Celebrating World Philosophy Day with Stories (Part 3)

In honor of World Philosophy Day tomorrow, we asked a few Springer Nature researchers to tell us the story behind how they got into philosophy and why they’re so passionate about their field. Get to know Shannon Vallor and Jairo José da Silva in the feature below and if you missed the earlier installments, you can always catch-up on Part 1 and Part 2!

Shannon Vallor

Describe what it is to be an academic philosopher in your country and if/how it has any influence on your research.

Being an academic philosopher in the United States has its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, we are generally freer than, say, our European counterparts to work independently of grant funding. This means that our choices of research direction and project are not as constrained by the current priorities of wealthy foundations or government agencies. It also means that we can spend less of our time writing grant applications, and more time doing actual research. On the other hand, I think that this freedom has allowed many philosophers in the States (certainly not all) to drift too far from our traditional vocation as public thinkers and critics. I wish that many more of us were engaged in public-facing philosophy addressing pressing problems with our existing institutions, cultures, and systems of knowledge and power, and doing so in a way that speaks to non-academic audiences. If Socrates and Confucius were around today, and they saw what was going on in the United States—from massive defunding of public education, to rising attacks on norms of truth and evidence in the public sphere, to a resurgence of shameless political corruption and other unchecked abuses of wealth and power—they’d expect the philosophers to be fighting on the front lines of public life, not safely ensconced in an academic bubble. Many great philosophers ARE on the front lines, of course. But in the U.S., it’s a small fraction of the whole.

How, would you say, is philosophy evolving as a study within your region?

Philosophy in the United States is continuing to open up to interdisciplinary and empirical modes of inquiry: for example, the philosophy of mind and moral philosophy are building more connections with neuroscience, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, and empirical psychology. You see similar developments in my field, where philosophers of technology are regularly engaging with computer scientists, roboticists, engineers, and designers. That’s a great thing, in my mind, as long as philosophers retain enough methodological independence to fulfill our critical and normative functions. I wish I could say that philosophers in the U.S. were moving past the legacy of the continental-analytic divide, and rebuilding non-arbitrary, non-tribal distinctions between good philosophy and bad philosophy. The continental-analytic ‘divorce’ has done nothing but foster intellectual sterility and stagnation, on both sides of that divide. But I don’t yet see much progress in the U.S. on that front, and I’ve been waiting quite a while to see some.

What would you like to change in philosophy / if you could make one wish for the development of philosophy what would it be?

One change I would certainly make would be for academic philosophers in the English-speaking world to finally recognize technology as a core area of philosophical study, not a marginal interest. Given technology’s role in shaping every modern human institution and system of knowledge, and in altering the very planetary conditions upon which life, and thus the existence of philosophy itself, depends (at least as far as we know), it’s a scandal that philosophy and ethics of technology is not, by now, a major area of expertise in every respectable philosophy department. Instead, when I encounter students who want to do Ph.D. research in this field, I have to steer them to the Netherlands, or Denmark, or another European country where this is a strength. It’s a massive blind spot in most Ph.D-granting philosophy departments in the U.S., U.K, and Australia/New Zealand, with very few exceptions.

But more broadly than that—and this is implied by what I’ve already said—I hope that we can reclaim the goal of philosophy as a public practice. From its beginnings in the East and the West, philosophy aimed to encourage and broaden public habits of moral and intellectual self-cultivation—habits that could not only enrich, empower, and enlighten the minds that practiced them, but that might even transform and ennoble whole societies. You see this goal depicted in popular narratives like Roddenberry’s Star Trek. He thought that even flawed, volatile humans could still advance in philosophical wisdom far enough to embrace nobler, broader social commitments and purposes than those we pursue today. Philosophy is at its best when it articulates and valorizes better aims for the human family than those that presently and traditionally preoccupy us. This can be a goal of many other practices, of course, including the arts and political statecraft, but I don’t think that philosophy without this goal is still really philosophy. It becomes just a game.  Whenever and wherever the practice of philosophy becomes little more than cognitive exercise for detached elites, there has been a corruption of its purpose. The goal of philosophy is not the construction of ever-more sterile and exclusive intellectual contests. Philosophical gamesmanship should be a mere means to an end—namely, the cultivation of sufficient critical acuity, rigor, and intellectual virtue among philosophers as to make them useful and worthy public servants of human wisdom. I’d like to see philosophy aim higher than it currently does. Right now, other than in the creative arts, there aren’t very many visions of a radically better future for humanity that aren’t being pitched by an industry titan with a brand to sell, or an authoritarian demagogue seeking to consolidate power. That should worry us. This wasn’t always the case; philosophers used to imagine new futures too. Of course, philosophers’ visions can be as dangerous, naïve, or corrupt as anyone’s; that’s why it is so important that we maintain our critical edge with one another, and invite every possible challenge. But I see no reason to abandon the moral and intellectual aspirations of the philosophical vocation—in fact, those aspirations have never been more important to talk about.

Jairo José da Silva

Describe what it is to be an academic philosopher in your country and if/how it has any influence on your research.

A younger colleague once told me the following anecdote. He was a freshman, attending his first lecture in philosophy, given by a renowned Brazilian philosopher. To his amazement the lecture started with the professor advising the students: “Do not try to think for yourselves, you won’t be able to”. This illustrates what philosophy is in Brazil, infinite exegesis with very little originality. Here, thinking for oneself is taking for lack of philosophical seriousness. Having come from physics and mathematics (my first contact with philosophy was as a graduate student in mathematics in Berkeley), I do philosophy in frontal opposition to how it is understood in Brazil.

How, would you say, is philosophy evolving as a study within your region?

More recently, the strong French and German influences in Brazilian academic philosophy are being counterbalanced by Anglo-American philosophy, generating a bizarre hybrid, with continental exegetical orientation re-directed to analytic thinkers. Fortunately, there is also a trend concerned less with (over)-interpretation and close reading and more with philosophical problems themselves, particularly in logic and epistemology.

What would you like to change in philosophy / if you could make one wish for the development of philosophy what would it be?

It depends on the kind of philosophy. In continental philosophy, I would like to see less respect for the tradition, which sometimes touches idolatry. In analytic philosophy, less respect for science, which often touches the ridiculous. Philosophy should not mimic science in pathetic search for respectability, nor theology, in infinite interpretation of “sacred texts”. Philosophical problems, which are very real, do not admit, I think, final answers; in my view, the task of philosophy is to provide perspectives, scenarios, approaches that do not eliminate others even when frontally contradicting them. Often, it is not the answers that matters, but the overall philosophical context in which they are framed.

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