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by Michael Tobias, J. Patrick Fitzgerald, and David Rothenberg (editors)
SUNY Press, 1999
Review by Peter B. Raabe Ph.D. on Jun 10th 2002

A Parliament of Minds

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 they’ve 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 doesn’t know its philosophers, makes the editors seem as though they’re 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 aren’t 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 interview.   

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 didn’t bother to look for any philosophers operating independently of academic institutions.  Perhaps they couldn’t 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.  It’s 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 Nussbaum’s comments are representative of the typical attitude exhibited by the philosophers interviewed for this book.  She seems to imply that when she’s philosophizing with her writing she’s practicing philosophy. 

“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 couldn’t possibly do, because I’m 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, you’ve really got to do the work yourself.  You’ve got to do it in an interior kind of way.  You’ve got to do it reflectively, and you’ve got to take time for it.”  To which the interviewer responds,  “Yes, philosophers I’ve 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 doesn’t 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 don’t 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 works.  

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).  It’s a sad comment indeed, but it accurately reflects what is wrong with academic philosophy.

This book is easy and pleasant to read.  It’s a rare collection of the heart-felt thoughts of relaxed philosophers presented in ordinary spoken English.


© 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).