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A contemporary protreptic.

Among the ancients, the protreptic was an important philosophical genre. An exhoratation to the study of philosophy, it ofered a persuasive presentation of the distinctive advantages of philosophical wisdom. The ancient protreptics were based on the idea that the philosopher had knowledge that was supremely valuable. Among the fragments of Aristotle's Protreptic, for example, is the claim that "the statesman must have certain landmarks from nature and truth itself by reference to which he will judge what is just, what is good, and what is expedient.... Nobody, however, who has not practiced philosophy and learning truth is able to do this."

The closest we contemporary philosophers come to protreptic is typically in our course descriptions and in brochures on majors programs. Here our rhetoric is scarecely as confident as Aristotle's. Rather than promising access to a body of established deep truth, we typeically speak of honing logical and linguistic skills or, at best, developing a personal world view. In most cases, it is hard to see how we are offering anything more than a combination oa an LSAT prep course an a self-help manual.

Many would urge that the paltriness of our promises reflects a retreat from the robust truth claims of classical philosophy. Whether through analytic doubts about metaphysical speculation or through Continental suspicions of metanarratives, contemporary philosophy has little nerve for claiming to purvey a substantive body of humanly significant truth. Natural scientists can confidently inform students of what atomic physics or organic chemistry have to say on a given topic. But I would be simply lying if I proclaimed that philosophy-as opposed to individual philosophers - says that something is so.

Even in the most golden days of antiquity, however, disagreements among philosophers were a byword. A philosopher could always bedefined, following the old witticism, as one who contradicts other philosophers. When we remember this, the heary rhetoric of the classical protreptics rings hollow. There has never been an established body of philosophical knowledge that could provide "certain landmarks from nature and truth itself."

But it does not follow that philosophy has no objective cultural weight. The effort to construct a contemporary protreptic should start from our shared convictions that some instances of philosophizing are cognitively superior to others - more rigorous, more sensitive, more penetrating-and that superior philosophical perspectives significantly advance human self-understanding. Neither of these convictions requires dubious claims to have established a permanent body of knowledge. What they do require is an explication of a sense of philosophical understanding that lies between the absolute knowledge of the faded classical ideal and the paltry promises of our course descriptions.

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Title Annotation:promoting the study of philosophy
Publication:American Philosophical Quarterly
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jul 1, 1995
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