How free is philosophical investigation?

I read a rather strange blog post from an author over at “an und für sich.” The professor complained that his undergrad students were satisfied, when viewing an artwork, or discussing a philosophical position, that it just comes down to a matter of opinion, how one was raised, etc. A consensus by way of commentary was reached that the reason for these statements was the fault of the students: there was an unwillingness to engage in conflict. Well, I mean, when I’m in a class setting, often I don’t really care to argue with people. There is nothing, really, to lose. If I am the curator of a gallery, then, absolutely I will have to defend why I choose to run my gallery according to certain principles and why I have these principles in the first place. Why? Because I have something to lose. I could lose my gallery, my job, my house, etc. So, to complain about students not having the need to be right in a discipline that is often very new to them is not a fair claim. Why should I have so much pride in the work that I have done as a philosopher when I have done no work as a philosopher?

So. How free is the philosophical investigation of the philosopher, especially as it pertains to a career choice. If I have built my career around a philosophy that has done me mostly well, why should I change course, which would thus negate practically all of my previous work? How many philosophers can you name that have changed their direction completely midway through their career? A change that could not be called political disillusionment. For we all know that political events inspire philosophers to change direction. Whence comes the giving up of one’s ideas that have been worked so hard for? Maybe at the onset there was a lot of turmoil before the choice was made to study Kantian metaphysics. Maybe the choice was clear. It doesn’t really matter. Because once your (career!) choice has been made, you cannot go back. You will spend the rest of your life defending your school of thought against its attackers. And you will spend the rest of your life attacking opposing disciplines. With that in mind, let us remember the example of Socrates who wrote (we think) nothing, and held no position at a university. If philosophy is about free investigation, have institutionalized universities and the type of careers that they foster destroyed the very nature of this discipline?

“How much truth can a spirit bear, how much truth can a spirit dare? That became for me more and more the real measure of value.” – Nietzsche 34 Ecce Homo

About JoeL

I completed a Master of Music degree from McGill University. I am currently working towards an Artist Diploma also at McGill. I like to do philosophy as a hobby.

5 thoughts on “How free is philosophical investigation?

  1. Stanley Hauerwas may be an interesting example here. He only became a pacifist after he encountered Yoder’s arguments, and was already a maturing professor. In more recent years he’s also altered his critique of (liberal) democracy, mostly because of his contact with Rom Coles. Other examples could include Merleau-Ponty’s break with Marxism and Beauvoir’s late-life decision to name herself as a feminist. I’m sure there are others.

    In general I think that your assessment is not far wide of the mark, but I think it is a bit too cynical. In addition to material pressures, there is also moral, intellectual, aesthetic, etc., investment in ideas as one learns to see the world with more depth and as one sees more and more how and why certain ideas matter. A lot of people just don’t see why ideas matter, the power they have, the way they are interconnected with all of our lives. For example, I often encounter people who will say that the church needs to get away from theology because Jesus was about relationships, not theology. Well, Jesus may have been “about” relationships, but if that’s what authoritative (to claim this is already to do theology) let’s 1) recognize this as a theological claim, and 2) then have a conversation about the kind of relationships Jesus was “about” and how we can have those kind of relationships, which will also be a theological conversation. But people don’t see this, and so they don’t care what “theology” people speak, or when people get worked up about a theology that is implicated in all sorts of destructive ethoi, they don’t understand what the big deal is.

    In short, there’s a certain legitimate frustration when students don’t care about ideas that do matter. And it’s good pedagogy to ask about how we can get students to see that these ideas matter.

    The same goes for music or other art. I hate it when people defend a shitty book, or shitty song with something to the effect of “that’s just your opinion.” Perhaps; but your opinion sucks. (Is that not your response when people who know nothing about music say “what’s the big deal about Bach anyway?”)


  2. The claim about theology probably has to do with an anti-intellectualism. I mean, nobody likes saying that they don’t understand something. Especially if they are, sort of, supposed to. “I’m a Christian. Thus, I understand all of the conversations that involve Christianity.” Then they have to be subordinate to the intellectuals and their individual faith becomes less legitimate and they just have to submit to the theologian/priest (like the Catholics…)

    “it’s good pedagogy to ask about how we can get students to see that these ideas matter.” This is true, but the issue that I was addressing had more to do with trying to get students to artificially care about an issue. They had to care more about winning the argument, not shying away from conflict, than about the issue itself.

    I hate it when people defend a shitty book, or shitty song with something to the effect of “that’s just your opinion.” This has more to do with the the democratization of taste. What is being defended is their judgment in taste, which rests on the (relatively new consumerist) idea that things are good only if they can be enjoyed by the individual. What I’m after has more to do with one’s position of care: Even if I don’t really like my job, I do try to make make decisions that allow my work to succeed. If I think a decision (like hosting a certain event at the Gallery) aims at success, then I will defend it. And this situation, this participation in the success of my years of work, is what is missing in the undergrad intro to philosophy class.


  3. Yeah, I’m fully on board with your point about being in a position of care. I was just also saying that I think this extends beyond “I could lose my house or reputation” to also include “I believe strongly in this exhibit, its aesthetic achievements and what it says about/to our society, and this is enough for me care deeply about its success.” But it sounds from your latest comment that you’re also on board with this.

    One additional point, I’ve often observed that it is not so much after years of cumulative work that people care the most intensely about certain ideas or artists, etc., but shortly after something “clicks” and they see things in a new way, are first exposed to the theory or artist that will shape their career. This isn’t to dispute your main point, so much as it is to say that investment in something has more to do than the years spent with it; there’s something about just seeing that something matters, or is beautiful, or is bad, that brings someone into a position of care (which often happens to students near the end of undergrad). Does that echo your observations and experience?


    1. I think that’s true as well. Though I would argue that the time spent doing something is much more vigorously defended then something very new. Whether one has spent time deliberately improving it or not — trying to get somebody to change any habit is difficult, and it is all the more difficult if it is linked to a broader more life encompassing idea. Even in the case where something “clicks” it might only be defended because it falls in line with a history of a work. To backtrack some, in the case with st. Paul he defended this very short conversion with extreme discipline and passion.


      1. Yes, I completely agree. Often the initial – though perhaps more enthusiastic on the surface – position is over-zealously argued and in so being is neither rigorous nor convincing (a mistake I’ve often made, at least, and will probably continue to make). Not that this is a necessary trajectory for academics or artists, etc.; there’s no shortage of older academics, artists (and so on) who are stuck in a way of thinking and exhibit neither nuance nor rigor for it.


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