June 2013


Written by Tom McGuire

The modern world is awash with words. Through our mastery of natural forces, human beings can send their thoughts in written form instantly across the planet. Words have great power and through them we conjure up realities, more or less imaginary, to believe in. We can often get so lost in these edifices created by language that they become seen as living, breathing things.

'Legal fictions' provide examples of this such as the corporation, which in many systems of law is considered to be a person. A strange kind of person indeed, born from the union of pen and paper, with no real existence outside the fabric of thought. Mental fictions can end up getting the better of philosophers too, when they are mistaken for being more real and more important than they actually are.

Philosophers have always relied on words. Yet they also have an uneasy relationship with language. The more abstract and highly refined their thought becomes, the bigger the disclaimer they must attach to their explanation of the truth. The philosopher often ends up trying to describe something which, to the five senses, is intangible. You and I have both seen a chair, so when I say the word 'chair' you immediately know what I am talking about. But as soon as I start talk about something like a moral obligation or a timeless eternity, a wall of misunderstanding is likely to appear. In trying to communicate this intangible thing to you I have to rely on terms with which we are both familiar. I can say it is like this or that, referring to what you already know about, but such imprecision is never going to exactly convey my personal understanding to you. Greater sophistication of philosophical discourse goes hand in hand with the heightened possibility of misunderstanding and confusion. This is why, as William Irwin (page 15) points out, to make philosophy more accessible to the wider public requires talking to people in their own language.

Perhaps those who call themselves 'philosophers' must share the blame for how far they have become alienated from the interests and concerns of the wider society. At its core, philosophy touches on issues that many, if not most, people find deeply interesting at some point in their lives: what is the good life? How can I be happy? Is there a higher power that guides human affairs? The problem is not so much that people fail to ask (or seek the answer to) philosophical questions, but that they become disillusioned by the lack of answers available within mainstream academic institutions. So they look elsewhere. The notion that someone can discover 'the good life' by pouring over screeds of obtuse journals and debating super-fine analytical distinctions lacks credibility for many people.

If the world is to find philosophy appealing, then it should be practical. There are people genuinely seeking the answers to deeper questions in life who find so much of what is done at universities impractical and useless, failing to serve the seeking that leads one to search after truth. In a sense, academic philosophy has become a particularly insular breed of philosophical inquiry – holding itself up as superior to the rest, despite the fact that no Socrates or Confucius or Spinoza ever arose from a professional academic post.

Many young people do come to a philosophy course seeking answers to life's deepest questions, and they may find useful starting points in the survey courses which introduce the great thinkers who have grappled with such questions. But as they proceed up the academic ladder, the process of 'doing philosophy' is increasingly a process of familiarizing oneself with the canon of commentators and  ritics, potentially being diverted by endless belaboring over obscure and often dry points of analysis whose application to the real world, and to the real problems which gave rise to the original inquiry, have been lost and forgotten in the quest to prove one's superior scholastic credentials, or to publish something, anything that will make it through the hallowed gates of journaldom.

As someone who has done philosophy with both small children and young adults, the differences in outlook are illuminating. I have found children, particularly those around 7-9, to be far more imaginative, spontaneous and daring when it comes to philosophical inquiry. Reading Margaret Mahey's Lion in the Meadow to 9 year olds has led to some surprisingly creative insights, whereas the discussion of more scholarly texts with uni students tends to be a lot more restrained and predictable. In 'Philosophy for Children', as a specific technique developed by educators such as University of Auckland's Vanya Kovach, kids are not confronted by a boring litany of past problems and arguments, but by the wondrous mysteries of life in a fresh and engaging way. The teaching of philosophy for adults could benefit from such an approach.

Please enjoy this issue of Café Philosophy about language, philosophy and their often weird interactions.

Topics covered by our contributors include irony, small talk and other stuff that people do while stuck inside a café during the pouring rain.