WASHINGTON -- In the last week of December, some of the top names in philosophy gathered here for the annual meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association.
Were such a gathering to have taken place in a city in Europe -- where intellectuals like Jacques Derrida are regulars on the celebrity circuit -- the media would have trained their attention on the affair, eager to learn the thoughts of this educated elite.
But this convention passed, as it does most every year, with hardly anyone outside the prescribed limits of professional philosophy paying any attention.
The sessions included not just conventional, and conventionally arcane, topics -- "Heidegger's Non-representational Phenomenology of Perception," "On the Circularity of Thought-Based, Metacognitive Theories of Conscious-ness." They also considered such topical issues as euthanasia, gay rights, even Prozac.
"I think you see many more attempts to apply philosophy to current issues than you did a few years ago," says Eric Hoffman, executive director of the association. "You also see greater diversity, much more Eastern thought, for example."
That was evident in the various symposiums and panels. Not only were there presentations on traditional Chinese and Japanese philosophy, but there were interesting combinations -- Taoism and Spinoza, Buddhism and Hegel, Confucius and Socrates.
Alvin Plantinga of Notre Dame University, a member of the growing school of evangelical Christians in philosophy, argued in a well-attended session for teaching creationism along with evolution in schools.
But whatever these philosophers are saying, for the most part they are saying it only to one another. For some time now, most of the rest of the culture has stopped paying attention.
Glen McGee of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania participated in a fascinating look at cloning, using the ideas of the American philosopher John Dewey.
"Philosophers are the product of an undergraduate education that since the 1950s has taught and emphasized an analytic distance from the world," he says.
Dewey is an example of what was once possible in philosophy. After getting his graduate education at the Johns Hopkins University, Dewey taught at the universities of Michigan and Chicago. When he moved to Columbia University in 1904, his ideas on the philosophy of education became fundamental to much of what was taught at that school's teachers college, affecting several generations of teachers.
Dewey experimented with radical politics and often commented on contemporary issues as a regular contributor to the New Republic. He died in 1952 at age 93.
Since about that time, few students who entered American universities found philosophy confronting the big questions traditionally associated with its intellectual quests. The ideas of the ancient Greeks -- Socrates, Plato, Aristotle -- were taught as historical artifacts, along with the systematic thought of Europeans like Kant, Schopenhauer and Hegel.
In their place came analytic philosophy. First developed in Britain, it does not propose explanations or systems, but instead uses a rigorous logic to analyze questions and problems. Eventually it focused on language, trying to analyze its meaning, and hone its precision, in a manner that approached mathematics.
Analytic philosophy never took over in Europe -- indeed, the traditional division in Western philosophy is between analytic and continental -- but it remains powerful in America and Britain. The avant-garde French thinkers, like Derrida and Michel Foucault, are usually taught in this country in literature departments.
A few blocks to the south of the northwest Washington hotel that was the site of the APA convention, 97-year-old Paul Weiss remained in his small, book-lined apartment, lamenting the state of American philosophy.
More than 30 years ago, he was president of the APA, but later he founded a somewhat rival organization, the Metaphysical Society, to try to promote the philosophical exploration of the types of questions that lay outside the analytical realm.
"There has been a neglect of the arts in philosophy," Weiss says. "Creativity does not come under discussion. No one is trying to know what an artist is doing. It's as if the only people who know something are scientists or mathematicians."
Weiss had a distinguished career at Yale, retiring in 1968 and joining the faculty at Catholic University, where he taught until a few years ago. Physical infirmities now keep him mostly confined to his apartment, but he continues to write and read.
Weiss seems to be in search of the next great American philosopher, while trying to get greater recognition for the man he considers this country's best, Charles S. Peirce, a difficult personality whose only job was at Johns Hopkins in the late 19th century.
There was a bit of controversy among members of the Metaphysical Society as it sponsored a session at the APA convention, seemingly giving in to the group that it once hoped to rival. The fact of the matter is, it has not caught on. Its handful of members is aging.
Stanley Cavell of Harvard University was on the panel at the Metaphysical Society's session.
William Desmond, formerly of Loyola College and now on the faculty of the University of Leuven in Belgium, appeared on a panel with Cavell and compared reading or listening to him to taking a walk along a familiar street with an insightful guide who points out details you never noticed before.
Some, though not Weiss, think Cavell is the next great American philosopher, part of the line from Emerson to Thoreau to William James and Dewey. Cavell espouses plain-language philosophy, free from arcane lingo. And he focuses on matters of popular concern, particularly film.
Clearly, Cavell is no analyst, but he defends that school. "These people feel they are descendants of the Enlightenment, carrying on a 200-year-old tradition," he says. "And there is the exhilaration of precision you can get in an analytic philosophy class. Philosophical clarity can be thrilling."
Cavell thinks that the professionalization of philosophy in the academy has pushed it toward precision of analytic thought at the expense of dealing with more ponderous questions.
"Philosophy is uncomfortable in the university, or ought to be," he says. "Science is not uncomfortable." Thus, he says, philosophy emphasizes its more scientific side.
"What you get in the academy is not all of philosophy because so many things in philosophy cannot be taught. What gets pushed out is that half of philosophy that begins with Socrates, the therapeutic side, the examination of self, of life."
Cavell does not lament philosophy's lack of impact on American life. "Philosophers who think they ought to be listened to are dangerous people, in my opinion," he says. "Philosophy is essentially something that must be done alone, but to do it properly you must get together and talk about it."
Pub Date: 1/12/99