Rothfeld: Present Thought
By Becca Rothfeld, Guest Columnist
Published on Tuesday, July 17, 2012
In March 2010, former College President Jim Yong Kim spoke at The Washington Post lecture series on leadership. He addressed the Dartmouth undergraduate population, counseling its constituents to abandon their starry-eyed ambitions. “It’s great to have all these great ideals,” he noted, with a tinge of condescension. “But when you go to Haiti, when you go to Africa, they don’t ask you, ‘How much do you feel for my people?’” He concluded by chastising any Dartmouth students hopelessly naive enough to maintain an affinity for the liberal arts, whom he advised to “get a skill.”
One casualty of this brutal methodology is philosophy, an entire field that Kim casually dismisses as practically useless. He describes his erstwhile interest in the discipline as the passing passion of a “smart-aleck sophomore.” Apparently, it doesn’t require what Kim would qualify as “skill” to author works like “A Critique of Pure Reason” and “A Discourse on the Method.” In Kim’s view, thinkers like Kant, Descartes and Rousseau would have done better to stop thinking and start acting.
But as one of the aspiring philosophers whose goals and dreams Kim has so thoroughly insulted, I feel compelled to ask: What good is action absent thought? Empirically, the worst policy decisions have been the product of unreflective policymakers — policymakers who failed to ask important, yet abstract, questions. It is not only appropriate but also imperative to challenge the assumption that we are justified in intervening in other countries’ affairs at all, especially before we actually do so. Shouldn’t we consider our history of imperialist motivation? And shouldn’t we question the very nature of responsibility, a responsibility that Kim presupposes without even cursorily scrutinizing it?
Descending upon Haiti or Africa without first engaging in a critical analysis of our own roles and duties as ethical actors amounts to putting a band-aid on a broken arm. A superficial assessment of the proximate problems plaguing developing nations can yield no more than myopic solutions. Conflict and poverty are symptomatic of greater social ills — social ills that no concrete initiative could hope to remedy without the assistance of theory.
Throughout the course of my philosophical studies, I have faced criticism from a host of Kim-like opponents, the most charitable of whom concede that philosophy can, at best, “teach us how to think.” The implication is that philosophy’s sole merit is its ability to prepare us for the time when we must turn our minds to more serious matters.
Such paltry defenders fail to grasp that few, if any, “more serious” matters exist. Life itself is a philosophical problem, and everything we do, think or say is the product of philosophy, whether we recognize it or not. Whenever we choose to act, we are making an ethical decision. Whenever we decide that something — a particular job or romantic partner, for example — is worth pursuing, we are making a meta-ethical evaluation. Whenever we do so much as utter the word “I,” we take a tacit stance as to the nature of personal identity, and, in doing so, commit ourselves to certain metaphysical positions.
Affluence can only take us so far: Once we have attained a certain level of material comfort, we can no longer turn to quantifiable resources and practical skills for fulfillment. Unless and until we devote ourselves to understanding who we are and what we want, we are condemned to exchange one set of poor circumstances for another. According to Kim, Haitians and Africans don’t ask, “How much have you studied of my people?” but rather, “Have you brought anything?” In response, I ask, how long will they be satisfied to ask this question, and how long will they be satisfied with its simple, and heretofore material, answer?
In a 1969 paper, influential feminist philosopher Carol Hanisch coined the famous phrase, “The personal is political.”
“Personal problems are political problems,” she wrote. Philosophers are often accused of political disengagement, but there is no rigid division between our conception of the world and our comportment in it, between private ideology and its translation into public practice. “You’re not going to make it in this world if you study philosophy,” Kim quotes his father as saying. I reply: You won’t make it in this world if you don’t.