Sunday, September 12, 2010

what's philosophy for?

So there I was, preparing for tomorrow's Contemporary Moral Issues class, re-reading the class assignment, an essay by Margaret Urban Walker about Carol Gilligan's work on the "feminine" moral voice. Walker's language is, to me, fluid, clear, and at times evocative, even profound (I adore her line calling respect an "astringent" form of beneficence); but I realize how opaque or abstruse it's going to seem to a roomful of 19-year-olds on Monday morning. My attention has been focused on the problems of articulating the meaning of Walker's essay, the meaning of her language, the connection between the two, the relationship between all that and Nel Noddings' ethics of care, and the relationship between all that mess and Carol Gilligan. Suddenly, Walker says, concerning her own development of an ethics of care from Gilligan's work:

One would not expect a view “systematic” in the philosopher’s sense to spring full-blown from any survey of opinion. It must be admitted, finally, that perhaps these reconstructions are too energetic.

The genius of this statement is its expression of the fundamental problem of the philosopher's prejudice. What I've taken to calling the philosopher's prejudice is the presumption that seems built into philosophical writing and thinking, that everyone thinks like a philosopher about life: that is, rationally, systematically, and maintaining a sense-giving narrative at all times. Philosophers are often better at interpreting life than living it, and so mistake their interpretations for actual lives, in other words.

Walker's lines helped put into focus for me the problem of being a philosophy instructor and making her words make sense for the minds and lives of my students. I don't mean by this that I have to translate philosophical ethics into the vernacular, and I certainly don't mean I have to dumb it down. I have to triangulate between the everyday lives of actual flesh-and-blood people, the abstractions of philosophical theory, and this third thing that philosophers seem very keen to promote, which for now I'll hastily name a self-reflective life.

My students' sense of Walker's articulation of the ethics of care won't be like an academic philosopher's. I believe it shouldn't be, either. The value of the abstract, academic, philosophical articulation is not in-itself, unless your last name is Kant. Nosirree, the point is not to interpret life, the point is to live it. What, then, should be my goal in helping my students understand Walker's essay about the ethics of care?

How about: to help them to reconstruct, for themselves, the meaning of caring as an ethical standpoint. Not in order to be able accurately to recount this position in correct academic philosophical jargon, but in order to consider their own caring. If the ethics of care is worth something, what I should hope to do is help my students graft an intelligent and reflective caring into their own moral lives, wherever it fits best, and however it fits best.

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