Published by the Center for the Study of The Great Ideas (founded in 1990 by Mortimer J. Adler and Max Weismann)
In association with the The Adler-Aquinas Institute and Aquinas School of Leadership
A Founding Member of the Alliance for Liberal Learning

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The New New Philosophy

Kwame Anthony Appiah in The New York Times, December 9, 2007
...Philosophers don’t observe; we don’t experiment; we don’t measure; and we don’t count. We reflect. We love nothing more than our “thought experiments,” but the key word there is thought. As the president of one of philosophy’s more illustrious professional associations, the Aristotelian Society, said a few years ago, “If anything can be pursued in an armchair, philosophy can.”

But now a restive contingent of our tribe is convinced that it can shed light on traditional philosophical problems by going out and gathering information about what people actually think and say about our thought experiments. ...

(via Arts & Letters Daily)

--Terrence Berres


  1. Before we had "scientists", they were called "natural philosophers". Before we had "psychologists", we had "philosophers". Before we had geologists, economists and political theorists, they were called "philosophers". A philosopher that does not observe, measure or experiment is not worthy of the name, but is a hollow shell. Life is my laboratory. I, my world and my fellow men are my test subjects. My daily actions and their consequences are my measurements and experiments.

    It is important to make the distinction between learning about someone elses philosophy and being a philosopher. The former, one can do with nothing more than a book, a cup of tea and a decent chair. The latter, however, must be done with one's heart, mind and soul. You can read books about philosphy without observing, measuring or experimenting, though I can't imagine why you would bother. You cannot be a philosopher without doing those things any more than you can be an athlete without exercising.

  2. How do we picture the method of philosophy? The armchair is the principal piece of apparatus of a philosopher; for the philosopher is strictly an armchair thinker. Any philosopher worth his salt knows better than to ever get out of the armchair. Oh, he needs one other piece of apparatus perhaps. He needs a pad and a pencil; and that is about all the apparatus he needs. Of course, this does not quite distinguish the philosopher from the mathematician. The mathematician can work also in an armchair with a pad and pencil. But the mathematician is a solitary-armchair thinker. The philosopher needs conversation. He needs to carry on disputes with his fellow philosophers. He needs to discuss with them. And so the further apparatus the philosopher may need is a collection of arm-chairs around a table; for he is a social-armchair thinker. --MJA

  3. Well, Max, once again I find myself in near total disagreement with Mortimer Adler.

    I am grateful for his promotion of the Great Ideas and the general study of philosophy by a wide audience, but I find that I rarely can agree with Dr. Adlers premises or conclusions.

    "solitary armchair thinking" would be entirely vapid were there not some previous experiences and observations made in life. Disputes with fellow philosophers would also be entirely vapid had they also not had some life experiences and observations to think about as well. Were it not so, discussing philosophy would be like arguments between school children, mere posturing and opinion.

    Dr. Adler's conception of a philsopher is only marginally conceivable within the last century. As I pointed out, "philsophy" as a subject has been consistently whittled down as various disciplines have split off from it, finally leaving it only the vestiges of ethics, ontology and epistemology it has today.

    Even in the modern, limited use of the term "philosophy", a serious discussion of ethics devoid of any observations about life would be impossible. Kant, in his essay on ethics, lamented as much. A discussion of epistemology divorced from the real ways people actually learn and know things would also be similarly vapid - mere word games. Finally, ontology without reference to the world done by cosmologists and cognitive psychologists and others would also be pointless.

    Keep philosophy vapid and divorced from observation and experiment if you want - if you can. As for me and my house - life is my laboratory. My philosophy will always concern the real world in which I live, act, think, observe and choose.