Monday, May 16, 2011

The Philosopher's Missionary Position

In her column in this weekend's Saturday Age, author Jane Sullivan wrote of my "almost missionary zeal" for philosophy.

Having seen John Armstrong and me at the Writers at the Convent festival, Jane reported that we "loved ideas with a passion, and... wanted to communicate that passion." This is true, and I welcome the recognition.  This is a business of love.

Still, I'm a little discomfited by the religious comparison. It's not that Jane's impressions are wrong.  I joke that I'm a proselytiser for philosophy (and jogging, Star Trek, fountain pens, and so on).  And note her 'almost': it's closer to an analogy than a literal description.

Nonetheless, I don't see my job as religious, and it's worth unpacking why.  There are two reasons for this.  The first is epistemological, i.e. to do with knowledge.  The second is moral.

At the heart of missionary zeal is faith: in God, his teachings and principles for life.  A missionary might doubt herself or his colleagues; might doubt the wisdom of his teaching, or the success of her mission.  But God is indubitable, the great guarantor of worldly ideas and values.

Hence with God usually comes institutional truths.  “Theology is bound up with the life and existence of a Church," writes Dorothy Emmett in The Nature of Metaphysical Thinking, "in the sense of an historic religious tradition, expressed in liturgy, dogma, and forms of corporate and individual piety.”

On the whole, philosophers try to question what's taken for granted - and not doing so is a professional vice. This is why philosophers don't have faith, in the Christian meaning of the word. They don't make a virtue of unquestioned belief.

The moral problem with the missionary's zeal is paternalism.  There are the enlightened saviours, and there are the savages who require saving.  The first are civilised, the second require 'civilising' with carrots and sticks.  Philosophy is quite different.  It requires, not stereotypical primitives terrified of hell-fire or firearms, but civilised minds willing and able to think for themselves.

Now, this is an ideal portrait.  Philosophers also have their traditions, rituals and biases.  They have blindspots, inconsistencies and delusions.  And no doubt some philosophers view non-philosophers as 'primitives': shallow, capricious, dim.  ("If only they had read [insert theorist here] they'd be saved.")

But at its best, philosophy is more about questioning what's known than faith in the unknown; more about arguing with equals than redeeming lost souls.  If my blog sometimes has a gospel atmosphere to it, perhaps this is because we don't expect philosophy (or any scholarship) to be excited or heartfelt.  We lack the words to describe secular vocational passion, when it isn't about money or status.

Yes, the Zealots were religious soldiers. But religion has no monopoly on zeal. That's my missionary position.

(Image: NYPL)

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