21 January 1997
I said I would write in response to your letter and your 'Idea Soup'...The thing about the Philosophical Society Diploma is that it can be anything you want to make it. Gaining the Associateship and Fellowship would be relatively easy for you, but not the main aim. Rather, while you think about possible ways of approaching your PhD, you can be producing philosophical work and receiving high quality feedback....
You may be interested to know that at present we have two PhD students doing the Associate Diploma. One is researching into artificial intelligence and speech recognition at Queen's Belfast, the other — a Police Inspector with the Cumbria Constabulary — is looking into 'manpower organisation analysis' at Lancaster, with a view to applying the results of his research to his work in human resource management. A few days ago I received an enquiry from a woman who is doing her PhD thesis in the philosophy of sport.
As you might have guessed from the Philosophical Society and Pathways materials, I am very sympathetic to your ideas. Is there a PhD thesis there? — There is one question I keep getting asked by students and anyone who hears what I do, an aggravating, seemingly thoughtless, distracting question: 'What is philosophy?' In reply, one gives the 'party line'. (As Ortega y Gasset notes in his short, brilliant book The Origin of Philosophy, 'philo sophos' is a political label, like 'social democrat', originally intended more to hide what the activity of philosophy was about than reveal it.) Yet, it seems to me, that attempting to give an honest answer to that question — perhaps no philosopher has really answered it honestly, that is to say without a personal or 'political' axe to grind — would be a worthwhile project indeed.
You will almost certainly have come across Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, where he argues the case for a broader, 'edifying' philosophy — something like a cross between American pragmatism and the Continental hermeneutic tradition. A book you should look at which is rather closer to your concerns is Ben-Ami Scharfstein The Philosophers: Their Lives and the Nature of Their Thought (Blackwell 1980) which does exactly what it says in the title — going into quite intimate details, in fact.
The shocking proposition that one has to take on board is that behind our impressive facade of 'professionalism' we do not really have any idea what we do. Is there a core there, a Lockean 'real essence' of philosophy? I am tempted to look for it in the so-called 'perennial problems'. But the idea of a 'perennial' problem is itself fraught with difficulties. In fact, so much of the philosopher's 'search for problems' is determined by imitation (of present luminaries or past 'greats'), the changing whims of fashion — not to mention the competition to chase grant money and second-guess the reactions of journal editors.
However, the idea of real essence is important in reminding us that sometimes there is a single peg standing behind a multiplicity of ideas, where all things that concern you or you want to talk about fit neatly in place — all 'flowing' from a central concept. What I am trying to say is that the major part of your endeavour at this moment is to find that peg: in effect proving, or backing up your intuitions, that you do have a 'thesis' there. (The obvious move of selecting one strand from the 'idea soup' and concentrating on that to the exclusion of the others would be a mistake at this stage.)
I would be good to have you involved with the Diploma and/or Pathways. It is not often I encounter someone who voices concerns so close to my own heart!