Petrillo: Philosophy’s afterlife

When we live in a society together, it is our duty to not shy away from others and the structures that keep us together, but to imagine and build a better society, to create the world that defines who we are and that lives on after us. This attitude and engagement is politics. When Aristotle said we were political animals, he meant that we find ourselves with others and that it is our telos to create a world with them from which we can have meaning love, identity, history, imagination and destiny. And if we don’t, he says, we will be very lonely creatures.

Once man discovered that through talking with others we can create meaning and political structure, he created philosophy to do better. Some say this man was Socrates, but either way, this spirit of philosophy lives on. If we are to live together without being dominated and oppressed, then we must find a way to agree about certain things. We agree on how to treat each other. If I decide its fine to kill my neighbor, but my neighbor decides that the good life is respecting and giving to others, then our community will fall apart very quickly. Today, governments that enact moral standards (or lack of) that differ radically from those of the people will eventually collapse, unless they can use enough violence and coercion to take all agency out of the people. So, for the purpose of creating a society that can give each of us meaningful lives and a history, we must come to agree about certain values. This is the project of philosophy, of rational discourse. Even after we have killed God, eroded any tradition that gives us a sense of belonging and deconstructed every cultural meaning until it becomes meaningless, no matter what Jacob Abolafia ’10 or Matthew Shaffer ’10 claim, philosophy will still live on as rational discourse.

The discourse is part of our everyday lives. We need to come to agreements with others, to live with them. When you tell your best friend to stop with his condescending jokes, he may ask “why?” And with that, in the midst of rational discourse, you tell him that it makes you upset and threatens the friendship. You have given him a rational reason for him to stop his hurtful ways. If he agrees with your premise that condescending jokes make you upset and that making you upset is bad, then you have come an agreement that will save your friendship. If he disagrees with your premise, the two of you might argue further — proposing different arguments or claims and accepting or denying them — until you reached that essential consensus. But more than a contractual agreement, this discourse has led to an understanding of each other that has brought your worlds closer and made future relationship problems less likely.

It is through philosophy that we construct standards to guide our lives and to understand our shared world. Since we live next to each other, in the same space and common world, it does us best to come to agreements about it. Poets may help us, as Shaffer argues, “become more human”(“Poetry: philosophy’s daddy,” April 16). But we can only understand each other and cooperatively build a world together if we come to agree about this world. If we give up on agreeing to a common world, we give up on living together.

While enlightenment philosophers did philosophy in order to dominate the world, to give it a fake consistency in order to control it and our experience — believing in a necessity of progress in history to democracy, individualism, economic rationality and even communism — they still strove to find a common understanding of the world, to give us a way to understand each other. They may have been misguided, but the aspect of their philosophy we can preserve was their desire to construct a common world.

While moral and political philosophy is no longer about finding the objective moral truth or the good society to impose on others, it still has consistency and systematization as its central tenets, which are the standards we use for discourse and understanding each other. Now, we work to understand our own core values through rigorous criticism and reflection. We then debate with others, not to impose our values, but to listen, to be persuaded, to understand and then find a point of agreement from which a common moral standard can be built. In the ideal, this is what certain parties of the Yale Political Union try to do. Only those who won’t reveal their beliefs or change them, try to use philosophy to dominate others. In the end, it is the “forceless force” of the best argument that should persuade, not rhetoric or violence.

Extreme postmodernists argue that a lack of transcendental truth makes philosophy a failed project and a reason to give up on discourse. But they are too dramatic. It just implies that we must work harder to create common truths we can all share, with rational discourse as our means.

In advocating poetry to replace the “death” of philosophy, last week Shaffer failed to see the essence of philosophy and the duty we all have if we are to live together — the interrelation between philosophy and politics. Shaffer’s argument that philosophy can only “think and write strictly within the limits of our imagination and language … poetry alone can expand them” is a common one. It may contain some truth, which is the reason so many famous philosophers — Heidegger, Dewey and Wittgenstein — turned from systematic philosophy to art and poetry. But while poetry can help us understand experience more than systematic phenomenology, it is a private activity we do, hiding away from or preparing us for the common world that awaits us.

Others may point to the power that politicians and mass culture have in forcing their values and world views on the rest of us as proof that even philosophic discourse has died. But this again is because we hide away in our private lives, scared our argument won’t have enough impact or that the world will never change. As Hannah Arendt says, power comes from people having discourse in the public and then using any reached consensus as the basis of cooperative action. Deconstruction itself — the proclaimed murder of philosophy — has shown that culture and power relations themselves are only products of discourse. Even the imposed standard of a good life as a healthy life by this health care bill only has this power because we talk about it that way. If we challenge it in the public through rational discourse, to redefine our common world, then we destroy the power relations and create our own standards to live by. The rise of public spaces of discourse in pre-revolutionary France, China, the Middle East and Latin America, and their ability to redefine the power structures, laws and cultural standards are proof of this. The attempt to kill philosophy has only shown that it is the last power we have in politics as acting and speaking individuals.

If you acknowledge the agency of each individual, then you must acknowledge the power of philosophy, to change the world. If you don’t agree, come find me and we can talk.

Justin Petrillo is a junior in Timothy Dwight College and a member of the Yale Political Union.