Talbot Brewer / Philosophy

Chemistry professors need expensive laboratories to run their experiments. Archaeologists have to get themselves to exotic archaeological sites. Astronomers need fancy telescopes and physicists need particle accelerators. Psychologists need rats and other creatures gullible enough to permit their behavior to be observed on affordable terms. Philosophers are different. All we need to ply our trade, it might seem, is a clear head, a quiet place and a couple of books. So it was not easy for me to come up with a philosophically productive proposal for spending the Mead Endowment’s funds. But then I recalled some- thing else that can be highly conducive to philosophical reflection: good company and lively conversation. For instance, the timeless discussion of love in Plato’s “Symposium” took place among friends who had a vivid personal interest in the topic, and who were able to linger over their conversation all night while nourishing them on a rather sumptuous feast.

On the theory that philosophy lives in conversation and withers in isolation, I propose a contemporary symposium. I have spent the summer thinking (mostly, I regret to say, in isolation) and writing about the nature and value of human friendship. I propose to invite a group of philosophically serious and enthusiastic undergraduates, graduate students and professors from various disciplines to read excerpts of influential philosophical writings on friendship, then to gather together and linger over a meal in a convivial setting while engaging, without any set time limit, in a discussion of the nature and value of friendship. We might focus, for instance, upon the curious question why exactly we regard friends as impossible to replace, given that we seem to love them for their character traits and any set of traits could in principle be manifest by others. We might also explore the question whether and how the history of a relationship can transform and, in the best of circumstances, lend depth and resonance to cur- rent activities – placing “a sharp,” in Kierkegaard’s words, “on the note of the present.” Finally, we might explore the relation of friendship to other central human values, perhaps by considering how one ought to respond to a friend who asks for help in carrying out or covering up a clearly immoral scheme.

By engaging in this somewhat risky experiment, we might hope to remind ourselves that philosophy concerns some of the most important aspects of our lives and that it does not leave our lives unchanged but ripples outward and alters the aspect of everything it touches. We might also remind ourselves that philosophical reflection is a way of life upon which we might at any time embark; and that, while the effects of philosophy are perhaps not as clear and tangible as those produced in chemistry labs or particle accelerators, it is a central and necessary part of any thriving academical village.