Three Questions and Three Answers

Questions from Vanderbilt University Press editor Betsy Phillips. Answers
by me.

Q. Let's talk a little about the roles of philosophers in contemporary
culture. One striking characteristic of your book is that you're wrestling
with important ideas in innovative ways while furthering ongoing discussions
by Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam about John Dewey. Yet, when most people think of philosophy, they don't think of intense, lively debates. In a perfect world, how much of a role would the philosopher play? Are you better able to critique culture from the margins or would you like to see some kind of philosophical equivalent of Dead Poet's Society or Good Will Hunting in terms of popular appeal?

A. In a perfect world, I'm not sure what role philosophers would play;
but it's precisely the imperfection of our world that motivates the
best writers and readers of philosophy. You're right to say that
philosophers are marginalized, especially if you mean they're excluded from our society's mainstream forums of discussion. When it comes to economic justice, government spending, war, animal treatment, affirmative action, or any other "hot" issue, it is common to consult lawyers, politicians, political scientists, and even celebrities for their views, but it is uncommon to include philosophers. This is a situation badly in need of correction from both sides. Philosophers must not remain on the margins--they should devote more time and effort pushing for greater inclusion in public conversations. And the arbiters of those conversations--editors in radio, television, and the popular press--should strive to find ways to include philosophers in existing forums and devise new forums for them. The New York Times Magazine's column "The Ethicist" has become hugely popular, while on radio WBEZ's show "Odyssey" and WBUR's "The Connection" have done a great job in getting philosophers on the air. These are good starts, but philosophers should keep in mind they're the exception, not the rule.

Q. In your book, you engage and critique both Rorty's and Putnam's
understanding of John Dewey. Do you find it invigorating to write about
people who will be able to read your book and respond to your ideas or are
you a little nervous about what they might say?

A. The possibility of a response is always invigorating, and, as Oscar
Wilde quipped, "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being
talked about." Rorty and Putnam are now so famous that any extended response
from them would be an almost unqualified plus--to be rebutted is to be taken
seriously, and to be taken seriously by them would be an affirmation of my own scholarship. That said, I cannot say I'm nervous this will happen. Both men have acquired a long list of prestigious interlocutors over the years, and they're very selective in who they will respond to. I'd be thrilled if they criticized my views, but I don't expect it to happen anytime soon.

Q. On page 149 you say, "The insight 'we can only start from where we
are' may strike some as unconscionably obvious. Yet it is the absence of
this insight that has led many to construct elaborate systems that, in the
end, bear no significant relevance to human life." Can you give us an example of such an elaborate system and how it fails us?

A. It's always dicey to pick on a famous philosopher, since someone
somewhere has made it their life's work to champion that system. Still, I'd
have to say that Kant's ethical system has always been more hindrance than
help, especially if the test is teaching ethics to students. In Kant, we
see the construction of a beautiful system that categorically separates emotion from reason, feeling from analysis, and animal kind from human (or rational) kind. We see exacting distinctions made between maxims, principles, and imperatives, and the exaltation of universalizability as the supreme logical criterion of human conduct. And yet, when it comes time to employ this system in the messy situations that comprise our lives, very few are able to use Kant's system with the precision he intended. Few of us can decide what counts as a maxim with the "proper" content, and the main logical principle of the whole system, universalizability, is hardly clear, let alone user-friendly. What's more, few contemporary people want to exclude consequences or character from moral evaluation, or accept the idea that emotion has *no* role to play in moral inquiry. Pragmatism and neopragmatism are both philosophies that reject these kinds of systemic dualisms, and so contain the basis for a more cogent and applicable ethical theory. My work describes how these dualisms are rejected, and what kinds of possibilities are opened by pragmatist criticism.

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