Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Popularizing Philosophy

In class as we’ve been discussing Karl Reinhold’s Briefe über die Kantische Philosophie (Letters on Kantian Philosophy), the issue cam up about popularizing philosophy. Reinhold’s whole purpose in this series of articles is precisely to popularize Kantian philosophy, to bring Kant to a wider audience. In many ways he succeeded. The Briefe are a collection of articles that were published serially in 1786, and subsequently collected together to form this book. They were pretty widely read and established Reinhold’s name enough that he was given the newly created chair of Kantian philosophy in 1787 at the University of Jena. On the other hand, we are reading them in a philosophy class not as a secondary source to understand Kant, but as an independent thinker on his own, since Reinhold in a way created a new philosophy in the process of what he thought was merely explaining Kant in a more readable and digestible form.

In other words, Reinhold’s writing brings up the question of whether popularizing a sophisticated and difficult philosopher is something that scholars and philosophers should attempt to do, and yet it also brings up the warning that you won’t be able to popularize without in some way corrupting the original in the process.

There’s nothing wrong with corrupting the original per se, unless we assume that the philosopher in question is some sort of prophet spewing truth at every syllable. Really getting at what a philosopher is trying to say in every detail is always a hard bargain. But, presumably, there are aspects of the original philosopher that make them great and make them worthy of study, and the threat is that these will be lost in the translation to the popular audience. Are the most insightful and brilliant aspects of Kant reflected in Reinhold? It seems that some are and some aren't.

Presumably if you’re going to do a good job of popularizing a philosopher, then you are going to be able to present their most interesting an insightful ideas, and you're gong to be able to do it in a clear and consistent way.

But, in class, objections were raised to the project of popularizing. One complaint was that if you only get the most important ideas without the supporting details then you aren’t going to get the real philosophy; e.g. Reinhold can’t present the real Kant. Another objection was that these ideas cannot be presented out of context without corrupting them—i.e. the ideas only make sense in the context of other supporting details. In short, both were saying that popularizing a philosopher inherently corrupts the ideas of that philosopher, and that you really need to study the original to get the ideas.

I made a very pragmatic objection here, that it’s unrealistic to expect that average persons are going to have time to study these philosophers in great detail. People have jobs to do and other concerns in their life, and we philosophy students are rather fortunate to have the leisure to study these thinkers. Your average Joe can’t afford to spend years studying Kant in detail, and thus reading Reinhold is the only practical option for most people. And at least to get this brief introduction will benefit most people intellectually by introducing them to profound and unique ideas that could stir up new thoughts.

The objection then was raised that in fact being introduced to new ideas is corrupting if you don’t have the right disposition. Confirmation bias leads people to seek idea that confirm their presuppositions. Being introduced to ideas that have the imprimatur of a great philosopher gives them the aura of authority, and thus it will make some people more arrogant in ther convictions. In other words, new authoritative ideas can corrupt people by making them more over-confident in their presuppositions.

This argument I don’t like. The main problem of course is that it doesn’t really bear on the original discussion about whether it’s good to popularize sophisticated philosophy, since confirmation bias applies equally to trained philosophers as much as the overall population. One can become arrogant in one’s presuppositions if one read Kant through Reinhold or Kant directly. The argument is ultimately saying it's not a good idea to be exposed to new authoritative ideas at all. This would only make sense if we assumed that only philosophers or philosophy scholars can handle these ideas, whereas others are in danger of being corrupted by them, which itself is incredibly arrogant for a philosopher to say (though some philosophers have). But also I think we’re talking more about individuals who are the exception. Most of us are going to be stimulated to think when we learn of new ideas, and even if we seldom will question our presuppositions, our thoughts will be affected. There are few people that are really afflicted with such arrogant myopia, and there’s nothing to prevent these people from getting PhDs in philosophy and become philosophy professors.

Thus, I can say that for me, it is a good thing to popularize sophisticated philosophers, since I will have value to people who really aren’t able, for whatever reason, to go to the primary source.

No comments: