October 13, 2013

The Philosopher: An Endangered Species

Filed under: Philosophy — camcintosh @ 1:42 pm

I was just reading Alvin Goldman’s 1970 book, A Theory of Human Action. In the preface he thanks a Mrs. Alice Gantt, who is credited for having typed the book.

You will not see remarks like these in prefaces anymore. The days of writing books and papers longhand are gone, banished almost entirely within one generation. How much more thought and care is required for writing longhand compared to writing on Microsoft Word? I probably hit the backspace button more than ten times while composing this very (simple) sentence. How much more does Word encourage us to “make it up as we go”? The way information is gathered and processed today is different. We no longer have to rely on our memory to recall complicated arguments or subtle points; we don’t have to carry them in our minds when we can carry them in our laptops. In thirty years (if not already), the average philosophy professor will not be competent in Greek, Latin, German, French, and English, or any combination of those.

I’m not saying the quality of philosophy will be any different (though I’m curious about this). But the quality of scholarship will most certainly be different. And that means, in all likelihood, the quality of the philosopher will be different. The kind of deep internalization that technology obviates diminishes the potential for philosophy to shape and mold one’s character. One can do philosophy—and do it well—without being a philosopher. This is why I will always think of myself as an “aspiring philosopher” rather than a philosopher proper. Whether I deserve to be called a philosopher will be decided after I’m dead. There are a few, however, whose philosophical excellence automatically inducts them into the ostensive definition of philosopher. Ed Gettier, Harry Frankfurt, and Thomas Nagel are living examples.

But I fear they are an endangered species. Soon our philosophy departments will be populated entirely by people who get paid to do philosophy.


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