Lateral Promotion

Okay, let’s discuss this question of whether Freud is a philosopher, and whether it matters. Should we just all agree to call him a philosopher whether he is one or not because hey who cares? If so, why? If not, why not?

For one thing there is the question of what words mean. Is it useful for them to have such a broad meaning and application that they mean nothing? Or is it more useful for them to have a narrower, more precise meaning, so that we know what we’re talking about when we use them and so that we have some chance of talking about roughly the same thing as opposed to thinking we’re talking about roughly the same thing when in fact we are talking about diametrically opposed things. Surely it makes a difference in discussions of, say Freud and truth-claims and philosophy, if by ‘philosopher’ one party means, say, someone who tries to justify her arguments, and another party means, say, someone who has some ideas about things and talks about them well.

This reminds me (parenthetically) of a discussion on Front Row yesterday, a brief chat about the meaning of the words ‘arts’ and ‘culture’. Mark Lawson and David Crystal noted that art has to be ‘inclusive’ rather than ‘elitist’ and that that means more and more activities have to be included in the arts. Why is that though? one wonders, or at least I do. What does ‘inclusive’ mean, for one thing. Does it mean that various activities will feel hurt and excluded if they are not called ‘arts’? Or that people who enjoy doing them or consuming them will? Or both, or something different? And for another thing, why is that an argument for broadening the definition when it’s not in other areas? Cutting up a chicken for dinner isn’t called surgery. Wandering around aimlessly isn’t called gymnastics or polar exploration. Why are the arts expected to be ‘inclusive’ when other fields are not? Sport is not, for one example. Sport is allowed, in fact encouraged, to be ‘elitist’ – so why is it different for the arts? I wonder.

So, back to philosophy. Is there a difference between a philosopher and a ‘thinker’? Is that a useful distinction? Or are the two categories simply identical. But ‘thinker’ is a pretty broad category, isn’t it? And – correct me if I’m wrong – doesn’t it imply a certain flexibility, a certain license? Aren’t philosophers in fact expected to justify their assertions as opposed to just making them? If they don’t, aren’t other philsophers quick to point that dereliction out to them? Doesn’t the phrase ‘That doesn’t follow’ turn up?

The trouble with Freud as a philosopher is that he was so very wrong in his own field, his truth-claims have been subject to such thorough and exhaustive examination and found so profoundly wanting, that it seems more than a little fraudulent to airlift him out of science and drop him into philosophy, which as a discipline tends to be quite keen on the truth. It’s as if the idea were ‘Well, Freud made a mess of things in his own field but he was so profound and he wrote so well that we can’t just write him off, so we’ll just move him sideways. Now, where to. Literature? Hmm – no, that won’t do, literary theory is too demanding and rigorous, we can’t just slide people in with no training. Okay, philosophy then. They won’t mind. And if they do mind, tough – it’s about time philosophy became more inclusive and less elitist.’

Is that what happened? Who knows. It would be interesting to find out…

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