A few years ago, I went to a lecture in Claremont (that’s in California) to see Peter Singer. If you don’t know who Peter Singer is (there’s a fairly good chance you don’t), just remember this: Peter Singer is the philosopher who is best known for people thinking that he’s totally into eugenics.
I’m not sure if that’s what Peter Singer’s philosophy is about, and really, it’s not important that he is. You see, I know I saw Peter Singer speak. But for the life of me, I literally have no memory of what he wad talking about.
And that’s the problem with philosophy. Nobody ever remembers what philosophers talk about. Sure, we all know that philosophers talk about complex stuff and about life and whatnot, but do we really remember anything specific about what they say?
I remember lots of things about things that I’ve done: I remember sticking a pair of tweezers in an electrical socket when I was a kid. I remember the first DVD I ever bought (Caddyshack), and I remember shaking former president Clinton’s hand at a political rally. I remember having a conversation years ago with a guy who remembered the time when he and his girlfriend met the dude from nine inch nails and that his girlfriend totally said to the dude’s face that he was shorter than she expected.
I remember all that, but not what Peter Singer said.
Mind you, I was there. I can even name the people who I was with, and what we did afterwards. But I just can’t remember that lecture.
When I was in high school, I went with a friend to see The Cure in concert. Even though I spent the entire show standing next to two individuals who I can only assume were on the executive board of NORML, I remember the opening act (The Cranes), how much the female lead singer’s voice irritated me, what Robert Smith wore, and that The Cure played the song “Wish” on the encore. I remember there were thousands of people there to see the concert that night. If I had to guess how many people were at that Peter Singer lecture, I’d say the crowd topped out at (maybe) 50 people. I’m not saying that Peter Singer sucks or anything (I guess I would if I believed that he’s totally into eugenics), but philosophy lectures aren’t exactly rock concerts. People aren’t very enthusiastic about seeing philosophers because unless you’re a fan, you won’t hear anything you’ll remember years later
Obviously this has to change. The philosopher Colin McGinn proposes that philosophy undergo a name change. McGinn writes:
“I have a bold proposal: Let us drop the name “philosophy” for the discipline so-called and replace it with a new one. The present name is obsolete, misleading and harmful — long past its expiration date.”
I don’t know if a name change is going to solve the problem. We can call philosophy “hot steamy sex with your left toe”, but so long as philosophers continue to say things that are un-memorable a semantic switcheroo won’t help.
Until we figure out what to do, philosophy is doomed.
I recommend backup dancers and flashpots.
- Colin McGinn. “Philosophy by Another Name”. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/04/philosophy-by-another-name/