Proper Philosophy

I happened to stumble upon (no, not StumbleUpon) the following discussion recently, and was duly impressed, both by the form — the speakers are very articulate and engaging — and the content.

I just wanted to share a few thoughts I had, though I really recommend watching the whole thing (or at least the opening speech, about 30 minutes).  I was especially enamoured of the way in which Dr. Simon Critchley approaches philosophy as needing, fundamentally, to engage with the most pressing problems that humanity faces.  Unlike so many philosophers, Critchley is digging deeper into issues that matter to so many, rather than issues that only philosophers have even heard of.  Is God needed for religion?  Is religion needed for God?  Where does love fit into one’s politics?  These are questions that the average person can relate to, and if Critchley writes anywhere near as clearly as he speaks, then his answers to those questions are equally accessible.  Philosophy ought to be moving more in such a direction, applying deep critical thought and emerging with a more nuanced analysis than the headlines in The New Yorker can offer, but articulated in language that does not require a PhD in the field to understand.

The next thing that really struck me about this discussion was the form, namely just how fluidly both Critchley and Dr. Cornel West brought the greatest minds of the last two millennium to bear directly on their discussions, often with direct quotations.  They are both continuing a tradition, standing on the shoulders of giants, and see themselves as questioning the mainstream in much the same way that Paul, Kierkegaard, and Marx (to name three of the quoted thinkers) were.  This reminded me immediately of the conversation that occurs in traditional Jewish texts.  From the time, historically, when the Jewish corpus was substantial enough, any further conversation that can be found in the Jewish canon (and the New Testament, as well) is replete with references, direct and oblique, to previous Jewish luminaries.  The underlying assumption, of both disciplines, is that no meaningful conversation should (or maybe can) proceed without first consulting what our histories have taught us about a given subject.

I think that a desire to be similarly literate in the relevant areas fuels my interest in interfaith dialogue.  It is clearly not in listening to stereotypes and in-group discussion about another faith tradition that one will learn about the history, beliefs, hopes, and fears or another group of people.  Only by sitting with them and talking to them, and learning their sacred texts with them, can one hope to know how to incorporate such vast collections of human wisdom.  And just as a conversation about a subject of critical importance is immeasurably improved by inviting in the thoughts of previous generations of people within one’s tradition, it can be that much richer, and speak to so many more people, if it includes thoughtful analysis of texts and ideas from multiple faith traditions.

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