Life as an Extreme Sport

In Which Our Heroine Learns The World Is Not Flat

Oh Stephen Fry, this is just wrong.

Saying that philosophers don’t tell you how to live your life is… I actually have a hard time getting my head around that point of view, given that many philosophers (especially those of the applied and normative branches) do, well, just that. Is Bentham’s calculus something other than how you should like an ideal utilitarian life? What about Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, a treatise aimed at doing/becoming good, a practical application (some might argue the first in the applied ethics) rather than a meta or theoretical knowledge? (Spawned this entire field, really, called virtue ethics. Be hard to argue that virtue ethics is about anything other than how one should live one’s life.) Kant’s categorical imperatives are certainly prescriptions on how to live your life as a moral agent! (Right there we cover utilitarianism, virtue ethics, and deontology, with just three well-known philosophers. There are entire library sections devoted to the ideas each discusses on how to live.)

I can understand not being familiar with modern philosophy, even of the last 100-odd years, if it’s not your field, or your field’s kissing cousin. I am not shocked that he has no familiarity with modern virtue ethicists, casuistrists, or much of the work that’s gone on in both applied and normative ethics. But the fields themselves, as subdivisions of ethical study in philosophy, have existed for much longer; Mr. Fry appears to equate philosophy with logic, epistemology, and metaphysics, extending a sort of brief acknowledgment of metaethics (which does indeed ask more broad questions such as “what is goodness” rather than “how do I live a good life?”), and going no further.

It’s sad and frustrating, and to be frank, a bit shocking. Mr. Fry is one of the last great polymaths, and I would have thought he would know his philosophy. Discovering that I know more than him on a subject is, well, I can only imagine that it’s like finding out, for the first time, that the world isn’t flat.