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The Reality of Philosophy

Clearly, the promise of philosophy is rarely fulfilled. The most likely reason for this discrepancy is that living a reflective life is not the usual focus of the coursework offered in philosophy. Instead, the coursework focuses on highly abstract issues (What is being? What is reality? What is time? What is knowledge? What is beauty? What is freedom?) through the reading of arguments and counter-arguments of a highly abstract sort. The arguments themselves are typically the products of professional philosophers who make their way in the profession by addressing themselves successfully to others who are trained in the "moves" considered appropriate by philosophers in their traditions of abstract argumentation. Philosophers write, except for rare occasions, for a specialized audience (of philosophers) already familiar with a specialized terminology, a range of technical distinctions, and a way of talking, thinking, and arguing uncommon in everyday life. If it is reflective, it is reflective in a special, narrow, and technical sense, in the sense of specialists talking to other specialists in an esoteric language.

Philosophical issues are so posed by professional philosophers, typically, that neither an actual case, nor any possible evidence could settle them. The findings of other professions are often ruled out of the discussion by definition:

"You are turning the question into a sociological (psychological, historical, or biological) one. Let us stick to the philosophical one!" The result is that the issues that philosophers argue about are not really subject to being settled by the discovery of any empirical evidence. The various positions are ones that can be argued for and against without end. Positions in the field are not refuted. They are abandoned when they become professionally unfashionable.

As a result, few persons understand the significance to philosophers of any of the positions taken. The predominant response of an outsider is "Who cares?" A small - typically exceedingly small - minority of persons become philosophy majors who, after some years of graduate study, learn how to argue about a range of philosophical questions and philosophical positions (usually the ones treated as significant in their seminar classes) to the satisfaction of some group of professional philosophers.

The result is that few persons develop the skills of argumentation that would qualify them as plausible contributors to the argumentation in which professional philosophers engage. Few persons see any connection between traditional philosophical argumentation and the conditions of their own lives. Few persons are more reflective about their own lives as a result of taking courses in philosophy. Actually, persons often develop a positive dislike of the subject as a result of their classroom experience and carefully avoid taking additional courses in the subject or doing further reading in it.

Finally, the most ironic fact about the field of philosophy is that it is far from clear that professional philosophers are any more reflective about the manner in which they are living their own lives than are members of any other profession. One of the reasons for this is that, rhetoric to the contrary, philosophers themselves have little or no training in, or professional incentive to engage in, self-reflection. Rather, they are limited by their training to the development and submission of abstract argumentation about abstract issues to professional journals (read then by a small number of professional philosophers). Neither students of, nor professors in, philosophy are expected to come to terms with the concepts, values, or principles implicit in their personal life or behavior. Learning how to think reflectively about one's life seems to be an art rarely focused upon and, therefore, rarely mastered.

Test the Idea
The Ideal and the Real

At the beginning of this chapter, we stated that there are two primary reasons why a significant gap exists between the ideal and the real in academic and professional fields. These are human fallibility and vested interest. Choose two of the subjects focused on in this chapter, and for each answer, complete the following:

  1. Reread the section in this chapter that focuses on the subject you have chosen. Write your understanding of the ideal as presented by us. State and elaborate the main points. Then write your understanding of the real as presented by us. Again, state and elaborate the main points.

  2. Assuming that we are correct in our view that a gap exists between the ideal and the real in this field of study, how do you think human fallibility and vested interest might play a role in creating this gap?

  3. How might human fallibility and vested interest be reduced in this profession?

  4. If you do not believe there is a gap between the ideal and the real, how would you articulate the field as an ideal?

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