October 2007

We all know that a “citizen” has co-responsibility for the ruling of a political community. In order to rule well, one must be able to deliberate well about the good of the whole community. Only a bad citizen would try to organize the community in such a way as to benefit his own private interests at the expense of the good of the community as a whole. A “good citizen” surely would want to contribute to what is called “the common good.” The common good usually said to be the proper end of the political art.

What exactly is the common good, though? What precisely and concretely are we aiming at when we aim at the common good? I think such questions are very similar to the question “what is happiness?” On the surface the answers seem obvious, but when we go below the surface, we find a host of difficult questions.

In this blog entry I’d like to make a few distinctions that I think are valuable to thinking about the common good. I offer them in a sense out of duty – I think I as a philosopher ought to have something to say on the subject, especially since I live in a country where I am a citizen and have a responsibility in promoting the common good. But I offer these also with the hope that, should they be deficient, they might be refined, corrected or rejected by shaper minds.

I posit that there are three kinds of goods we call “common.”

  1. Some goods are called “common” because they are private goods that everyone needs. Everyone, for instance, needs food, clothing, shelter and medicine. I would be promoting the common good, then, if I were to arrange things in such a way that everyone might not be deprived of these necessities. The need for these goods is common, but the goods themselves are not; the goods themselves are held, used, and consumed privately.
  2. Some goods are commonly held and commonly used as means to privately held, diverse ends. An example would be a road. Many people share the use of the road. My use does not necessarily take away from anyone else’s use of the road (barring a traffic jam). But a road is good not as an end, but as a means to an end. So while we all use the road, we value it differently due to our using it for different ends. This kind of a common good is not a final end. (The sun is also a common good in this sense – diverse things depend upon it in diverse ways.)
  3. Some goods are ends or goals that integrate the diverse activities of a group. A good example is a choir. A tenor sings one line which, by itself, lacks completeness; an alto sings something different, and so on. Together, they choir members produce a good that no one of them could achieve alone. In this third kind of common good, then, the end itself is common, but the activities that achieve it are many and diverse. This common good gives coherence and meaning to the diverse activities. This kind of common good is a final end.

With these distinctions in mind, we might ask: what is the common good that political order aims (or should aim) at? Does it aim at a final end that integrates all of the diverse activities in the city? Or does it aim at the second kind of common – promoting and preserving the means by which individuals might pursue their own, private goods? The above distinctions don’t answer these questions, but they do help clarify what we mean when we use the term “common good.”

I’d like to offer one more point for consideration: I have run across accounts of the common good that claimed that the paradigm of promoting the common good is welcoming and being hospitable to the stranger. Now I think that generosity and hospitality are great goods and one who violates the code of hospitality departs from the path of human decency. But hospitality governs how we are to treat a stranger, someone who is emphatically not part of my community. I dare say, then, that one’s idea of the “common good” would be impoverished if one took hospitality as the paradigmatic virtue of one promoting the common good. A community of people together can and ought to aspire to an end more noble than merely to treat one another with the justice due a stranger.

Lecture sponsored by the  Richard L. Bready Chair of Ethics, Economics, and the Common Good.
October 18, 2007

Scott Campbell
Nazareth College

Plato and The Spirit of Justice 

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Do Philosophers Simplify Things or Complicate Them?

On the one hand, Shakespeare’s Hamlet says, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” But on the other hand, Thomas Reid wrote, “there is nothing so absurd which some philosophers have not maintained.” What are we to think? Is philosophy impoverished, compared to reality, or is it fantastically richer than reality?

Perhaps the disagreement between Shakespeare and Reid is due to the different times in which they lived. Shakespeare, in the English Renaissance, had inherited a philosophy that was more rigid and formulaic than did Reid, writing in Eighteenth Century Scotland, when the rebellion against medieval thought had ultimately produced many new philosophical systems, some of them involving truly amazing, if not absurd, propositions such as Berkeley’s rejection of the existence of matter. To Shakespeare, then, philosophy may naturally have seemed restrictive, inadequate to the mystery of reality itself, while Reid may have thought, with equally good reason, that it was about time for philosophy to be reined in, tamed, brought back down to earth.

However, I think there is more to this than the historical account suggests. It’s also possible that Shakespeare and Reid simply had completely different temperaments. The poet and playwright would naturally be a more imaginative person, the philosopher and champion of common sense more literal-minded.

