Plutarch's Table

Philosophy and its Relevance

October 18, 2010

Among the opinions about philosophy (and the humanities in general) that has surfaced in the debate about funding for education is one that holds that philosophy is superfluous, the hobby of a handful of eccentrics or geeks that has nothing to do with real life.  The logic behind cutting so many departments in the humanities seems to be that these subjects are not able to sustain themselves economically, but what I am interested in is a slightly different argument that says that the humanities do not really contribute in any essential way to the full development of the human person, or society as a whole.  In my own experience with the various reactions I get when I say that I do philosophy, this seems to be a common view.  Along with the standard “I took a philosophy course once and had no idea what was going on” response, the more ‘positive’ (I am doing WILD finger-quoting here) reaction generally comes from people who took a course or two and loved it, but then went on to do serious things with their education.  This kind of attitude prevailing out there in the world outside of the academy must surely have led to a current horde of governmental and university administrative powers thinking very little of taking the axe to so many humanities departments and promising more of the same to come.  And yet I can’t help thinking that, although there are significant cultural forces to work against, when a student walks out of a philosophy class with either of these attitudes towards the subject, it is the instructor who has failed.  We may lament the fact that philosophy departments now have to try to justify their existence, and it will be in my opinion irreversibly damaging to everyone if we stop funding them, but if it means that philosophy professors are now asked to care about their general relevance, I can’t see it as all bad.

This summer I read Anna Karenina again after many years.  I had forgotten about the final chapter, where Levin has his epiphany about religion and philosophy.  It is a remarkable chapter, which comes from what I think is a healthy intuition about a certain kind of scientifically minded philosophy. Throughout the novel, Levin has been tortured by his atheism, by the absence of a monotheistic God as the source and end of all, has been driven nearly to suicide because such an absence seems to strip his life of all possible meaning or value.  As an enlightened philosopher he cannot in good conscience believe in this so unscientific notion of God, cannot be satisfied by the easy way that religion explains and justifies the world as it is, but as a deep thinking man he cannot let these questions rest.  His despair is the discovery that atheism has nothing at all to say in answer to our questions about life.

The quiet resolution of this intensely dramatic novel comes when Levin notices that those who believe do not do so philosophically, that the faith that so comforts them does not come in the form of a proposition that they hold about the state of things.  The faith of the uneducated peasants he so admires is not any kind of answer to a philosophical question, in other words, but is something more like an innate (so Levin calls it) knowledge of the good that is only manifest in practice.  In other words, they know how to live in the right way, without the help of philosophy.  Levin’s resurrection from the nihilism of his scientific view of the universe comes not through some new revelation but through the realization that he has in fact known the good all along and has been living for this good and it alone.  It was the misleading questions put by philosophy, questions that led him to look for a clear and rational way to conceptualize what could in truth only be lived, that tortured him.

Levin’s own crisis describes a more extreme form of the view that philosophy is superfluous, that holds that in superimposing its formal questions on our lived existence, philosophy is in fact distorting and harmful.  The way that philosophy has traditionally focused on notions of essence and absolute truth leaves us with a world whose supposedly real nature is accessible only to the most learned philosophers, and for the most part these keepers of the truth speak in a language that the rest of us haven’t learned.  Furthermore, philosophy has been asking the wrong kinds of questions.  The question about what something is often leads us to place ourselves outside of the lived world and our necessarily perspectival ways of experiencing it, inventing notions of things such as we imagine they would appear to a pure and transcendent mind (God or pure reason) that could take it in at a glance.  It is these kinds of approaches to philosophy that leave students thinking of it as either an indecipherable language or a fun set of questions that will entangle us in puzzles about life, but that amount to no more than intellectual exercises that we must put aside in order to live life.

