Monday, March 05, 2012
Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind
Writing in, of all places, The New York Times, Colin McGinn, a distinguished philosopher—for only distinguished philosophers get to appear in “the paper of record”—has called for a rebranding of the discipline of philosophy. No, “rebranding” isn’t his word, though it was astutely used by one of the commenters. McGinn just called for a name change. “Ontics” is his suggested alternative.
McGinn notes that the name is misleading to non-philosophers, who “immediately assume you are in the business of offering sage advice, usually in the form of unargued aphorisms and proverbs.” And when you try to explain, well, they just don’t get it. Whatever this discipline is, “lover of wisdom”—the etymological meaning of the name—is too generic.
Well, sure, yeah, it is. But then, is what McGinn does, or what most academic researchers do, is that wisdom in any meaningful sense? Thomas Kuhn famously argued that what most scientists do is rather like puzzle-solving, and he did not mean the term at all pejoratively. The point of the term was to suggest that most scientists—and McGinn thinks of philosophy as science, in a broad sense of the term—work within fairly well-specified conceptual boundaries.
Which they do. And so it is with most academics. That’s just the nature of the enterprise.
There is tremendous respect for the mythology of “going boldly where no man has gone before,” but little on-the-ground tolerance for that activity in the flesh. I rather suspect that McGinn wouldn’t recognize one of the bold ones if she bit him in the ass. Whatever it is that McGinn does, is there any reason whatever to suspect that he gives a fig about wisdom?
Not, mind you, that I think “wisdom” a particularly good term for “going boldly where no man has gone before.”
But it’s not a bad term for that, not at all. And, yes, I know the phrase comes from the cheesy opening of a cheesy classic TV science-fiction program. That cheesy TV program, Star Trek, spoke to a deep need for adventure. We can argue about how well it spoke to that need, but the need is real and I’m willing to grant that the Gene Roddenberry’s animating impulse was a desire to speak to adventure, and that he was sincere in that.
On the other hand, a senior academic who whines about his discipline’s public image in, yes, the paper of record, The New York Times, can’t possibly know or have known intellectual adventure. This, as Graham Harman has noted, seems to be the core of McGinn’s plaint:
Our current name is harmful because it posits a big gap between the sciences and philosophy; we do something that is not a science. Thus we do not share in the intellectual prestige associated with that thoroughly modern word. We are accordingly not covered by the media that cover the sciences, and what we do remains a mystery to most people.
In the words of Rodney Dangerfield, “I don’t get no respect.”
Dangerfield is a comedian. McGinn is not, nor is he a philosopher. He is, at best, an ontician, whatever that is.
Perhaps one reason so many people hold the academic world in contempt is that they sense that those who run it have utterly given up on the quest for truth, for, yes, wisdom. Those words from Star Trek mean something to people—they mean something to me, something very important. People want to believe that those privileged to live the academic life believe in and support the questing for truth. Perhaps the public senses, if not quite knows, that academicians have lost site of the truth. And so the public has little respect for the intellectual life.
They want to see something higher, something noble, something worthy of sacrifice and respect. What does McGinn do? He treats his professional work as though it were toothpaste for the mind, that’s what he does. How can anyone respect that? McGinn surely doesn’t.
I mean, really! Kvetching in the NYTimes about not getting respect? He gets THAT pulpit handed to him and that’s what he does with it?
With mouthpieces like that, the academy doesn’t need enemies.