the consolation of philosophy

Most of the ancient schools taught that investigating the eternal questions is a source of equanimity and solace in a merciless world beyond our control.

From 8:30-3:30 today, I am the director of a research center that studies American politics, almost on the eve of a contentious national election. I am on the phone, on email, usually on both at the same time, trying to persuade, to influence, to explain, hoping earnestly for events to take a certain course, conscious of our limited power, but striving to make a mark.

From 3:30-5:30 pm, in an attractive lecture hall just feet from my office–a room full of bodies in gently creaking chairs–we strain to hear the old man who speaks without amplification in the well. He is a famous philosopher, already a distinguished Harvard professor before I was born. He speaks technically, learnedly, but also autobiographically, recalling how, as a small boy on the beach in Atlantic City, he realized that colors look richer when one eye is closed rather than the other. That city was wrecked last week, but his perception still has this feature. He speaks of apples that appear to change as the light shifts. I am fascinated but neutral, immune to disappointment whether it turns out to be the apples or our mental states that change. The back wall is painted an unusually rich blue; it is the focus of my attention and an example for the famous philosopher.

Someone asks him whether his objections to Bertrand Russell’s epistemology are ethical. Should we (in a serious sense of the word “should”) insist that the table we see is really there? He evades the question but says that philosophy ought to encompass ethics as well as natural science. We cannot justify science by claiming that it serves the good, for with it, we may destroy life on earth. Our job is to improve science. It seems that we have work to do outside the room, after all.

[Having cited some specific views, I ought to credit the speaker as Hilary Putnam.]

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.