A girl announces that she has decided to major in philosophy. A man replies, “That’s good, because they just opened up that philosophy factory in Green Bay.” This piece of joking dialogue comes from a 1999 episode of That Seventies Show—yet it remains sufficiently au courant to bear recycling in the kind of webcomics my friend sent me when I decided to study philosophy in college. The joke is not only that philosophy majors end up jobless (as, in fact, do majors in every other field). It is also that philosophy lacks the solidity that we might think is the whole measure of reality. It is also that things that can’t be crafted in factories can’t make material contributions to the world. Biologists brew medicines, and engineers make machines. Even economists trade in constructs with tangible power. But as Karl Marx put it in his “Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach” (1845), long before That Seventies Show loomed on even the distant horizon, “Philosophers have only interpreted the world.… The point, however, is to change it.”
Of course, Marx is one of the best advertisements for philosophy’s real-world influence. And it is a myth that all you can do with a philosophy degree is more philosophy: As I am always tripping over myself to assure my students, undergraduate philosophy majors get, on average, the highest LSAT and verbal GRE scores. They even get higher GMAT scores than economists, computer scientists, and chemists! Still, the fact that a philosophy degree enables students to flee to more lucrative pastures is hardly a recommendation for philosophy itself.
Not that defiant uselessness is without its own allure. My friend sent me the philosophy factory comic in a spirit of solidarity. At the time, we were united in our resentment of the practical, or at least the marketable, which our peers all fetishized. They took economics classes so that they could score worse than I would on the GMAT yet still become investment bankers. My friend and I took classes about French theory and phenomenology because we cared. I don’t know whether we cared about interpreting the world or changing it, but I do know that we loved arguing about it. We hoped we might be able to “carve it,” as philosophers say (more elegantly than I think they realize), “at its joints.”
Now my friend is an art historian, and I suspect that tact is the only thing keeping her from joining the loud chorus of my discipline’s detractors. Everyone in a PhD program has some occasion to question the worth of the undertaking: Anyone chipping away at the fat edifice of a seemingly insoluble problem alone in a lab or library has spent days in bed wondering why she even bothers and who would care if she didn’t. But philosophers stagger under special justificatory burdens. If you are a philosopher, everybody views your work through the dark lens of suspicion. People who study economics and psychology ask how a philosophical hypothesis can be tested, or if philosophical problems are ever “solved.” People who study literature or art history, who might seem like philosophy’s natural allies, often voice the same misgivings—for surprisingly similar reasons. At both ends of the methodological spectrum are people who believe that the thinker’s primary responsibility is to do her utmost to effect social and political change. But the policymakers who at least sometimes consult economists and psychologists don’t have time for the oracular pronouncements characteristic of Heidegger or Hegel. So what, if anything, gives anyone license to love philosophy? What reason do philosophers really have to keep getting out of bed?
Graduate school is psychologically punishing for people in every field, not just for people who worry that their topic is especially ineffectual. The more you read, the more you realize you should have read already. But philosophy’s claim to despair is unique. As Stanley Cavell writes in the introduction to Must We Mean What We Say?, “It is characteristic of philosophy that from time to time it appear—that from time to time it be—irrelevant to one’s concerns…. just as it is characteristic that from time to time it be inescapable.”11xStanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say? A Book of Essays (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2002), xxxvii. In other words, it is not just the current conditions of economic precarity that render philosophy alternately irrelevant and inescapable—or, peculiarly and more often than not, irrelevant and inescapable at once. David Hume lived two centuries before the horrors of the academic job market kicked into high gear, but that did not stop him from worrying that his philosophical musings remained remote from real life. At the end of Book I of A Treatise of Human Nature (1738), he paused to reflect that the skeptical concerns he had just spent a hundred pages developing were wont to dissipate as soon as he headed to the pub:
I dine, I play a game of back-gammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I wou’d return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain’d, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.22xDavid Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (Mineola, NY: Dover Philosophical Classics, 2003), 269. First published in three volumes, 1738–40.
