There goes philosophy

This is a comment I left for Hans Sluga’s blog post on yet another University shuttering the doors of its (in this case graduate) philosophy department:


I feel conflicted. While I agree that “Philosophy and the humanities in general need to rethink where they are and what they are doing”, I also wonder if we are exacting that as the price of being surrounded by an agenda which finds value almost entirely in what can be justified and how it can be justified. Philosophy could be doing so much better, should be doing so much better than the “insider business” it occupies itself with, but doing better is itself doing better philosophy. You can’t have better philosophy without DOING philosophy. So in a sense, asking whether philosophy or for that matter any of the arts and humanities are ‘justified’ is merely a commitment to the idea that these are things that need to be measured in some sense.

And of course there are plenty of valid reasons for wanting to measure them! But the mistake seems to be that we defer all reputable value to merely that which can be justified, to that which we can measure. What it fails to capture is that in addition to things in our lives that are open questions, that need to have their values established, we also have things that act AS the measures. And while sometimes it makes sense to subject even those things to doubt and testing, what we are seemingly blind to is that the role of a measure and the role of measurable things are distinct. Not necessarily as exemplified by the things under scrutiny, but in how-they-function-in-our-lives. What is the cost of failing to adequately recognize the difference?

What I’m getting at is that when we doubt the value of things like philosophy, things like the humanities, things like the arts, we forget that these are also things which have a proper place at the center of ways that (some) people interact with the world. They are part of our meaning-making. They are often in important ways how-we-come-to-measure-value-in-the-world. That is, they sometimes ARE our measures. And at least occasionally when you try to measure the measure things get confusing if not downright messy.

We are doing what Procrustes did, in other words. Rather than respecting the value that things have in themselves as part of our lives, we subject those measures to often violent and catastrophic alterations. To measure a thing something else has to hold fast, remain aloof from the actual testing and doubts. What happens if the thing that was in other circumstances removed from the game of doubt and inquiry is suddenly on the receiving end?

Normally we measure how well a bed fits by whether IT is too long or too short for US. We are the measure of the bed. In Procrustes’ world the bed is what measures US, and his guests were themselves either stretched out or amputated to make them fit. It is a question whether this sort of maiming is always necessary or merely a consequence of the lengths we go to subject anything and everything to being ‘justified’.

There may be very good reasons why philosophy is unsustainable in academia. I think it would be tragic if we lost philosophy, the humanities, and the arts from things people studied. But another question is what human life would actually BE without these things? I’m not saying that people don’t do very well already in their absence. Forms of life abound that are largely untouched by deep thoughts, literature, and museums. What I’m asking is what life would look like where the ideals and practices we know under those names were simply gone from the world.

The point I’m making, in this round about way, is that when we start questioning everything, as if everything either stood or fell on its ability to be justified, what we are ignoring is that underneath all our practices is simply a form of life where many such things are just what we do. They ARE us. And they are not present in our lives by reason of or because we are necessarily justified in doing them.

We are often so occupied with the foreground of deciding where things fit in our lives that we entirely miss the background that our life HAS a place for many things. It is something that goes unnoticed by us, is unquestioned, and yet without which none of our foreground concerns would even make sense. I take that as at least part of the concern Wittgenstein had in On Certainty (and of course elsewhere).

Sorry this is such a long ramble down that road and maybe only tangential to your own concerns in raising these issues. Not many people seem to be worried by our Procrustean temptations, much less willing to talk about them. I suggest them here because I firmly believe that avoiding the issue gets us ever deeper into confusions that not only hamstring the practice of philosophy but tangle things up in our daily lives with senseless amputations and other violent tortures.