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July 20, 2003


by John Clay, editor-in-chief

Bhag's five sections—philosophy, visual art, literary art, life journal, and public journal—draw varying quantities of submissions. Philosophy stands out, though, as the section with the fewest posts. This has been true since the launch of the magazine in January 2001. Is it a problem? Well, there certainly are bigger problems in the world. Still, it's worth taking a moment to think about. Why do bhag's writers, including myself and the other editors, usually choose to publish in other sections? And why do bhag's editors sometimes steer submissions for bhag philosophy into other sections instead?

One likely cause of low submissions to bhag philosophy is correctable: confusion. It is possible that writers are uncertain about bhag's intentions for the philosophy section. What kinds of writing belong there? If confusion about the section is one cause of low submissions, it can be corrected by fuller explanation and greater clarity from bhag.

Another likely cause is natural and need not be corrected: specialization. Philosophical writing is a specialized kind of writing that not everyone does. And even those who do it probably don't do it all the time.

And now we can get to the good part: Clearing away the confusion by explaining the specialized kind of writing the philosophy section was created to hold. This should be understood as bhag's definition of philosophy. Proposals for other definitions would be welcome in themselves as submissions to bhag. But before anyone can recommend an opposing definition, they will need to know what definition they are opposing.

For the purposes of bhag, philosophy is a mechanic shop for ideas and beliefs. The idea here is that ideas and beliefs are tools or machines we use for thinking and living, just like a car is a machine for getting from one place to another or a quantum computer made of a single fluorocarbon molecule is a machine for performing calculations. Cars and computers didn't appear out of nowhere. Countless persons were engaged in countless inquiries and experiments leading up to their appearance, and the same is true of every idea even though, as we say on bhag's home page, "we generally don't even know we're doing it". And once the first car or computer was a recognizable entity, that wasn't the end of the line of research and development and production. Again, the same is true of ideas. People build up ideas over time, in response to evolving needs and goals. The refinements, innovations, and revolutions never end.

Once we recognize ideas as something people make and use for their living, we can clear away the cult of intellectual elitism and mystery that sometimes clouds philosophy. Ideas aren't for elites. We all make and use ideas all the time. Ideas work well or work poorly. People use them in ways that are effective or ineffective. Sometimes persons or businesses or governments even intentionally misuse ideas or beliefs, as propaganda, to mislead others about their intentions. And old ideas can sometimes be replaced by new ideas that work better. That's why the mechanic shop is a pretty good analogy for philosophy. Old ideas that have been running for a long time but seem now to be spewing too much smoke into the air can be brought in for a tune-up.

Here is one example of a topic for an essay in philosophy: If you think that the belief in an absolute truth is being used by individuals or businesses or governments to justify taking action without the consent of others ("There is no point voting on it since we already know it is the right thing to do", they might say), then you can write about that. You can give examples from life and books and the news, explain why you think action without consent is a problem, explain how it is that the belief in absolute truth is contributing to the problem, and suggest a way the belief could be reformed or suggest an alternate belief that could fulfill the same needs but without causing the same damage. Is it possible the alternate belief might cause some new problems of its own? If so, go ahead and mention the possible problems and, if you still feel like it would be better than the old idea, tell us that and tell us why.

Here is another example: Have you ever gone into a storage cupboard and pulled out a utensil or tool that you can't quite figure out? Sometimes it makes sense to look at an idea and consider what we really mean by it, figure out what it's for. Relatively new ideas that people are just starting to use certainly need consideration—like "quantum weirdness". But so do the old ideas we are so accustomed to that we use them without even thinking—like "freedom". A philosophical essay can be an exploration of all the ways we use a word or phrase and all the meanings that seem to be behind it. Sometimes this kind of exploration will reveal contradictory meanings for one and the same word or phrase—what we thought was one and the same idea. In this case, an essay could explore the possibility of integrating the different meanings so that they work together without contradiction or explain why, in the opinion of the writer, integration is not necessary.

This final remark is intended to give further clarification. If it seems like it is having the opposite effect, then just ignore it! Here goes: One thing to remember is that philosophy is about exploring, defining, refining, and reworking ideas. Ideas underpin everything we do—and the key word here is underpin. Some problems and solutions might not belong in bhag philosophy. In bhag public journal, you might write an essay proposing a change in political policies or management procedures to make life better. In bhag life journal or even bhag literary art you might write about working through a personal dilemma and finding a solution to it. These writings would belong in bhag philosophy only if the solution focuses on the examination, clarification, or reworking of an idea that underpins the policy or procedure or dilemma. If you argue that a new management policy would be better because it would reduce a company's labor costs, then the essay probably belongs in bhag public journal. If, on the other hand, you argue that a new management policy would be better because it takes an old idea of the meaning of management, maybe one based on a misguided concept of what labor is for, and replaces this with a new definition of labor and management which ties in with other important moral beliefs about people and work, then the essay probably belongs in bhag philosophy.

I hope this helps clarify what the bhag philosophy section is all about. And as I said above, if someone wishes to publish an alternative or opposing definition of philosophy, they are welcome to submit it to bhag.

© 2003 John Clay

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