Why philosophy cannot be taught

Recently a friend and I were discussing the merits of learning something substantial at the university, and of which i mentioned that he should be learning something more substantial than mere facts and formulas. He asked me to clarify, and what follows is an excerpt from the email correspondence:

Interlocutor: What is far more substantial than facts and forumlae, exempli gratia?

Ah, this calls for a personal rant of mine. the chief drawbacks of formal education is its reversal of experience and concept. Generally, concepts contain content and significance, in the form of facts and formulae, only as long they come from experience and may be cashed back into it. But the problem with formal education is that it displaces experience by teaching us our first knowledge of the most important aspects of life through the concepts based on other people’s abstractions and generalizations, instead of the abstractions/generalizations from our own experiences. Of course some of this is necessary, granted, but not all of it. therefore, there is a great deal of our conception of real life that aren’t based on anything we have personally ever observed, experienced or felt. That these facts and formulae are correct is exceedingly irrelevant, because they aren’t authentic, which means that they are truly ours.

This also reflects a distinction in philosophy that exists between the academic philosophers and the authentic ones. The professors meet and absorb the problems of philosophy through the concept, they study them, but the authentic ones discover them existentially, by reflection of their own lives and experiences. For the professor, philosophy is a matter of verbal gymnastics where much reading and writing and talking and listening takes place, but for the genuine article, philosophy is a profound encounter with being and living. The academician is interested and enjoys philosophy seriously, but the real McCoy cannot distinguish philosophy from life, and considers it an issue of the life or death of the human species. A scholar is a good teacher, but the true thinker makes original contributions.

From this link:

The modern philosopher is a professional pedant, paid to instruct the young in philosophical doctrines and to write books and articles. He is a professor of philosophy, not so very different from a professor of biology or of marketing. He need not reshape his inner being to the model of the doctrines he discusses in his classes. If pressed, he will perhaps claim that he is useful because he teaches the young to think more clearly and, less plausibly, that he forces his fellow professors in other departments to clarify their concepts. The proud cities of metaphysics were long ago abandoned as indefensible and have fallen into ruin. The philosophers have for the most part retreated to the safer territory of language and logic, creating for themselves a sort of analytical Formosa.

– John Walbridge, The Leaven of the Ancients: Suhrawardi and the Heritage of the Greeks

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...a philosophisticator who utters heresies, thinks theothanatologically and draws like Kirby on steroids.

4 thoughts on “Why philosophy cannot be taught”

  1. There’s an old philosopher’s recipe: cum grano salis. (With a grain of salt; with incredulity. A good philosopher publishes his thoughts so he can enter the dialogue, the conversation, that is to spread his or her ideas further than among a circle of immediate acquaitances. He or she needs students to address many philosophical points and positions which are so intricate and complex they can be advanced, followed, and criticized if and only if they are published as springboards for study and completion at length and at leisure. Philosophy can be taught…be learned…be published.

  2. That the philosopher must publish his thoughts does not mean philosophy itself can be taught. A degree in philosophy does not automatically make a person a philosopher. At best, the degree merely indicates the person has studied the history of philosophy.

    To refuse to distinguish between what professors of philosophy teach and what these original thinkers publish, is also the belief that one can teach creativity. At most, you can teach techniques of art inasmuch you can teach techniques of thought.

    I have already written on the failure of philosophy in academia here and here.

  3. Otto,

    I see what you’re saying, but I’m not buying it. In so many words, you’ve pretty much pointed out that there’s a marked difference between riding a bicycle and reading about riding a bicycle. I’m also seeing a possible semantical argument, specifically about the differences between studying philosophy and philosophizing.

    Would you mind, for the sake of conviction, to flesh out your argument a bit more? I’m curious about the professor of philosophy who also practices the craft of philosophy instead of merely teaching it.

    While we’re at it, what curricula redesigns would you implement?


  4. Jon, you will have to deliver a much better sales pitch than just a hand-wave, and argue precisely why the sign is the object, why the map is the terrain.

    Can what is shown ever be truly said?

    As for professors, they are merely epigones. They paraphrase the concepts of the philosophers into contemporary language, indeed, but this sacrifices the originality of the real McCoy.

    For instance, professors train their students how to read the Great Works with a certain method, and more often than not, this method is merely the analysis of a certain type of proposition in a certain way that is presented against another thinker, who had analyzed a similiar type of proposition in a different way. They list the pros and cons of both propositional analysis, go over them.

    However, if you remove the goggles of convenience and actually open the books of those philosophers for yourself, you won’t find such anachronistic nonsense.

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