Monday, April 23, 2012

Christian Perring's Closing Remarks

The following are Christian Perring's (Chair of the Philosophy and Religion Department at Dowling College) closing remarks:

I want to thank you all for attending the second undergraduate philosophy conference at Dowling College.
It takes effort to submit a paper to a philosophy conference, and then more effort to make travel arrangements, and if you are coming from far, then also sorting out somewhere to stay.  Then finding the conference location, getting there on time, being nice to the conference hosts, giving your talk, and then waiting until the end of the conference before getting out and relaxing.  Of course, there are motivations: sometimes going to a conference leads one to meet new people who one stays in contact with, and it gives one an opportunity to try out one’s ideas in front of other people who are interested in the same topic.  It’s also another line on the CV, and that can be helpful in showing to others that one is serious about one’s career.  But as I explain to my students in my ethics class, getting something out of an action does not make the action selfish.  The act of sharing one’s ideas may sometimes be egotistical, but more often it is an act of generosity.   And for undergraduate students, it may take a special risk of trying something relatively new.  So I want to thank the students for their participation.  Their contributions here today have been interesting and stimulating. 
I also want to thank John Drummond for his excellent talk. 
I know well the work that it takes to put together a successful conference, and all the credit this year goes to my colleague Robert Berchman and our philosophy major alumnus Adam Kohler.  Their hard work has paid off with the excellence of the talks today.  I thank the Provost for supporting this conference, and of course we thank the GAETANO MASSA CHAIR OF ITALIAN STUDIES for its sponsorship.
I am especially grateful to those who have attended the conference.  Students who were offered extra credit to come of course may have been acting more out of selfish reasons, but I would note that many students with that opportunity still don’t come.  Many of our students have not attended any conferences, and so it takes some readiness to try something new to come out on a Friday and listen to some talks.  To my fellow faculty who have come today, I thank you too.  You are helping to sustain the academic life of the college by giving up valuable time when most of us have so little time available.  A college needs to come together to discuss academics if it is to be an academic institution; maybe not all at the same time, but there at least needs to be dialog between a good number of those in charge of the academics.  Having the support and participation of faculty for our undergraduate conference is a gauge of the health of our college, so I am glad that there were faculty from other departments participating today. 
This week I sat through a jury selection process out at the Riverhead Supreme Court.  The two attorneys in the civil case said that they were looking for jurors who could be impartial judges of who was in the right, and then they proceeded to set out some of the details of the dispute.  They proceeded to ask potential jurors whether they sympathized more with one side than the other, and whether the would-be jurors had made their minds up about the case on the basis of the slim amount of information already given.   Although I was struck by the fact that some potential jurors seemed to have a hard time expressing themselves at all, or of grasping what the questions posed to them meant, I was more struck by the incoherence of the lawyers’ position.  Citizens who had good experience in relevant matters were being disqualified from serving precisely because they had relevant experience.  The lawyers were looking for people with less relevant experience, on the dubious assumption that having experience would bias people toward one side.  They were not really looking for people who were unbiased, however; they were looking for people who were not well informed and who they hoped they could more easily influence.  They had to frame their search as ruling out bias, but not a single potential juror admitted any bias.  They did admit having experience that might have influenced them in their judgment, and this was taken to be problematic for one of the two sides.  So the trial started out not with a search for truth, but rather a search for those who are less qualified to find truth. 
Philosophers promote philosophy in general education courses and for the general public as a way to improve critical thinking skills, and they are right to do so.  The studies show that philosophy majors do well at critical thinking.  It is not clear to what extent this is because philosophy improved their skills, and to what extent people with good critical thinking skills are attracted to study philosophy, but it is bound to be some combination of the two. 