But he went on to finish the Treatise, which sprouted two more books. What possessed him to stop playing backgammon and get back to work? He kept philosophizing, he confesses, because he couldn’t help it:
I cannot forbear having a curiosity to be acquainted with the principles of moral good and evil, the nature and foundation of government, and the cause of those several passions and inclinations, which actuate and govern me. I am uneasy to think I approve of one object, and disapprove of another; call one thing beautiful, and another deform’d; decide concerning truth and falsehood, reason and folly, without knowing upon what principles I proceed. I am concern’d for the condition of the learned world, which lies under such a deplorable ignorance in all these particulars. I feel an ambition to arise in me of contributing to the instruction of mankind, and of acquiring a name by my inventions and discoveries. These sentiments spring up naturally in my present disposition; and shou’d I endeavour to banish them, by attaching myself to any other business or diversion, I feel I shou’d be a loser in point of pleasure; and this is the origin of my philosophy.33xIbid., 193.
Hume might have found philosophy irrelevant when he was in the throes of a heated backgammon game, and he might have suffered from the brand of depression his doctor quaintly called “the disease of the learned,” but in the end he came to the same conclusion Cavell would reach much later, namely that the method he cherished was inescapable. Maybe the best any of us can offer in the way of vindication is sentimental biography. It’s true that scything through hours of argument is like scraping your head clean, like clearing the stringy guts out of a pumpkin to make a jack-o’-lantern. It’s true that picking a premise apart is like placing the bright light-prick of a candle inside.
But there is a reason why philosophy is most inescapable precisely when it is most conspicuously irrelevant. Hume’s attempt to break with his vocation for the span of even a chapter proved self-defeating—and that is because reflecting on the potential futility of philosophy is itself a philosophical exercise. In asking after the value (or valuelessness) of philosophy, we are not doing anything prior to what we are ostensibly asking about. In a way, the form of the question already outlines the answer. You can’t even attack philosophy without philosophizing about it. It takes a lot of theory to live a little life.
Are Philosophers Necessary?
But the relevant question is not just whether philosophy—which I provisionally define as thinking with care and sometimes ruthless rigor about lines of inquiry that do not admit of purely empirical or purely formal resolution—is privately valuable for those inclined to practice it. The question is whether professional philosophers—with academic appointments and articles in peer-reviewed journals, should they be so improbably lucky—serve any social function.
If philosophy is valuable for a person to do, then it is valuable for a person to teach. To teach philosophy is to induce other people to do it. There is, then, at least some reason for teachers of philosophy to exist. Still, this line of thought does not yet vindicate the institution of graduate school, which, for better or worse, is not exactly designed to mold us into masterful pedagogues. What we are supposed to learn in graduate school is how to churn out scholarship. What we need to know in order to tell if our lives are defensible is whether philosophy is worth writing.
Besides, if you buy into the argument that you are required to maximize either your direct sociopolitical impact or your chances of effecting sociopolitical change, you probably have no business teaching philosophy in the first place. You should become a propogandist or a politician, if not a vigilante with a pitchfork. Of course, this criticism applies equally to art historians, literary scholars, artists, and public intellectuals who write for magazines with small and ideologically homogenous readerships—even the Marxist ones. It also applies to the vast majority of economists and psychologists.
Most of the people who criticize philosophy on the basis of maximization-type arguments tend to express their position informally and incompletely, for which reason I am left to speculate about how they would fill in the details. Utilitarians and effective altruists, whose target is rarely philosophy, have defended an adjacent view with great sophistication. But what they tend to think you are required to maximize is aggregate welfare or the satisfaction of preferences—which may or may not involve maximizing structural change or your chance of bringing about structural change. Nothing about the utilitarian doctrine rules out the possibility that you are required to incite revolution, for revolution might well be what would maximize aggregate welfare. But what most effective altruists end up recommending is that you donate a large portion of your income to demonstrably worthwhile charities and stop buying so much clothing. So it is at least not obvious that utilitarianism will yield the verdict that we should all quit philosophy and art history to become guerilla fighters.
