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The Philosophical IReview - The Philosophical I
Personal Reflections on Life in Philosophy
by George Yancy (Editor)
Rowman & Littlefield, 2002
Review by Ed Brandon
Jun 10th 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 24)

'Still crazy after all these years' would make an apt title for a conference to mark my retirement and to probe the pathways by which people join and remain in particular academic fields.  Dave, a school friend who constantly read novels, is now Professor of Literature at Liverpool, with a particular penchant for science fiction; Patrick, who was at primary school with me and to whom I am indebted for revealing exotic food and even more exotic languages, is now researching Gurindji, an Australian aboriginal language; John, the friend who encouraged my brief flirtation with theism and who made me aware of Nelson Mandela at the time of his original imprisonment, is now a Professor of Dogmatic Theology in Austria.  (While we may celebrate South Africa's advances, let me also remember Burma: at school, our Amnesty International cell was allotted a Burmese prisoner of conscience, forty years later what has changed?)

If George Yancy had asked me to contribute to his collection I would have told a story of Patrick and me, on the way home from primary school, discussing what we had gathered about Einstein's theories and coming up with something recognizably the same as the argument Lucretius gives for the infinity of space: if you got to the end, you could always shoot an arrow further (now usually reinterpreted as a point about the boundlessness rather than the infinity of space or space-time).   That would have been my first premonition of a career in philosophy. 

Yancy's book brings together 16 brief autobiographical essays by people who are currently engaged primarily in philosophy in North America.  Yancy reports his own first sign of a philosophical vocation as occurring about the age of ten, when he asked his mother whether he should pray for the devil.  Most of his contributors report initial portents at a slightly later age, but I was not surprised to find a good number worrying about some aspect of religion or morality — I once bought Nowell-Smith's Penguin Ethics in the hope of finding guidance on how to live!  Whatever one might think of its explorations of the way we use pro and con expressions, it is not going to tell an adolescent how to cope with growing up.   Nietzsche or Marx or even Plato have more going for them, as some of Yancy's stories show.

With benefit of hindsight, one can pick out intimations of future preoccupations, but again, as several of the authors report, actually getting into the academic study of philosophy can often be a very hit-or-miss affair.  A course here, a chance public lecture there, a deal with one's spouse, or an inspiring teacher.  (Shall I say that I went to university to study linguistics, and to get away from living at home, and that in 1965 in England the only way I could do that was to do a degree at York that was half philosophy?  There was also a thought that it might help in becoming an Orthodox bishop, but who would believe that?)

 Some, but by no means all, of Yancy's team were taken with a particular teacher, either for a mode of critical self-examination or the excitement of new vistas or, as I was with John Mackie, for clarity of view.  No one in Yancy's book, however, evinces my kind of discipleship, though Popper and Wittgenstein inspired it in the past century and many contemporary philosophers remain bound to earlier thinkers or their isms.  There are, by the way, several comments on the excellence of teaching to small groups in modest colleges compared to the lack of contact for undergraduates in more prestigious mass-production universities.

Yancy's group are all now in North America (not all born or trained there, however) but I would guess they are not exactly representative of the American Philosophical Association.  He has several black philosophers, several women, many at the edges of traditional fields or seeking new alignments.  Many have suffered from some of the manifold prejudices blighting American life: anti-black, anti-Semitic, anti-Hispanic, anti-woman, anti-Catholic, anti-poor.   In terms of their interests within philosophy there are very few here moved to wonder whether they are brains in a vat or what to do with names that don't refer or how to make sense of quantum mechanics.  We have people exploring the situatedness of our thinking, including our scientific thinking, and several embracing some sort of pragmatism.  Sellars figures in a few stories, Quine in one, and then only in passing.

