Cameron Pritchard
Cameron Pritchard

Foul Philosophy!

With all the zeal of someone well versed in the methods of teaching philosophy, Brian Register has placed my article up as the target and opened fire. I have no problem with this, but am somewhat amused at the way I have been dissected and analysed, point by painstaking point, in the finest tradition of courtroom-style philosophy. Register has proved one of my key points better than I could have myself. True to the sophistry of his cotemporaries, who "live their lives in a process of constant refutation and rejection," as I put it in my initial article, Register has erupted into argument only in to reject my viewpoint rather than to passionately extol one of his own. I trust Register will not mind if I fire back and in the process take the opportunity to elaborate on some of the points from my initial article.

To begin with, I do not accept Register's "distinction" between a mere interest in philosophy, and a qualified commentary. Qualified comment on philosophical issues has nothing to do with the amount of letters after one's name, nor the amount of essays one has published in the literature. Register must also assume that I am not sufficiently educated in philosophy to make any valid critiques of its establishment. How does he know this? Education in philosophy - thankfully - can come from places other than the academy. Register's view amounts to the claim that one must be part of the philosophic academy (or have had a degree bestowed on one by said academy) in order to be entitled to criticise it with any validity. Does this sound like a healthy position in a discipline supposedly dedicated to free thought?

Register's comment serves to highlight an unfortunate approach that is taken in academic philosophy. Academic philosophers seem to see themselves - and only themselves - as the rightful 'owners' of philosophy. Register's approach reminds me of that of the art establishment - another example of a group of academics who have set themselves up as overlords, critics, and judges of a crucial need of human beings, and in turn transformed a once-glorious thing into a nihilistic mess. The art establishment has been notorious in its disdain for those ignorant masses whose mere interest in art apparently does not make them qualified to critique modern art's nonsense. Philosophy, like art, is a fundamental requirement of human beings, and Register's attempt to say who may or may not critique its establishment is a form of intellectual elitism of the highest order.

Now, time for a distinction of my own. Mr Register is assuming that critical thought and analysis are exclusively synonymous with the sophistic methodology he defends. On the contrary, I hold that there are other ways of critically examining ideas without playing cowboys and Indians with them. There are in fact many and varied forms of critical analysis which do not turn discussion into narrow argumentation for the sake of it. Outside my philosophy classes, I find a variety of methods employed in my Political Science and History classes other than the Socratic method. It goes to show that "learning to reason" has nothing necessarily to do with being taught in the conventional philosophic methodology that Register employs in his classes.

A commitment to argumentation and refutation as the be-all and end-all of philosophy is, in actual fact, not Socratic - in the sense that Socrates intended his philosophic method to be employed. Socrates claimed his wisdom lay in his recognition that he knew nothing, but he did not hold that objective truth was unattainable. He saw his method as a tool to discover such truth, and not simply as a game. It was the sophists who, like Register, believed philosophy is synonymous with learning the art of debate. Where modern teachers go wrong is the way in which they allow the Socratic method - which can be used as a tool in the pursuit of truth - to collapse into a mere sophistic game. Socrates was, at his trial, accused of being a sophist, but he sought to dissociate himself from them because he knew that his approach was fundamentally different. I would like to think that, were he with us today, the great philosopher would have agreed with me that his Socratic method has been perverted into a form of the very sophistry he had himself opposed.

Register's defence for teaching argumentation as an end in itself is made clear when he writes that: "Students who cannot follow basic reasoning - the majority - are simply not ready for the attainment of philosophic truth." In other words, dumb philosophy down! Forget content, says Register, it's all about method. Not only do I object to Register's portrayal of the student (although universities are full of far too many C pass jocks!), I also object to the false dichotomy between content and method. As I stated in my initial article, argumentation should not be an end in itself. Method and content must go hand in hand from day one - how will a class of dumb jocks come to understand the very purpose of what they're learning unless it is tied to some relevant, important philosophic truth rather than inane word games?

As a case study in the point at hand, I turn to a comparison between my philosophy lectures and the content of The Free Radical. Compare the following banal nonsense (taken from a course hand-out written by a metaphysics lecturer at my university) with the subsequent quote from the editorial of TFR 45:

If death is permanent annihilation, death (being dead) is an experiential blank. If death without anything after it can be either a good or a bad thing for a person, it cannot be a positive good or bad (e.g. it cannot involve pleasant or painful experiences); it must be a negative good or bad (evil). If it's good, it must be because of the absence of something bad; if it's bad, it must be because of the absence of something good. The deprivation account says that death is bad, when it is, for the person who dies (is dead) because it deprives her/him of life s/he would have enjoyed if s/he hadn't died. Being deprived of something (e.g. the goods of life) need not be experienced at all.

Compare that with Lindsay Perigo, in his editorial for TFR 45:

Why on earth do we bother when we know it's all going to be snuffed out sooner or later? What the hell is the point? In a flippant mood, I would answer, "I've absolutely no idea." In a serious mood, "Life - and our love of it - are a given. It does not matter what ' slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' life throws at us - it sure as hell beats being dead, as I like to say on my radio show. The meaning of life is *life* so let's get on with it!"