There is a familiar battery of objections to utilitarianism—for instance, that it would require us to sacrifice racial minorities whenever doing so would maximize the welfare of a racist majority and thus overall preference-satisfaction—and I will make no attempt to evaluate their success here. The important point, for my purposes, is twofold. First, the utilitarian doctrine alone does not imply that you should not spend your life writing philosophy papers, unless it also turns out that the only way or best way to maximize aggregate welfare is to maximize your chance of igniting anticapitalist rebellion: Many (maybe most) avowed utilitarians are philosophers, so presumably there is some reason to think it is welfare-maximizing for at least some people to spend their lives arguing for utilitarianism in philosophy journals (and perhaps also unionizing their workplaces, donating their spare income to Oxfam, going vegetarian, and so on).
Second, most people who actually criticize philosophy on maximization-type grounds seem to have something else in mind: They seem to think that what we are required to maximize is our contribution to the destruction of free-market capitalism specifically, whether or not destroying free-market capitalism increases or decreases aggregate welfare more broadly. (I doubt that many of the people I’ve met who hold some version of this view would care if it turned out that the rich were having so much fun bathing in champagne that present inequalities in fact maximized aggregate welfare.) Although this position may turn out to be less demanding than utilitarianism in some ways, let’s call its central injunction—that you maximize your contribution to the destruction of free-market capitalism—the demanding criterion. (Philosophers have a passion for naming positions and premises, and I’m no exception.)
Once you accept the demanding criterion, you will have to conclude that under present circumstances no one is morally permitted to become a philosopher (or, for that matter, an art historian, literary scholar, poet, painter, medievalist, editor, pianist, cosmetic dermatologist, jeweler, librarian, and so forth). This is not because philosophy (and cosmetic dermatology?) could not usefully inform political decision-making. That philosophy is currently without much influence is an accident of the moment. Trotsky knew his Marx, and whatever you think of what the founding fathers devised, they certainly read their Locke. If your justification for becoming a philosopher (or, for that matter, an academic or intellectual of any kind) is that your scholarship would have a positive effect on the world, were anyone powerful to bother with it, you need to supplement your feats of intellection with actions designed to bring lawmakers into contact with your work.
One common assumption among my peers, at least in the world of public writing, if not in the more careful world of the academy, seems to be that the content of a person’s research has some bearing on its political relevance—as if the mere fact that an article has “the right” politics is sufficient to guarantee that it will have “the right” (or any) effect. But whether you are a socialist or a libertarian has exactly nothing to do with whether anyone will end up reading what you write. Of course, the stance you take in your scholarship determines whether it would be a good thing for policymakers to pay attention to your arguments—if, that is, they ever actually did so. But it is premature to skip right to considering what would happen if policymakers were to pay any attention to your scholarship, because it is still far from clear that they ever will.
If you want your academic research to satisfy the demanding criterion by way of persuading legislators or large groups of people (which is at least less wrong-headed than hoping to write an article that directly causes the free market to combust), you will either have to become a celebrity on the order of John Rawls or Judith Butler, which is feasible for a vanishingly small number of geniuses but impracticable for the rest of us, or you will have to reorder the world so that academic writing is once again taken seriously, which will likely require you to devote so much time to orchestrating structural overhaul that you will spend almost no time writing. And wouldn’t it be more efficient to spend that time directly effecting the changes you endorse in your work?
In short, once you accept the demanding criterion, you are committed to thinking that the only acceptable thing to do with your life is become a…what? Well, it’s hard to say. It is not at all clear which careers will hasten the dawn of a just society. Still, it is clear that careers in academia are rarely among them, at least outside of law schools. So something—either the demanding criterion or almost all of the arts—has to give.
