“Modern Philosophy”—as often practiced?
Welcome to the ninth post in my series on Vital Philosophy.
The mood of this post is a bit more modest, mellow, and melancholy.
Rather than write things in a style that might imply a systemic problem, “on average,” in the emphases of institutionalized academic philosophy—albeit with notable exceptions, of course—I will speculate about some tendencies and characteristics that seem, to me, to weave in and out of substantial chunks of academic philosophy, the way it seems to often be practiced. Another way of putting this is that these are tendencies that, if we aren’t careful, can (and in my view do) diminish philosophy’s ability to have a substantial, timely, positive impact on the real world—i.e., that real world out there that we don’t yet “know” but do hopefully love!
So here goes, stated in terms of tendencies and paradigms that we should be aware of and watch out for, so they don’t diminish philosophy’s potentially positive potency.
(You can think of these as characteristics, states, attitudes, or tendencies that influence, sometimes permeate, and often constrain the effectiveness of philosophy.)
- “Philosophy” as an extreme example of individualism and even self-centeredness. In a world that seems to be calling out for more cooperation and applied wisdom, philosophy as practiced can sometimes become more of a stubborn and heated intellectual competition in the perpetual quest for “truth” in which one person must try to convince others, and either succeed or not succeed—either win or lose—in the bargain. It may seem as though many philosophers claim to love wisdom, but instead exclusively pursue “truth”.
- “Philosophy” as game-playing. Sometimes philosophy can seem like or actually become game-playing. One might as well be playing chess or Monopoly. It can become alienated from—or alienate itself from—the real world. Obscurantism and overdone intricacy are characterizations that sometimes apply.
- “Philosophy” as a narrow, exclusive and closed-in community. The gated community. The echo chamber. And so forth. Academic philosophy might become, and perhaps already is, the consummate example of professionalization, specialties, and divisions of labor.
- “Philosophy” as unintended but effective deference to the world, to the status quo, and to science and technology. Intellectually speaking, philosophers don’t like to defer to anything, and we probably don’t think we do. But practically speaking, in effect, we do. Mainly, many academic philosophers publish papers and attend conferences that don’t gain substantial traction in terms of having an impact on the main mechanisms and gears of society, and that often don’t even aim to gain such traction. Also, there is a common sentiment that treats philosophy as consolation. In a disturbed and foolish human world, we can sneak away and invite philosophy to console us. To be clear, to console is one of philosophy’s roles, but hopefully not the main one.
To the degree that some or all of these tendencies are “more active than they ought to be,” academic philosophy undermines its own relevance and credibility. It puts itself on a track heading towards irrelevance.
(Of course, these are matters of degree, and there are important exceptions. But I think we should be aware of these tendencies and where they might lead to.)
Philosophers should be the people least likely to buy into and submit to a narrow division of labor, especially one that is taken, in effect, to absolve specialists of their general human responsibilities. “With wisdom comes responsibility.” “Great things are expected from those to whom great wisdom is given.” And so forth.
And, philosophers should be the people least likely to confuse genuine wisdom with boatloads of knowledge or with supposed knowledge, and the least likely to confuse inaction in the face of societal harms with responsible morality.
So, what can academic philosophy do to move from being one of the least relevant (as commonly perceived) disciplines to being the most relevant in terms of actual positive impact?
Certainly, no actual individual philosophers are sleepwalking. You’re not. I’m not. She’s not. But isn’t there a sort of systemic institutionalized somnambulance that somehow constrains the profession or at least constrains the impact academic philosophy is likely to have on society, if it remains content to continue in the present mode?
With this, I’ll end this part of the series that may have become, to some, a somewhat tiresome critique. Good news: The next posts in the series will be positive, solution-oriented, and active. And, as I’ve mentioned before, I will include, near the end of the series, a key post in the spirit of philosophy, titled ‘The ground we stand on.’
Thanks for your consideration.