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Tue Jun 11, 2013, 09:11 AM

 

Philosophers: more than bearded intellectuals

Philosophy is more than an academic discipline in itself; it should be central to the moral and principled debates we have everyday, says Ellen Judson.

by Ellen Judson
Monday 10th June 2013, 20:03 BST

A few weeks ago I received an email about a pro-choice abortion workshop, with the tagline ‘Let’s talk about abortion’; it explained what the workshop would involve, namely a free discussion about people’s opinions and understanding of abortion; the email included the caveat ‘Please note that this discussion will not focus on philosophical ideas’. As a philosophy student, I understood exactly what this meant. When running a workshop that is meant to be an open forum for people to discuss meaningful issues, the last thing anyone wants is someone coming in and arguing that on the choice theory of rights it is implausible that a foetus can be a right-bearer, or claiming that the debate rests on whether we subscribe to Locke’s theory of personhood, or asserting that any debate about morality is pointless as all we do in moral debate is express different emotions. Philosophical ideas do not help debate; they hinder it. And what else might we expect from a subject where, if you say you don’t believe modus ponens is true (if you don’t know what that is: congratulations, you aren’t a philosopher!), you will be laughed out of the building, but if you say that you believe torturing babies for fun is wrong you can be sure of finding someone who will disagree with you?

The thing is, isn’t discussing a topic like this really part of the point of philosophy? For me, the attraction of philosophy has always been that it tries to answer questions that other disciplines simply can’t – where we meet the limits of science, of maths, of theology, that is where philosophy comes into its own. And abortion is surely one of those topics which cannot be answered by facts alone – we can know all the biological facts, and sociological statistics about abortion, but somewhere along the way we need to think about our values – values like choice, freedom, life. And that’s where we start philosophising – even if we don’t realise it.

For example, take the controversy over offensive messages posted on Twitter; Paul Chambers was arrested for sending ‘menacing electronic communications’ after joking about blowing up Robin Hood Airport); it was ruled that Sally Bercow had ‘seriously defamed’ Lord McAlpine on Twitter; Paris Brown, the youth crime commissioner for Kent, was investigated over ‘racist’ and ‘homophobic’ tweets. Opinions are sharply divided as to which of these cases ought to be pursued by the police; there are fears over restricting freedom of speech, but then it seems we cannot allow people to say literally anything they want, or there is great potential for people’s lives to be destroyed, by, for instance, false accusations or violent action coordinated on social media. There is a line to be drawn between speech causing harm which outweighs the benefit of freedom of speech, and speech which, though perhaps distasteful or offensive, we do not wish to restrict for fear of giving the state that much control over what we say. And to find where that line should be drawn, we have to think about why we want freedom of speech; what the harm is; what different kinds of offence there are; what the role of the state should be in governing our actions – and philosophy is the discipline that seeks to answer these questions.

The current outcry over the GCHQ intelligence gathering is another perfect example – we feel that we have a right to privacy, but we also want to be protected by the state from terrorism; how far the pursuit of one goal can impose upon our rights is thus a crucial, and indubitably philosophical question.

http://www.varsity.co.uk/comment/6051

9 replies, 3733 views

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Arrow 9 replies Author Time Post
Reply Philosophers: more than bearded intellectuals (Original post)
rug Jun 2013 OP
rrneck Jun 2013 #1
Tuesday Afternoon Jun 2013 #2
Sweeney Dec 2014 #7
ismnotwasm Jun 2013 #3
Sweeney Dec 2014 #6
Tuesday Afternoon Jun 2013 #4
Sweeney Dec 2014 #5
leftofkant May 2015 #8
delrem Jun 2015 #9

Response to rug (Original post)

Tue Jun 11, 2013, 10:20 AM

1. It seems that people whose job it is to ask difficult questions are increasingly marginalized. nt

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Response to rug (Original post)

Wed Jun 12, 2013, 07:40 PM

2. Thinking is hard work, strains the brain and leads to headaches.

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Response to Tuesday Afternoon (Reply #2)


Response to rug (Original post)

Thu Jun 13, 2013, 03:12 AM

3. For quite a while I subscribed to ""Hyaptia"-- a feminist philosophy quarterly

I love reading about thinking; about thought on how people think. There was critique of opinions; reasonable (usually) well thought out ( often) that added nuance to an idea or argument. I'm not trained on philosophy, but I find something so healthy about it, about thinking about thinking as it were and them applying it to ideas and concepts and even public debate. It's also grounding. If you can find a decent argument, a place to stand on a topic and remain teachable, then I believe you become part of solutions. To blindly go about running opinions on pure emotionalism or knee-jerk reaction, then we tend to become part of problems, or at least are not as effective in conveying ways to improve communication and find solutions to complex social issues.

A philosophical approach to me, is always a good place to start.

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Response to ismnotwasm (Reply #3)

Fri Dec 12, 2014, 07:34 PM

6. In public argument

people do not stand on their heads, but on their hearts. Without the moral high ground all reason is vanity and doomed. Get your morals right and every brick will jump into place.

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Response to rug (Original post)

Thu Jun 13, 2013, 08:40 PM

4. A razor would go a long way to solving the problem

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Response to rug (Original post)

Fri Dec 12, 2014, 07:30 PM

5. Sort of wrong

to think of philosophy as some sort of activity outside of normal human behavior. In fact philosophy is central to our human experience and everyone from children to old age practice some sort of philosophical activity. Small p philosophy does not count for much, kind of like small f faith. People find out what works and seems to make sense, and then think no more about it. Still they have their methods and their prejudices as do we all. If they hear a mouse trap snap, they don't expect to find a cat. What fits with their picture of reality is kept and other stuff is rejected, and this is philosophy, and it is general and ongoing.

Is it possible to do it better? No doubt; but no one has a monopoly on wisdom. and the living of a complete life is something few professional philosophers have proved good at. Any effort that is all head and no heart is doomed to failure. The common man and women are forced by their condition to reason without knowledge, but they are no worse of than those having knowledge without reason, or reason without emotion. Anyone who thinks they are doing for God or any other abstraction should better help their friends. Philosophy is by people for people, or it is not philosophy.

Thanks...Sweeney

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Response to rug (Original post)

Wed May 20, 2015, 04:29 PM

8. Neoliberalism doesn't want philosophy

I largely agree with the essay. Philosophy is central to the human experience and has the power to transform the material world. But it seems that universities and society increasingly marginalize philosophy because it is not a discipline that encourages profit-making and active business entrepreneurship. As all of society is enfolded into a neoliberal rationality that DOES encourage those things, philosophy is pushed aside.

I think it's something society will soon regret. Yes, philosophy doesn't maximize profits. But few things that make human life worth living do.

We've made a societal decision to trade the spontaneous, joyful, and ultimately meaningless radical freedom of life for profits. Alas.

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Response to rug (Original post)

Mon Jun 22, 2015, 04:59 AM

9. That doesn't make sense to me.

Issues regarding whether a foetus is a rights-bearer (what rights?), or a "person" (how defined - by the SCOTUS, so equivalent to a corporation?), are important to me. Period.

Such questions are far and away more important to me than getting all het up about someone's "tweets" on "twitter".

(and I TOTALLY don't understand the author's comparison between "belief" in modus ponens (which is the rule that if we're certain that if X happens then Y happens, as a general rule, and X happens then we can be pretty damn confident that Y will happen - along with other variants to satisfy the picky: x->Y, & X, therefore Y) and "belief" in "the fun" of torturing babies. WTF?

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