Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Consolations of Philosophy

Kudos to James Taranto for speaking out in defense of philosophers. He wrote, in a Wall Street Journal post titled The Closing of the Republican Mind:

To our mind, the anti-intellectual undertones of the Republican debate—especially Rubio’s disparagement of philosophers—are all too resonant with the anti-intellectual attitudes that prevailed this week at Yale and Missouri. American higher education has become commercialized, politicized and dumbed down—less devoted to education and, as Nicholas Christakis found out, more to re-education. 

Philosophers are an easy political punching bag because, contrary to Rubio, there aren’t many of them. And anti-intellectualism on a debate stage is relatively harmless compared with on campus, where it does real violence to the life of the mind. John Podhoretz quipped on Twitter: “I wish Rubio had said ‘assistant professors of communications.’ ” It would have been even better if he—or someone—had said a word in defense of Western culture.

One doesn't need to be Allan Bloom to agree with Taranto that the Republican Party seems to have embraced anti-intellectualism. Taranto pointed out that John Kasich and Ted Cruz joined in the philosophy-bashing. As a Doctor of Philosophy myself, with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy as well, it was most distressing.

However, there may be a silver lining to this cloud. 

While Rubio, Kasich, and Cruz were bashing philosophers, they may have been taking swipes at a couple of philosophers on the platform: Donald Trump and Ben Carson.

It turns out that Mr. Trump and Dr. Carson have each published their philosophy, which makes them philosophers, by definition (you don't need to teach at a university to be a philosopher--Spinoza was a lens grinder, Eric Hoffer a longshoreman).

Trump outlined his philosophy in The Art of the Deal. And, unlike Rubio, who seems to think of making money as an end in itself, Trump declares that money has little meaning for him, "except as a way to keep score." 

The book contains an 11-step philosophy of success, summarized by Business Insider as follows:

1. Think Big;

2. Protect the Downside and the Upside Will Take Care of Itself;
3. Maximize Your Options;
4. Know Your Market;
5. Use Your Leverage;
6. Enhance Your Location;
7. Get the Word Out;
8. Fight Back;
9. Deliver the Goods;
10. Contain the Costs;
11. Have Fun.

By any definition, like it or not, that's a philosophy. 

He adds: 

I play to people's fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do.

Which makes Trump an idealist.  

Likewise, Dr. Carson has published his philosophy in The Big Picture. He shares one proposition with Trump: "My concluding thought today is THINK BIG--my philosophy for success in life." 

However, contrary to Trump, he does not believe in keeping score. Rather, he argues: 

We have to learn that what matters most in the Big Picture is not whether we view ourselves as Democrat or Republican, rich or poor, black or white, tall or short, young or old, smart or dumb, successes or failures. What truly matters most in this world is who we are in relationship to the one who created it. Then our right relationship with him will dictate our right relationship with others.

Again, a philosophical declaration. Which by echoing Kierkegaard's notion of "a Christian in Christendom" would make Dr. Carson a Christian existentialist.

So, there were at least two philosophers, with distinct philosophies, on the G.O.P. platform. In this, there is some hope for the future of the party and the Republic, because the most significant U.S. Presidents have had clear philosophies--stars by which they navigated stormy seas of politics, national and world affairs.

For example, Jacques Barzun wrote Lincoln's Philosophic Vision; Joseph R. Fornieri, Lincoln: Philosopher Statesman; Edward John Kempf, Lincoln's Philosophy of Common Sense. As the Lehman Institute Lincoln website notes, citing William Miller's Lincoln's Virtues, his "personal philosophy was based on reason and respect for the law:"

Lincoln scholar Harry V. Jaffa wrote: “The central idea of our Founding was the equality of man.” This was Lincoln’s central idea as well. The young Lincoln lived out that principle. Miller noted that “in the society around him young Lincoln found two great bodies of opinion with ethical implications. He would respond to both with an unusually high level of seriousness. One was the idealism of the new American republic. The other was the religion drawn from the Bible there in the [Indiana] cabin, and promulgated the Pigeon Creek Baptist Church and by the various gatherings of sects in New Salem.”

Likewise, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a clear philosophy. As the Encyclopedia of Political Thought puts it, he "represents the triumph of welfare-state Liberalism begun by Woodrow Wilson:" 

The philosophical rationale for FDR's Democratic Party Liberalism was that big government was needed to protect the people from big business. National state power could be used by ordinary people to force large corporations to serve the public interest, assist the poor and underprivileged, and preserve individual rights. 

And Donald Devine explained Ronald Reagan's philosophy as "Fusionism:"

How did Meyer, Buckley, and Reagan think about fusionism? Fusionism to them was a philosophical concept. It was a philosophy that considered the principles of freedom and tradition as naturally interrelated in a tension whose resulting moral force created Western civilization and its American offshoot. Tension (the term Meyer preferred to fusion) was a force that could hold traditionalism and freedom together, which made both part of one potential whole. It was not the unitary logic of an ideology from a single principle deducing necessary conclusions, but a synthesis, a synthesis that Reagan said described modern conservatism. Yes, he conceived a city on a hill, but one always fighting to uphold both principles; for he also argued “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.”

Devine concluded with some advice G.O.P. candidates might want to consider in future debates: 

That was Reagan’s secret to success and the only path forward. He was not a carpenter of stools but a synthesizer of Western wisdom, recognized as such by a sufficient number to be granted power. What the conservative movement needs most today is more philosophical debating clubs and less talk about power. If it gets the former right, the latter will follow.

More philosophical debate, please!