From Experience to Insight – the Personal Dimension of Philosophy

Written by Muriel Leuenberger

The more philosophers I have come to know, the more I realize how deeply personal philosophy is. Philosophical positions often emerge from personal experience and character – even the seemingly most technical, detached, and abstract ones. As Iris Murdoch wrote: “To do philosophy is to explore one’s own temperament, and yet at the same time to attempt to discover the truth.” Philosophy is an expression of how one sees the world, a clarification, development, and defense of “an outlook that defines who someone is” to add the words of Kieran Setiya.

This personal dimension of philosophy becomes evident in the new philosophical positions and topics that emerge when people with different personal experiences and points of view start to do philosophy. The most prominent example is how women in philosophy, particularly in the last 50 years, have contributed new perspectives – a brush of fresh air in old, stuffy rooms. Philosophy’s allegedly objective view from nowhere was rather the view from a particularly male perspective. Care ethics, feminist philosophy, and philosophy of pregnancy are just some areas where the inclusion of women in philosophy with their own outlook and priorities has advanced the discipline.[i]

The relational turn that can be observed in the philosophy of identity can be seen as a recent addition to this list. Relational identity is the idea that who you are is not just defined by your own properties and characteristics but also by how others define you. Others define us through concepts and norms we acquire in a social context that shape how we see ourselves and the world, they define us through our relations with them as friends, siblings, or members of an ethnic group or a book club, and they have the power to constrain our scope of action or provide opportunities. The latter can be a particularly incisive way of being defined by others. For example, by banning women in Afghanistan from universities the Taliban is defining who they can be. They can no longer become a doctor who dedicates their life to and finds meaning in caring for their patients. Insofar as we are defined by our actions, we can be defined by others who exercise control over what we can do in our lives.

Philosophy has typically been pursued by people whose life was in some sense open to them. They had a range of opportunities – doing philosophy was one of them – and did not face strongly limiting constraints and expectations, as in the example of an Afghan woman today. Academia and with it philosophy have become more accessible in many parts of the world. This means that more people are doing philosophy who either experienced more limiting constraints posed by others or who are aware that only very recent changes or the fact that they are born in a certain country spared them from a life of far-reaching constraints. People who have experienced or can readily empathize with how others can define one’s identity have entered the debate on identity. This development makes the emergence and rising popularity of relational identity views comprehensible.

I want to highlight a further, related reason for how the personal dimension of philosophy creates new trends besides the commonly mentioned shift in who is doing philosophy. The growing literature on philosophy concerned with topics and positions relevant to and based on the experience of a more diverse range of people can also be traced back to a diversification in whose testimony is being heard and taken seriously. As Miranda Fricker argued, marginalized groups are often faced with testimonial injustice – their testimonies are considered less credible due to prejudices related to their identity. For most of the history of philosophy, testimonies of experiences and viewpoints of women, non-western, non-binary, and non-white people were not heard, not taken as seriously or relevant, and not readily accessible. Globalization, digitalization, and a cultural shift towards more openness and equality are gradually changing this (although we still have a long way to go). The increased accessibility and ascribed credibility of testimonies of diverse experiences can inspire new topics and positions in philosophers who do not share those experiences but have come to learn about and empathize with them.

Philosophy clearly profits from taking other perspectives into account. We can get a richer picture of reality, a broader understanding of the moral landscape, raise interesting metaphysical questions, and new philosophical positions can come into sight that challenge established old doctrines. The deeply personal character of philosophy makes the inclusion of and attention to different voices all the more pressing.

[i] Vintiadis, Elly (2021, August). The view from her. Aeon. https://aeon.co/essays/is-there-something-special-about-the-way-women-do-philosophy

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6 Responses to From Experience to Insight – the Personal Dimension of Philosophy

  • Ian says:

    If philosophy is perceived as the thinking and learning process, obviously initially located within the individual (but by the articles own admission – not always or healthily), at what point does it become more inclusive, ascending beyond an individuals experiential perspective, broadening the understanding to a level where the inclusiveness written about becomes an innate comprehension of the actual whole? Each set of reading material produced by individual philosophers may document their own learning journey, or current worldview at that time, and whilst accepting those perspectives which apparently had/have to fit within the narrower confines alluded to where does the progress of the whole alter those boundaries? Femininity and its understandings, being part of the whole, does broaden philosophical understanding, but used on its own it may perhaps also provide a distraction. For when looking back compare Iris Murdoch with Hannah Arendt to potentially perceive different methods of addressing their lives as social context becomes understood from within differing levels of experiential background, and perhaps other more limiting intellectual influences which became accepted. It seems to me that both philosophers appeared to follow a learning curve which caused them to transcend many of the individual elements of their own experiential philosophy, in a similar way, but by different routes: the aesthetic perspectives of Gombrich and Hegel as the individual starting points determined the route and broader perspectives developed. An asily noticeable point like that is in Arendt’s interest and developing views about evil. Empathy assists life, but if affected as a mere emotional gender exercise it is likely to fall short, (by becoming bounded) of assisting a fuller comprehension. Is it perhaps the accepted (or unseen) elements which become perceived as character?

