Wednesday, November 29, 2006

I Like "Soft" Philosophy

I would be lying if I didn't say I was disappointed with Rebecca Goldstein's lecture last night. Part of my dissapointment is irrational, and the other part is more rooted in a fundamental disagreement over the goals, methods and purpose of Philosophy. First the irrational: she begun her talk by disclaiming that she was not Renee Feuer in The Mind-Body Problem. Fine. I should know better. In fact, I have never really liked meeting authors in person. (I don't even like meeting what I think are fantastic Philosphers in person). Goldstein is right that what a good novelist should do is enchant the reader and she did that. When you meet an author and she tells you what's what, why she wrote this book, what her true views are, well, you short of break the spell. That is part of what happened.

I am not sure I consciously thought she was Renee; I certainly didn't attend the talk to ask her "are you Renee." But, the fact she lead with this disclaimer sort of threw me off from the beginning. Furthermore, she made this disclaimer in a way that I found haughty. She begun by saying: "I am not Renee. I was a happy and successful student at Princeton. And, I was temperamentally suited for the kind Analytic philosophy that was done at Princeton. I was very narrow. I hadn't read any philosophy before 1879, which was when Frege published his foundations of mathematics." Ick. Ok, so she made it clear, right off the bat, that she was a successful and beloved Princeton student.

Later on she argued that every character in a novel is part of the writer; the writer has find her way into the character's psychology. [Side note: had I more time or inclination, I might have pointed out for her how interesting her observations are on the process of writing and hearing character is to bringing us closer to resolving the "problem of other minds." After all the mind-body problem is one of those interminable problems plaguing philosophers and what a fascinating insight that novelists seem quite capable of "thinking like X" (an allusion to Nagel's What Is It Like To Think Like a Bat)]. Goldstein also remarked that she wrote the novel at a time of great tumult and tragedy in her life. Her father had died, she was a new mother, and she started asking herself the forbidden question "what is the meaning of life?" These were just odd and interesting observations.

The real source of my disappointment was with her rigid definitions of what Philosophy is, what it does, and what sort of questions it should restrict itself too. For Goldstein, writing novels was not only something quite distinct from doing Philosophy, but it was a source of embarrassment to her among her colleagues. Goldstein clings to the Analytic tradition and thereby asserts that all arguments should be narrow, tight and, I imagine, require the tools of mathematical logic. She confesssed that she is temperamentally a mathematician and therefore prefers solving problems, rather than getting lost in impossible metaphysical questions. (I don't tend to see these as the only two options left to us philosophers).

I, like Goldstein, started in the sciences. I left for Philosophy when my questions outgrew the tools of Chemistry. But, where we differ temperamentally is how we view what Philosophers do, more importantly what they ought to do. I don't see literature and philosophy as opposed to each other. I don't think literature is "soft," while philosophy is "hard," to use her adjective. In fact, if nothing else, I think her talk was a compelling defense of why literature is one of the most profound tools available to philosophers. In literature we engage in a dialogue with the novelist over matters of importance, we glean important insights into other minds, we make sense of the profoundly complicated nature of moral decisions, and, lastly, we find companions for our deepest searches for meaning.

If literature is too messy, too open ended to be counted as "hard" Philosophy, then give me "soft" Philosophy.