by Simon Smith
It is, perhaps, in the nature of modern academia for fields of study to continually divide and subdivide into increasingly narrow areas of specialisation, though it does seem a mite peculiar. Specialisation in the sciences is, of course, perfectly proper. Given that the classification of things into things-of-a-certain-kind is not prefigured in or by the things themselves, the process is, in principle at least, an indefinite one. There can be no single level of classification – or system of classification, for that matter – which can be designated as the ultimate, final, or real one. Any limits we encounter mark the limits of our tools and our interests, not of our world nor, nota bene, our abilities. Otherwise put, there is, as someone once said, always so much to know in this old world.
One might fairly suppose that philosophy doesn’t quite work like that. One might even think that philosophy is meant to offer an insight into the very nature of existence, into being (whatever that means), the fundamental nature of things or experience. Something like that, anyway.
Consider, for example, the Metaphysics of Science: a divisional heading which manages to be overly specific while still remaining altogether nebulous. Not that there’s anything wrong with attempting to articulate, explicitly, the metaphysics which underpins scientific thought, although it might help to specify which science, in particular, we’re talking about. There are so many of them these days and there are sure to be differences. Nevertheless, digging beneath the surface of a scientist’s professed beliefs to get to the chewy metaphysics underneath seems like a perfectly useful occupation. But the whole point of metaphysics is to grapple with the nature of reality or being per se. To do metaphysics is to attempt to draw the biggest possible picture of existence, to say “this – this, is what reality is really like beneath all the maps and diagrams and descriptions and discourses. This is IT.” Whether we really can peak beneath the maps and diagrams is a moot point, of course. Whether any one particular way of mapping and describing the universe can have it’s own particular peak beneath the maps, its very own “big picture”, is, perhaps, not. If metaphysics is a meaningful pursuit – granted the size of that “if” – then surely its findings will apply to all actual and possible ways of looking at the universe. If, on the other hand, we are isolating different metaphysics-es, different types of fundamental reality, then perhaps we ought to give up using the term “metaphysics”; or at least have the decency to quarantine it within ironic scare-quotes.
Under the circumstances, one might be forgiven for thinking that all the subdivisions and specialisations of academic philosophy seem rather redundant; the sort of thing an increasingly desperate discipline might resort to in order to demonstrate its relevance and importance long after its expiration date.
Any such supposition would, however, be entirely unwarranted, a baseless calumny of the worst kind, in fact. If there is a whiff of sour milk or mouldy cheese lingering about the hallowed halls of academic philosophy, it is, I am certain, to be laid at the feet of the practitioners rather than the practice.
Ethics is particularly active in this area, however. The subdivisions, that is, not the whiff. At least, not just the whiff. One hardly need turn one’s back and ethics to start subdividing like an amoeba at an orgy.
Once upon a time, it all seemed quite simple. There was talk about right and wrong and there was talk about talk about right and wrong. Then, at some point, talk about the application of right and wrong came along and that was fine too. Somewhere along this trail, I was disabused of my illusions regarding these supposedly different fields by one of the great American personalist philosophers: namely, Thomas O. Buford.
I met Tom at a conference in Nottingham, England, not long after I’d finished my D.Phil. We had a mutual friend in my supervisor, Charles Conti, and Tom was gracious enough to show an interest in what the last doctoral student of his old friend was up to. I was, I told him, teaching Applied Ethics at the University of Southampton. Somewhat bemused, Tom laid a kindly hand upon my shoulder and asked, “what kind of ethics is it that isn’t applied?” Well, that put the tin hat on it. Obviously, I realised, any attempt to make sense of how we conduct our relations with others must, somewhere along the line, have its point of application. Without that, why bother? Rules in theory, abstracted from actual practice, aren’t worth the penguin they’re written on.
Just how much of the West’s ethical cannon will find itself blowing out its back end in the face of such fearfully stringent criteria, let the reader judge for him or herself.
Despite the evident sense of this, fragmentation and specialisation continues unabated. In addition to Applied Ethics, my own list of teaching includes Business Ethics, Personal and Professional Ethics (no, I’m not entirely sure what the difference is either), and Ethics and the Computer. All these courses, I taught at the same time and with very little difference between them. The context was (occasionally, fractionally) different; the reasoning was not. Surprisingly, whether one is in the bedroom or the boardroom, the basic questions never change.
The bedroom? Oh yes. I once had to deliver a lecture on sex and ethics. It was, I suppose, very much as awful as you would imagine lecturing on sex and ethics to sixty first-year undergraduates would be, only rather worse.
And as that particular memory of ghastly mortification sinks, bubbling and gurgling, below the black and glistening surface of the mind, I find myself in need of a quiet lie down in a darkened room where I can shudder and shiver in peace. We shall return to the matter in hand once the mechanisms of an emotionally repressive upbringing have done their work.
……Dear God! The hand gestures! I’d forgotten about the hand gestures!