Raimond Gaita on philosophical points of departure

I wish to offer a starting-point for reflection — philosophical reflection — on absolute value; not the starting point, not even a starting-point unproblematically within the subject, but a starting-point partly from outside the subject. I do not wish to prejudge the relation between reflection within the subject and reflection outside of it, although I plead for greater philosophical patience for reflection outside, and I shall try to undermine the confidence on the part of philosophers that they know what to make of it, that it is for philosophy to delineate all the serious options and that what is said outside of philosophy will, at best, speak for one or another of them. [13] …

It is common even for philosophers to complain of the thinness of much of moral philosophy (not just modern moral philosophy whose thinness is almost universally deplored). [14] …

[Bernard Williams thinks] that the subject [of philosophy] is in grave disorder and that we need an idea of how to sort it out; where to begin to sort it out. He recommends the question ‘how should one live?’ as the best point from which to begin to put order in the subject. That requires the question to be a real one for the philosopher who asks it: it does not allow one to drive a wedge between oneself as an individual human being and oneself as a philosopher. Socrates insisted that those whom he engaged in discussion speak for themselves, say what they seriously believed. He did not want them to report what others had said or what might be argued by one who thought this or one who thought that. That insistence is inseparable from the character of his question ‘how should one live?’

That does not fully answer the question whether the undesirable thinness of moral philosophy is internal to its practice as a subject. But it does suggest that it is internal to philosophical reflection on morality that it cannot insulate itself from the kind of reflection which is not recognizably professional and which does not allow for a sharp contrast between experts and laymen, masters and novices. There is, therefore, little reason to believe that the academic practice of moral philosophy has the authority to determine the best style and method of thinking on moral matters or, even, what the most serious problems are and how they should be characterized. [22]

from “The Scope of Academic Moral Philosophy,” In Good and Evil: An Absolute Conception, (MacMillan, 1991), 11-23. An essay that deserves to be read in full.


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