Nine to five philosophers
Owen Barfield was lunching in C.S. Lewis’s rooms. Lewis, who was then a philosophy tutor, referred to philosophy as ‘a subject’. ‘”It wasn’t a subject to Plato”, said Barfield, “It was a way.”’1
It would be dangerous for a modern professional philosopher to say that her philosophy was her ‘way’. I can well imagine the responses. ‘She’s lost objectivity’. ‘She’s a preacher, not an academic.’ ‘Most of us were disabused in our first week as undergraduates of the childish notion that philosophy was about the meaning of life. She obviously missed that lecture. She was probably at a prayer meeting instead.’
For the scoffers, philosophy is a job. It’s something they do from nine to five. Then, when they leave the faculty, they walk out into the world of angst and bereavement and sick children, and begin, without reference to the day job, to try to puzzle out the meaning of the world and of their own place in it. The job, often, is about exactitude – about ensuring that every step in an examined argument is unimpeachably rigorous. But stop and ask them whether, as a result of the rigour, the argument can now be relied upon to change conduct, and they’ll stop, scratch their heads, and look at you as if you’re simple.
I’m not really accusing them of hypocrisy – of failing to judge themselves by their own standards. For an allegation like that to stick you’d have to show that they knew that the world of the day job was the same as the world outside. The problem is that they don’t perceive the two worlds as having any connection at all. The diagnosis is non-integratedness. It would be unkind to translate it as lack of integrity.
Recently I was reading Charlie Camosy’s book Too expensive to treat? Finitude, Tragedy and the Neonatal ICU2. It’s rather a good book, but its contents aren’t the point for the moment.
Charlie and I don’t always see eye to eye. He’s a Catholic, for a start, with far too much respect for old dead men for my comfort. But the tone of the book struck me. Here was someone doing philosophy because the answers mattered. He’d unfashionably remembered that ‘philosophy’ means the love of wisdom. He approached the issues reverentially but insistently, determined not to let them go until he knew that they had something useful to say to an artificially ventilated child.
No, this doesn’t mean that the book is a Catholic polemic; or that he’s mainly interested in crafting an argument that accords with the ruling Encyclicals; or that he’s trying to ensure his back will be covered when he next slinks into a confessional; or that it’s a set of inevitable inferences from a set of a priori assumptions; or that it’s humourless, earnest, preachy or fanatical. Let alone correct. It’s just a book by all of someone, with the intention of deriving principles that apply to whole, real, humans, rather than to an abstracted portion of a human, or a pastiche of a human. It’s written to appeal to reason, conscience, intuition and hospital accountants, rather than to the Chairmen of grant-giving authorities and tenure committees. It’s the work of someone with a conjoined personal and professional life. That should be unremarkable. It’s actually very unusual.
That it is so unusual is a big problem both for philosophy and philosophers.
[Conflict of interest: Charlie Camosy is a friend. Come to think of it, that's hardly a conflict of interest. He wouldn't stop being a friend if I hadn't written this, won't be more of a friend because I have, and I won't be getting a cut of any book sales this blog might generate.]
1. C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, Geoffrey Bles, 1955
2. Eerdmans, 2010