–Arts and letters for the modern age–

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–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

The Personal is Not Philosophical

by | Jul 31, 2023

That the personal is political is a bit of wisdom from the 1960’s, which suggests that we should not ignore domestic affairs in the political arena. That the personal is philosophical is an idea that goes back to Antiquity and to Socrates, who is reported by Plato to have said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” 

The first is almost certainly a sound idea: wage equity; the right to divorce; spousal abuse; women’s right to own property; child labor; all are appropriate objects of legislation and regulation. I’ve wondered about the second one, though, and after three decades teaching philosophy and being a part of the community of academic philosophers, I’ve come to think it is as unsound as the first is sound; that philosophy, as studied and written about by professional philosophers, when applied too directly and intimately to one’s life, makes a mess not just of it but of the lives of the people around you. And if you’ve sometimes wondered why the more publicly-facing philosophers often seem like rather strange people, it’s in good part because they examine their lives far too much, with far too little discretion, and in all the wrong ways. 

I say this, in part, because it runs opposite to the conclusion that Crispin Sartwell draws in his recent essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, “The New Hellenism.” To summarize (roughly): There was a “striking change,” around 2010, whereupon some philosophers “began to write a lot more personally; they tried to show how philosophical ideas had affected and might affect their own lives,” and for Sartwell this is an unambiguously Good Thing. For one, philosophy will no longer “[fill] in the corners [rather] than answering the Big Questions” and for another, the new, more personal philosophers are “[bringing] the field … much better writing and … much more pleasurable reading.” Indeed, so excited is Sartwell about this development that he thinks it may solve the existential crisis facing philosophy and the humanities in the contemporary university. 

[A]s philosophy as an academic discipline is again endangered by budget cuts and considerations of prestige and practicality, there is no doubt that the new philosophy has brought in its train a much-needed renewal of urgency, energy, and sense of practical purpose.”

Now this is an essay on whether the personal is philosophical, not on Sartwell’s LARB entry, but so much of what he says there goes directly to this question, so it’s a useful place to start. Sartwell thinks the personal is philosophical. He thinks it should be philosophical. And he thinks the best thing that could have happened to philosophy is that the contemporary philosophers he admires are telling everyone about their personal lives – and those of their intimates – in the most public of venues. I do not. Sartwell may find Agnes Callard’s disclosures in the New Yorker, New York Times, and comparable venues “rollicking” (his word) and her philosophically inflected provocations and titillations “surprising,” but I suspect that most regular people (i.e. non-philosophers) will think them familiar and by now tedious expressions of bourgeois rebellion, which in the age of Social Media are a dime a dozen. And if Sartwell really is concerned about the future of philosophy – and of Letters more broadly – in the University, then a bunch of high-profile exhibitionists from tony institutions poncing about and exposing themselves and their families – and thereby providing fodder for every state legislator looking to slash university budgets and eviscerate faculty governance – is the last thing he should celebrate.

One problem lies in the fixation on “answering the Big Questions,” as Sartwell puts it. For anyone who has been paying attention – and one would think at least that professors of philosophy have been – it should be apparent by now, several thousand years after Plato, that these kinds of Big Questions are not the sort for which there are answers, at least not if what one means by ‘answers’ are solutions around which there will be overwhelming or even substantial consensus. Metaphysical Realists and anti-Realists have disagreed about “the fundamental nature of reality” since Antiquity and still do. Ditto for moral Realists and anti-Realists. Materialists and Dualists have disagreed on the “nature and relationship of mind and body” since Antiquity and still do. Objectivists and subjectivists have disagreed on the status of beauty and other aesthetic values since Antiquity and still do. Modern ethicists have disagreed about whether intent or consequence are morally overriding since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and still do. I could go on, but hopefully, you’ve got the point. 

The idea that if we just write even more papers and books, we’ll arrive at “answers” (in the aforementioned sense) on these topics should be absurd to anyone reflecting on this history, so it’s interesting that so many philosophers think precisely that. The reasons likely are many, though I suspect that two are central: (a) professional considerations – In the competitive environment of the University, it is easy to understand why it would seem a bad idea to those who are professionally invested in philosophy to admit that the kinds of questions we investigate have no determinate answers; and (b) conflating the questions we ask in philosophy with those we ask in other disciplines, due to a superficial similarity in form and a lack of imagination on the part of philosophers. 

In science, when we ask “How?” we are looking for some sort of mechanism. When we ask “What?” we are looking for an empirical characterization or description. When we ask “Why?” we are looking for a cause. So, when we see these words at the beginning of questions, we interpret them in the manner that we would if they were being asked in a scientific context, unable to imagine that there could be any other way of understanding them or any other way in which taking them up could be useful. Alas, “What is a comet?” (a scientific question) and “What is a cause?” (a philosophical question) are not the same kind of question, despite the fact that both start with ‘What?’ Neither are “Why think that the moon affects the earth’s tides?” (a scientific question) and “Why think that there is an external world?” (a philosophical question), despite the fact that both start with ‘Why?’ And even though “How do we build a rocket that can escape the earth’s gravity?” (a scientific question) and “How do we live good lives?” (a philosophical question) both begin with ‘How?’ they are not the same kind of question and do not admit of the same kinds of answers.

