Frames /sing


Having a Beer with Philosophy

Sometimes I regret that philosophy is not done this way, in conversation (was this not the meaning of the Socrates method before it was formalized and staged in dialogues). Tim Thornton tells of a fond memory he had, when he had the fortune of sitting with Davidson in a pub, passing from intermittent dialogue to Dionysus.

Interestingly, this was a conference when Davidson finally came out and said IT, animals don’t have minds:

It was at a conference in Reading in 1996, a last chance to see Quine in this world, an opportunity to watch Dennett get the better of Searle and to hear Davidson say he was tired of being subtle about the matter and that animals really didn’t have minds.

Its interesting because I find in Davidson’s thinking the roots for a pan-psychic presupposition, founded upon a Spinozist grammar of affects. For me such a momentary lack of subtlety is perhaps less of note, for philosophy at times requires subtlety (here, how “mind” is restrictively defined). In this case Davidson seems merely to have claimed something of the order: beliefs cannot be categorically ascribed to animals, an issue he skirts in “The Three Varieties of Knowledge”. As I have argued elsewhere, such ascription must be context dependent, and as such only is a rational linguistic framework upon an already working triangulation that readily occurs in animals, and in us (as we are animals as well). I do though find it significant how we read philosophers when they just come right out and say something that otherwise in theory they were quite careful to step around, it is something like, “Enough with philosophy, this is what I think!” It says something about the authority we grant to thinkers, perhaps like how we do to painters. You have been there, you have looked at it, what do you think (not, what would you argue)? I think that this is the charm and substance of Tim Thornton’s recollection. We can see ourselves there. 

I often think how nice it would be to sit with philosophers of influence, how disappointing perhaps, the knight without his chainmail and shield, but also, so much more understandable.

2 responses to “Having a Beer with Philosophy

  1. Shane G. April 22, 2009 at 9:52 am

    Hi there, K.

    I found this to be an interesting post. It bears on something that we all deal with in one way or another. I wonder if you might respond to some thoughts on Socratic irony, maybe explain how this bears on your, “Enough with philosophy, this is what I think!” comment.

    According to my understanding, the Socratic method means developing ideas with someone in conversation from a foundation of that person’s preexisting beliefs. I don’t know if this is the original meaning, but it certainly is one of Socrates’s methods of engaging in philosophy. The difference between this and the sort of candor that one might enjoy over a beer, however, is that Socrates was often being ironic. In Greek, as you may know, irony is a sort of self-deprecating dissembling whereby the one being ironic passes himself off as less clever than he really is. Of course, in order to be successfully ironic, one has to be extremely clever. (Possibly one doesn’t want to be wholly successful at dissembling–that is how our term for irony gets connected to condescension.) Socrates was that clever, which means that even when he seemed candid he might not have been authentically so.

    I bring this up in order to raise the question, why is subtlety the default-setting of philosophy? It seems to me that Socrates used irony predominantly for the benefit of his interlocutor (or of the audience observing him and his interlocutor)–so that this person followed a path to knowledge or right opinion that was suitable to his nature or ethos. Socrates, however, only spoke publicly about philosophy at his trial, so his example doesn’t supply a ready answer to my question.

    Plato and certain other philosophers WRITE with multiple types of audience in mind–what one finds in the writing depends largely on how deeply one looks. The purpose of writing in this way seems to mirror the purpose I ascribe to Socrates’s irony.

    Then there are philosopher’s like Hegel and Heidegger who do great violence against language. I don’t know why Hegel did that, but Heidegger believed this was necessary in order to combat the influence of a philosophical tradition embedded in the very language in which he wrote.

    When I read some philosophers, however, the reason behind the subtlety is lost on me. Quite frankly, I wonder at times whether some of them purposely obfuscate their beliefs or points of contention in order to seem cleverer than they really are. (If Hegel had only written certain parts of the Phenomenology of Spirit I would be tempted to throw him in that camp; but there is something to his writing.) Now, I have certainly benefited from reading Davidson, but I don’t understand why he wasn’t straightforward when he could have been, as your quote seems to indicate. Perhaps you can help me to understand this.


  2. kvond April 22, 2009 at 11:14 am


    I love these thoughts because they trace the outline of genuine (or at least genuinely motivated) subtelty, and seemingly self-serving subtlety in philosophy, perhaps a dichtomy hard to maintain. It makes me recall what Nietzsche said of poets, “they muddy the waters so that others think them deep” (if I remember correctly).

    Of course one could say that subtlety is necessary because the differences being explored resist obvious (or habitual) parsing. We have all been deluded by culture onto believing certain things which simnply are not true, or simply serve others without us realizing it. And then there is the kind of subtlety that Wittgenstein advised, when he compared a real, clarifying philosopher to a botanist who was patient enough to look closely where we only saw a bunch of grass and scrubs, to see a great variety of plants whose differences his eye grew naturally to attend to.