    To elaborate that last question by taking the route documented in the blog article and applying it to AI which will inevitably learn or project what will often be seen as a form of ethical conduct as attempts are made to match the differing responses it produces to particular ages, genders, geographical or rules based areas. Something which it cannot apparently accurately reflect at this time. Even where AI is able to deal with different types of complex human material, because of the pure application of logic within the processes any boundaries produced by AI in the social sphere are most likely to be raw, hard edged and sharp, leading unthinking people towards more tension filled relationships with others who do not precisely fit known definitions. These are very real problems that AI has to overcome if it is to truly inform a human world. So at the moment it must necessarily remain the human users who soften those hard edges and make the material adequately relate in the human world. Those same difficulties are likely to in large continue for individuals, even for the more adaptable, retaining some traction at the individual level even during any ethical/moral learning process as narrower perspectives prevail or are/become applied to a particularly familiar worldview. Not necessarily in what Arendt describes as an unthinking way, but by not exercising an appropriate level of understanding. Which in some circumstances empathy may provide counters to.

    Whilst debates about the intelligent application of knowledge, learning and ethical/moral conduct continue, this difference between the production of hard edged machine information and a softer broader human comprehension, it seems, may eventually provide more broadly acceptable responses, but empathy on its own does not provide any holistic answer acceptable across that wider world, so the questions the article raised remain valid ones but philosophy is more than just learning because it continually questions and searches whereas learning can be limited to a final outcome.

  • Paul D. Van Pelt says:

    The quote from Murdoch reminded me of something stated within the last few years . Another thinker said that how philosophers look at things depends a lot on their temperament. I don’t know whether he lifted this from Murdoch’s writings, but I would not be too surprised. Philosophy is a personal matter. I know this from interaction with others and the divergent opinions and theses they are wont to hold. It is a wild world.

  • Paul D. Van Pelt says:

    Something else. When philosophy enters fiction, and comes back. Years ago, a writer wrote of a prophecy. His books and philosophy were popular, for a time, while readers , some of us, thought the premise was real. His writings introduced ‘insights’. Several of them. He talked about basic personality types: intimidator; interrogator; ‘poor me’; and aloof. A vision and philosophy ensued, for a time. He must have made some money from his books, because at least half a dozen appeared in print. I read them all, even after understanding it was ‘only fiction’. But, was it? Were this man’s writings any more fantastical than pronouncements from biblical or quaranic teachings? I don’t think so. Would they have been any less loved, had he said, from the get: this is fiction? That depends.

    A lot of philosophy is fiction, based on questions, conjecture and endless argument and debate. Yet, we who love this stuff, continue the fray. Why? Because it is far more interesting than arguing over questions, already answered, whose answers are rejected…because of interests, preferences and motives.

  • Ian says:

    A debate is to be had over what constitutes/triggers the beginning of change, many would say new questions arising out of new material, others that perceiving a particular answer itself creates conjecture. It does seem to me that interests, preferences and motives often create challenges to existing material where any fit of those factors causes tensions between different ideas/worldviews, resulting in questions arising because of the other, differing, interests, preferences and motives with those questions not always being driven by open intelligent inquiry but often arising only out of perception causing a reluctance to accept/comprehend other perspectives, which sadly then itself creates barriers as tolerance predominates with thought and explanation becoming directed by circumstantial tension rather than being reflectively and intelligently considered.

  • Paul D. Van Pelt says:

    Was thinking about saying something profound, in response to Ian’s comment/remarks. I will, instead, say something blunt, believing I understand his point of view (maybe), and since my views always offend someone anyway, I see no reason to back down now. Philosophers are like badgers and wolverines: territorial and jealously protective of their ideas and turf. They are suspicious of different ideas that challenge deeply held convictions, especially when those convictions emerge from deeply respected predecessors. Item: one does not challenge Pascal’s Wager by pointing out its’ disingenuousness and suggesting the ‘wager’ may have been a joke. Here, here. Anyone’s temperment can change, whether day-to-day or year to year. If one lives long enough and checks one’s self, periodically, this fact emerges. Unless, of course, one is resolutely guarding territory; protecting ideas and turf. Contrary to some belief, philosophers are just people, like others, but different. So far. If, and only if(?), in some existential future, AI is awarded ethical and moral status, that could change. Yeah. Sure.

  • Paul D. Van Pelt says:

    There is something else, gnawing at my consciousness. Ian’s remark including circumstantial tension and reflective, intelligent consideration re-kindled
    the gnawing. Ever since a remark about authoritarian populism hatched and was buried in less than forty-eight hours, it seems ordinary citizens are attempting to secure popular legislation to prohibit things like “linguistic discrimination” and “lookism”. There are some other quasi-discriminatory acts or attitudes that some have found objectionable. But if these objections are some barometer of authoritarian populist thinking, then the AP hatchling may not have been buried after all. Here’s the deal: there are things that people may find objectionable or think are discriminatory. They are free to make such findings; have such thoughts. However, we have legislatures, local, state and federal, whose job it is to write, enact or rescind laws. Electors may vote on such proposals and propositions but their elected legislators carry the ball from there, goal; fumble or punt. If authoritarian populism or something like it still survives, we may have a problem. Maybe a clear and present danger to democracy, as we think we know it. AP leans precariously close to anarchy;probably fomented the tragic Capital fiasco. Experience and insight are more temporaly proximate than we think. If, and only if, we are paying attention. I am just trying to get the peg to fit the hole. It is a tough act.

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