Philosophers debate meaning of meaning at annual conference

January 1, 2012

The philosophers were in town last week, swarming the Marriott Wardman Park hotel for the American Philosophical Association’s annual conference, at which the meaning of a great many things was debated, including the meaning of meaning (“What Is Meaning?” Hall IV-F, 9-11 a.m.), and a great many thoughts were thought, including thoughts about thought (“Thinking About Thinking,” Hall IV-J”).

In one largish ballroom, a different sort of panel was happening. It featured the Dish’s Andrew Sullivan and two other men who looked like Andrew Sullivan — pleasant, bearded, round-faced men, which is a chic sub-style among many of the attendees here, optionally accessorized with square glasses and male-pattern baldness. The panel was called “From Philosophical Training to Professional Blogging.”

“Perennially, departments of philosophy are under attack,” said Andrew Light, the George Mason University professor who organized and monitored the panel discussion. “We’re always looking for better ways to sell the major.”

There are jobs for philosophers. (There is, at least, “Jobs for Philosophers,” a publication of the APA). But the irksome perception persists that a philosophy degree is only slightly more useful than an English degree, and so it was thought that a panel such as this might give frightened philosophers — many of whom came to this conference in search of gainful employment — a spot of hope.

Philosophers: If you are pinning your hopes of gainful employment on blogging, don’t.


Andrew Sullivan has a PhD in political philosophy and is known for his writings on conservatism and gay marriage. (Andrew H. Walker/GETTY IMAGES)

But the three men on the panel have done so, and splendidly, with varying degrees of national recognition for their thoughtful punditry on political and cultural issues. Besides Sullivan, who has a PhD in political philosophy and is known for his writings on conservatism and gay marriage, the other participants included Slate blogger Matthew Yglesias, who majored in philosophy at Harvard, and Grist magazine writer/blogger David Roberts, who has a master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Montana.

“What blogging created was a Platonic dialogue,” Sullivan said, to perhaps the only audience that would intuitively understand that the “P” should be capitalized.

Philosophy, Roberts said, taught him to dissect and make arguments.

For centuries, philosophers were regular engagers in mainstream cultural conversation, contributing to discussions of issues that tinged on values and ethics. The American Pragmatists — the John Dewey types — were known for this, commenting on education and social reform in the early part of the 20th century. But in recent decades, Light said, “philosophers have ceded these questions of value and importance to economists,” who are prone to taking the important questions of life and sticking numbers on them.

The Internet is the new public sphere, and so the blog might be a way to reclaim old standing, to demonstrate the practical value of having someone with foundational philosophical knowledge ring in on the issues of the day.

The professorial attendees at the panel found this concept rather fascinating.

One gentleman was bothered by the comment-jacking that he sees happen on message boards. “It’s zigzags and red herrings . . . all of which seems not in line with philosophy,” he fretted during the Q&A portion of the event. How could one enter the blogosphere without relinquishing one’s credentials as an academic?

Reading the comments “is a truly existential” experience, one of the panelists assured him.

Another attendee wondered whether the “public sense of self” achieves an outsize importance on Twitter.

Perhaps, the panelists agreed. But from a philosophical perspective, the benefits of freewheeling intellectual rigor online far outweigh the downsides.

On blogs, Yglesias said, “You can see which issues bring people together.”

Like, Roberts said wryly, “Justin Bieber’s paternity test.”

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Lifestyle