However, there is the further issue of why anyone would pursue graduate study and devote their life to philosophy.  Here the answers go beyond the skills of the discipline to the insights provided by philosophical thinking.  As philosophers like to say, we uncover the underlying structure of thought, the ultimate nature of reality, the intrinsic limits of knowledge, and the like.  Philosophers go deep; while most scientists (either in the hard or soft sciences) are interested getting data, and are content to use operationalized concepts adequate for their purposes, philosophers focus on the big picture, they look at theoretical consistency, and subtleties in meaning.  So philosophy offers a profound understanding of our lives and the world, or at least of our attempts to grasp the nature of the world.
But even in describing the value of philosophy, I have alluded to the fact that philosophers have profound disagreements with each other, both about the nature of the universe, what sort of knowledge we can have of it, and how to do philosophy.   Not only is it apparently impossible to come to a final resolution in philosophical disputes, but those who are skeptical about the value of philosophy suggest it is a discipline that does not even make any progress.  As students often complain, it just keeps going in circles.  Critics of philosophy see it as a form of self-indulgence with no solid benefit beyond the critical thinking skills. 
These concerns can't be dismissed, precisely because the dangers that the critics point out are real.  Even if we disagree with them, we need to take them seriously as a way to keep ourselves self-critical and be aware of the need to advance philosophy.  Of course, when students make the complaint that an article they are assigned just keeps on repeating itself, they are normally wrong, and they have just failed to understand the complexities of the argument, which is in fact carefully constructed and goes through different issues systematically.  While much philosophical debate that goes on today can be seen as echoing debates that has gone in earlier centuries, it is also conducted in new terms, taking new scientific knowledge and other more recent philosophical discussion on board.  Taking that into account, we can define progress in ways that make it indisputable that philosophy does make progress. 
Nevertheless, we can still wonder whether we are much closer to ultimate truth beyond science than Plato and Aristotle were.  My own opinion is that Aristotle made a vast and demonstrable advance over Plato, but it is less clear whether we have advanced much beyond Aristotle at least in our metaphysics.  My own views are that there needs to be an intimate connection between philosophy and other disciplines, especially the sciences, and that such engagement of philosophers outside of their own discipline will help to ensure that we don't end up just gazing at our own navels.  Much of my own work is focused on making those connections between philosophy and other disciplines, and I am broadly committed to interdisciplinary work. 
But interdisciplinary work is dependent on work within the discipline, philosophy cannot be completely interdisciplinary.  There has to be a core of pure philosophy, and in teaching philosophy, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels, we need to teach that core.  We also need to nurture work in that core, and bring new philosophers into it.  Events such as this undergraduate conference help to do that.
Even if it is hard to demonstrate that philosophy delivers widespread agreement even among philosophers about what knowledge it has established, we can point to the social value of philosophy.  All the disciplines within Arts and Sciences have traditions of honesty and courage, in the face of widespread condemnation.  The academy, at its best, stands for truth over ignorance, and highlights the value of the difficult search for knowledge.  Within the academy, philosophy has the curious position of searching for the most elusive knowledge.  At the same time, and maybe because of this, philosophy has the role of being the most contrarian discipline, questioning everything and doubting the claims supposedly established through empirical methods through the search for problematic underlying assumptions.  The figure of Socrates is always an inspiration, being a pain in the neck by asking difficult questions, pointing out problems with other people's answers, and refusing to shut up.
So I would argue that analyzing the sophistry of lawyers going through a jury selection process is a particularly philosophical virtue.  Further, pointing out the need for more honesty and providing a model of how to achieve that is also a skill that is distinctively within the province of philosophy.  In encouraging students to take courses in philosophy, to pursue minors in philosophy, ethics, and bioethics, and even to major in philosophy, we are promoting more than critical thinking in a narrow sense.  We see the virtues of philosophical debate in events like our undergraduate conference today.  Those virtues include a determination to search for difficult truths and a readiness to engage in debate and criticism, even when the chances of finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow (i.e., some form of established truth) are very remote.  The ability to transmit to students that desire for a struggle for the truth is particular rewarding for those of us who teach philosophy, and when I see it in students, I am filled with admiration for them.  So I am filled with admiration for the students who have participated in this event today, and again, I want to give them my heartfelt thanks.

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