The Demanding Criterion and Its Discontents
By now you will have guessed where my loyalties lie. I don’t deny that capitalism in its present form yields morally unacceptable inequalities. And it seems very plausible to me that if you live in relative material comfort, you should feel obligated to redistribute some of what you have, although I don’t purport to have many original ideas about the best way to go about it. (I donate a small monthly sum to charities that may or may not be the best, sign petitions for my union whenever they’re circulated but don’t do any organizing myself, and generally feel etiolated by my manifest impotence—so I am probably failing even by own modest moral lights.) What I do not see any good reason to accept is that you are obligated to do nothing but scheme to end capitalism.
For one thing, not very many of the people who are vocal about the imperative to politicize every aspect of one’s life satisfy their own strict standards. This might be evidence of their hypocrisy, rather than evidence of the falsity of their position. But the absolute unworkability of a view can, to some extent, count against it. Consider Hume’s stylish rejoinder to the skeptic in The Dialogues concerning Natural Religion:
Whether your scepticism is as absolute and sincere as you claim is something we shall learn later on, when we end this little meeting: we’ll see then whether you leave the room through the door or the window; and whether you really doubt that your body has gravity and can be injured by its fall—which is what people in general think on the basis of their fallacious senses and more fallacious experience.44xDavid Hume, Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (Cambridge, England: Hackett, 1998), 5. First published 1779.
Many of the people who purport to endorse the demanding criterion don’t become full-time activists. If a position’s most fervent advocates don’t live by its tenets, who will?
For another thing, I don’t think the world envisioned by champions of the demanding criterion is really a very desirable one. I buy—no pun intended—that life would be better if the global economic system underwent drastic changes. But in the interim, would life really be better if all of us only ever did what we felt was likeliest to bring about sociopolitical change along a single axis? If none of us ever watched movies, or gardened, or stopped to look at trees as we walked past them, or made out with each other, or wasted time in the many worthwhile ways that are apt to sap our revolutionary energies? Such a world would probably contain no thinkers or artists or gardeners or cake baking or kissing. And most of its denizens would probably converge on exactly the same careers.
None of this is to say that people who pledge their lives to ameliorating economic injustice aren’t extremely commendable. And none of it is to say that scholarship about the injustices precipitated by capitalism is not of great intrinsic interest. Nor is any of it to say that people aren’t obligated to live so as to improve the world in some respect or another. It is just to say that there is more than one way of improving things, and that a world in which everyone tried to improve the world in exactly the same way would not really be an improvement. It would just reinforce the sense that we can cherish only those things from which we can wring utility. And I don’t think we could survive without something to treasure for its own sake. There has to be something left that we are capable of loving without asking for anything from it.
Is Philosophy Necessary?
I don’t know if anyone would actually own up to thinking that political reasons are the only reasons that can permissibly factor into our deliberations. But the push for ubiquitous politicization is implicit in much of what is said about why philosophy (or, really, anything humanistic) is no longer defensible, and I, at least, would like to be explicit: Political reasons are not the only reasons, and political reasons do not always override nonpolitical (though perhaps never apolitical) reasons. What I wonder, then, is what specific reasons, political or otherwise, there are to do philosophy.
Philosophers themselves have said surprisingly little in their own defense. Historically, the question they have obsessed over is whether philosophy makes progress, as the sciences do. For what it’s worth, I don’t think there is progress in philosophy, except in the general sense that there is “progress” (more like momentum) in, for example, literary history: There are new themes that become urgent for philosophers and novelists to take up (like the Internet and sexual harassment), and there are old themes that become boring for philosophers and novelists to take up (like men having crises of detachment in Brooklyn), and then there are some sources of inexhaustible fascination (among them love, sex, aging, death, justice, and beauty). But I also don’t think the fact or nonfact of philosophical progress could determine whether it is valuable to pursue a career as an academic philosopher. You can make progress counting blades of grass, but you probably shouldn’t bother.
