Philosophy as Nonviolence

Today begins the first time I have taught a college philosophy course in almost five years. (I taught last semester, but it was a religious studies course titled “Religion, Ethics, and Environment.” More about that experience in another post.) I am a bit philosophically rusty, and truth be told I am of two minds about philosophy as a profession. Overall, though, I am excited.

Preparing for this semester has gotten me thinking about what philosophy is for and why anyone would spend time and effort taking on the intellectual discipline it demands. I am going to be standing up in front of a room of skeptical students, who are paying, perhaps with borrowed money, to learn about this nebulous “philosophy” thing. I think they deserve the best and most honest account I can give them of why it is worth their time, their effort, and the interest on their non-dischargeable loans.

It is notoriously difficult to state some one thing or set of things that characterizes everything that is done under the disciplinary umbrella of “philosophy.” All of it seems to involve asking difficult questions, trying to answer them, and learning to cope with the fact that the answers we give never quite exhaust the questions we ask. But you could say the same thing about the natural sciences. No scientist I know thinks that the difficult questions driving scientific inquiry have exhausted nature, much less whatever small sliver of it forms the focus of their individual research.Science, no less than philosophy, teaches us to cope with provisional answers to difficult questions.

Perhaps it is in the types of questions philosophers ask– the “big” questions about justice, morality, what is ultimately real, God? In other words, perhaps philosophy is unique in virtue of its content? But plenty of other disciplines and people– political and religious leaders, scientists, and others– ask these same questions and proffer answers, but we don’t call what results “philosophy” in the sense that what I teach in my college class is called “philosophy.” Perhaps what those people do should be called philosophy, but it isn’t. Certainly most professional philosophers would contest that little to none of what those people do really counts as philosophy.

There is probably a sophisticated descriptive account one could give of “philosophy” that would come close to demarcating what is philosophy from what is not. I am not sure what good it would do to have one, though, except as a tool for philosophy professors to use to justify their existence and their budget line items to skeptical administrators. After all, we philosophers are running way behind in generating patents and research grant funding for our institutions, so we have to earn our lunch somehow.

You can see, of course, why I am reluctant to stand up in front of my students and tell them a story about what philosophy is whose real function is to beg them to give us a pass when they get elected to the state legislature and millionaires lobby them to defund stuff. Students can smell a sales pitch coming a million miles away.

I have come around to the notion that what is most interesting and best about philosophy is not the “how” or the “what” of it, but rather a basic sense of value to which it commits us. Basically put, I have come to believe that taking on philosophy means to take on a commitment to nonviolence, to the notion that disagreements, even seemingly incommensurable ones, can be the subject of continuing conversation without having to resort to violence.

I have a healthy skepticism of the notion that that conversation tends to converge, even at some ideal limit set on infinity, on an ideal rational consensus. You can postulate that if you want, but it is just one more set of assertions to throw into the conversation. The force of calling the commitment to nonviolence a commitment is that it isn’t obviously tied to anything immanent in the practice of conversation itself. It is, rather, tied to the encounter with embodied others, people who come before us in all their embodied vulnerability with claims and stories different than ours, claims we can either lie out beside our own or attempt to erase or efface through the tools of (physical and discursive) violence.

Philosophy is an invitation to abandon violence and to embrace conversation. Given that our culture in the United States places far more stock in violence, philosophy goes against the grain. It is hard to “sell” that to people who have been taught for so long to choose violence. The only way to “sell” this invitation is to show what it looks like to accept it, with both its burdens and its joys.

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