Still I think there’s more to it. In fact, it is philosophy’s task to envision reality in such a way that it gives an account neither too plain nor too flowery, and the very difficulty of doing this may be the source of some people’s complaints that philosophy is too dull and repetitious as well as of others’ that it is too bizarre and counterintuitive. Certainly, as a teacher of philosophy for nearly thirty years, I have heard both complaints repeatedly.

Doing philosophy is one way for a person to live in the world. Consequently the world as it exists at a given time, and the person who philosophizes with given inclinations, both affect the spirit of the philosophy that is produced. But since reality itself, in all its glory and horror, is at least somewhat beyond us mere mortals at all times, we can expect that certain distractions will intervene to over-simplify or over-complicate the philosophical task. I think in particular of three of these:

1. There is the temptation of reductive analyses. By this I mean propositions of the general form, “x is really just y,” where x is the object of experience to be explained and y is a simpler phenomenon with which it is identified. For instance, in physics, “colors are really just different wavelengths of light.” In science, reductive analyses often inform. But philosophy is not science; for philosophers, a reductive analysis is likely a way to shirk our work. Consider: “a mind is really just a brain.” The reality of mind goes far beyond that.

2. There is the attraction, too, of our own delightful, architectonic schemes and the charm of interlocking concepts that appear to bring all things together into one, comprehensible (though of course very complicated) whole. Such schemes and concepts require a vocabulary all their own which inevitably lends them an air of depth and veracity. If you get the terminology right, you can prove that a table is a “colony of souls,” as Bertrand Russell complained, disapproving of Leibniz. But the facts will have their day, whether we like it or not, and then so much the worse for our theories, our prized and precious creations. Philosophy is not art.

3. There is even our laudable faith in the intelligibility of the cosmos, a faith bequeathed to us by the Greeks, without which neither philosophy nor Western civilization in general would even be possible. Yet this faith wavers between the humility of genuine wonder and the arrogance of self-absorbed intelligence, sliding toward the latter as often as not. “What can I learn from others?” we ought to ask, not “How impressively can I refute them?” To learn the relative importance of the former question, though, we need to listen and read carefully, for as Aristotle rightly points out, nobody is mistaken about everything.

How can our philosophies remain open to all the things in heaven and earth, especially to the things we do not yet know? And how can we, thus open-minded but (we hope) never empty-headed, still retain our ability to discern and reject the absurd? I think that in order to devise a philosophical outlook that does some justice to reality—a view neither too austere nor too ornate—we have to remember, as Daniel Boorstin put it, that illusions of knowledge are obstacles to discovery. This is true in the sciences, in the arts, and also in philosophy. For whenever we presume to know more than we actually do know, we stop considering that we might be wrong, and when we stop considering that we might be wrong we stop learning. But with finite minds we cannot afford to stop learning. Therefore we must remain somewhat skeptical (from the Greek, skeptikos, thoughtful, inquiring). Perhaps we could venture to modify a famous phrase from Kant, who in “What is Enlightenment?” told his reader, “sapere aude,” dare to know. First let’s dare to think, cogitare audeamus! This does require perseverance and even courage because really to think involves both hard work and not knowing where we’ll end up—though of course we hope to arrive closer to the truth rather than further away from it. Somewhere, that is, between the too simple and the too complex.

The debate between Platonists and Aristotelians is one of the most ancient of philosophic issues. This is an informal panel discussion of the basic issues, featuring four members of the Philosophy Department at Saint Anselm College.

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From the Philosophy Department at Saint Anselm College

Robert Anderson
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David Banach
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Tom Larson
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Kevin Staley
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Could Philosophers Have a Blind Spot?

Some Reflections on Philosophy and Leisure

We are all familiar with the notion of a blind spot in our peripheral vision. Ironically, the blind spot is caused precisely by that which enables the eye to see, namely, the optic nerve. The optic nerve sends the visual information from the retina to the brain, but in the one place where the optic nerve connects to the retina, there are no cones and rods, and thus a blind spot.

Could philosophy, or more precisely philosophers, have a blind spot in their range of understanding? Before we look into some possible reasons to think this, let us note that this particular blindness would be justifiably disturbing to all philosophers, if true. After all, the wisdom that philosophy cultivates has long been cherished as a knowledge of everything–in the way that such knowledge is possible for human beings. For instance, as Aristotle conceived it, philosophical wisdom is the science of the causes and principles of being qua being, for which reason it concerns itself with all that is, i.e., all things in so far as they are. Put differently, the universal scope of philosophy is apparent in the fact that philosophers can seemingly provide an analysis of nearly anything by laying out the principles and causes of that thing, its purpose, and its meaning. Indeed, upon reflection, it seems that there is nothing whatever that lies outside the visual field of philosophy, and that philosophy in principle could have no such blind spot.

