Monday, August 16, 2010

Philosophy and the Habits of Critical Thinking

Interview with John Searle (California Univ.-Berkeley)
Is it hard to do philosophy?

It's murder, absolutely. I compare it ... if you really want to know how to do it, you get up in the morning, there's a large brick wall and you run your head against that brick wall. And you keep doing that every day until eventually you make a hole in the wall. That's what it feels like. But metaphorically the wall has ceased to exist, right? Using the metaphor that you're always... Unfortunately I keep banging the wall. And then once I get one wall battered into shape then I've got to work on another one. Now the way it actually works out is that you're constantly fighting with a whole lot of apparently contradictory ideas, and yet they all seem appealing and you have to find some way to resolve them.

So take an obvious case. We're all conscious and it's real. All you do is pinch yourself and you know this is real. How can matter be conscious? You know, what you've got in your skull is about a kilogram and a half, three pounds of this gook. It's about the texture of English oatmeal -- it's slimier. And it's gray and white. And now how can this three pounds of gook in your skull, how can that have all these thoughts and feelings and anxieties and aspirations? How can all of the variety of our conscious life be produced by this squishy stuff blasting away at the synapses? A hundred billion neurons, glial cells, synapses, how does that produce consciousness? And that's typical of philosophical problems. On the one had you want to say, well, consciousness couldn't exist because, you know, how does it fit in with the physical world? On the other hand we all know it does exist, so you have to find some way to resolve that. That's a typical philosophical problem.
What do you hope to impart to your students? Once they've had John Searle, what do you want them to have taken away?

A whole lot of things. There's always the immediate objective of the course. You should understand from this course how language works, if it's a course on the philosophy of language. And you should understand the predominant theories, the dominating theories about how language works, but I'm not bashful about telling you which theories I think are right. I mean, I'll teach you the other guy's theories, but I'm not concealing from you my own opinions. When you go away from this course you should know that. You should understand the material of the course. And then you should have acquired a certain kind of disciplined practice of reading and studying in the course, of reading the articles and writing the term papers and preparing for the exams. And really, if I am successful, then you ought to be able to go and read the latest philosophy journals and read the articles and read the latest stuff on this. I mean, I tell my students that if I'm successful in the course they should, in an undergraduate course, they should be able to pass a Ph.D. qualifying exam in this course, in the philosophy of language or the philosophy of mind, which are two courses I teach.

However, having said all that, I have to say I think the most important thing that I try to convey, and the most important thing any professor can convey, is to exemplify a style of thinking and a mode of sensibility. It's what you provide an example of that is as important, and in some ways more important, than what you actually say explicitly. You convey by example what it's like to actually engage in a process of investigation and research, what it's like to formulate ideas and have them challenged by other ideas, and then deal with the conflicts of these ideas. So the style that you exemplify, the mode of sensibility you express, I think is as important as the content of the course. Now you don't want to get too self-conscious about that. You don't want to go into class thinking, well you know, today I've got to really exemplify this. You do your thing. But at the end of the semester, or even more importantly ten years later, when the student comes back to the campus, if you ask yourself what difference could I have made to these students, I think that's as important as the content of the course.

Is there something that students can do to prepare for the next millennium?

Work hard. You see, what I've found about Berkeley students in particular is that they hunger for commitment. And what they want to know from the professor is, does this material matter to you? Are you really intellectually committed to this material? And they are remarkably instinctive at spotting phonies, at spotting fake commitments or various forms of intellectual concealment. I think there's a kind of instinctive ability to spot this, and Berkeley students are looking for commitment and they hunger for intellectual commitment. And not everybody does. When I've taught at other universities, I teach at a lot of universities, and at some universities I've taught at you get students whose IQs are as high as the Berkeley students, they're just more apathetic. They just don't much care about it. They don't have the hunger for commitment. They don't have the passion that I find in my Berkeley students.
Professor Searle, thank you for taking time to be with us today and giving us a sense of the habits of critical thinking.

Thank you very much for having me.

Thank you. And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.
For the full-text of the interview, please click here.

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