Philosophy and Form
Philosophy is versatile as to form. We have the long-form book or monograph, the medium length article, the note or comment, and the epigram. There is also the dialogue form (Plato, Hume, Berkeley). Philosophy can be written as poetry (Lucretius, Eliot, Donne) or performed in a play (Shaw, Beckett, Stoppard). There are philosophical novels (Sartre, Camus, Murdoch). There are films with philosophical themes (The Matrix, Inception, Woody Allen). There is philosophical painting (Magritte, de Chirico, Escher). Music, architecture, and dance can have philosophical themes. There is even philosophical comedy (Monty Python, Beyond the Fringe). I can’t think of another subject that is represented in so many different forms. Physics isn’t, despite its prestige and importance; nor is history or economics. Philosophical ideas appear in great expressive variety, whereas the ideas of other disciplines are more expressively limited. Why is that?
It’s not because philosophy is easier or more accessible. It’s not because it has greater practical impact. It’s not because there are more philosophers than other types of savant. I think it’s because everyone is a philosopher and philosophy gets into everything. We just can’t help it: philosophy is in our blood. Not everyone studies it formally, but philosophical thoughts exist in everyone. They keep cropping up, inescapably. So they get expressed in many forms. Why it is that we are so philosophical a species is an interesting question: it is hardly practically pressing or even much fun. Couldn’t there be a species very like us but without a philosophical bone in their body? But with us it is natural and ubiquitous, so it spills out all over the place.
In addition philosophy lends itself to a multiplicity of forms: it is essentially malleable. It is not that when someone has a philosophical thought the form of its expression is immediately evident—it might lead to a poem or a painting or a story or discursive prose. This is partly because philosophy is an emotional subject. It’s hard to see how a thought in physics could be so open-ended in its form of expression. Conversation is a natural mode of philosophical expression, which is why the dialogue form is appropriate; but the same is not true of other disciplines. Conversations express our concerns and reveal our uncertainties—they are a human activity. Philosophy is a humanistic discipline in that sense, an expression of our human nature. Hence it takes the form of human modes of expression. Perhaps, too, there is a need to express oneself philosophically—in conversation, writing, art, and so on. The variety of forms reflects the desire to find expression for one’s philosophical self. One doesn’t express one’s “physical self” in acts of expressive physics—one simply aims gets the point across in equations and verbal formulations. But philosophical expression is far more a form of self-expression in its deep origins: this is why we speak of “my philosophy” (but not “my physics” or “my economics”). Philosophy is personal. And it seeks expression where it can.
This suggests that the current style of academic philosophy is distorting and limiting. Academic philosophy today is almost exclusively confined to a small number of forms—chiefly the article and the book. These are written in a certain professional style (which I need not characterize, but not exactly scintillating). But philosophy itself, as a human passion or obsession, is not inherently tied to this type of form. Institutional norms have determined the dominant philosophical forms today, not the living essence of the subject. I am not suggesting that we abandon well-reasoned philosophical prose in favor of poetry and prancing around, but I do think we should recognize the variety of forms that are natural to philosophy. We shouldn’t suppose that the way we write philosophy within the academy today is the only acceptable way to do it. That diminishes our ability to appeal to a wider audience and doesn’t do justice to what philosophy deeply is. In trying to compete with other disciplines within the academy on their terms, we have forgotten that philosophy can be clothed in many forms.