But where did I learn to criticize philosophy so mercilessly?  From Husserl, from Nietzsche, from Levinas, Derrida, Deleuze, etc.  Philosophy is the discipline that constantly asks about its own value and limits.  And if any other discipline is able to be critical of itself in this fundamental way, it is only insofar as it is thinking philosophically.  So if I think that philosophy should in fact try to think more about its own relevance, I also think that philosophy is absolutely necessary to all aspects of education if it is going to be sufficiently progressive.  The thing that worries me most is that the kinds of philosophy that seem to be poised to survive the axe are those that fall in line with the traditional program and the general conservatism in our academic institutions, not the ones that alone can help us ask the important questions about the value and limits of our institutions themselves.  There is a whole world of philosophy that cares about its own relevance, that is relevant, and that should be taught to everyone in the interests of healthier democracies, the flourishing of individuals, and – I would go as far as to say – the future of the planet.  These philosophies have long ago learned to ask better questions, to concern themselves with life as it is lived, and to help us to find more productive and healthy ways to see, think about and experience the world.   But most people outside of the academy, and some people within – even in philosophy departments – don’t know about this.  Whether we like it or not, we can’t expect this to be acknowledged if we don’t teach it.

and check out this blog post on New APPS that makes an excellent case for the value of all the social sciences.



November Salon Tickets

October 16, 2010
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Tickets are selling fast for our November 20th event.  The salon will be held in a private downtown Toronto home, with delicious appetizers and dinner by Victoria’s Kitchen (7-10pm).  Contact us to reserve a spot.


Happiness, while it may look different for each of us, is the one thing that we all seem to want.  But is the pursuit of a subjective emotional state really the best goal for a life?  Our culture’s current obsession with all things happy would seem to suggest that it is, but there is also good reason to believe that the pursuit of happiness may be fundamentally harmful, not to mention disappointing.  Join philosopher Joanna Polley for a discussion on just what happiness is and why we might want to explore its alternatives.

“A people who conceive life to be the pursuit of happiness must be chronically unhappy” – Marshall Sallins

Tickets are $50 and guests bring their own wine.

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October 16, 2010
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October 8, 2010

Thanks to everyone who came out to last night’s salon – what a fabulous group!  We were left with some profound questions that I hope we’ll get the chance to revisit sometime.  In the meantime, please e-mail me if you’d like a list of further reading.   And cheers to our wonderful hosts Leah and Kanishka.

And now for what the Onion has to say about happiness.,17258/

Posted in Salon summaries

A Meaningful Prosperity

October 5, 2010

In this excellent TED talk, Tim Jackson discusses his book Prosperity without Growth, and proposes the idea of a meaningful prosperity.  We are caught in the trap of economic growth, where “people are being persuaded to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need, to create impressions that won’t last on people we don’t care about”, he argues, and this can only continue to contribute to poverty, environmental degradation and economic crisis, as well as the nurturing of our selfish elements at the expense of our altruistic capacities.  I really like this notion of a meaningful prosperity – a prosperity that is not primarily materialistic in nature, but that includes the ability to feed ones family and enjoy the fruits of ones labour.  I assume he elaborates on this concept in the book, which I’ll have to add to my list, but in the meantime I am very interested in thinking about what this meaningful prosperity model would look like.  As Jackson points out, it’s not a new idea, but it is certainly unfamiliar for many of us who have grown up in a world where what you have is what you are.  More to come…

Unlikely Pairings: dinner guests and the art of conversation

October 3, 2010
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I got an invitation to dinner last week from a woman I have never met before, the partner of my friend Marta.  This was nice in itself.  What was even better was that the invitation was also addressed to a friend of hers who shares my name, with the explanation that they wanted to bring together both of their favourite people named Joanna.  I am a huge fan of social experiments, and a dinner party balanced on the axis of something so arbitrary as two people whose parents gave them the same name fills me with glee.  It also happens to be the case that I’ve never met a Joanna that I didn’t like.  And I’ve never been to an experimental dinner party that I didn’t like, since it is almost always either full of tension, or a house on fire.

Why would I enjoy tension in social settings?  Because in my experience it usually leads to something – a real or imagined confrontation between people who don’t mix comfortably.  Even if the tension doesn’t lead to outright conflict, everyone gets to feel the social force of conflicting views or sensibilities.  Last summer in Italy I stayed a few days at the house of a very close friend of some very close friends, assuming that this American woman (who had married an Italian) and I would naturally fuse the link joining our mutual friends and ourselves become very close.  It didn’t turn out that way.  And one night, the last night before the day I would cut the visit much shorter than planned, there was a dinner party on the terrace of their lovely Tuscan villa.  I chatted briefly with a couple of the guests, happy at the thought of meeting new people and getting the chance to speak a bit of Italian, but once we were all seated this group of ten childhood friends and their partners completely ignored the eleventh person at the table.  A great deal of their conversation was about people they knew and our hostess’ new Tom Ford sunglasses, both of which were subjects on which I had nothing to contribute, so I suppose the fault is not all theirs.  In any case, as I turned from humiliated to amused I realized that there should always be an eleventh person at these sorts of gatherings.

