Saturday, September 12, 2015

Some Benefits in Studying Modern Philosophy

A benefit of studying older philosophical texts—and of trying to get a sense of the writer’s view as a whole—is that students can see how philosophical questions are shaped by the schema of thought in which they are asked.

Not only does this introduce other kinds of philosophical thought, but prompts students to consider, by contrast, their own schema of thought, perhaps still implicit or not well articulated, that shapes how they ask and answer questions. This self-clarification helps them to decide which questions they really want to resolve, which ones they can reasonably expect to settle, and much else. I think this is useful to help them understand how current predicaments are entwined in history.

One difficulty I have when teaching modern philosophy is the attempt to strike the right balance between the general and the specific. Favoring one to the detriment of the other makes it difficult to talk sensibly about this topic. So far the best way I know to deal with this dilemma is to look at how a writer’s rationale generally effect not only the way questions get posed but also the reasons they have for being concerned with the questions in the first place. But showing this convincingly is a matter of going into the details.

Teaching Modern Philosophy brings with it another set of challenges. Some students wonder why the lectures are so Eurocentric; others take this a step further and want to dispense with the Tales of the Mighty Dead for these 'Dead White Men's' concerns are not theirs. These kinds of attitudes, while often well intentioned, I think, are gravely mistaken.

First, European Feudalism is the only mode of production known to have spontaneously produced capitalism and then to have promoted the expansion of capitalist forces and relations of production. Capitalism was then instituted by European state power on a global scale through colonial subjugation. So, understandably there is considerable interest in Europe to understand feudal social formations and the transition from feudalism to capitalism. So it makes sense to try read the intellectual history of people who where caught in the middle of this change to see that they say and what they overlooked.

This bring me to my next point: Understanding the various biases, and lens of people caught up in these changes can help students who are similarly situated in their own social predicaments. It helps then identity their limitations, worry about, then assess whether, they share them.

Third, all this talk of dead white men, is a reification that clouds the diversity in modern European thought. It is mistake to impose our identity categories as it it unnecessarily puts our tacit thought in front of theirs, and so becomes a barrier to understanding.

Similarly, this broad lumping of European philosophers together often fails to acknowledge how Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Adorno, for example, where socially marginal in one way or another. Kant was agnostic in a highly religious age and so never had secure work. Hegel was refugee and impoverished by Napoleon’s wars. Marx’s was denied academic appointments because we was Jewish, was a political refugee who was persecuted, jailed, exiled from multiple countries. Nietzsche had mental illnesses. Adorno had to flee National Socialism and so on. If anything, we should be sympathetic for this is the writing of the marginalized.

Lastly, it should be remembered that the work of a philosopher is both personal and a product of and response to the age within which he or she lives. Sometimes they are  better than their societies. At other times not. For example Kant was opposed colonial and imperial action, yet also thought that other races were less advanced then Europeans. To me, this holds a lesson for how student assess the merits of their beliefs and general convictions, knowing that in time others will see weakness and hubris.