I was playing tennis today with my favorite partner, Javier, the best player in Cuba. I have recently been experimenting with lead tape on my racquet and had added some more strips. It certainly adds to power, as well as stability, but it also allows you to make solid shots without too much effort or swing amplitude. I wish I had started using it years ago. It enables you to customize your racquet easily and cheaply. The moment of contact feels firm and chunky, with little loss of maneuverability. It’s also good to feel physics doing its work. We all need more lead tape in our lives.
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Has philosophy become inhuman? Is that why it has lost its prestige and popularity? Is it doomed by its inhumanness? Or is it perhaps not inhuman enough? Is it just not scientific, merely a parade of personal opinion and undisciplined subjectivity? Must we reunite philosophy with the humanities or must we let it be swallowed up by science? Is philosophy at a crisis point where it must decide its own future, either rediscovering its humanistic heritage or opting for scientific assimilation?
What form might these decisions take? One suggestion might be that we make the parts of philosophy with more human interest into its central, or even its exclusive, concern. Thus we focus on aesthetics and ethics, politics and the meaning of life, the philosophy of race, gender, and selfhood. Then we will have a genuinely human type of philosophy—with no more logic, metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of science, etc. An alternative suggestion may be to abandon any area of study not subject to scientific method, i.e. theory construction guided by empirical observation: we make philosophy into science’s handmaiden (or bitch, in current terminology). Both these approaches smack of extremism and ideology, not to speak of violence and destruction, and I have no sympathy for them at all. But I think it is a good question whether philosophy today, or indeed in the past, is prone to an off-putting inhumanness. More basically, it is a good question what such inhumanness might consist in—what is it to be inhuman in the intended sense? Are mathematics and physics inhuman, or biology, or psychology? Are poetry and literature always human (or humane or humanistic)? Is analytic philosophy inhuman and continental philosophy human (whatever exactly that contrast is intended to be)? Presumably the question isn’t whether philosophy ought to be (exclusively) about human beings: surely that is too narrow (what about animals and gods, or standard metaphysics?); and surely it is possible to be about humans in an inhuman way (say, the physiology of the human digestive system). It’s not a question of subject matter but of style, method, a particular type of interest.
Consider philosophical logic. I myself find this subject particularly interesting, but I don’t think my interest in it betrays my humanity. For part of my being human is that I am interested in abstract topics: to cease to think about such topics would be a human deprivation for me (I don’t the feel the same way about medieval plumbing, say). It is clearly not inhuman to be interested in topics not about humanity. One reason for this is that it is possible to be passionate about such topics (same for mathematics and physics). They excite our curiosity, get our intellectual juices flowing, and lead to heated arguments: nothing inhuman about that. Are they “dry” topics? We can say that I suppose, but again humans are not averse to a dry topic now and then: they have a certain kind of purity, a certain wan enchantment. Maybe not everyone finds them fascinating, but that doesn’t make them inhuman in any pejorative sense (not everyone finds soap operas fascinating, or operas for that matter). So the objectionable property of being inhuman is not to be identified simply with abstract subject matter or topics not dealing with human beings (is it inhuman to be interested in animals?).
It is the way a subject is discussed that attracts the epithet “inhuman”. And I think that philosophy has become rather inhuman in this sense: spuriously serious, professionalized, forbiddingly written, jargon-ridden, overly defensive, and intentionally dull. No doubt there are institutional reasons for this, having to do with tenure, job shortages, and university administrators (inhuman by definition). But there is also a certain cultural deadness abroad, a kind of humorless, risk averse, businesslike approach to philosophy. This is one reason why some people preach the assimilation of philosophy to science—as a way of making philosophy respectable. They want the prestige that the label science brings (and who doesn’t want prestige?). But that is not the solution to the inhuman tenor of so much philosophical writing (and speaking); instead we need to alter how we handle the topics of philosophy. It is perfectly possible to make a topic humanly interesting without making it about the human. We can make philosophy sound less inhuman by being more human ourselves—less like soulless machines, or corporate drones, or members of a profession. The problem does not lie in philosophy but in philosophers—they are what is inhuman. We shouldn’t castigate the subject for the shortcomings of its practitioners. That is, we should practice philosophy according to its nature, not according to the professional norms that have come to characterize contemporary academia.
I think I can finally say what I have tried to avoid saying for quite a while: I wish I had never moved to America. I came from the “shithole” of Oxford in 1990, a hopeful immigrant. I have had my doubts about the place over the years, both from personal experience and the political landscape. But these doubts have intensified recently and I find myself in a state of daily disgust. The simplest thing I can say is that people (not everyone!) don’t grasp the difference between right and wrong: they are morally deficient. Then there is the brutality, stupidity, and inhumanity. Maybe I will move to Haiti.
No doubt it is a good thing that questions of sexual harassment are being aired, but I found Daphne Merkin’s op-ed piece in the NY Times today salutary. It ends thus: “These are scary times, for women as well as men. There is an inquisitorial whiff in the air, and my particular fear is that in true American fashion, all subtlety and reflection is being lost. Next we’ll be torching people for the content of their fantasies.” (my italics) Philosophers, in particular, should not be prone to this kind of American failing. Blacklisting will be the inevitable outcome unless good judgment is restored.