The eleventh person should prevent a group of friends from becoming a horribly obnoxious circle that simply stews in its own juices, never learning anything new about itself or about the world outside.  That night I felt like Sartre’s Roquentin: “I am alone in the midst of these happy, reasonable voices. All these creatures spend their time explaining, realizing happily that they agree with each other. In Heaven’s name, why is it so important to think the same things all together”.  I remembered that earlier, during cocktails, I had disagreed with something the professor of poetry had said to me about translation and this had been met with stony silence.  Of course there is nothing wrong with a group of old friends getting together to speak their own shared language and to agree with one another, presuming that they are at least capable of breaking rank to accommodate an outsider.  I think what my presence demonstrated was that they valued their collective certainty more than anything.  It wasn’t what I would call fun, but it seemed better to me to be forced to feel that tension than to be one of those happy people explaining and agreeing.  What I enjoyed that night was the very feeling of discomfort that reminded me of the value of hospitality, and the value of being open to people who are not like me, and of how easy it is to find a world where one fits comfortably and forever avoid challenge and dissonance.

Challenges are not always constructive, of course.  Too often conversation is about winning the debate, each side coming to the table with a view that they will themselves never consent to question.  In being faced with a sparring partner, we tend to become more defensive, less open-minded, and less willing to concede gaps in our logic – which we all have all of the time, I would suggest.  But all power struggles are like this: each partner is unlikely to give up any ground in the fear that the other, rather than seeing it as an invitation to soften their resolve, will annex the ground the other has relinquished and declare victory.  So a good conversation, one where something is actually achieved, requires trust – which is why it is unlikely that political discourse can ever be anything but this defensive war of words leading to ever more entrenched and unyielding positions.  But those of us who don’t have to worry about being accused of ‘flip-flopping’ when we actually consider an issue from another perspective and modify our view of it, can remember that even where our trust turns out to be unjustified we have won something in the valuing of our own ideological flexibility over a sense of victory.

I went to another small intimate dinner party with people I didn’t know at all recently.  Actually I kind of crashed it – long story.  Most of the guests seemed to do one of two things for a living, so I assumed they were all old friends.  The conversation was lively and interesting and the warmth and hospitality they extended to the eleventh person was overwhelming.  It turned out to be a birthday party, and at this one I felt like Grégoire Bouillier as the mystery guest at Sophie Calle’s birthday party (in his fabulous book The Mystery Guest), that person who makes a dinner party an unpredictable event.  Only unlike Bouillier I wasn’t invited, and because I was feeling a little under the weather that night I am afraid to say that I did not deliver much in the way of surprise.  But the host and the birthday boy showed no distress at the prospect of this unpredictability, and I later even had my privileged status revoked when I learned that they did not, in fact, all know each other well.  Birthday parties are where people who may only have one friend in common come together, and from a collective love for that one person the trust is usually there.

Dinner or cocktail parties are where a lot of conversation happens and they can be important components of social movements and the development and exercise of the engaged mind.  Like the food that is almost as important as the guests, unlikely pairings usually fare best.  If the ambiance inspires trust and flexibility, then rather than stewing in its own juices a company gets to see the unpredictable results of new combinations.  I have always assumed that this is what our eccentric contemporary chefs mean when they talk of ‘deconstructing’ food: things we thought we knew are revealed to have hidden attributes that are brought out only by putting them in new contexts or juxtaposing them with unlikely partners that have no use for their more customary and predictable talents. I can only hope the other Joanna, who for obvious reasons I already trust, will disagree.

