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  • The Dramatic Sources of Philosophy
  • Amelie Oksenberg Rorty

Philosophy is dangerous. It is not surprising that the Athenians condemned Socrates to death, that Nero urged Seneca to be prompt in committing suicide; it's no wonder that theologians burned Abelard's book on the Trinity, that Hobbes and Locke each thought it wise to take a brief self-imposed exile; that Scottish Universities declined to appoint Hume to a Professorship, that Voltaire and Diderot were imprisoned, that Kant was censored, that Fichte, Husserl and Russell were forced to resign from their university positions. And that's not even beginning to cite the self-censorship of figures like Spinoza and Mill. Even when they aimed at consolation and consolidation, philosophers often began by unsettling the mind. Some claimed to know what was thought unknowable; others doubted what was believed to be certain. Some attacked religion in the name of science; others belittled science in the name of mystical poetry; some served tyrants; others were radical revolutionaries. In raising fundamental troubling questions, examining basic assumptions, revising received views, philosophers—especially young philosophers without the protection of great patrons—take immense risks. Philosophers who attempt to articulate principles for social justice are seen as threatening the established social order. Those who, like Hume and Rousseau, reinterpreted the sources and grounds of morality were perceived as potentially corrupting. Those who, like Spinoza and Kant, undertook the task of rationalizing The System of the World were seen as undermining religious doctrines. After all, why undertake to prove that the world is harmonious and well-ordered unless the matter seems in doubt? At its best, philosophy is provocative; and at its worst, it is a nervous tick of a questioning mind. Once begun, it is addictive; [End Page 11] it becomes a disease that partially manifests itself in its futile attempts to provide its own remedy.

Philosophers were themselves often distressed by the turn of their reflections, uncertain of where their meditations and arguments might lead them. Descartes struggled with the malignant demon of skepticism; Hume was in despair at where his arguments brought him. Protecting himself with irony, Voltaire questioned the pretensions of his unsupported rationalism. Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein, each in his own way, endeavored to overcome the destructive tenor of their work by stressing its liberating character. Different as they were, radically critical philosophical figures like Nietzsche, Marx and Sartre thought it necessary to present their attacks on superstition and tyranny as ushering in a freer, more exuberant, more honest mode of life. Their views—and more importantly their philosophic activities—were menacing all around the philosophic compass.

It's no wonder, then, that parents blanch at the thought of their children becoming professional philosophers, and that citizen neighbors distrust attempts to lure them into engaging in philosophic inquiry. It prompts them, it entices them to do that rare and dangerous thing, to think, and so perhaps to change their minds about what is important. Speaking one's mind freely, even speaking one's mind intelligently, is one thing; thinking is something else. Honest introspection about one's fundamental convictions is one thing; subjecting them to critical examination is something else. Thinking requires standing back from what one believes oneself to believe—from the fundamental opinions that guide one's life—to ask oneself what those beliefs and opinions really mean ... what they presuppose and what they imply, not only in the way of other beliefs, but also for action and habit. The problem about really thinking is that it often leads to changing one's mind about some cherished conviction, for instance that divinity is benevolent, that all men are created equal, that ours is a heliocentric system. Questioning such convictions has vast ramifications. Interrogate them, and you shake the beliefs and habits with which they are connected. It leads to having to consider whether to adjust and revise the ecology and economy of the rest of one's judgments and actions. Is one morally obliged to respect and obey a vengeful deity? When is a war unjust? Come to think of it, when does a war begin? Can citizens be at war with one another or with their rulers? There is no...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 11-30
Launched on MUSE
2008-05-24
Open Access
No
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