Besides the obvious problems with these sorts of conflations, thinking that you’re in the business of Answering The Big Questions engenders a very philosophical sort of hubris: the belief not only that there are determinate answers to questions of Meaning, Purpose, Flourishing, and the like but that you are going to find them. Worse, if you think you already have found them – “I know what justice is!” “I know what flourishing is!” – and then apply them to your life in the crude and ham-fisted ways philosophers are wont to do, you can do a lot of damage to yourself and to the people around you. Only thus could someone like Callard think not only of her behavior but of her public exhibition of it as “aspirational” (her word) and part of some exercise in human flourishing. And only someone in the grip of a theory could think, as Derek Parfit apparently did of his hermetic, ritualistic asceticism, that he is engaged in a project of “saving morality,” as a recent biography described him. Someone who thinks that “if morality is not objective, life is meaningless,” as Parfit did, is not thinking clearly or soundly or rigorously, for that matter. Something has gone wrong. And in part, it’s that philosophers have misunderstood the kinds of questions they are asking and thus have failed to understand the status of the answers they are getting, leading to weird and dysfunctional applications of those answers in their real human lives.

Another problem is that of the general vs. the particular. Philosophy is steeped entirely in the former, while well-lived human lives are largely determined by the latter. The general formulas that are produced out of moral philosophy, political philosophy, and the like are the result of a ruthless process of abstraction, de-contextualization, and “edge-smoothing” that renders them largely useless in the navigation of one’s daily affairs. Worse, they may hinder us in doing so, offering an illusion of simplicity and serving as a basis for frustration when that illusion is shattered. Reading Callard’s account of her domestic goings-on – for Sartwell, the most notable and admirable example of the current trend towards “personal philosophy” – all I could do is wonder about the process that takes a person from philosophy to theory to some conception of “aspiration” that is so strong that it overrides the pained silences; the devastated looks; all of the myriad, immanent “particulars” that would give an ordinary person (i.e. one who didn’t live so much in his or her head) serious pause. As Aristotle understood, but as few philosophers today seem to, a well-lived life depends essentially on practical wisdom, and practical wisdom is not primarily a matter of intelligence or ratiocination, but of experience, perception, and habit. The “New Hellenism” isn’t much of one.

The study of moral and political philosophy and of theories of “Obligation,” “Justice,” “Virtue” and the like were of no assistance whatsoever as I endeavored to manage my late father’s three-year decline and eventual death from congestive heart failure and to navigate the vast and byzantine medical and related systems on which his care depended. In fact, it was an unambiguous obstacle to my efforts, constantly throwing up “rational objections” and “justified outrages” and all manner of other distracting irrelevancies in the brutal business of dealing with a long and ugly death. No utilitarian or deontological calculus soothed nighttime dreads and anxieties, as I stayed with my elderly mother alone during dad’s many hospitalizations. Being “right,” “warranted,” “virtuous” or any of the other things that are championed by philosophers was never the point and never of any help. What the situation required – as the fraught times in one’s life generally do – was perseverance and endurance and unwavering commitment; getting out of my head, putting it down, and pushing forward until the end, whenever and whatever that might be.

Rather than the personal being philosophical, I’d say that being philosophical is what happens when the personal goes on holiday. It’s when, as Hume described it, we retreat from the Street into the Study. And the trouble with so many philosophers is that when they return to the Street, they forget that the two are very different places; that the Street is not the Study and that what goes on in the Study is only indirectly and oftentimes only barely relatable to what goes on in the Street. Hume understood this. Aristotle did too. But far too many philosophers past and present have not.

Finally, when it comes to the “Examined Life,” philosophers have a blinkered conception of what such a thing properly involves. Human beings are mammals; living creatures with cognitive, conative, emotional, and other such capacities. We are not minds captaining bodies. Reasoning is only one of the means by which we figure things out and fruitfully navigate the world, and oftentimes it is not the most important or even the second, third, or fourth most. We are not transparent to ourselves, nor do we think especially clearly or well when we are too much in our own heads. As a result, self-examination, improvement, and well-being are not productively pursued through solitary ratiocination (with or without the aid of articles or books) and depend heavily on social intercourse, physical activity and immersion in physical environments, and sometimes even psychotherapy. 

Philosophical examination, in contrast, is rationalistic and operates entirely at the level of conscious thinking. It is Platonic/Cartesian in logic and spirit, if not ontologically, and this is why when philosophers self-examine, it is more reminiscent of Data, the android character in Star Trek The Next Generation, trying to figure out “what it is to be human,” than of any real, serious, individual human pursuit of personal development, growth, and well-being. 

I’ll close with an excerpt from my contribution to How To Live a Good Life (Vintage: 2020):

[P]hilosophical theorizing can only provide us with a general, largely abstract, and ultimately incomplete guide to something as complex and steeped in particularity as a good human life. We should be suspicious, then, of philosophies that instruct us too much and in too great detail. If a philosophy purports to tell us specific things we should or shouldn’t do in particular situations, then it is likely one that misunderstands the extent to which philosophical theory can inform practice. (p. 75)