Friday, February 20, 2009

The Ethics of Philosophical Practice

Prof. R. W. Hepburn

Philosophical practice makes strenuous moral demands: honesty and fairness to opponents in argument; an ability to tolerate prolonged uncertainty over serious issues; the strength of character to change one's mind on basic beliefs, and to follow the argument rather than one's emotional leanings; independence of mind rather than readiness to follow philosophical fashion.

Moral respect for readers and hearers requires that a philosopher avoid non-rational persuasion, cajoling, deriding, or otherwise manipulating them into agreement. Philosophy should demonstrate that we can disagree profoundly over fundamentals without lapsing from a common reasonableness. That same respect requires a philosopher to expose the structure of his argument as perspicuously as possible, so as to encourage, not impede, its criticism.

Clarity and simplicity of style, the minimizing of technical expressions, abstaining from formal apparatus when ordinary language can be adequate, also express concern to be understood and to let argument and evidence alone carry the persuasive weight. A turgid and obscure style may veil real gaps in argument. A pretentious style may covertly work to disarm critical appraisal, replacing the authority of good argument with the would-be personal authority of the philosopher as sage.

Philosophy has a serious responsibility for language. It is one of its most important custodians—obliged to oppose terminologies that arrest or confuse thinking. Slipshod and imprecise language loses sensitivity to distinctions between reasonable and unreasonable, between good and bad argument—in any field, including the fields of personal and political morality. To impoverish the resources of language risks also impoverishing human experience, denying us the words we need to articulate its varieties.

Does a stress on style and the stewardship of language imply that philosophy is a branch of literature? In some important ways it is literature. But the rapprochement is carried too far when a philosopher lets the imaginatively vivid presentation of a slant on the world give it an appearance of self-evidence, and deflects critical alertness from the fact that categories have not been deduced and reasoned justification has been subordinated to expressing the quasi-poetic ‘vision’.

Philosophers, then, need a wholesome sense of their fallibility. It is unwise for a philosopher to aspire to the role of expert or authority; for that works towards weakening the critical attentiveness constantly needed from readers and hearers.

"The Oxford Companion to Philosophy", Oxford University Press 2005