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How philosophy is and isn’t like Las Vegas — especially now

World Philosophy Day (November 16) usually passes without my notice, even though I am a member of the UNLV philosophy department. (I feel sheepish about saying, “I’m a philosopher,” but I suppose this makes me one.) This year, however, having been asked for some reflections on the day, I will consider
a recent popular piece by philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett entitled “Philosophy as the Las Vegas of Rational Inquiry.”

While I appreciate some of what Dennett’s analogy suggests — that philosophy, like our city, is open and challenges assumptions and conventions — there is a simple reading of Dennett’s idea (a reading he flirts with himself) that involves caricatures of both philosophy and Las Vegas. This reading relates the two by thinking of both primarily in terms of recklessness. They are viewed as places where “anything goes,” with the suggestion that, as with Las Vegas, it’s a good thing that “what happens in philosophy stays in philosophy.” Of course, to those of us who live here, Las Vegas isn’t about recklessness or merely trivial, purely recreational activity. Philosophy isn’t about this, either. It is sometimes mistaken as a storehouse of crazy ideas or wise sayings. But philosophy is not so much a body of knowledge buried in old texts as it is an activity, a way of approaching issues, embedded in a living discipline.

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The openness of philosophy does come out in the questions it is willing to ask and attempt to answer — the nature of goodness, the possibility of knowledge, the basis of mental activity, the limits of existence. But one can do philosophy on almost any topic. This is in part because good philosophy is far from an “anything goes” pursuit with respect to method. Reasoning and rationality are paramount, and, as a result, so are carefulness, skepticism toward comforting or convenient explanations, and rigorous critical analysis of arguments. It was these aspects of philosophy that I emphasized to my students the day after last month’s shooting, as shock and confusion cracked open doors to ungrounded speculation. And when our city responded so quickly, with such grace and generosity, I thought of a different way that philosophy is like Las Vegas. As our community offered a model for responding to tragedy, philosophy, in the demands of its methods, offers a model for inquiry in general. It is more than just a playroom for rational inquiry.

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