However, we must remember that philosophy is never practiced in the abstract, but always by living human beings. In fact, philosophers have never actually claimed to possess the knowledge of all things, but only to be pursuing it (in fact, “philosophy” literally means the “love of wisdom,” not the “complete possession of wisdom”), so that while philosophy itself might not in principle be blind to anything, philosophers (either singly or as a whole) may develop certain myopias.

Indeed, a clue to a philosophical blind spot can be found in our optical analogy. As we saw in the case of the eye, it is the eye’s very dependence on the optic nerve that brings about its blindness to one area of its visual field. In a similar way, the philosopher has a very specific dependency to which he or she owes the ability to do philosophy. Long ago, Aristotle noted this dependency when he remarked that philosophical speculation began only when men had leisure time, only when the necessities of life had been adequately supplied. The reason for this is that philosophy begins in wonder, and it is only when humans have freedom from the daily concerns and worries of existence (ta pragmata) that they have the opportunity to look about them and wonder (Met. I 982b12-27). A more modern expression of this found in the writings of Hannah Arendt, who describes the moment of philosophical provenance as the “stop-and-think,” and sees it illustrated in Socrates’ propensity to pause and become lost in thought in the midst of whatever he was doing. In short, one cannot be doing if one wishes properly to be thinking. Philosophy, essentially an activity of the mind, requires a stillness of the body and, therefore, a withdrawal from the labors and concerns that are attached to our bodily existence.

Does a blind spot perhaps exist here? Philosophers have long looked askance at the work-a-day world, relegating work to the category of the merely instrumental, i.e., as having little or no value in itself. Indeed, earning a living has been cast by philosophers as mere “moneymaking,” as “servile,” as befitting those who lack the intellectual light to pursue more contemplative activities. And yet the ones who write these sorts of things, more often than not, were not those who had any long acquaintance with labor and work. When surveying the annals of philosophy, one might become suspicious about the authority behind these claims, for those annals reveal that the history of western philosophy has been the history of the speculation not of plumbers, carpenters, farmers, midwives, and shop-owners, but of aristocrats, monks, and university professors—precisely those individuals who have never had to struggle 70-80 hours a week at labor in order to supply food, clothing, and shelter for themselves and their families. Again, it is no accident that this is so, since philosophy requires rest from labor, but it does raise a question: are there, perhaps, truths that could only be discovered in and through a life of labor? Would not such truths remain unknown to the aristocrat, the monk, and the university professor?

As long as humankind has existed, the majority of people spend their adult life (and often their youth) engaged in toil. Whether it is in tilling the soil, caring for livestock, working in factories, building houses, or cooking meals and keeping house, men and women spend 99% of their waking lives engaged in some form of work. It is a startling realization. And yet, strangely, very little is ever done by philosophers to explore the meaning and value of the activity that occupies so much of our lives. Again, one can only wonder: are there subtle lessons and truths about reality to be learned in the life of work—that remain unknown to the metaphysician in his leisure? Are there great moral insights to be gained by struggling year round to make ends meet, as yet unknown to the moral philosopher in his contemplation?

Consider John the electrician. He spends the morning helping prepare breakfast for the family, dressing children and bustling them off to school. He then rushes off to his carpentry job, where he spends 8-10 hours cutting plywood and nailing it to the frame of a house. He then returns home in the early evening (perhaps stopping at the market on the way home), helps prepare dinner, clean the kitchen, and do laundry. He might even have a look at the bathroom faucet, which has been leaking for several weeks (after he has opened up the latest mind-numbing dental bills for his children). At the end of the day, after perhaps telling a bedtime story to his children, he collapses in bed only to awaken the next day to do it all over again. What kind of meaning can be found in such a working life?

Here is one possibility, among a great many. John is learning a great lesson of self-sacrifice. The hourly, daily, monthly, yearly grind of caring for his family and his customers has slowly taught him to care for others as much as, or (in the case of his family) more than himself. He has learned this lesson not merely as an idea, but in every fiber of his being–in the dark circles around his eyes and the aches in his knees: that life is only meaningful to the extent that we can serve others. John could not have learned this lesson in contemplation, no, not if he had all the leisure time in the world.