    But honestly, I think philosophers, in particularly those who start schools of thought, invent a language of terms and an whole newish framework, do so as kind of perverse poets.. They often harken back to archic roots so as to ground their thoughts in some past, while designing a language maze that is as much used to decenter the reader/acolyte, as to discipline him/her in a different way of thinking. As I meanted recently, there is a kind of inculcation of vision in philosophy. When you soak yourself in the terminology and program of a philosopher/philosophy, you start to see through it, you take it into your body (whether you want to or not). The distinctions it makes start to pervade your vision of the world, and you see the connections everywhere, in things, in the behaviors of people, etc. Is this a good thing? I”m not sure. But it certainly is a creative thing. Hegel tortures us so that we will becomes Hegelians. Foucault, so that we become Foucaultians. And Wittgenstein (with his oracular simplicity) so that we become Wittgensteinians, Spinoza (with his dry, rote stacking) so that we become Spinozists.

    But I also believe that these linguistic acrobatics for the writer also serve to express the genuine twists and turns of the soul that they experienced when breaking through to a (conceptual) discovery. These are the labyrinthian footfalls (or some approximation of them) that the soul contorted itself. The muscular tension for instance in Foucault to me is practically a confession of the eros of mind to me. The text performs its spirit. And with Analytic logic parsings, we get something of the stillness, the quieting of mind, the near-malnurished austerity of humble devotion to small differences, that trains the eye to what can come to feel “real value”.

    And I do agree that there is a purposive obfuscation, a sense in which the school of philosophy is building a jargon fence to keep the world out, much as in law or medicine, both to heighten the percieved value of what they guard, giving it an esoteric aura, but also to create indicators to the followers themselves. To be able to use the technique of vocabulary and sometimes staid question framing becomes the sign that “he/she” is one of the guild, like secret handshakes that can be made out in the open, and few can understand.

    I can’t answer much on the figure of Socrates’s irony because frankly the man bores me. Come down to us largely through Plato’s heavily staged arguments I have great difficulty seeing through to the “man”, (his purpose, his motivations, even his techniques). Looking at Socrates in this way is a bit like watching an Oliver Stone blockbuster on the figure of Washington. His irony ultimately comes down to being the irony of Plato himself, perhaps a distance he can only subtly take to his own work. But I do have a feeling that Socrates when he discussed things in person was not quite so didactically detached (for the benefit of his interlocator), not quite so much a Lacanian therapist. Or at least, I want to believe that the power of his effect on others was in that they percieved that he too was looking for the answers, and valued what others believed they believed. If there was a sense that he wanted whomever he was talking to to recall deep knowledge, it may have been that he wanted them to recall it together, in the way that we do when we discuss a past memory with friends…”Remember when….” At least this is the Socrates that I want to think of, perhaps being overly influenced by his turn to the music/poetry near the end of his life.

    So we get back down to“Enough with philosophy, this is what I think!”. Sadly I’ve run into two kinds of experiences with this. Firstly, because I educated myself in philosophy principly through books, and having mental conversations and debates with the author’s through their texts, sometimes with great satisfaction, when I have met actual “philosophers” (no heavy weights, but minor ones, either through emailed discussion or philosophy professors in person), I was struck by just how mundane their minds seemed, in fluidity. When you take away all the jargon and frameworking, they just seemed like ordinary folks, and very few of them even sparkled with intellect. I don’t know what your experiences have been, but for instance professors of philosophy often appear intellectual brittle, locked into their small fiefdom of conceptions that they have mastered, (and thus will defend to the death). When you engage a text, you can take the text beyond where the author even knew it would go. There seems to be more “sky” in a text.

    But this is not always so, occasionally to come to someone who does sparkle, whose interest in knowing and finding out is incendiary. I certainly though do not particularly find these kinds of people in the feild of philosophy, in fact given the academic pathways one has to follow to engage in that profession, it somes seems that there are even fewer of these kinds there. (Many of those inspired kinds should have become writers or poets, one feels.) Be that as it may, I wish philosophy was much more an occasion for discussion. Paper-giving and peer critique strikes me as incredibly sterile and filled with petty intellectual muscle flexing. I’d much rather talk about things with people, and see what they think, even hear how they feel about the things they read and contemplate. Perhaps that is the beauty of blog-philosophy.

    It is interesting that you found Davidson obfusticating, for he is in my book one of the more clear, most jargon-free writers of philosophy. But you are right, it seems that even he wanted to prevaricate on the issue of animal minds. Perhaps he wanted to tread lightly there because he wanted to have both the criteria for denying “animal minds,” but also to not have the difficulty of needing to explain all the border examples that seemed to defy such a categorical distinction. I think that Davidson becomes more clear when you realize that he is focusing on a very particular question, one question at a time. He is a kind of jig-saw puzzle worker, who wants to address himself quietly. Now, he picks his questions with care, with the hopes that in answering them they will have great reverberation, but he specifically attempts to refrain from making a grand claim outside, beyond his question/answer. This can be frustrating, because at times he seems to be talking about nothing important at all, and then at others to be taking in the whole of the history of philosophy. This is the case I believe in the question of animal minds. This is a very precise, definition-ridden, almost banal question/answer, and also something that can send a rift through the foundations of any ontology.

    I don’t know if I have answered any of your questions, but these are the thoughts that come to my mind.

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