To this day, I can vividly recall the reaction on my father’s face when I (at age 20) informed him that I wanted to forgo a career in the law and/or politics and dedicate my life to studying and teaching philosophy.
His jaw dropped wide open, his face reddened and I thought he was going to have a coronary. When he was able to catch his breath he asked emphatically and sincerely, “What the hell is philosophy?” My reply that philosophy is love of wisdom did not please him one bit. My resolve to dedicate my life to philosophical pursuits began to waver three years later when faced with the reality that the job market for philosophy professors was beyond hopeless. My roommate at the time, William Arnone, suggested that I could do more good in the world helping poor people as an attorney than as a philosopher. That was all the impetus I needed to change careers, enter Fordham Law School and bring a smile to my father’s face.
In spite of my occupational shift, my love of philosophy has never waned. For me, thinking philosophically has remained an exhilarating and essential intellectual exercise. For many, however, it can be a frightening experience. I say this because our lives are naturally enveloped in religious, political and social contexts, which provide us with a comfort level which conceivably could be jeopardized by the asking of ultimate questions. Honest inquiry is by its very nature upsetting since, if done correctly, the philosopher proceeds without a safety net, challenging preconceived notions with only logic as his guide.
Early in the 20th century, led by the brilliant Ludwig Wittgenstein (“Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus”), philosophers began to dismiss the traditional metaphysical considerations as nonsense. It was posited that language, scientific inquiry and logic were the true avenues of intellectual exploration. This “linguistic analysis” movement was carried on after Wittgenstein’s death by many important philosophers including Wilfred Sellars. He is noteworthy in that he explored the relationship of experience and beliefs attempting to reconcile a scientific model of reality with our sense of self. While in graduate school I had the pleasure of meeting him. Before I accidentally spilled a glass of wine on his recently dry-cleaned sports jacket, I asked him if we were destined to be intellectual prisoners of the structure of our very concepts. As I expected, he said we were!
Falling on the other side of this proposition was a great teacher and philosopher in his own right, Morton White. A philosopher and historian of considerable note, he is credited with creating an innovative theory of “holistic pragmatism.” Trying to make philosophy more relevant to everyday life, he utilized an interdisciplinary approach to life. It is said that he rescued philosophy from what has been called “the narrow preoccupations of the dominant analytic movement with its parsing of statements and the constituent parts of complex notions.”
While at Harvard, Professor White began to emphasize in his writings and teaching the roots of philosophical inquiry by developing a pragmatic analysis which incorporated ethics, politics, and the social sciences. He founded the Institute of Advanced Study, which called him upon his death three weeks ago at age 99, “Philosophy’s ambassador to history and the humanities.”
Whether we can ever truly divest ourselves of notions, preferences and prejudices that are deeply embedded in our emotional and intellectual psyche is a matter of debate. One of the modern voices in this debate is my brilliant friend, Robert Swafford (lawyer, philosopher, jury consultant extraordinaire and opera singer), who has merged philosophy and the practice of law in creating a successful and unique jury consulting firm (Strike for Cause Jury Consultants) based in Austin, Texas. In advising lawyers on how best to select their juries, Swafford begins with the theory that all human beings are fundamentally prejudiced and totally unaware that they are.
In the last 15 years, functional MRIs have revealed that the part of the brain that is first activated when we are making a decision is the section concerned with emotions. Mr. Swafford concludes therefore that our decisions are generally emotional preferences, which are later accompanied by rational justifications. Reminiscent of the famous philosopher Immanuel Kant (“Critique of Pure Reason”), he believes that our personal filters change the experience of phenomena which becomes the basis of our belief system.
Robert Swafford’s theory suggests that no amount of evidence or arguments will dissuade a person from their emotionally based belief system. All experiences will only operate as a “confirmation” of previously held biases. The internet has operated as an amazing source of confirming every belief, no matter how inaccurate or inane. As a result, we have as a society become more extreme, more rigid and less open to opposing points of view. In the process, it has become virtually impossible to change anyone’s political or religious preference. Hence the basis of the common held belief that in social settings “religion and politics” are off limits.
Looking back, perhaps my father’s aversion to a career in philosophy was good advice. But we don’t need to be professional philosophers to engage in important inquiry. The cornerstone of philosophical discourse—reasoned and impassioned consideration of ideas and principles—has never been more needed than it is today. The consequence of suspending philosophical analysis has never been clearer. I am reminded of Spanish painter Francisco Goya’s famous etching, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.” In it, Goya imagines himself asleep, his powers of reason are dulled by his slumber but also challenged by creatures that are attacking him. Owls symbolizing folly and bats symbolizing ignorance are swirling around his sleeping mind. The epitaph reads: “Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her (reason), she (fantasy) is the mother of the arts and the origin of all marvels.”
Throughout the years, I have learned at least this: it may prove uncomfortable to ask ultimate questions and challenge our own belief systems but the risk is worth taking! The greatest moral and political breakthroughs have come about by individuals willing to question everything! Amen.