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pathways (guide)

CAN PHILOSOPHY BE TAUGHT? (5)

So what? What does that prove?

It's all history now. Along came Pathways and my life changed forever. I still have my WEA classes. This term, we are studying Roger Scruton's An Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy.

It's been three years since I last had a genuinely new philosophical idea. I am too busy now playing the role of the mentor, the philosophical critic, to have much time to do any philosophy for myself. Yet in this fallow period, I have discovered something. If not an answer, it is a reason for hope.

Philosophy, I have discovered, is all about dialogue, the dialogue that seeks to build a bridge between one subjectivity, one 'I exist' and another. In the paper I gave at the 1998 Shap Conference, entitled 'The Ethics of Dialogue', I talked about the possibility of human dialogue as the central question of moral philosophy. Yet there is something more that I am only now beginning to discern, something that the very attempt to teach philosophy at a distance has made apparent. What so amazes me is the very fact that wherever my students happen to be in the globe, we are able to meet.

You can do philosophy in solitude, as Descartes amply demonstrated. You can carry on a lively dialogue with yourself. Yet in soliloquy one vital ingredient of the philosophical enterprise is missing. For all our best attempts to communicate, philosophical vision is always something essentially idiosyncratic, peculiar to each and every individual. Perhaps because philosophy is so much a struggle with language, or against language, you always seem to see more than you can say.

In philosophical dialogue, we can never get completely clear about our disagreements and differences, because we never get to the point of being about to state what precisely it is that each of us believes, or the difference between our respective standpoints. There is always more, in the background, that one struggles to articulate. Yet in the search for a meeting point, something new is created that is neither yours nor mine — something neither of us could have created by our own unaided efforts — the dialogue itself as it takes on an independent life of its own.

The gap between what each of us sees and what we can say acquires a special significance when one of us is the teacher, the other the pupil. In the teaching dialogue, the pupil is, through trial and error, and the oft repeated retracing of steps, brought by degrees into a community of fellow inquirers founded upon dialogue. The process can be likened to one of initiation. It is the initiation into the tradition of philosophy. I would argue that teaching is the life blood of the philosophical tradition, in a way that is unique amongst all forms of human knowledge and inquiry.

Within the broad tradition that traces back to the Presocratics, the dialogue between so-called 'schools of thought' is no less relevant than the dialogue between individuals. One notable example is the way, in the mid-60's, analytic philosophers would travel to the Continent to teach their counterparts about analytical philosophy, while Continental philosophers would travel to Britain and the USA to teach English-speaking philosophers about existentialism and phenomenology. In the early days, the misunderstandings were comic. Thirty years on, talk of different 'traditions' sounds somewhat old-fashioned. The dialogue has moved on.

What is new in all this? What is there to get so excited about? Whitehead famously commented that the history of philosophy is nothing but a series of 'footnotes to Plato'. In emphasising the centrality of dialogue I am not saying anything new. To allude one last time to Plato's very useful dialogue Meno, our new discovery is merely the recollection of something we knew all along. END