Sunday, 29 May 2016

Thoughts on: Feminism, Eudemonia and The Philosophical Life.

Modern philosophy is an academic institution, not a way of life. This contrasts with its earlier reification where academies were far more reminiscent of religious sects than they were modern universities. Early philosophers, like the Stoics and Cynics, lived in communities that pursued eudemonia, a state of being attained through practise as often as it was through contemplation. Modern philosophy, by contrast, takes place in specialised university departments and is abstract, highly disciplined - motivated by a pay-check.*

This split between modern and ancient philosophical practises is partly a product of modern philosophy's formulation within academia, and particularly its formation within the context of scholarly specialisation. The early-modern demarcation of Natural Philosophy from Mental Philosophy, that gave birth to modern science, gave cause for philosophers to specify their role in relation to the newly emerging sciences. This is where the tradition of Analytic philosophy comes in to play. The Analytic school, often ambiguously referred to as the hand-maiden to science, championed a detached methodology intended to work in tandem with modern empiricism. It was a school of thought that initially went hand in hand with logical positivism and ultimately weathered many of the same criticisms.  Modelling themselves on the impartiality of science, Analytic philosophers embraced a rationalist methodology that emulated scientific values and aesthetics. 

But Moral and Ethical Philosophy, in particular, produce a form of discourse that is decidedly partial. Ethics makes up a large chunk of philosophy both in the disciplinary form of "Applied Ethics" and in the earlier more holistic sense of  eudemonia. It is a subject that asks us to change the way we interact with the world, which is distinct from scientific endeavours which are decidedly descriptive. Just as science and religion are often thought to be irreconcilable, so too are science and normativity. Analytically influenced ethicists have traditionally tried to resolve this idealistic tension by offering a form of philosophy that reads more like the prouct of an advisory panel than it does the outpouring an empassioned exemplar of human virtue.

Of course, despite the professional gloss, there are a number of analytic philosophers who have a personal stake in the arguments they present. Of particular interest are the feminists and their radical off-shoots who promote the interrogation of our preconceptions and celebrate conscious personal change. The rhetoric and literature surrounding identity politics, for example, often calls into question our ability to freely and objectively perceive others. Scepticism as a way of life then returns. Are female writers producing art that is less universal, and therefore less popular, or is their work simply not taken as seriously? Do I like masculine activities because I'm a man, or because I've been socialised to prefer them?

Within modern feminist praxis, and we'll limit ourselves to feminism for now, there is a continuation of early personal and transformative philosophy. A mode of philosophising where participants are invited to change their behaviour and interrogate their own perceptions of the world in pursuit of justice. The older notion of philosophical community can also be found in the modern concept of the affinity group: a collection of individuals who form relationships on the basis of their shared political affiliations.

In this way, the modern intersectional left has inherited the practise of philosophy as a critical approach to good living. Continental philosophy also, particularly Foucault, seems to have a strong tradition of practising philosophy with the intent to liberate. Once again leftism is a big part of that tradition: if only because the philosophical outlook tends to lend itself better to political outsiders than it does to members of the establishment. Outside of this there is a small cottage industry of pop-philosophy writers who aim to keep the transformative tradition of philosophy alive without getting too political. Susan Neiman, a Kantian ethicist, wrote a great book that I reviewed on this blog a while back; Alain De Botton continues to peddle his "Ways philosophy will heal/change you" shtick but a more recent book that I read on the subject was Prof James Miller's "The Philosophical Life".

Miller's book is a series of mini-biographies of famous philosophers throughout the ages. It is presented in the hope that these biographies will help revive the notion of philosophy as a way of life. The book's blurb boasts that it, "confirm[s] the continuing relevance of philosophy today", but what's notable about "The Philosophical Life" is that the most contemporary philosopher dissected is Nietzsche - a man who died over a century ago.

There is a strain of transformative philosophy alive today, but I wonder if its ideas are too contentious to be marketable outside the sphere of politics. Perhaps this sanitisation of transformative philosophy is what drives the critics of de Botton?  Eudemonia is intimately connected to ethics which is frequently bound up in political struggle. Attempting to secularise eudamonia may be what makes De Botton's writing seem so hollow; after-all, once you forgo the critique of your politico-economic reality, what's left outside of curmudgeonly Michael Foley stoicism?

* Okay, that last one was mean-spirited even it was, economically speaking, true.

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