Literature and the Universal (including comments on books I have and haven’t read)

October 1, 2010

I’ve decided to give Jonathan Franzen’s wildly popular novel, Freedom, a miss.  I am trusting the critics – the critics who I like to read and tend to agree with on literary matters, that is – rather than Time magazine, who featured Franzen on a recent cover celebrating him as “The Great American Author”.  Two recent reviews seem to agree that Franzen does a fair enough job of portraying middle-brow America, but urge us to expect more from art than a mere portrayal of what is (Ruth Franklin “Impact Man” and Evert Cilliers “Are our Writers as Lousy as Our Bankers?“).  A third review warns that my investment would be wasted on a “576-page monument to insignificance” (B.R. Myers “Smaller Than Life”)  There seems to be consensus, then, from writers whose reviews I like to read, so I’m thanking them for their contribution to my time management and moving on to Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn, which I taught twice last year in my Philosophy and Literature class at the University of Toronto and am re-reading now for a third time, which like the second is an almost entirely new experience.

But these reviews raise an interesting question for me, a question about novels and their relationship to the universal.  The complaint is that Franzen’s work speaks a language that will not survive very long, both literally and figuratively.  Literally, because Franzen is so concerned for his characters to sound like contemporary middle-brow Americans, and figuratively because he doesn’t have anything to offer in the way of universal resonance.  We are taught that to be readable a story must have something to say outside of its context.  Apparently, Franzen’s novel not only doesn’t have anything to say about poor or uneducated or even fabulously wealthy Americans or anyone who is not American, but it sounds as though he doesn’t have anything to say to anyone at all.  To have something to say to any audience, a writer has to not merely hold up a mirror, which is allegedly all that Franzen does, but must smash that image and stab the reader with the shards.  This seems to me to be one important element in distinguishing good from bad art, and yet if this lack of resonance is the result of a work that is too much of its context, I think that there are also works that commit this crime of mere reflection by being too universal in scope.  They may speak about everyone at all times, but there is nothing that can be said about everyone that is going to change anyone.

I used to think that my favourite contemporary novel was Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces. As a poet, and a very good one in my opinion, Michaels can craft a sentence that knocks the wind out of me.  Her words are so hauntingly lovely to read that it is no understatement to say that I fell under their spell, lost in the beauty and ease of the language.  But a strange thing happened when I put it down – my world was not changed one bit.  It remained on my list of recommendations nonetheless, until recently when I started reading Miller rather obsessively and figured out why a work like Fugitive Pieces has no real lasting power for me.  Michaels is a stupendous writer but her writing is only universal in scope; it speaks a timeless message that in its transcendence of the truly gritty details of life speaks to nobody in particular of nothing that we aren’t already capable of understanding.  It captures nothing of the real.  I would still read anything Michaels writes, and anything Michael Ondaatje (who I would describe in a similar way) writes, and I think that the ability of these writers to put into beautiful and lofty words some penetrating insights into how humans have been for a very long time is admirable and gratifying.  But to change us, to be a novel worthy of being called great literature, I think a work has to offer more than a portrait of what all humans can recognize in all other humans under the right circumstances, more than insight into the essence of humanity as it is and always will be.

In fact, I don’t happen to believe that there exists anything so absurd as the timeless essence of humanity.  The life on earth of this species is in constant flux, and it is best captured by exploring the ways in which it resists our attempts to capture it.  Maybe great art can help us glimpse those resistances, and in this lets us see something of the real.  The fragmentary and disturbing in literature always performs an actual experiment on life in a way that the great sweeping treatises that peddle a theory of everything cannot (in my mind this is Dostoevsky the agitator vs. Tolstoy the portraitist).  The universal message is the message about what we are, when Nietzsche (and possibly even Plato) long ago taught us that what we are is nothing but a creature that is constantly becoming something else.  So to say that a novel should speak beyond its context is undoubtedly right, but this is not rectified by speaking a universal language.  The greatest capacity of the literary is that it has the power to undo the image of the human as something static.  In this I don’t know of a great American writer since Henry Miller.

About author

My name is Joanna Polley. I am a writer and a philosopher experimenting with ways of practicing and teaching philosophy outside of the university environment. I completed my PhD at the University of Toronto and have taught for several years in the departments of philosophy and literary studies, and am currently exploring ways to bring philosophy out of the ivory tower and into the wider public sphere. My specific research interests have been in the history of philosophy, philosophy of language and culture and the philosophy of literature, but I am interested in any philosophy that helps illuminate contemporary problems and deepens our experience of being alive. You can also visit me at for information about my philosophical therapy services.