Many philosophers believe that progress is desirable in part because it is a correlate or hallmark of a discipline with a “truth-seeking” function. But even if philosophers were seeking the truth, and it seems clear to me that many of them (for instance, Friedrich Nietzsche) are not, no reasonable person could consider philosophy a truth-finding enterprise: A survey of 931 philosophers recently conducted by the website PhilPapers found that there is very rough consensus about only one of thirty questions deemed central in the discipline—72.8 percent of philosophers leaned toward atheism, and not even close to 70 percent of the participants agreed about anything else.55xPhilPapers survey, https://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl. Accessed September 6, 2019. In fact, the best-loved pieces of philosophy are often the ones that court more controversy than consensus. As Cavell observed, “It often happens that what makes an article or passage famous is its enunciation of a thesis which the profession is fully prepared to annihilate.”66xCavell, Must We Mean What We Say?, xxxiii. Thus, the value of philosophy cannot be a matter of its ability to spoon out digestible nuggets of fact—although no doubt it enhances our understanding (and sharpens the blades of our thinking in the meantime).
What philosophers can do, at the very least, is ask a special kind of question, one that scientists shy away from. As Isaiah Berlin observed, philosophy is distinguished by its willingness to take on topics that do not “fall into one or other of two great baskets: the empirical, that is, questions whose answers depend, in the end, on the data of observation; and the formal, that is, questions whose answers depend on pure calculation, untrammeled by factual knowledge.”77xIsaiah Berlin, The Power of Ideas (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), 25. And this is precisely the kind of question we often want to be asking. As Bertrand Russell wrote in The Problems of Philosophy,
There are many questions—and among them those that are of the profoundest interest to our spiritual life—which, so far as we can see, must remain insoluble to the human intellect unless its powers become of quite a different order from what they are now. Has the universe any unity of plan or purpose, or is it a fortuitous concourse of atoms? Is consciousness a permanent part of the universe, giving hope of indefinite growth in wisdom, or is it a transitory accident on a small planet on which life must ultimately become impossible? Are good and evil of importance to the universe or only to man? Such questions are asked by philosophy, and variously answered by various philosophers. But it would seem that, whether answers be otherwise discoverable or not, the answers suggested by philosophy are none of them demonstrably true. Yet, however slight may be the hope of discovering an answer, it is part of the business of philosophy to continue the consideration of such questions, to make us aware of their importance, to examine all the approaches to them, and to keep alive that speculative interest in the universe which is apt to be killed by confining ourselves to definitely ascertainable knowledge.88xBertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2001), 93. First published 1912.
If we limited ourselves to asking questions that could be answered decisively, Russell suggests, we would become impoverished beyond recognition. So we chase after the inescapable ghosts of understanding, however irrelevant these ghosts may sometimes seem.
The Firefly Flash
Russell’s phrasing is, on the face of it, pessimistic: The questions of philosophy, he has it, “must remain insoluble to the human intellect.” I think that he is correct and incorrect—and that the reason why he is both correct and incorrect is also the reason why philosophical scholarship is worthwhile enough for me to devote my life to it in hopes of getting it right even sometimes, even once.
It is not true that we can offer no decisive solutions to the age-old philosophical problems, some of which have quasi-empirical answers. Consider, for instance, the burgeoning field of neuroaesthetics, which seeks to make falsifiable pronouncements about the nature of beauty (among other things). Recently, two scientists advanced a “brain-based theory of beauty,”99xT. Ishizu and S. Zeki, “Toward a Brain-based Theory of Beauty,” PLoS One, 6.7 (2011): e21852; doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0021852. according to which “only one cortical area, located in the medial orbito-frontal cortex (mOFC),” is “active during the experience of musical and visual beauty.” The scientists’ methods strike me as dubious: Though they purported to be asking what “constitutes” beauty, they’d already designated the objects they showed to test subjects as beautiful at the outset of their experiment—which raises the question of how they knew which objects to include. More importantly, even if it were possible for us to compile a comprehensive list of what we found beautiful, and even if we could observe which part of the brain these acknowledged beauties stimulated, would we have discovered all that we would like to know? If a trustworthy scientist pointed to a precise quadrant of your head and told you that it was the place whence all your experiences of beauty emanated, would you feel appeased?
