Philosophy and Laypeople

I want to use this blog to comment on philosophy in relation to laypeople. Philosophy is perhaps the most misunderstood discipline by the general public, in part because its without conventional boundaries, both in terms of the subjects and methods of research that define conceivably any other discipline. When I first told my grandmother I was switching into philosophy she was supportive of my decision, but it was clear she had a very poor grasp of what it was that interests me academically. She talked a bit about her youth, and essentially wanting to participate in discourse at that time in her life. She told me how she read a number of important intellectual figures from the 20th century, but what struck me was many of them should be described as artists and not philosophers. Meaning no disrespect to her, I found it strange that she wanted to refer to Herman Hesse as a philosopher. For her philosophy was poetry used to “politely disagree” with other people on matters of personal importance. This contrasts with how I have conceived of philosophy, since whenever I first cared to define it at some point in my early teens, as (to put it in almost moronic terms) ‘mathematics with non-mathematical variables.’

Because of this, I want to distinguish art from philosophy where possible, in order to best teach the public what philosophy is, and how they can incorporate it into their daily lives. My current perspective on the relationship between art and philosophy can be summarized in categorical logic as ‘all philosophy is art, but not all art is philosophy.’ Here I’m defining art in very loose terms, as merely any sort of creative or rational enterprise. Of course, such a definition encapsulates many things which we do not ordinarily consider art, such as sciences and mathematics. But in our STEM-centric age, many in the general public do not fail to understand what say a chemist does, and why we would not ordinarily call them an artist, as opposed to what a metaphysician does, and why it may be wrong to label them as an artist.

What I think begins to mark the divide between what we could call a ‘creative artist’ (as opposed to my more general definition of art) is their ambition. The creative artist (from here on just referred to as ‘artist’ to reflect everyday language) I think can primarily be described as an entertainer of sorts. They may discover truth in their work, but such truths are presented both with the imperative to entertain us, and only the possibility to enlighten us. The philosopher’s real concern (not to sound too pretentious) is truth itself. They may investigate any number of truths and may do so with different logics and rules of inference, but we do not evaluate philosophy in terms of its entertainment value, rather how truthful it is. This might seem painfully straightforward to some of you reading this, as this blog is to be circulated and read by Carleton’s philosophy department, but it is quite apparent to me that much of the general population sees philosophy as a useless and mystical process, akin to poetry (which is not to suggest that poetry is not useless). In order to help these people who do not know what philosophy is (and often hate it in their ignorance), I will dedicate my next blog post (perhaps next several posts) to discuss how we evaluate art and philosophy as best as I can, to argue that philosophy converges on discrete truths whereas art converges on the interests of the person consuming it.

In the meantime, I want to ask if I’m right to have a general conception of art as rational enterprise. Such a definition as I’ve stated does include many human activities, we do not consider in everyday language to be art. However, I fear that alternate definitions of art will allow people who dislike certain kinds of art to evaluate it not as art they subjectively deem poor, but as objectively non-artistic in nature, something which historically and currently has disastrous moral implications.

One thought on “Philosophy and Laypeople

  1. There’s a double negation in the parenthetical (which is not to suggest that poetry is not useless) that is in error. It’s meant to say (which is not suggest poetry is useless) with a single negation.


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