The business of philosophy
Mon 18 Aug 2014 10:51 AM
I was recently reading an intellectual biography of William James. It quotes from his journals, in the 1870s when he was deciding whether or not to take a position teaching physiology at Harvard.* James writes:
Philosophical activity as a business is not normal for most men, and not for me. ... Of course my deepest interest will, as ever, lie with the most general problems. But ... my strongest moral and intellectual craving is for some stable reality to lean upon...
The concrete facts in which a biologist's responsibilities lie form a fixed basis from which to aspire as much as he pleases to the mastery of universal questions when the gallant mood is on him.
I am struck by two things.
First, it's interesting that James should characterize philosophy simultaneously as having a business and as being utterly general. To have a business is precisely to be interested in your portfolio rather than in other things.
Second, it highlights the tendency for experienced scientists to make pronouncements on philosophical matters when "the gallant mood" strikes them. It is not uncommon for scientists to do so without any sensitivity to the complexity of the philosophical issues, perhaps while simultaneously announcing that "philosophy" is dead. The excessively gallant scientist is the counterpart of the philosopher who pronounces on matters with proud ignorance of the empirical facts.
* Lots of different sources cite different bits of this. Some cite longer stretches, but none the whole passage including all the bits I've quoted here. Because I'm just musing about it, I haven't consulted anything that's not on the internet.