In praise of philosophers and other experts

philosophers

I haven’t much time for the anti-expert sentiment that came out of the referendum campaign. But the Brexiteer blogger, Pete North, has made an articulation of the case against expertise that makes sense to me. He takes issue with the the narrow economistic perspective advocated by the corporate sector and he rightly points out that other considerations are at play in Brexit:

“There seems to be a quest to seek out a perfect answer to a complex question. But there is no perfect answer because you have to hold this Brexit crystal up to the light and see the many reflections it casts. It is entirely a matter of perspective and it extends beyond the realms of economics and into the domain of identity, culture, heritage, class and a myriad of rational and irrational concerns, all of which have equal standing. So diverse are the views that there is only really one way to settle it. Democracy. Imperfect though it may be, it is at least fair.”

Much as I agree with the sentiments expressed, this doesn’t amount to a convincing case against expertise. Rather, it underlines that what we take to be expertise in public debate is much too narrow.

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The consolations of manual work

mechanic.jpg

Book review: The Case for Working with Your Hands, by Matthew Crawford

There’s an old joke about a banker whose plumber charged him £250 for a two-minute job to fix a leaking tap.  “I don’t earn that kind of money in the City!” the banker told the plumber.  “Yeah!” replied the plumber, “I didn’t either.  That’s why I switched to plumbing.”

The joke spoke to a pervading anxiety that the financial rewards of white collar work may be meagre compensation for the costs it exacts.  Now, along comes Matthew Crawford to rub salt in the wound with his thesis that the manual trades may also be more intrinsically rewarding.

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Theory and practice in living well

Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’

As part of my continuance professional development as a coach, I try to immerse myself in the psychological perspectives that inform the profession.  But recently I’ve turned as much to philosophical and social theory to make sense of the challenges that people face in their lives.  So it was with some interest that I found Julian Baggini writing in The Guardian this week on the contribution philosophy can make to helping us live well.

Baggini was reviewing a new series of books – called The Art of Living – which aims to give the general reader an overview of philosophical insights into our age.  He finds that the books’ authors have interesting and thought-provoking things to say about such subjects as illness, hunger or even fashion.  But they tend to reach conclusions that others commonly reach without recourse to the likes of Aristotle or Heidegger.

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Never to get lost is not to live

Loch Lomond, Scotland

Book review: A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit writes non-fiction as if it were a work of poetry. A Field Guide to Getting Lost is part cultural history, part philosophy: a meditation on loss and being lost.

The meaning of these experiences – the familiar falling away and the unfamiliar appearing – is different today than it was in the past.  19th century travellers thought nothing of being off course for days at a time; for us, anxiety sets in within minutes of losing our way.  People had the skills to navigate the natural landscape and with this came a sense of optimism about their ability to find their way and survive.  Today,  even those who walk in the wilderness lack this familiarity with the landscape and rely on mobile phones to get them out of trouble.

For Rebecca Solnit, to live this way is to miss something of the very essence of life: “Never to get lost is not to live.”  Indeed, her theme is less the hazards of getting lost and more a hymn to losing oneself – the life of discovery that comes with living with uncertainty.

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