Teaching Plato in Palestine: Philosophy in a Divided World, by Carlos Fraenkel(Princeton University Press), $27.95/£19.95
Perhaps it is a cyclical thing: Anglophone philosophers appear agitated once more by the question of what role, if any, philosophy has to play in the public square. Carlos Fraenkel’s new book contributes to this discussion. Whether its message and tone will resonate with the reader will, I suspect, depend in part on whether that reader shares at least some of the author’s peculiar experiences and perspectives.
By perspective I do not mean Fraenkel’s overall thesis, which is that we can reach better clarity and coherence regarding our views and their conceptual underpinnings if we debate with one another spiritedly, yet in a manner that meets the most stringent intellectual standards. (Fraenkel, in a nod to Plato and Aristotle, describes this as a dialectical quest for truth.) This I take to be an uncontroversial stance even among those philosophers who otherwise express scepticism when it comes to philosophy’s odds of ever changing the world.
Fraenkel’s particular point of view – and it is very particular indeed – emerges instead from the experiences he shares in his book, on the one hand, and the specific philosophical expertise that he brings to the table, on the other. As regards the first point, Fraenkel paints a picture of an itinerant philosopher eager to engage the intellectually restless segment in disparate societies (Palestinian and Indonesian Muslims, Lubavitcher New Yorkers, relatively privileged Brazilians and undeniably hard-done-by Canadian Mohawks) in a discussion of various hot-button issues – ethics, politics, and religion. ‘Corrupting the youth’, one might call it: and although Fraenkel would doubtless prefer to trace his lineage to Socrates as depicted by Plato, an equally apt analogy might be the working life of the late 5th-century BCE sophist.
More intriguing yet is the toolkit that Fraenkel brings to his encounters. Fraenkel’s academic specialisation lies in the early history of Western philosophy (Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin). Rather than introduce his discussion partners to deconstruction or discourse theory, therefore, or even modern analytical ethics and political philosophy, Fraenkel’s point of reference comes from an almost impossibly distant past: Plato and Aristotle, al-Ghazālī and Moses Maimonides. Nietzsche is about as far as Fraenkel is willing to venture, and then principally as a caution against the nihilistic bent of post-metaphysical modernity.
The resulting picture of what kinds of questions philosophers ask, and what kinds of answers they are liable to give, will seem quaint to most working Anglophone philosophers, who are unlikely to recognise themselves in this picture. At the same time, there is something almost refreshing about a self-professedly secular philosopher so guilelessly asking big, big questions about God, the foundations of morality, the call to an examined life, etc., and earnestly enjoining his discussion partners to invite, say, al-Ghazālī into their lives.
I am fundamentally sympathetic to Fraenkel’s project. I myself mine the exact same set of historical materials in the public outreach that I do. (An alternative version of this review would consist of nothing but insider quibbles about what al-Ghazālī really said, or what Plato really meant.) So it is worth pointing out that when Fraenkel quotes al-Ghazālī and Maimonides, this gives him traction with precisely the kind of audience he himself engages – the critical yet pious Muslim, the thoughtful yet restless Orthodox Jew. Thus, even though Fraenkel’s own examples for a ‘culture of debate’ seem oddly weighted in favour of issues such as whether faith is rational and whether all men are born equal, I take it that we may abstract from his own preoccupations to a more generalised penchant for applying philosophical tools to current concerns. Habermas could be invited to Fraenkel’s party, then, or Rawls, or Bernard Williams, or Nussbaum and Sen.
It must be said that Fraenkel’s discussion of the necessarily situated nature of each of our thinking is not the book’s strongest point. While I heartily agree that we all come from somewhere and question within existing traditions (every philosopher who ever claimed to make a fresh start was certainly pretending), surely a better word to describe this situatedness could be found than ‘critical ethnocentrism’. The latter term denotes an entirely unwelcome tribalism, making Fraenkel’s ‘philosophy’ manifest as a free-floating entity over an ineluctably ‘divided world’. This picture is neither accurate nor particularly helpful.
Nor do I think it is what Fraenkel wants to say. Fraenkel offers a bold answer to the question of what philosophy has to offer to the non-philosopher. Philosophy is important not because the corporate world needs sharper analysts; not because it exposes myths and emancipates slaves; not because it draws us closer to God. Rather, we, each and every one of us, should philosophise so that we might become more deeply enmeshed in our friends and neighbours’ individual quests for truth. This is an inviting vision.