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Wednesday 26 September 2012

Tales from Academia (2): Philosophy or Thinking Too Much?

I've been accused in the past of thinking too much, something that I'd always just dismissed. It can't be right, surely, for someone to think too much about something, indeed, it's more likely the case that most people simply don't think enough about things. At least, this is what I always told myself and to a certain extent that might be correct (that most people don't think enough), but it doesn't exclude the possibility that I or other people could be thinking too much. So, I waited to be corrected.

Then along came this conference notice.

Yes, that's right, the philosophy of running. At first one might think that these particular philosophers have just been 'spinning the wheel' particularly hard. You could imagine an almost infinite variety of 'philosophy and ...' conferences, papers, and books. Indeed, why not? Philosophy should be about the entirety of human life, including its banalities; hobbies, pastimes, activities included. Surely philosophy has something to say about sport generally, so why not running in specific?

A friend, a medical doctor and keen runner, who was with me at the time I received the email, said in response to the question What is philosophically distinctive about running? That there is nothing distinctive, why indeed ask the question at all? Just run.

I don't assume for a moment that he is discounting any form of thought about one's running practice; what route one takes, one's gear, when to run, and so on. However, what he's taking exception to is the amount of thought that a philosophical investigation into running must entail. Simply, you're wasting your time. You're over-thinking.

Now, part of me shares this intuition, but then I also rail against the destructive 'common sense' attitude. This is because this attitude also tells us that art can only be entertainment and not educational, something that I want to discuss in a future post (indeed, I've been meaning to for a while now). At any rate, we might find that this distinction between valuing the work of philosophy and a common sense attitude that disregards unnecessary intellectualism is one based in our own aesthetic valuing of the activities or what have you. Art, for example, is philosophically a worthwhile subject of study/further thought, whereas running may not be. Sport is a valuable area of study, the Twilight series is not.

Is this a question of over-specification? That is, is our problematic based in (a reaction against) the current academic climate? One that positively encourages precisely these sorts of close readings and individualised attention. General questions are worthwhile because they give a wide area of study, but over specification gives a limited and potentially worthless amount of study. This seems wrong, over-generalisation would be as bad as over-specification, but how much is too much? A difficult question. Is the problem that this sort of specification (with a conference devoted to running) trivialises philosophy? In whose eyes is it belittled? Why should philosophers worry what everyone else thinks about them? More questions, without any immediate and easy answers.

On the other hand, does it simply come down to personal taste; running is a subject for philosophy, beach volleyball is not, Batman is, the X-Men is not. Asking why this is, is to ask the basis for our aesthetic judgements at all, and whether they are social or psychological, rational or intuitive.

Have a look at this website,, and you will find many other examples of 'philosophy and', check for yourself which you think are worthwhile and which not. It might be interesting to question your own intuitions at this point.

I must admit that when I see an email notification of a new title, 'Family Guy and Philosophy' for example, my first response is typically embellished with colourful swearing and immediate dismissal. Is that simply because my taste, or to put it another way, my 'common sense attitude' of what constitutes philosophy (or simply a worthwhile intellectual discussion) is set against this series, because it's not as if Blackwell aren't noted for publishing some of the most interesting philosophy books (they are). Perhaps my problem here lies in something that the series editor (William Irvin) states, he tells us that "philosophy is everywhere." I would answer that, no it's not and for good reasons as well. Philosophy is not the philosophical life. Philosophy is an academic discipline that approaches things in a certain manner. The philosophical life IS everything, because it is life.

What conclusions can we draw from all this? Is it appropriate to have a conference about the philosophy of running, or publish books about various TV shows and philosophy? My own answer is that academic philosophy should not 'be everywhere' and should chose its battles (philosophy loves combat based metaphorical descriptions) and battlefields a trifle more carefully. We should think and think philosophically, about those things that matter to us in our own lives, but it isn't the place of academics to detail every moment in their meticulous manner, the basis for the judgements seems worthwhile, the specifics not so much.