The latter, I submit, is philosophy in its most glorious, uplifting and meaningful sense. The former, I submit, takes a vital issue we all have to come to terms with in our lives, and turns it into sophistic drivel. Yet the former is an example of an academic committed to the same distinction between content and method as Mr Register, presumably on the same premise that an individual's reasoning skills must be developed before any attempt at seeking philosophic truth can be made. But which quote, I ask, is the bigger turn-on to the new student of philosophy that Register claims his sophistic methods are targeted at educating? Which is tied to reality and life and which is a rationalistic castle in the sky? Which can your rational faculty more easily integrate and deal with? The answer is, I think, obvious (unless you're a masochist!). So much for students needing education in reasoning before they can seek truth - the long-winded style of the quote from my lecturer is one of the biggest disincentives to the pursuit of philosophic wisdom I can think of! And yet that style is most definitely dominant in philosophy classes.

Register lists some of the big names in contemporary philosophy and assures us that they are not sceptics. I'm sure they wouldn't call themselves sceptics, even if they were. But I'm also sure, as I stated in my initial article, that the approach they employ breeds a subtle form of scepticism in the mind of the student. I know also that one of my more sophistic lecturers ended a discussion on scepticism by tearing down realism, idealism and scepticism and concluding that all we could do was "place our bets" as to which view was true. This was a perfect example of the way in which the Socratic method can lead to scepticism! Further to Register's mention of modern philosophers, it is interesting to note that Bertrand Russell himself came to see modern philosophy's emphasis on linguistic analysis - an emphasis he had pioneered - as becoming too dissociated from its purpose. Even for Russell, philosophers were coming to indulge in analysis for the sake of it, rather than using it as a tool to discover knowledge of the world around us.

Regarding the ahistoricism of contemporary philosophy, I would agree with Register that it is not a universal phenomenon. But it is happening - especially at my university. I can assure Mr Register that, whatever the case at Massey and other universities may be, it most certainly is possible to graduate at Victoria without any knowledge of Aristotle or Plato. There is not one course on classical philosophy offered at any undergraduate level, despite the fact that one can take several courses on Eastern philosophy or feminist epistemology. The fact that the ahistorical trend is apparent around the world's philosophy departments is acknowledged by Register, whose defence is merely that it is not happening everywhere! It does not have to be happening everywhere for my criticisms to be valid, and the fact that it is happening at all is bad enough. Instead of being so desperate to defend philosophy academia on every count, Register should join me and others in waging a battle to ensure that the great philosophers are kept in the curriculum.

I remain unconvinced by Register that social contract theory is compatible with egoism. My point was that it confined ethics to a far too narrow realm of human action: one's relations with others. It is, at best, a means of establishing peaceful coexistence between a society's members. But, at worst, it leaves the individual without any meaningful guide as to the way in which he should lead his life, what goals he should seek and what values he should strive for. This is why I referred to it as: "an arbitrary set of rules to stop you from knifing your neighbour in the back," and, "a kind of necessary annoyance that we all agree to abide by." Unlike Objectivist egoism, however, social contract theory does not offer a plausible reason as to why one should respect the rights of others even if one were able to get away with walking all over them. For these reasons, I do not regard the two approaches as compatible.

I would like to end my response with an act of justice in defence of an embattled exception to twentieth-century philosophy's nihilism. Unlike Register, I am not from the "don't mention Ayn Rand" school of so-called neo-Objectivism. I have found it disturbing to see the way such people take every opportunity to try to undercut the importance of Rand's achievements (such as referring to Objectivism as a mere 'skeleton' of a system), or who take much delight in pointing out her flaws or mistakes. Register's claim that Ayn Rand and Dr Peikoff misread philosophic history and foisted their 'misrepresentations' upon their readers is an example of this unfortunate approach. If misrepresentations of academia are a problem for Mr. Register, why is he not concerned with academia's well-documented misrepresentations of Ayn Rand and Objectivism? Why too, it must be asked, is Ayn Rand to be held up as guilty of alienating young students from the academy? Rand, and not the academy, has brought philosophy into the lives of thousands of young people. She has popularised it in a way the academy has never been able to do. She has given to eager young minds an understanding of the importance of reason, of ideas and of values. She has, in other words, succeeded in every task at which academia has failed its students. If a student 'brought up' on a diet of the world of Ayn Rand - a world where ideas matter - enters academia and finds it to be banal and boring, who is to blame for his alienation? Certainly not Rand. For Register to claim that her passionate and powerful way of presenting ideas to those the academy has failed to reach is a form of tricking us into making ourselves unhappy is a laughable attempt to blame academia's gross inadequacies on a philosopher who has changed lives for the better. But, as any Objectivist knows, A is A. Facts are facts. And the fact is that people are turning away from modern philosophy, seeing it with as much bewildered amusement as they see modern art. Register and his colleagues must look at themselves and their discipline with much urgency, and rather than collapsing into a desperate defensiveness, should admit that something is going very wrong.

My hope is that those who understand the importance and power of ideas will fight for a world in which philosophy is taught with clarity, vibrancy, relevance and rigour. My hope is that philosophy will be removed from the ivory towers where it is presently shackled, and be brought out into the streets, the cafes, and the dining rooms. Then, with the help of Objectivism, we really will see a world in which people know how to think, and know where and how to find answers. We will see a world where philosophy is the kind of living, colourful intellectual force it was in Ancient Greece and during the Enlightenment.

My advice to Brian Register and his colleagues is a reminder of their purpose, in the form of an echo of an unlikely but poignant source, Karl Marx, who noted that the philosophers have merely interpreted the world in various ways, but that "the point, however, is to change it."

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