Of course, the scientist would have done something interesting. The “brain-based theory of beauty” fails to fulfill not because is uninsightful but because anatomy lessons do not scratch the deepest itches. Russell is right that what we cannot—not as a matter of contingent incapacity, but as a matter of fundamental constitution—provide decisive and satisfactory solutions to genuine philosophical problems. That is because a satisfactory solution to a genuinely philosophical problem has to take a certain form: It has to be addressed by one human to another. It cannot be like yelling “OPERATOR?” into the phone only to hear the metallic voice mouthing the menu options, mapping out where beauty originates in the brain. Satisfactory philosophical solutions are, by nature, open-ended, because they are more like art than science.
Cavell writes that philosophical problems are “not answered or solved,” but induced to “disappear.”1010xCavell, Must We Mean What We Say?, 78. That is to say, philosophical problems can be cast in a new light and so can cease to seem like problems. Philosophy is like therapy, as Ludwig Wittgenstein famously and unpopularly remarked, because, Cavell says,
the more one learns, so to speak, the hang of oneself, and mounts one’s problems, the less one is able to say what one has learned; not because you have forgotten what it was, but because nothing you said would seem like an answer or a solution: there is no longer any question or problem which your words would match. You have reached conviction, but not about a proposition; and consistency, but not in a theory. You are different, what you recognize as problems are different, your world is different.1111xIbid., 79–80.
This is why philosophy involves so much introductory throat-clearing, so much redefining of the problems it addresses and their terms: because every answer it proffers involves what amounts to a revision of the question. When it is working, it does not just feed new arguments into the same old machine.
Therapy, to its detriment, is not really much like this. But Cavell thinks that criticism, which is like philosophy, is: “The critic does not just change our tastes but sets the terms in which our tastes…may be protected or overcome.”1212xIbid., 81. And criticism, which is like philosophy, is also like art. Part of Cavell’s purpose in “Aesthetic Problems of Modern Philosophy,” the soberly named yet rhapsodically dense essay in which the passages I’ve quoted appear, is to explain why “what a work of art means cannot be said. Believing it is seeing it.”1313xIbid., 80. We cannot paraphrase the content of certain works of art, he concludes, because part of what such art means is not what it says but what it does—the firefly flash it occasions.
Philosophical scholarship is worthwhile because it is not discontinuous with literature. What allows it to chime with us and change us, what makes it effective at transforming the banes into boons, is that it is literary. I don’t mean that it is (always) lyrical—after all, there is plenty of literature that is beautiful by dint of being crisp and staccato—but that, when it is good, it has a style and a point of view, and that these are no small part of what makes an argument convincing. Sometimes its style and point of view are poetic in a familiar fashion: Alexander Nehamas, Arthur Danto, Cavell, Iris Murdoch, Augustine, Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard, Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil, Bernard Williams, Martha Nussbaum, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Hume all write what could easily be called—and I mean this honorifically—“literary essays.” But in their own way, so do more conventionally analytic philosophers like Thomas Nagel, W.V.O. Quine, David Lewis, Nelson Goodman, and G.A. Cohen, who have a piquancy and sense of humor all their own.
