Loving the Love of Wisdom

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on January 5, 2011

Two notes on matters philosophical:

1. This is an inspiring story about the cultivation of a philosophy curriculum at LaGuardia Community College. I know that it is easy to make “would you like fries with that?” jokes about philosophy and philosophers, but at its best, philosophy teaches us not only the value of deep introspection on the fundamental issues of the day, but also how to think in the first place. The study of philosophy requires excellent reading skills, the ability to reason logically, the ability to spot and avoid logical fallacies, and a a burning curiosity that leads to valuable intellectual pursuits, and highly important intellectual accomplishments. Or, as the article puts it:

“People tell me the role of community colleges is narrow — to train students for tomorrow’s jobs, says Peter Katopes, the interim president of LaGuardia. “But I ask them, ‘What are these jobs?’ ” The real task, he says, is training students for what he calls “the entrepreneurship of the imagination.”

“It is giving students the opportunity to really understand the context of their lives, and you do that through the humanities,” Katopes says. “If you do even a cursory survey of successful CEOs, you will know that an unbelievable number of them did their undergraduate degrees in English or philosophy or history.”

[. . .]

E.J. Lee, 22, started out as a business major.

“Growing up, my parents were ‘make money, make money, make money,’ so I figured business was what you do. But as a business major, I was required to take an ethics course, and as soon as I sat in that class, I knew that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” Lee says.

These are the kinds of attitudes you might find normal at a four-year liberal arts college. But the students here speak 120 different languages. And most of them were not born in the United States.

“We are all so different on the outside, and on the inside we are all searching, we are all seeking,” says Gabriel Lockwood, who came to LaGuardia at 36. He wandered through Europe, knows a half-dozen languages, worked as a translator and took courses at various European universities, but he couldn’t get credit for them in the United States. So at 36, he is starting again. He is full of questions, and philosophy, he says, has helped to answer some of them.

[. . .]

John Chaffee, the chair of the department, says philosophy is a necessity, not a luxury.

“It’s something that is at the heart of life. It addresses the foundational questions that we all wrestle with, and these are questions that [Holocaust survivor, psychiatrist and author] Viktor Frankl said ‘burn under our fingernails,’ ” Chaffee says. “Philosophy is a discipline that gives us the tools to really understand ourselves, and the skills to answer the mysteries that are really at the heart of ourselves and at the heart of life.”

Well put.

2. Via Episyllogism comes this highly impressive profile of the late Philippa Foot, who died last year, and whose contributions to philosophy are nicely characterized in the following excerpt:

. . . Foot became troubled by a central assumption of 20th-century moral philosophy: that facts and values are logically independent. According to this view, you can’t derive an “ought” conclusion from a series of “is” premises. Nature is composed of objective facts that we can verify through science; values are mere attitudes in our heads that we project onto the world as we like. When we engage in moral disagreement with, say, an unrepentant murderer, reasoned argument breaks down. We feel it is wrong to kill innocent people; he simply does not. There is no accounting for taste.

In the wake of the news of the concentration camps, Foot was haunted by the notion that there was no way to rationally overcome a moral standoff with a Nazi. She wanted to argue that moral evaluation (“It is wrong to kill innocent people”) is not fundamentally different from factual evaluation (“It is incorrect that the earth is flat”). A cynic should no more be able to deny the moral implications of a relevant body of evidence than a flat-earther can deny the factual implications of astronomical data. It was Anscombe, a devoted Catholic, who liberated Foot, a lifelong atheist, to dare to think in this outmoded fashion. Foot had been speaking of the conventional contrast of “ought” and “is,” and Anscombe feigned confusion. “She said: ‘Of what? What?’ ” Foot recalled. “And I thought, My God, so one doesn’t have to accept that distinction! One can say, ‘What?’!”

Incrementally, over many decades, first at Oxford and then at U.C.L.A., Foot shaped an alternative moral vision. In the late 1950s, she questioned whether you can have a recognizably moral attitude about just any set of facts. (Can you really believe that it is immoral to look at hedgehogs in the light of the moon?) By the ’70s, inspired by Anscombe’s suggestion that she revisit St. Thomas Aquinas’s ethical writings, Foot was arguing that if you focus on traditional virtues and vices like temperance and avarice instead of abstract concepts like goodness and duty, you can see the concrete connections between the conditions of human life and the objective reasons for acting morally. (Why is cowardliness a vice? Because courage is needed to face the world’s challenges.) In the ’80s, after considering how we evaluate what is “good” for plants and animals, she developed the argument, presented in “Natural Goodness,” that vice is a defect in humans in the same way that poor roots are a defect in an oak tree or poor vision a defect in an owl: the latter two assessments have clear normative implications (“oughts”), yet are entirely factual. Even from a secular scientific vantage point, you could locate good and evil in the fabric of the world.

That may be a long epitaph for Foot, but it is a great one; certainly one to which other philosophers would aspire. And of course, you ought to read the whole profile.

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