Some of us who have attempted to get and keep this blog going were invited by Donn Weinholtz to submit brief articles to the online journal "Quaker Higher Education" (www.earlham.edu/~fahe/, select "Publications") on our experience of last year's Philosopher's Roundtable at the annual meetings of the Friends Association of Higher Education. With Donn's permission and encouragement, I am posting my contribution here (and encouraging my fellow contributers to do also) in the hopes of both promoting the Roundtable for this coming year, and engendering further discussion on the blog.
Philoi sophias (Friends of wisdom): Quakerism and the vocation to philosophy
As a lifelong Friend, and a philosopher by inclination and profession, and one who has long had, moreover, a sense that my Quakerism has been an integral, formative (if often tacit) influence upon the fact and the manner of my philosophizing, I find myself - at this awkward moment of mid-life crisis (taking stock of what I have done so far, and what is left to me to do, God willing, for the next quarter of a century) - seeking to more deliberately understand the relationship between my confession and my profession. I have, for a few years now, been moving into a stage where I am increasingly understanding myself and my calling to be that of a “Quaker philosopher” - without knowing quite what that would mean, and without a community of other Quakers in philosophy with whom to work this out. Imagine my delight, then, when - as the pleasantest of interruptions to my largely solitary musings - I was invited by Laura Rediehs to participate in a “philosophers’ roundtable” at FAHE. After forty(-six) years in the wilderness, was I crossing the Jordan at long last?
And a delight it was, as we scurried to expand the circle to accommodate a surprising number of Quakers teaching and otherwise engaged in philosophy, and others with sufficient interest in the philosophical enterprise to show up too. But even as we were introducing ourselves the question arose as to whether we think of ourselves as “Quaker philosophers”, or, alternatively, “Quakers who are also philosophers,” and while we had little time to explore this, my suspicion is that we would have been far from unanimous in our approaches to the question. Leave it to philosophers to fret over who they are even before the introductions are complete! And yet, delving into this would, I think, teach us a lot about how we conceive of both our religious commitments and philosophy itself. I seek here, therefore, to explore this issue a little - in only a preliminary and suggestive way, granted - as a question of existential importance to myself as I attempt to carve out my post-mid-life identity, but perhaps also one with implications both for other philosophers and for those of other disciplines and professions as well, since the question might structurally reverberate with the issue as to whether we might better think ourselves Quaker psychologists, or Quaker biologists, or Quaker business(wo)men, or even Quaker prison reformers, etc., or whether it is rather a matter of our being Quakers (who happen to be, additionally, or incidentally, or tangentially) engaged in some or other vocation.
What is at stake here, and why might some of us, at least, be hesitant to claim the term “Quaker philosopher”? There are indeed reasons to be wary. First, there is the rightful fear of the arrogance of thinking oneself a (self-appointed, no less) representative of a movement, representing Quakers in the philosophical world, or speaking “as a philosopher” to one’s fellow Quakers, as if claiming this title conferred some status. And there is the related concern of whether the adjective “Quaker” attached to something like “philosopher” does not imply an official title, a formal approval from the body thereby referred to, in the manner that “Catholic theologian” means more than a Catholic who is a theologian, but a theologian vetted and approved by Catholicism. If that is the meaning, then none of us should make this claim, because “Quakerism” (even if there were an unified society who could speak for “Quakerism” per se), as a “religious” society, is not in a position to certify any “philosophy” (in the technical sense) over another (just as Quakerism would be wise not to officially advocate for one school of psychology over another, or one political party over another). Another part of the fear of adopting the title, this time more from the side of philosophy than Quakerism, is that we then become, or are perceived to become, parochial and prejudiced in our approach to philosophy, particularly troubling if there is a presupposition of neutrality in the discipline, as is clearly the case for many schools of philosophy. We is not supposed to allow our religious conclusions to function as a starting point for our philosophical reflections; rather we must first, as philosophers, examine these assertions themselves by recourse to some or other non-sectarian standards. Even for those like myself, who are convinced that the Enlightenment’s “prejudice against prejudice” (in H. G. Gadamer’s phrase) is precisely that, and who do not feel the need to philosophically exorcise the particular but to engage it, do not hope to translate this incredulity towards theoretical neutrality into an alibi for uncritical assertion. As “philosophers” we hope to proceed on an equal footing with our professional colleagues, without any claims to special access to the truth, even if we feel at liberty to proceed confessionally in our meetings.
And yet, for me at least, and perhaps for others for whom the relationship between faith and philosophizing is non-incidental, the term Quaker philosopher - if solely for the purposes of self-understanding, and not as the adoption of a title - retains a certain descriptive force. Quakerism is not simply one among a number of aspects that together define us, one that we foreground at certain times but that falls away behind the horizon when we are engaged in others, but is a root qualification, one in terms of which we have been (re)constituted as the people we are, and that therefore radically rather than incidentally affects (or even effects) all of our other engagements. The question, it seems to me, suggested by the terminological distinction in question here, is whether or not one’s Quakerism comprehensively impacts upon one’s vocation, such that the vocational activity could not be the activity that it is if the Quakerism of the practitioner were lacking. This is clearly not a claim that one must be a Quaker to engage in philosophy, or that the results achieved would be restricted to Quakers, but that our Quakerism is non-incidental to both the what and the how of our engagement in it. Philosophy is, on this model, but a specialized aspect of the more general task shared by us all: to “translate” our Quaker spirituality into our worldly activities, or “to bring our Quakerism to life.”
But what more precisely is this relationship between Quakerism and philosophy that tempts me to adopt “Quaker philosopher” as a descriptor? By this I do not mean that Quakerism becomes the focus, or the subject matter, of philosophizing (though this would not be excluded), in the manner that a “Quaker historian” (under one interpretation) studies the history of the Quakers, but without necessarily being a Quaker. Nor do I mean by this that we begin by allowing Quaker presuppositions to either govern the choice of subject matter or delimit, doctrinally or ethically, the possible outcomes of our work, for instance, that we would be attracted to and promote certain philosophers who say things that seem to us to resonate with Quaker teachings and experience, or that we would attempt to make a philosophical case for pacifism (although neither of these would be excluded either). Rather, I think it would mean something closer to taking up the task of philosophizing in a Quakerly manner, being a Quaker in our whole person even while engaged fully in the philosophical task ( while “being a whole man to” philosophy, as J. J. Gurney might put it), such that who we are cannot but thoroughgoingly affect both what we do, and how we do it. A “Quaker philosopher” here would then be one who philosophizes in a Friendly manner, rather than one who is identified with a particular disciplinary focus. Quakerism here would qualify our philosophizing adverbially.
Without pretending to, or seeking any, status official or otherwise thereby, with I hope seemly humility, and while welcoming dissent, for myself the term “Quaker philosopher” (over against the “less integrated” Quaker who is a philosopher) signals a vocation in philosophy motivated and framed by commitments that are self-consciously Quaker, or, again, deliberately engaging in philosophy in a Quakerly manner, such that philosophizing itself becomes a way in which we expresses the love of God and neighbor that our Quakerism (in its various forms and diverse articulations) is itself an attempt to faithfully embody. Or, to adopt and adapt a phrase from the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, a Quaker philosopher recognizes that before it is the love of wisdom, philosophy is “the wisdom of love in the service of love,” and the Quaker philosopher (on the model I am suggesting here) brings the Quaker sensibilities that frame his or her approach to philosophy into his or her vocation as its very heart.