What keeps a philosopher interested?

Christopher asked:

This is a personal question, but it refers to being a philosopher. From reading responses from posts on this site it appears to me that everyone on this panel has fairly concrete beliefs when it comes to philosophy. Everyone seems to know what they believe when it comes to epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, etc…

So my question is what keeps you interested? Are there other questions you search for, or try to answer yourself? I really doubt that it’s the money. I’m not a philosopher of course, but I ask because I got into philosophy because I wanted to form what I consider to be educated beliefs about questions that are meaningful to me, not to mention just out of curiosity. I now feel like most of these questions I had 10 years or so ago I know I have ‘my’ answers. There is much of philosophy that I do not have an interest in and find it hard to believe that all of you are interested in every aspect of philosophy, and wonder why it is you still are active in philosophy. I mean for what purpose, to what end. Is it simply the delight of helping others achieve enlightenment (joke).

Answer by Craig Skinner

Your question – what keeps us interested, and to what end? – is a scientific, not a philosophical one. A well-crafted, short questionnaire to panelists might answer it, as well as telling us whether others also reach settled views on big questions after a few years. Meantime here’s my thoughts:

Maintaining interest, preventing boredom or burnout, is likely to be more of a problem for professionals (e.g. academics) than for amateurs like me.

It’s a problem in all professions, as I know from 40-plus years as a medical doctor. The answer is to change tack, try something new, every few years. Of course not all jobs allow flexibility, but I would have thought philosophy did. Certainly philosophers write of changing focus e.g. Blackburn tells us that after years of neglecting philosophical logic he decided to write a book about it. Recent examples by others include a new book on Hume’s ideas on self, and a fresh detailed defence of Berkeley’s arguments for idealism. Furthermore, as society and science move on, new areas of philosophy begin or open up.

Thus, many older contemporary philosophers grew up with an emphasis on philosophy of language. This was succeeded by intense interest in philosophy of mind. Now philosophy of information is the field for young academics. And philosophy of religion has made something of a comeback. Of course there will always be some closed-minded time servers, content to teach the same old stuff year on year till retirement (and for these few we might say that money – their pension – is what motivates their low-level interest).

I would think common motivations for continued interest in philosophy include some or all of the following:

* truth seeking
* exercise for the mind
* guide to living
* teaching
* compulsion

A few words on each.

1. Truth seeking

Absolute certainty isn’t an option. I think Karl Popper got it right when he said that truth is hidden (not manifest, even to an open-minded, industrious seeker) and we progress not by reaching truth but by avoiding error. So the best we can do is reach a settled-for-now view while being open to new evidence or argument.

2. Exercise for the mind

Some prefer crossword puzzles, others pub quizzes, yet others duplicate bridge. And then there’s philosophy e.g. what are the flaws, if any, in Berkeley’s idealism, in Lewis’s modal realism, in Priest’s true contradictions; does Everettian quantum mechanics make probability incoherent.

3. Guide to living

For myself, I find Aristotle a better guide to ethics than Kant, Hume or Mill, and also intend to get to grips with Parfit’s recent attempt to reconcile these traditional views (his 2-volume ‘On What Matters’ is on my shelf).

I like MacMurray’s dictum – ‘all thought is for the sake of action, all action for the sake of love’.

4. Teaching

I don’t kid myself that I facilitate ‘enlightenment’, but I enjoyed teaching medicine, and am pleased if a questioner likes my answer on this website. It is well-said (I forget by whom), that the greatest joy as a teacher is to show how something seemingly complicated is really quite simple, and how something seemingly simple is really quite complicated.

5. Compulsion

Some answers on this site suggest that since philosophy is hard work (correct), don’t embark on it unless, in effect, you have no choice because of internal compulsion. I suspect there is something in this. Much as a compulsive gambler knows at an intellectual level that it’s just a matter of chance, but carries on because he feels tonight is his lucky day, so philosophers know they will go to their graves without the secrets of the universe being revealed, yet carry on, hoping that the next thing they read just might lead to that ‘aha!’ moment.

This is Craig Skinner’s 100th post for Ask a Philosopher.


One thought on “What keeps a philosopher interested?

  1. So, I’d like to be the first to say how much I appreciate your contributions to this wonderful website. Thank you.

    I’d like to ask about personal transformation or some kind of enlightenment as a goal of philosophy. I’m not talking about any spiritual nonsense, but about really being able to live without fear or anxiety or any other kind of suffering.

    Religion sells this by the truckload, but can philosophy also provide it? Are you looking for this?

    I enjoy the philosophy of Jiddu Krishnamurtui who, in his secular Buddhist insights, insists that change can come about just by thinking right. And if we know how to see the world we can go beyond the delusions of the self and be blissfully happy! Isn’t that something worth considering as a goal of philosophy?

    We would no longer need the praise of others, or anything else.

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