about this; instead, we’ll just look the other way and try to ignore one another. It’s certainly better than whacking at each other with sticks, but not as good as critical engagement, where we argue and dispute and discuss. But the Culture of Nice views critical engagement as the same thing as whacking at each other with sticks, so mostly we all just ignore one another’s views about the most important things. Journalists get limited by this too, since their consumers will view any intelligent pressing of questions as being ‘not nice.’



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