I don’t usually read The Stone, the New York Times philosophy blog. The topics are a bit trendy for my tastes, and the contributors’ voices tend to be coy and journalistic, rather than bold and declarative, as a confident philosopher’s voice ought to be. Still, when Litkicks friend Nardo tipped me off to Colin McGinn’s recent The Stone/Opinionator post Philosophy By Another Name I took a look, and liked what I read.
McGinn, a professor at the University of Miami, points out that the word “philosophy” fails to capture its essence in several ways. It translates as “lover of wisdom”, but a great philosopher may not be in specific pursuit of wisdom, and may also not love wisdom (if he or she uncovers painful truths, for instance, he or she may hate wisdom, as valuable as it may be). McGinn suggests the word “ontics” as a modern replacement, pointing out that the discipline may gain respectability from the linguistic vicinity to “physics”.
I agree with Colin McGinn that we can often improve our discourse by inventing words — it’s something I tend to do myself. Words are free. Why don’t we design new ones more often? If our brains are as lively as they ought to be, we should be thinking wildly original thoughts on a regular basis, and churning out at least dozens of new words a year (hopefully not primarily text message acronyms or nicknames for celebrity couples) to encapsulate them. I think Colin McGinn is right that coining new words can help us think more clearly about philosophy, and I’m all for coining away.
However, I can’t favor McGinn’s suggested coinage, the blunt, diminutive “ontics”, and I think “philosophy” works so well on the aesthetic level that it really doesn’t need to be replaced at all. Rather, “philosophy” is a masterpiece of a word, one of the best ones we’ve got. Its double roots indicate classical depth — how many other words can boast such perfect etymological symmetry? As a ten-letter, four-syllable word, “philosophy” feels slow and languid enough to evoke a long thinking session on a hammock or tree stump, and yet it vocalizes with a pleasing jerky rhythm that matches the awkward quickness of the practice itself. Yeah, this is a word we ought to keep.
(I also regret Colin McGinn’s retreat into banal humor within this article — “Committee to Rename Academic Philosophy” — this is exactly the kind of cute touch that makes me generally avoid the New York Times philosophy blog. I wonder if one of the blog editors demanded the insertion of that poor joke, which does not serve the article well at all.)
I have had my own struggle with the word “philosophy”, not because I don’t love it but because I do. I have always seen philosophy as made up of three areas of inquiry: metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. And it’s no secret to anyone who reads this blog that I have virtually no interest in metaphysics (I would not waste a minute of my precious life wondering whether or not the world is real), and a healthy but limited interest in epistemology (I do want to know what “truth” is, but I think William James has fairly well settled the case, and I’m mainly interested in the question for its practical importance and don’t really enjoy endless circular dialogues about the matter.)
But I have been fascinated with ethics — the question of how best to live, and how best to love my fellow humans — my entire life. It was to answer my burning ethical questions that I sought a Philosophy degree in college years ago, and I’ve never stopped exploring these questions, nor have I ever had the slightest sense that the pursuit is a waste of time. All my favorite philosophers from Plato to Buddha to Jesus to Rousseau to Kierkegaard to Kant to Nietzsche to James to Sartre are ethicists, and many of my favorite philosophers to disagree with, from Aristotle to John Stuart Mill to Karl Marx to Ayn Rand, are ethicists as well.
But what a dull word “ethics” is! If only the word had more music to it, you’d be reading “Ethics Weekend” instead of “Philosophy Weekend” right now. But it doesn’t, and you’re not. We have a right to invent new words, but we also have a right to stick with words we love, even when they are inexact. “Philosophy Weekend” makes it sound like we’re having fun here, and that’s the kind of impression I want to create. I hope it works.