Thursday, July 03, 2008

The Trouble With Philosophy

Matthew Yglesias on the advantages and disadvantages of a philosophical education for political punditry. Pro:

I think studying philosophy as an undergraduate is excellent preparation for being a political pundit -- it's a lot of arguing, a lot of playing with words, and a lot of learning about how to make a contribution to a discussion without a lot of factual background on the subject at hand.

At the same time, these shared attributes of the disciplines can lead to some dangerous wrongheaded conclusions about specific things...To some extent I think Iraq, which generated a lot of discussion over a prolonged period of time, suffered less from this in the punditsphere (the trouble was more that a lot of people were operating with made up facts rather than with no facts per se) than have a lot of other issues. But I think discussion of Darfur, and then the brief moment of hype around invading Burma, and then again Zimbabwe from time to time tends to partake of rather a lot of this. Robert Mugabe and his regime have no real ethical claims on anyone, so, hey, why not invade?

And of course since it's all non-specialists out having the argument it's difficult to say with authority in detail what would likely go wrong with an invasion of Burma. What's needed is to recover the time-honored sense of a very strong predisposition against attacking other countries.

I say this a lot, but the three disciplines I have degrees in (mathematics, philosophy, and literature) have one thing in common: an aversion for the empirical. But -- in all of these fields I've specialized in history, politics, everyday objects, and other injections of the empirical. So what I seem to like is mastering beautiful, pure, abstract fields and messing them up with the contingent and particular.

I also like being a contentious omnivorous know-it-all, which is the best possible education for a blogger, no matter what kind.


Robin Sloan said...

This is not 100% the same thing, but I always liked the Poynter Institute's pitch -- as a place for practical scholar and reflective practitioners. I think that's the magic overlap, whether you're talking about an institution, a conversation, a blog, or anything else.

Tim said...

I was at a bus stop the other day, when a woman reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed turned to me and asked, "how would you define praxis"?

Let's leave aside whatever cultural markers informed this woman that I would be the random stranger to whom to pose this question, but at first I said "in opposition to theory or theoria" and eventually ended up saying that is something like reflective practice, or the mode through which you put theory into operation. And later I was pleased to look it up and to see that this was pretty much spot-on.

I would add that the chief benefit of a philosophical education (and this may be a good example) isn't just "playing with words" as Yglesias would have it, but being very careful with language. You have to use your terminology very precisely and you want to avoid any unconscious metaphysical or ethical or practical or lexical commitments that might be bound up with your language.

Politics typically plays fast and loose with words and their meanings, so it's a toss-up as to whether philosophy helps or hurts you in punditry. On the one hand, your attention to language can be a tonic to the everyday linguistic sins of politicians and the press. On the other, you can excessively parse and expound or unfairly criticize (or praise) someone who, like most of the population, isn't used to using words quite so carefully. Or it can make you either useless or diabolical as a hack.