Philosophy and Liberal Learning

By Miles, Murray | Queen's Quarterly, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Philosophy and Liberal Learning


Miles, Murray, Queen's Quarterly


MURRAY MILES teaches in the Department of Philosophy at Brock University. He is the author of numerous journal articles on the history of modern philosophy and of a monograph, Logik und Metaphysik bei Kant (Vittorio Klostermann Verlag, Frankfurt, 1978). His new book, Insight and Inference: Descartes' Founding Principle and Modern Philosophy (University of Toronto Press) will be published in 1998.

THE subject of this essay is philosophy, its place in the university, and the role of philosophy and university studies within what the late British philosopher Michael Oakeshott has called "the conversation of mankind." But we are not going to begin, as it may seem we should, with a definition of "philosophy." The immediate task is rather to say something about the issues with which philosophers concern themselves and to discuss certain misconceptions which are very widespread and which most of those who embark on a study of philosophy will either share at the outset or very soon encounter. In saying what philosophy is not we shall have entered into the discussion of what philosophy is, but only in a very preliminary and indirect way. Nevertheless, this will suffice for our present purpose, which is to offer a reflection upon the goals of university education.

First, as to issues: there is a very wide range of problems that may properly be termed "philosophical." It may be useful, therefore, to introduce a distinction between those issues which are largely contemporary, like abortion or feminism, for example, and those which are traditional. Some of the traditional ones are outmoded and no longer much discussed. For example, the old "argument from design" which deists employed to infer from the striking signs of order and adaptation in the world around us the existence of a wise and benevolent creator, though it exercised a philosopher of Hume's stature greatly, (1) would no longer be given the time of day by an intelligent layman even casually familiar with the modern theory of evolution. Philosophers concur and are silent on the subject. But some traditional issues continue to crop up among the contemporary ones -- for example, civil disobedience and the morality of warfare. The former has been around at least since Plato's Crito. But despite its longevity, it is not a perennial issue of philosophy in this sense: it is not the sort of issue that arises out of the universal human condition and which every reflective human being must face at some point in life, sooner or later. There are a few issues of this kind which may be regarded as central to philosophy proper -- as opposed, say, to political philosophy or some other branch of the discipline. Such are, for example: the existence of God; death and life after death; human freedom; the good life for man.

We turn now to a consideration of some very widely shared misconceptions about philosophy. What is common to them can be formulated in some such way as this:

Different people give, always have given, and probably will always give different and often incompatible answers to the perennial questions of philosophy. For the answers to such questions are speculative, going well beyond ascertainable matters of fact. Except for the self-contradictory among them, they cannot be shown to be false, and their denials true, by any reliable means whatever.

From here it is possible to strike out in at least two directions. One is scepticism:

Though certain philosophical views or theories may be true, none can be adequately shown to be so. If what we seek from philosophy is knowledge of something more than our own irremediable ignorance concerning philosophical subjects, philosophers might as well close up shop.

The other is historical or cultural relativism:

Some, perhaps even all, of those philosophical outlooks which are internally consistent are, though mutually incompatible, nevertheless true and demonstrable, though only in a sense that is relative to the factors which shape the dominant standards of truth and demonstration in some specific cultural domain, at some particular time and place. …

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