Lovely But Sterile?

Statue of Athena, goddess of Philosophy and War, in the Vatican Museum. Like so much of traditional academic philosophy: elegant, cold, impersonal, the purview of the wealthy, and white…

W.E.B. DuBois once wrote that academic philosophy is the ‘lovely but sterile land of philosophical speculation.’ He decides to turn his attention to history and the social sciences so he can offer more concrete answers and practical help to his beleaguered fellow black citizens.

I’ve been inclined to agree with DuBois now and again, out of irritation, out of impatience, out of out of distaste for the obscurantist language and arch tone philosophy is sometimes delivered in, and no doubt, out of my own inability to comprehend. While I often find academic philosophy enthralling, elegant, interesting, and beautiful, I sometimes think, well yes, this is interesting, this is clever, this is fun, but in the end, what does it do? What is it for, and who is it for? Why care about those fine points, technical details, and subtle nuances that academics and scholars go on about that are seemingly unrelated to practical matters of general human wellbeing? Are they just entertaining and impressing themselves and occasionally each other?

I’ve heard people make a similar critique of the arts as DuBois makes of philosophy. ‘Real art’ shouldn’t be primarily about pleasure, about beauty for beauty’s sake, though it can be beautiful too. Its primary purpose should be to transform, inspire, even disturb and shock the viewer so as to make them an agent of change.

Here’s the thing: as much as I love history, ethical theory, civil rights movements, the arts as described in the previous sentence, and so on, I also love human artifacts which have no apparent reason to exist other than their interest and beauty. This is sometimes portrayed as frivolous: why please ourselves with ‘useless’ things which don’t do any work, which don’t inspire action? But I counter: why does everything have to be useful to us, to do work for us? Putting aside the practical value of philosophy (which I and so many other lovers of philosophy contend is quite high) and the arts, is there no place for sheer beauty, sheer interest? Is there no value in just pleasing our senses, from our most basic and instinctual to our most highly refined? Are the deep desires for intellectual exercise and beauty any less central to the human psyche than the needs for love and liberty and life itself? I know sustaining life and expanding liberty is valuable not only because they help us to survive but because they give us access to those things which make life beautiful.

I also know, for myself, that the beauty and interest I find everywhere in the world, be they in products of nature or of human creativity, impact my heart directly and immediately. I enjoy them without wondering why they exist, if they have a right to exist, or if they are useful to me or others. With human artifacts, it’s only after that first impact that I wonder about the personality and motives of the artist, think about what they’re trying to convey, and find inspiration, whether it be to further refine of my sense of beauty or to change the world or myself in other ways.

Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, posted from Paris on May 12, 1780. From the Massachusetts Historical Society collections

I think of something John Adams once wrote to his wife Abigail: ‘The Science of Government it is my Duty to study, more than all other Sciences: the Art of Legislation and Administration and Negotiation, ought to take Place, indeed to exclude in a manner all other Arts. I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.’ For Adams, the purpose of work to change the world for the better is in order that beauty can exist in the world more plentifully, to be promoted and protected for its own sake, and in order that everyone would ultimately have an equal right to access and enjoy in that beauty. Just so for art, for philosophy, for the natural world and for human society alike.

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

I think DuBois agrees, actually. He clearly loves philosophy for its own sake and thinks it beautiful; after all, he describes it as ‘lovely’ instead of merely dismissing it as useless. But he feels his own talents are best directed at making the world more just for himself and for others who are still routinely denied access to academic philosophy, the high arts, and any other realm of thought and creativity they might want to engage in. Some don’t have the leisure time or disposable income; some are deprived of the right to education or access to the funds needed to pay for it; some live in war-torn places unable to support or protect educational and arts institutions. Like Adams, Dubois feels it his duty and his calling to be an agent of change in his time. And like Adams, DuBois lives a life of philosophy-in-action, his work driven by his convictions about justice and the good life. This demonstrates that for him as it is for countless others, philosophy is fertile indeed.

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4 thoughts on “Lovely But Sterile?

  1. One of the problems of philosophy is that it isn’t practical in society today. Although it makes people think people are moved by emotions. Linguist George Lakoff goes into detail about how presenting logical arguments does not carry much weight in convincing people of things, but emotions always win the day. This applies even to history, but the value of history is that it can provides insights to the direction events are going in and does not surprise people who understand what happened in the past.

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    • Thanks for your comments! Do you think that people can be moved emotionally by philosophical ideas and arguments? Would you agree that philosophy has helped change the way people feel about certain issues? For example, ideas about universal human rights are relatively new in human history but are now not only widely accepted intellectually, they have become sacred values. Throughout history, most people were moved emotionally by feelings of solidarity with others of their own family, tribe, religion, nationality, shared traditions, and so on. Over time, ideas about human rights began to take hold. For example, Thomas Paine, with his pamphlet Common Sense, convinced huge numbers of people in the American colonies that they had rights that did not depend on their status as British subjects. Now, the Bill of Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, based on ideas formulated and explained in large part by people doing philosophy and applying it to politics and everyday life, espouse ideas that people feel very strongly about, indeed.

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      • Most of this stuff is based on a gentleman’s agreement because laws only function if they are equally enforced which accounts for much of the inequality seen in the world.

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