This sort of orientation goes naturally with a seriousness of purpose, a concern that philosophy should make a difference, that it is not mere self-indulgence for a clever but socially irresponsible élite.  No one here is inclined to praise the philosophical life for its avoidance of heavy lifting.  Yancy expresses this earnestness in his introductory essay, though he is not helped by the jargon he uses when wearing the philosopher's hat rather than the autobiographer's — is this partially a reflection of the editorial demands of US journals?  (My own utterly unrepresentative sampling suggests that they are less hospitable to asides and a human engagement with the issues, more concerned for "objectivity", than other Anglophone journals — I think it was a US editor who altered my "educational apartheid of the mother country" to "rigidly-stratified educational system" in talking about schooling in colonial Jamaica.) 

Yancy also argues in his introduction for a role for autobiographical narrative in self-creation, and as reflection on philosophizing as a way of life rather than a professional, circumscribed discipline (often aspiring to factitious decontextualized Archimedean points).  While several of his contributors agree with him, I cannot claim to have derived much of philosophical insight from these narratives, fascinating though they are in other respects.  Perhaps Lorraine Code's account of the way she gradually realized the implications of being female, being white, now being Canadian, for philosophizing is the most persuasive case here for Yancy's position.  But here everything lies in the interpretation of what she found, and there is not much room in essays such as these for authors to argue for the perspectives they have adopted.  For instance, I still cannot help thinking that Code's questions of the ownership of knowledge, or "knowledge", are political rather than epistemological.  It is the kind of response Yancy expects will be made to his own reflections: doing politics rather than philosophy.  I do not think one has to be "genteel" to make it, however.  There is a need and a place for protest; there is a place at least for other inquiries; I suspect there is too often a slurring of distinctions.

The publishers quote Robert Solomon referring to the "too-rare genre of contemporary philosophical autobiography".  My impression is that philosophers in fact indulge in the genre with more zest than many of their colleagues.  There is the august series, the Library of Living Philosophers, inclusion in which is too often a death sentence – each volume usually includes a lengthy intellectual autobiography besides replies to one's critics and even a specimen of the philosopher's handwriting.  There are other companions or guides to eminent philosophers that often include some sort of intellectual autobiography, and a number of practitioners have independently chronicled their lives.  One reason for all this suggested by Yancy's collection is that it may seem to mitigate the contingency or arbitrariness of a person's making such a fuss about these particular ideas when most other people are making a fuss about other things.  How come I got into ellipsis, or Lakatosian theology, or neopragmatist aesthetics?  Narratives don't in general do more than suggest why X rather than Y should become the ruling passion — they don't reveal X's special power to illumine — but given the distinctiveness of notable philosophers that is itself of more than passing interest.  Some of us tend to overestimate the commonalities and common problems in the area.  Yancy's stories help to remind us of the very different constellations of problems, key texts, methodological approaches, etc. that a person studying philosophy would have found in the US in the past few decades.  They suggest that a more sociological analysis might be profitable, though it would almost certainly make more enemies than friends — compare the reactions to Gellner's Words and Things, a key text for my introduction to contemporary philosophy that I bought by mistake for the book of the same title by Roger Brown, prescribed by my linguistics teachers.  

I have given you more material for a 17th autobiography than reports on any of the 16 in Yancy's book.  It would be invidious to pick on particular persons, and too much to try to summarize the already often dense narratives in this collection.  Unrepresentative though they may be, they are a uniformly interesting and diverse set of stories.  If I may end with my own bit of politicizing, several of them make the point that applies equally to me that in earlier more welfarist times they were able to move into academia where now the demands for private payment would make it impossible.  I had five years of university education for nothing but opportunity cost. My school-mates and I went to Hampton Grammar School for nothing; its fully independent successor will now be charging £3330 per term — more than I can afford, let alone what my parents could have done if an equivalent charge had been made then.  Our societies are once again throwing away half our future, as an English educational report once had it.  


© 2004 Ed Brandon

Ed Brandon is, by training, a philosopher, and now is working in a policy position in the University of the West Indies at its Cave Hill Campus in Barbados.


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