Philosophy has some fresh wind in its sails these days. People who have grown numb to religion still retain the feeling that there must be something deeper within themselves and in the hurly-burly of life. And so they turn to the new keepers of wisdom: the academic philosophers.

Arguably the most popular vehicle of philosophy today is “The Stone,” a series of columns on philosophical themes published on the website of the New York Times. These columns routinely receive hundreds of comments. No one has contributed more pieces to “The Stone” than Gary Gutting, who holds an endowed chair of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. What Philosophy Can Do is a collection of short essays that Gutting has culled and developed from his offerings in the New York Times. These cover a wide swath of topics, including God, free will, art, education, consciousness, happiness, and the limits of science. 

Philosophy is the love of, and search for, wisdom—as opposed to knowledge. One of the richest bits of wisdom served up in this perspicuous book appears in the first chapter: Gutting calls it the “principle of charity.” Learning how to talk with people with whom we vehemently disagree is becoming harder all the time, as social media builds and strengthens our ideological echo chambers. Gutting has some sagacious advice: we need to heed “the injunction to develop our arguments in light of the best version of our opponent’s position. Here ‘best’ means the most plausible or defensible—at a minimum, a version that doesn’t assume that our opponents are intellectually or morally bankrupt.”

Of course, giving your opponent her best argument requires the emotional capacity to tolerate kilowatts of what the psychologist Leon Festinger famously termed “cognitive dissonance.” Festinger contended that being compelled to entertain ideas that conflict with strongly held beliefs induces anxiety. The stronger the conviction, the more likely we are to reject out of hand any argument that might threaten it. Or, to put it another way, the stronger the belief, the harder it will be to practice Gutting’s important “principal of charity.”

Moving from the methodological to the substantive, there is currently a churning industry of psychological research on happiness. Gutting summarizes some of these studies and then raises an eyebrow: “Even if empirical investigation could uncover the full range of possible conceptions of happiness, there would still remain the question of which conception(s) we ought to try to achieve. Here we have a question of value rather than fact: what is good to aim for, regardless of what anyone does in fact aim for.” And that, Gutting reminds us, is a question for philosophy, not psychology.

Gutting ponders some fascinating experiments undertaken by the neuroscientists Patrick Haggard and Benjamin Libet, using EEG technology. The upshot of these studies is that while we frequently feel as though we are making a choice, the feeling is a mirage. At least in an experimental setting, the findings demonstrate that by the time we are thinking about doing either x or y, we have already begun doing one or the other. One can cavil about the technique and conclusions; nevertheless, the experiment conjures up doubts about free will. But here, too, Gutting makes a distinction: “scientific observations might show that a brain event caused a choice. But whether the choice was free requires knowing the meaning of freedom.” According to Gutting, that is a kind of knowledge that lab experiments can never provide. Of course, the researchers themselves might counter that such questions are unanswerable, or that academic philosophers do not have the key to unlock this and other questions of meaning.

Some of Gutting’s most impassioned reflections spiral around the problem of whether we can sink to our knees and pray with the blessing of reason. Nietzsche rang the death knell of God—or of faith in God—and while Nietzsche’s announcement may still seem premature in the United States, it is not hard to find a free pew at an Easter service in Copenhagen. Many cleave to the conviction that we should never adhere to a belief for which we have no reason. Gutting examines the arguments of the so-called New Atheists, a cadre of nonbelievers who insist there is no more reason to believe in Jesus than in St. Nick. The Kierkegaard who held that faith involved a collision with what we understand might have said that the New Atheists have a point. Gutting, in contrast, is relentless in his effort to reveal grounds for dismissing the dismissals of faith.


IN THE BOOK'S most challenging pages, the author defends a sophisticated version of the ancient argument that there cannot be an endless series of causes, that there must be something necessary at the foundation of this cosmos of contingency. Gutting’s conclusion: Deny God’s existence if you will, but don’t imagine that believers are devoid of respectable reasons!

In Plato’s time, the main strife was between mythos and logos, story and reason. On almost every other page, Gutting has philosophy either grappling or dancing with science. I am not sure how much this would rankle empiricists, but more than once Gutting wags a finger at every Doubting Thomas, reminding us that “science itself is incapable of establishing that all truths about the world are discoverable by its methods.” There is no empirical basis for believing that empiricism alone provides access to the truth. Put another way, there is nothing you could see that would prove that you should only believe what you can see.

In the end, Gutting comes back to the general question suggested by his book’s title. Having already provided an array of object lessons, he asserts that philosophy is the practice of “intellectual maintenance,” where maintenance is understood as “responding to objections to our convictions” and “clarifying what our convictions logically entail.”

It sometimes seems as though Gutting believes that life is an argument. Yet in this otherwise open-minded text, there is not much room for disagreement about what might count as an argument. Thinkers like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, who wrote that “the truth is a mobile army of metaphors,” would say that there is more to the wisdom philosophers seek than lining up the P’s and Q’s of a syllogism or integrating our everyday experience with a scientific picture of life, which Gutting takes to be another chore for philosophy.

Still, the problems that Gutting addresses in this book are not merely academic. They are problems all of us think about, or should. What Philosophy Can Do is bumper-to-bumper with useful examples and is written in a jargon-free style that should be accessible to all thoughtful readers. For commuters and others too busy to sign up for a class, this volume could easily serve as a course in the strange but august set of perennial questions that philosophy tries to address.

Gordon Marino is professor of philosophy and director of the Hong/Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College. His most recent book is The Existentialist’s Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age (HarperOne).

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Published in the May 20, 2016 issue: View Contents
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