The Philosopher's Magazine

It was nice receiving The Philosopher's Magazine in the mail today, for two reasons. First, I admit, because my article "The Mommy Wars" is in it. Second, because the issue includes an interesting forum called "Becoming a Philosopher." There are lots of good essays (and I haven't finished reading them all), but the Alain de Botton essay calls for comment.

But first, "The Mommy Wars." The essay is about making the choice to stay home with children, a choice lots of mothers (and a few fathers) make and that I made for a time when my kids were born ten years ago. I know a lot of people think that's as it should be because they think a woman's place is in the home... Groan.

But there are also people who think staying home is a terrible choice. People keep writing alarming books about "opting out"--worrying a lot about how often women stay home, and why they do it, just refusing to see that it might be a reasonable choice for some people. My essay is mainly a response to this crowd.

I use ideas about what the good life is and isn't, ideas much more fully developed in my new book, The Weight of Things, to argue that a turn homeward can be a turn for a better life. I also make the (um, not too surprising) observation that kids do grow up. For many women, the way home is a joy and a relief, but before too long they need a way back to work. Finding that way is often difficult, though I do tell a nice story about a friend of mine who got just the assistance she needed.


Alain De Botton's essay is about how academics look at so-called popular philosophy. A better term is "readable philosophy" --by contrast with academic philosophy, which may have a thousand virtues, but is not readable. DeBotton is a very successful guy who actually seems to make good money at his writing. He is a very, very good writer. But is he a good philosopher? Maybe he doesn't exactly claim to be. He is an essayist who deals with topics of everyday concern, not a professional philosopher. Academics can't stand him, and he's got great examples of snubs and nasty reviews to prove it.

One thing is clearly true: most academic philosophers have contempt for most readable philosophy. Is this just because they're academics, and all academics have contempt for readable books in their fields? I don't think so. I just can't quite believe all the geography people hold Jared Diamond in contempt, and all the religious studies people hold Elaine Pagels in contempt.

Philosophers have a particular problem with books that are accessible because philosophy is supposed to be "hard." That's part of the fun. I've had a lot of this kind of fun in my life. I've read Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit for not one but two classes. (Oh God...don't make me think about it.) I wound up specializing in "hard" areas of analytic philosophy. So hard is good, and people who write readable philosophy try to make philosophy feel unhard.

Very, very obviously, a book doesn't have to be hard to be smart. Some of the things that make for readability also make a book just plain good. An author thinking about a general audience has to ask interesting questions, not just questions that are fashionable in some little neck of the academic woods. Readability requires making connections in an interdisciplinary way, going where the subject goes, instead of where colleagues expect you to go. Readability can also force books to be shallow...sometimes depth requires difficulty. But I certainly do share Alain DeBotton's irritation with the way "popular philosophy" is viewed by the powers that be in the field.


A S said...

Dear Madam,
I have been reading your blog and we have exchanged mails also.There is a belief that more complicated your life is,more complicated Philosophy is better it is for progress.
This belief is based on conception of World,which is seen as battle ground,where one has to keep fighting for making oneself heard.
As opposed to this is a world view which sees this world as a play.It sees just takes things as they come.It does not believe in generating tension.To me to be happy and to be leading a good life we need to have latter worldview.asraiips@gmail.com

Jean Kazez said...

A.S. I'm going to answer your e-mail as soon as I have a free moment...but I was thinking about what you said here, and about how my own life has gone. Most of the things that are going right in my life I've had to work hard for. If I had taken things as they come, as you suggest, I think I would probably now be working at a fast food restaurant or living in a homeless shelter! I'm kidding, but only slightly.

I see what you're saying about too much tension, and I think there's a lot of wisdom in that, just (for me) not as a way to approach everything. Maybe there's no such thing as ONE good way to approach everything.

Enigman said...

I'm not (yet) an academic, and I love readable philosophy (when I find it), but so often what others call readable I just see as full of unjustified presuppositions. Perhaps its impossible to be completely justified and readable?

Jean Kazez said...

Enigman, I think that's probably true. In academic philosophy, you can go on about one point for 20 pages and make lots of arguments. If you're trying to be readable, you have to be much more efficient. Most people don't want to be argued to on and on. So then, I agree, there's a risk of just saying stuff and not justifying it. As examples of people who are both readable and substantial, Peter Singer's my #1 choice. Also Daniel Dennett, more or less. Lots of readable philosophy doesn't have enough "bite" for my tastes,but I'm not going to name any names!