Over the last decade a few voices
have been raised in complaint against the direction in which academic
institutions have taken philosophy since the Middle Ages. Notable among the more recent are Richard
Shusterman, Pierre Hadot, and Martha Nussbaum.
Their voices are faint, but at least theyve made the effort. The
Parliament of Minds attempts to add a few more voices to this chorus.
The book consists of transcripts of
twenty-one television interviews conducted over six days at the Twentieth World
Congress of Philosophy in Boston in 1998 with some of the most renowned
academic philosophers of our time. Most of their names will be completely
unknown to the average reader; this is in fact one of the points the book is
trying to make. But the complaint, that
the public doesnt know its philosophers, makes the editors seem as though
theyre attempting to blame the consumers (the public) for the shortcomings
of the producers (academic
philosophers) in offering a product that is useless and unappealing.
Each chapter is a transcript of the
original dialogue between interviewer Michael Malone and a guest
philosopher. Malone asks open-ended
questions about a variety of issues and the philosophers respond to them in
fairly brief passages. Chapters are
titled both with the philosopher/interviewee name and with what the editors
believe to be the central focus of the discussion. The titles include Democracy, Ethics, and the Relevance of
Philosophy, Trumping Cynicism with
Imagination, Aristotle in the
Workplace, Islam and the Philosophy
of Hope, The Science of Gender
Issues, The Anatomy of Beauty,
and The Passing of Philosophical
Fads. But these titles arent meant to
suggest that the contents of a chapter are exclusively devoted to some one
particular issue, as they would be if they were the titles of written
pieces. They merely reflect what the
editors found to be the highlight of each relatively free-ranging
Ironically, while the editors want
to convey the message that there is something lacking in academic philosophy,
every one of the philosophers interviewed for this book is actually an academic philosopher. It seems like the producers of the television series didnt
bother to look for any philosophers operating independently of academic
institutions. Perhaps they couldnt
find any at the Boston conference.
While the Introduction has a
section titled The Value of
Philosophy, and there are lots of vague references throughout the book to the
fact that philosophy is useful and important in everyday life (there is even a section titled A Call to Action), there are no concrete
explanations of how, where, or when philosophy becomes a practice. Its just more of the same old theorizing
and wishful thinking. And, of course
not surprisingly, none of these philosophers make any mention of philosophical
counseling which has seen philosophy put into practice since 1981.
University of Chicago professor
Martha Nussbaums comments are representative of the typical attitude exhibited
by the philosophers interviewed for this book.
She seems to imply that when shes philosophizing with her writing shes
You know what I have to contribute
is a fairly abstract level of reflection that has to be responsive to practice,
but the idea would be to provide a rich conception of the foundation of some
basic political principles of human well-being that can guide public policy. .
. I hope that I will be able to write well enough and vividly enough that
someone gets interested in it and that it means something to them, so that
people of these many different sorts will then be influenced by it and take it
up and do with it something that I myself couldnt possibly do, because Im not
a politician (38-9).
The argument that each of the
philosophers in this book makes in some form or another is that philosophy can
be very useful, but only to the one studying it. For example, George Washington University professor Peter Caws
tells the interviewer, To do
philosophy, youve really got to do the work yourself. Youve got to do it in an interior kind of
way. Youve got to do it reflectively,
and youve got to take time for it. To
which the interviewer responds, Yes,
philosophers Ive talked to, almost to a person, have said that the centerpiece
of philosophy is reflection and meditation on these important questions (198).
Missing in these interviews is the original conception of philosophy
articulated by the likes of Epicurus and Seneca which was that philosophy is
not merely a solitary occupation but that it is, and ought to be, a cooperative
venture in which one person (the
philosopher) helps another to think things through, and to deal with real life
problems and issues. Later, University
of South Caroline assistant professor Michael Halberstam tells the
interviewer, I do think the impulse to
do philosophy is very different from the impulse to do something practical in
the world. I think one of the things
that might be said about philosophy is that it doesnt have any concrete
application or use. Philosophy is
precisely that which is not
practical (italics in original, 270).
Unfortunately, this goes contrary to the claim made by the editors in
their Introduction: that the
philosophers in this volume find philosophy useful and practical.
Despite its pronounced academic
undercurrents, I dont want to give the impression that this is not an
interesting book. For readers who have
never taken a philosophy course these interviews will be enlightening, entertaining,
and certainly revealing both in terms of the various philosophical reasoning
styles exhibited by these contemporary philosophers and in terms of the
insights offered into their personalities.
But readers with a solid background in academic philosophy will find
these chapters typical of media interviews in that they are entertaining
opinions rather than the carefully structured arguments found in written
Interestingly, the philosophers
being interviewed for this book are not the only ones who have something
profound to say. The interviewer
himself, trained only in undergraduate philosophy, is often every bit as
insightful with his questions and comments as his guests. For example, regarding alternative stuff
and the many self-help books that are being published Malone observes, Bookstores are full of philosophy, but not
being written by philosophers
(207). Its a sad comment
indeed, but it accurately reflects what is wrong with academic philosophy.
This book is easy and pleasant to
read. Its a rare collection of the
heart-felt thoughts of relaxed philosophers presented in ordinary spoken
© 2002 Peter B. Raabe
Peter B. Raabe
teaches philosophy and has a private practice in philosophical counseling in
North Vancouver, Canada. He is the author of the book Philosophical
Counseling: Theory and Practice (Praeger, 2001).