Eating and Being   /   Fall 2019   /    Essays

The Art of Not Concluding

Can philosophy be worth doing?

Becca Rothfeld

Painting—Interrupted Circle (detail), 2000, by George Dannatt (1915–2009); private collection/Bridgeman Images.

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.

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