Good arguments, of course, are also beautiful. They convince us in part because they have a breathless elegance. David Foster Wallace, who was for a time a graduate student at the very institution where I am currently in the midst of the personal crisis that brought you this essay, once told an interviewer that he loved mathematical logic because
I was actually chasing a special sort of buzz, a special moment that comes sometimes. One teacher called these moments “mathematical experiences.” What I didn’t know then was that a mathematical experience was aesthetic in nature, an epiphany in Joyce’s original sense. These moments appeared in proof-completions, or maybe algorithms. Or like a gorgeously simple solution to a problem you suddenly see after half a notebook with gnarly attempted solutions. It was really an experience of what I think Yeats called “the click of a well-made box.” Something like that. The word I always think of it as is “click.”1414xQuoted in David Foster Wallace and Philosophy, ed. Robert K. Bolger and Scott Korb (London, England: Bloomsbury, 2014), 268.
Wallace went on to explain to the interviewer that he would ultimately discover this same click—in fiction.
Philosophy’s best-known mascot is that famous talker, Socrates. But I think philosophy is more essentially written than it is oral, and not just because we only care to encounter Socrates through the flattering veil of Plato’s genius fictionalizations. (Plato, the true founder of the discipline, was a gorgeous writer and dramatist if ever there was one.) Philosophers are creatures of the book and not the conversation because the way an argument is stitched into its wording matters. A change of phrase can upset the whole delicate balance of persuasion so that the description of the problem—or, I guess, the redescription that sometimes effaces the problem—no longer resonates. It is a commonplace in philosophy of art that a single shift in detail—a synonym substituted, a color lightened—changes the effect of the work to the point of changing the work’s identity altogether. As Cavell writes—quite inimitably, because what he is writing is itself literature—of Wallace Stevens,
Paraphrasing the lines, or explaining their meaning, or telling it, or putting the thought another way—all these are out of the question. One may be able to say nothing except that a feeling has been voiced by a kindred spirit and that if someone does not get it he is not in one’s world, or not of one’s flesh. The lines may, that is, be left as touchstones of intimacy. Or one might try describing more or less elaborately a particular day or evening, a certain place and mood and gesture, in whose presence the line in question comes to seem a natural expression, the only expression.1515xCavell, Must We Mean What We Say?, 75.
Part of the problem with paraphrase and secondhand description is that they are bad bases for aesthetic judgments. You can quite rightly believe a scientific principle on the basis of expert testimony, but it seems somehow misguided to take someone’s word for an artwork’s beauty: and if this is so, it is because what it is to make a judgment of beauty is to undergo a certain sort of change, a revolution of outlook. No one can do it on your behalf. There are no ambassadors in aesthetics.
To accept a philosophical argument on authority is to make to the same sort of mistake. Anyone competent can report back about whether a line of thought is fallacious, but you are the only one who can tell whether you are convinced by the thick of the thesis—whether a piece of dialectic dissolves a problem to your satisfaction. Philosophy, Cavell writes, “is the effort to find answers, and permit questions, which nobody knows the way to nor the answer to any better than you yourself.”1616xIbid., xl.
One reason philosophy is worth writing is that it can be important and interesting to people, just as art is. This is not a plea for popularization: Popularity requires not just facility on the part of the producer but cooperation on the part of the consumer. It is only a plea for the preconditions of popularity—namely, a sensitivity to the aesthetic, and a desire to speak to people as people, in a human tone of voice. Obviously, many philosophers fail to write philosophy that satisfies these criteria. But I would suggest that most people who set out to write literature fail, too. That does not make what they are attempting—or, for that matter, their attempts—worthless.
Of course, I would not be responding to Cavell in the philosophical mode if I agreed with him completely. My obligatory quibbles are with the notion that the resolution of a problem involves its liquefication, its transformation into a nonproblem. Rather, I think that the satisfying answers are not conclusive—and that what makes them satisfying is what makes them inconclusive, which makes them seductively unsatisfying in turn. Philosophy succeeds as philosophy only as long as it does not neutralize the provocations so much as it infuses them with a perverse pleasure. Philosophy succeeds as philosophy when it makes us disdain the answers. We could never succeed at “solving the problems,” either in novels or in essays. What we come to see in the course of our conversion into philosophers is that life would be brutally boring if we could.