Watch Out for Philosophy!

As a philosopher, I find it a little embarrassing that the only two direct Bible references to my discipline are sort of negative.
First, there’s Colossians 2:8: “Be careful that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit based on human tradition, based on the elemental forces of the world, and not based on Christ.” And then there’s Paul’s encounter with the curious but critical “Epicurean and Stoic philosophers” on Mars Hill in Acts 17.
Having recently attended an American Philosophical Association annual meeting in Minneapolis, I have renewed appreciation for the caution expressed in those two passages. I heard some strange things there.
I remember, in particular, a session on transsexuality and then one on speciesism. In the former, two male philosophy professors, one from Los Angeles, the other from Toronto, were dressed as women. One looked a little like Phoebe on Friends; the other was closer to Maude. Both were determined to not be trapped in “cisgendered” roles, conforming to society’s expectations on these matters. The consensus in that room was that anyone who would write a paragraph as insensitive as this one was transgressive.
In the second session, as we discussed the paper on “speciesism” (i.e., counting humans as special), I mentioned the absurd PETA ad which compared Thanksgiving turkeys to Auschwitz Jews, under the heading, “Holocaust on a Plate.” Problem was, several in the room thought the ad was spot on. One was the prof chairing the session. He flashed his credentials by reporting that he’d lost several relatives in the death camps. Nevertheless, he was on board with PETA’s campaign to equate his exterminated aunt or uncle with a holiday Butterball (and ‘philosophy’ means “love of wisdom”?).
But there were bright spots. In the Society of Christian Philosophers meeting (Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing), Alvin Plantinga, retired from teaching at Calvin and Notre Dame, took on a prof who was a little too keen on Schleiermacher. Hearing that this 19th-century theologian boiled religion down to “God consciousness” and a “sense of dependence,” Plantinga retorted that you could say the same thing about the experience of air. Sweet.
The next day, I heard a fine paper by Laura Garcia of Boston College at the Maritain Society meeting. In a piece on “The Importance of Natural Theology,” she pushed back, amiably but seriously, against Reformed epistemology, with her friend, Reformed epistemologist Alvin Plantinga, in the room. Good stuff.
So there were lows and highs, blights and insights – the same as in any discipline.
And just in case the sociologists, psychologists, biologists, economists, physicists, etc. are tending to feel smug that Paul didn’t mention them in his Colossians warning, let me remind them that their fields fell under philosophy in those days before more-or-less-scientific quantification. That’s why we get Ph.D.s, doctorates of philosophy, in chemistry, linguistics, and such.
So yes, let all us academics “be careful” – but not terrified. On the Areopagus, Paul quoted a Stoic and then gave better than he got.  So can we. If, as philosopher Williams James put it, philosophy is “an uncommonly stubborn attempt to think clearly,” we can do that with the best of them.

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