Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Philosopher on why philosophy cannot be taught

Bill Vallicella,"Can Philosophy be Taught?" (Maverick Philosopher, October 8, 2009), tackles the old analogue to the Socratic question whether virtue can be taught:
In one sense a philosophy is a set of conclusions, systematically set forth, on ultimate matters. To appreciate the conclusions, however, one must appreciate the arguments and counterarguments the sifting of which first led the philosopher to the conclusions. But to understand the arguments and counterarguments one must understand the issues and problems that they revolve around. Appreciation of the issues and problems, in turn, is rooted in wonder the presupposition of which is a contemplative detachment from the taken-for-granted.

And so we must distinguish: doctrines, arguments, problems, wonder. Philosophy as the study of the doctrines of the philosophers is philosophy in its most superficial sense. Studying that, one is not studying philosophy, but philosophies, and them in their most external form. Philosophy as the grappling with the arguments whose conclusions are the doctrines is closer to the real thing. Philosophy as the exfoliation and penetration of the problems themselves, under suspension of the need to solve them at all costs, is closer still to philosophy's throbbing heart. This is philosophy as aporetics. But without wonder there can be no appreciation of problems, let alone solutions. Thus we have it on the excellent authority of both Plato and Aristotle that philosophy begins in wonder.

Upshot? Teaching philosophy is well-nigh impossible. One can of course teach the lore of the philosophers, but that is not what philosophy is in its vital essence. And although argumentative and logical skills are impartable to the moderately intelligent, the aporetic sense, the feel for a philosophical problem, is not readily imparted regardless of the intelligence of the student. A fortiori, the wonder at the source of the aporetic sense is a gift of the gods, and nothing a mere mortal teacher can dispense.

So I propose to go Kant one better. Somewhere deep in the bowels of The Critique of Pure Reason, he remarks that "Philosophy cannot be taught, we can at most learn to philosophize." I say that neither philosophy as doctrinal system nor the art of philosophizing can be taught. For there is no one extant doctrinal system called philosophy, and neither the aporetic sense nor the wonder at its root can be taught. As I used to say in my teaching days, "Philosophy cannot be a mass consumption item." Logic perhaps, philosophy no.

Or to paraphrase a remark I once heard Hans-Georg Gadamer make, "Just as there are the musical and the unmusical, there are the philosophical and the unphilosophical." One cannot teach music to the unmusical or philosophy to the unphilosophical. The muse of philosophy must have visited you; otherwise you are out of luck.
[Hat tip to C.B.]




Much as I like to argue, especially with philosophers, who are asking for it, in various senses of the phrase, i could not but agree with the thrust of what you have written here, especially as the view of philosophy you have expressed is compatible with that of Wittgenstein, who vicariously introduced me to it, as I’ve ramblingly set out here.