The essays that we publish at this place refer to the practical philosophy. Some of them will refer to the work of our patron, John Lachs. We hope that our website will contribute to the promotion of philosophy both in academia and outside of it.
We thank professor Tom Buford, Furman University, for his permission to publish his text here.
Tom Buford: Are there costs to the relevance of philosophy to life?
That question reveals a danger of thinking of Philosophy as directly relevant to life. While the philosophical analysis of life by stoic pragmatists reveals complexities usually unnoticed by the philosophically uneducated person, Bringing those complexities to our attention allows us to move toward an examined life.
Clearly, much of what passes as Philosophy today, taught and practiced in leading graduate schools, usually avoiding scrutiny, except by those doing the same thing, is taught in modern day cloisters, protected by the aurora of academic authority, as much as the cloisters were protected by a distant, sacrosanct Church. What could be gleaned from their studies, rarely illumined everyday living, but more often revealed mind bursting problems, sometimes setting the stage for further intellectual problems, whose meaning and significance could be grasped only by a few “monks,” those who had passed the rigorous examination by monks already admitted into the cloister and protected by “academic freedom.” That is the cost of philosophy practiced and taught with little or no interest in the relevance of Philosophy to life. Philosophy is attractive because of the questions asked, much the same as a mathematician is fascinated by the demanding mathematical puzzles she faces. Though adroit in solving such puzzles, their answers come to nothing but more puzzles. Here we have different ways of practicing Philosophy. The former focuses on life, while the latter focuses on the challenging questions philosophers raise or have raised since the beginning of philosophical life in the sixth century B.C.E.and particularly since the Enlightenment, and the attempt to mathematize everything, such as Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. Finding an answer to the questions leads nowhere.
Why? Those who do this kind of work, have little sense of history and specifically the historical background of the problems they work on. John Lachs optimizes the “relevance of philosophy to life” type of philosophy. He is historically sensitive, and is well schooled in the history of philosophy. Thus as he investigates issues buried deep in living life well, he articulates those issues illumined by what philosophers have said about them. John is a master of this type of philosophy. However, what he does is devilishly difficult to do, which brings all who care about living life illumined by philosophical insights, to praise him, thankful for his showing a way of practicing the discipline of Philosophy. We stand together, and applaud him, embarrassing this gentle, encouraging soul. John’s books are excellent examples of what some publishers call “crossover books.” Many of us have attempted to write such books, but few attain to the standard of John’s many accomplishments. However, one weakness those of us who have attempted to follow John of is easy to point out and say, but hard to avoid. It is the fallacy of unexamined presuppositions. This may seem strange to say about John’s work, since the clear excellence of it seems to avoid committing such a fallacy. But, my claim is that he does fall prey to that fallacy at a crucial point in his work. John’s position seems to be libertarian, one that would make John Stuart Mill (possibly even Ayn Rand) proud of John’s work at this point. While it has been developing throughout his writings, he constantly refers to the relations of individuals to each other, specifically of relations inside bureaus of relations, where they do not know the names of the persons they serve much less their emotions and feelings. Here John commits the fallacy of unexamined presuppositions. He assumes individuals can know how other individuals feel; yet he leaves that presupposition unexamined, ignoring an issue central to his position. Why is ignoring that presupposition consequential for the position? Though he develops a stoic pragmatism it could be argued that he does not commit what I’m calling the fallacy of in pragmatists, thus not a problem for Stoic Pragmatism. American pragmatists such as Peirce, Dewey, and James believe that “all minds are continuous in nature, differing from each other largely in power.”¹ However, if that is true, what is meant by “continuous in nature”? If it is believed that “continuous” refers to the structure and functioning of the mind, such as the brain, then it is in disputable that all brains are similar. However, if “continuous” refers to the content of the brain, such as feelings and other mental events, then the question arises as to how one knows that? If one argues that brains are continuous with the nature of reality say, God, differing only in power one now faces the problem of knowledge of other minds, now regarding the Cosmic Mind. Furthermore, why believe the reason can penetrate experience and grasp even a small bit of the cosmic mind. One could claim that the content can be settled by arguing by analogy, and then problems at the heart of the other minds problem arise. Any form of the argument by analogy, rests on the presumption of common ground between the premises and the conclusion, the ground that makes the analogy possible. But, it’s just that presumption that kicks the can down the street, only to have to face again the problem of the evidence supporting the presupposition. To clarify that point, consider an argument a skeptic could advance against having adequate evidence for the presupposition of continuous contentment such as mental events.
