Monday, April 07, 2008

Philosophy Majors

Famed philosophy major Steve Martin as Jean-Paul Sartre?

Brad alerts us to the article in The New York Times Education section, saying "It's once again cool to be a philosophy major." It's nice to get some credit...but I'm wondering when it ever was cool before! ; ) At least those Athenians weren't totally convinced when they made their hemlock cocktail for Socrates.

According to the NY Times,

Once scoffed at as a luxury major, philosophy is being embraced at Rutgers and other universities by a new generation of college students who are drawing modern-day lessons from the age-old discipline as they try to make sense of their world, from the morality of the war in Iraq to the latest political scandal. The economic downturn has done little, if anything, to dampen this enthusiasm among students, who say that what they learn in class can translate into practical skills and careers. On many campuses, debate over modern issues like war and technology is emphasized over the study of classic ancient texts.

Well, this is encouraging, except for the last part. Healthy, vigorous debate happens when we do not reinvent the wheel, but are aware of past answers and dead ends. A philosopher's laboratory is largely built of classic texts: ancient ones included. For instance, any talk about war and technology that ignores Plato's Republic will be sorely handicapped.

The trick is to keep the balance. Philosophy is constantly tempted to be defined as the perpetual adoration of past intellectual history, or as the urgent enterprise of arguing over the latest, fashionable problem of the day. Ancient texts are dead if we cannot hear them speak to our day (and that just doesn't apply to the Scriptures.) But contemporary discussions that ignore the past are intellectually arrogant and morally stunted.

Philosophy, a luxury major! Yes, the way any liberal art major is a "luxury." In a world of work and utility, these cannot make any sense. But as Josef Pieper reminds us in Leisure, the Basis of Culture, the root of "school" is the Greek word, "skole," which means leisure. Yes, leisure can be construed as a luxury, but it is also necessary if we are to be human:

"But the Gods, taking pity on mankind, born to work, laid down the succession of recurring Feasts to restore them from their fatigue, and gave them the Muses, and Apollo their leader, and Dionysus, as companions in their Feasts, so that nourishing themselves in festive companionship with the Gods, they should again stand upright and erect." --Plato

cf. this handout from Phoenix College, a Maricopa Community College.

See also, How Philosophy Pays Off in an information economy.

No comments: