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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

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11 Comment on this post

  1. Well said! That’s exactly how I felt when I started to read religious thinkers like Lewis, Barfield, Chesterton etc. They were speaking from the heart as well as the head and as people living in the everyday world with genuine concerns and passions. Everything I’d read up to then in my informal quest to find The Meaning Of Life seemed passionless and dessicated – numbed and cauterised by the idea that cool objectivity was the only possible way of saying anything valid.

  2. I wouldn’t call myself a philosopher, but i have always wanted my faith/what i believe to be integrated, and to work for any situation. i.e. If something is true it has to be true for a sick, poor child in africa and a rich man in the US. Too much Christian ‘philosophy’ of life is circumstantial, and that winds me up no end! That has tended to push me to the edges of church, but i’d rather be there full of doubt and making real friends than at the centre denying my rational mind.

    This lack of integration is well summed up in the words of that great philosopher (!) Ryan Adams :

    You plant a rose
    And if the rose comes up
    You’re thankful to God
    And when it doesn’t you cuss him

    (Life is Beautiful, from the album Cold Roses)



  3. I’m kinda on the edge too – can’t go forward but can’t go back. Not sure what you mean by “circumstantial” though – can you elaborate?

    Your Ryan Adams quote is a version of the Problem of Evil…? There are many approaches to this, but I haven’t found an answer that satisfies on all levels so far…

  4. Hi Steve,

    By circumstantial i mean people making statements like:
    – God agrees with me because my church is growing (it might have nothing to do with them)
    – My theology is correct because the holy spirit moves when i lead worship (it might be a gift that is nothing to do with what they think of God)
    – It is ‘right’ for me to have taken this job (the fact that it has more money etc has nothing to do with it!)

    I spoke to a friend the other week about someone going through a ‘dark night of the soul’ type of experience. My friend commented “He can’t have had a strong faith for that to happen”. That kind of understanding – that if your faith is strong you will not doubt, that God will not be distant – in the end i find quite childish. It is also self-congratulatory, because people rarely say “i’m doing the wrong job” or “i thought God said do this, but i got it wrong”. They only ever hear God correctly, and what they do is always ‘right’.

    At least, that’s my experience, and i long for a shared faith/philosophy of life that is more open to doubt, and more humble.

    Does that make sense?



  5. Hi Lawrence,
    I don’t get that kind of thing either. For some reason it seems to come up particularly when female American soul singers win an award and personally thank God for it, as if He’s their manager and gave them good careers advice. That seems to me to be incoherent: if God can tell people which single to release from an album then He can tell people not to run with scissors, or that its about time they changed their car tyres because they’re bald and they might crash and kill someone. Which plainly He doesn’t.

    At the same time, you get what one might (uncharitably) characterise as ‘dicks’ in all walks of life. There are plenty of people who use science to prop up their particular prejudices – only a few years ago the DNA pioneer James Watson pronounced that African are less intelligent than white westerners due to differences in their genes.

    To be fair you have to address the best of religious and scientific thought, and not the worst. I don’t know many religious people but I did the Alpha Course some years ago and although some spoke of God helping them in various ways it wasn’t particularly proud and obnoxious. I had the impression ‘God’ was helping them to be honest with themselves, like an “unconditional positive regard” therapist. I’ve also met a few very clever and unassuming believers.


  6. It won’t surprise you, Charles, that I agree! I would just modify a little your last phrase to “That it is so unusual is a big problem both for anglo-saxon philosophy and anglo-saxon philosophers.”

    1. I dunno… when i think of “philosophers” who are big on integrating their world-view with their personal lives I think of systematisers/zealots such as Marx, Ayn Rand, and David Icke. I kind of like the person whose self image is more akin to the technician than the prophet.

      [I guess the primary philosophical problem I have with too much in the way of whole system approaches is basically the Popper thing – the one articulated in The Open Society.]

  7. Anthony: many thanks. I suspect you’re right. An exploration of your correctness would be a fascinating and, I think, a fecund thing to do.

    1. It seems to me, but perhaps I’m really being naïve, Charles, that it’s only philosophers who decide what philosophy should be about. Their view will be based on what famous dead philosophers that they’ve studied said, or implied, philosophy ought to be. But their view is clearly culturally determined : which dead thinkers are considered philosophers, or famous, depends not a little on the institution in which they studied.
      I’m just a guy who has lived long enough to wonder whether this is justifiable, and occasionally poses what he considers “philosophical” questions to himself.
      Some, if not most, are based on personal circumstance. Perhaps Dave Frame is right to distrust this, but what circumstances do we have, essentially, except personal ones?
      So here goes :
      Whilst I was nursing my dying partner, life (though often difficult) was simple: no question about why, only practical questions about how and what. The obviousness of the “why” is simply the existence of sharing love in the face of death (nothing remotely religious there, incidentally : both of us atheists). If there were questions, the answers were easy.
      Now she has gone, I ask myself simple, stupid questions (philosophical?) such as : what do I now want in life? What would be a “good” thing to want? Is this what “freedom” feels like? How to reconstruct meaning? Do I/we in fact need a “meaning” to life? The list continues, but I won’t bore you with it.
      I’m afraid I can’t explain why anglo-saxon philosophers treat love, death, beauty, the construction of significance and meaning… as non-philosophical questions : it would need someone much cleverer than me. But it’s a pity that so much of their philosophy ignores questions that I would guess no other discipline owns.
      Social psychologists will say that the domain belongs to them, but they will only attempt to describe, for example, the process of grief. I could describe, objectively and scientifically, the last goal scored by Manchester United, but it would only make sense to someone who already understood the point of a football match. And even those who intellectually understand the point will miss most of it if they don’t understand the passion of playing football.
      Evolutionary psychologists will make the same claim no doubt, but their latter-day anthropomorphic explanations (guesses?) on the survival improvement chances of love, grief, beauty, meaning, leave me rather unsatisfied….
      But I’ve probably got all this wrong…. “Everything is what it is and not another thing”.

  8. Dave: many thanks. You can indeed produce some gruesome exhibits in the case against me. But I’m puzzled by your preference for the ‘technician’. Technicians ensure that things run smoothly for others. To value a technician implies that you think it’s good for things to run smoothly. But surely, if you want philosophical things to run smoothly, you’d want the technician to reap the benefits of his or her labours? Perhaps you think that only a non-benefit-reaper has the objectivity necessary for technical competence? If so, that’s a bleak picture of the philosopher’s calling.

    1. Technicians (in science at least) have a bunch of virtues we academics lack:chief among them are humility, and an awareness of the limits of their capabilities. On the whole I think these virtues are to be encouraged (though I make exceptions – I love Nietzsche, who had neither). My guess is that the average signal:noise ratio is higher from the technician than from those of grander totalising tastes, because the former accumulate a lot of small hits, while the latter only very occasionally deliver on the much grander promises they make. [ie if the odds of the technician delivering 1 unit of wisdom is 0.7, and the odds of the “philosopher” delivering 1000 units of wisdom are 1-in-100,000, then the technician is the better bet.]

      But I actually don’t think it’s that bleak a view. Not compared to my other ones, anyway.

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