“Premise 1. any conscious undergoing of an experience is an idea. . . .(Ideas) are data present for a conscious subject and may be called mental events.
Premise 2. As mental events, they are modifications of an individual mind, and, consequently subjective.
Premise 3. Mental events are because an individual has them. . . .
Premise 4. Mental events and physical behavior are different things . . .
Premise 5. Mental events are physical behavior are continently related, not logically, poor causally related.
Premise 6. Every act of knowing begins and terminates with experience, that is, with the kind of subjective data identified in “Premise 1”.
Premise 7. A necessary condition for knowing that another person exists or what he experiences is either that I experience directly or that I infer by some reliable method that he exists or is having certain kinds of experiences. It is logically impossible directly to apprehend another’s experience. If I did then it would be mine and not his, and his would be his and not mine. Furthermore, there is no method that is perfectly reliable by which I can make correct knowledge claims about other minds.”²
The John’s deep-seated belief in community seems to be unsupported, thus committing the fallacy of unexamined presupposition. Could John reply that society is “glued” in such a way that practical philosophy need pay no attention to it. Society just is glued together, and nothing more needs to be said about it. Does this affirmation undercut or blunt the force of this objection? No, not if John is attempting to help folks understand their lives and how they can be lived better. If the life good to live is to be in society, it seems more needs to be said about the meaning of “continuous in nature.” What could John say that would save him from committing the fallacy of unexamined presuppositions?
He could begin his discussion of the philosophy to life, at least at this point, in early childhood and consider how we come to know and look for a pattern that is central to all persons. He could ask for the structure of all knowing. He could find that it is richer than subject-object, as in traditional discussions of knowledge, conducted in the cloisters. It is also richer than the well-known structure pointed out by Buber, I- Thou that many philosophers call on to explain the relation of persons to each other. Rather, it could be pointed out that a structure closer to the experience of everyone is I-Thou-It. Consider the way a child comes to know, a child’s experience and knowing is always “I, Thou, and It. The child “I”, though the child must be taught the word I, first, most likely, in relation to her name, say Suzy by a Thou or Thous, parents or significant others, for example, with regard to Suzy (that which is referred to by the parents). This relation is more nuanced than parents speaking to the child regarding her name, so that the child learns her name. She could say, “I know my name, it is Suzy.” The child believes what the parents teach her, so that she knows her name. Where there is knowing there is believing and where there is believing there is also knowing. It also includes trust, as the child believes the parent, where belief is more than believing the sentence is true, as in Suzy believes what her parents say. The child does believe that, but also and more significantly the child trusts what the parent says. The child believes the sentence but more and trusts what the thou says is true. Interestingly, throughout the life of the person the child becomes, that structure remains, but more complex and nuanced. Think of Abram of the Old Testament, Abram was called by God to go to a land God provided. This is clearly an I-Thou-It structure, but it also means that Abram believed what God said was true, and more that, Abram trusted God regarding an “It”, the promised land. Once that structure is pointed out by John, he could say that here we have the heart of a social relation; that relation is the trusting relation of I, Thou, It. Furthermore, here we find the glue that stabilizes social relations, and accounts for the stability of any social group. Also the child trusts the parents (persons) who taught her name. So, where there is believing, there is trusting in the Thou, the person, and where there is trusting, there is also believing.
Thus, practicing philosophy as John practices it can open one to of the peril of unexamined presuppositions, even for the most astute philosopher practicing his or her discipline to illumine human life. However, even when one falls into the trap of an unexamined presupposition, one can, as I have suggested, remove the peril by further examining living a life good to live, in this case, broadening the scope of knowing to include a richer understanding of the structure of experience, especially in the life of a child as he or she grows and begins living hopefully a life that is good to live. John’s work sets a high bar for us all, not only as a challenge to live lives that are worth while, but also to practice Philosophy so that the discipline moves beyond the cloisters into the streets.
Thomas O. Buford, Louis G. Forgione Professor of Philosophy
Emeritus. Furman University, Greenville, South Carolina, USA
¹John Lachs, Stoic Pragmatism. (Bloomington, Indiana, Indianapolis University Press, 2012), 147.
²Thomas O. Buford. The Problem of Other Minds. (Urbana, University of Illinois Press),