Philosophy, academy, society

The notion that philosophy has produced ‘results’ or ‘solutions’ (or can or must), is a Modernist delusion, fostered in the 18th century, when it was hoped that philosophy could replace theology. It can’t; the best philosophy doesn’t try. Philosophy’s never about resolutions (in practice dependent on choices needing action within given contingencies) – it’s about options in framing those choices and their consequences; thus not only permits but makes possible variety (while discovering its limits). It’s a special practice of reasoned contemplation of problems and possibilities. It’s the questions, not the answers.

But I do think that philosophy, to maintain its current place in the academy, needs to reach beyond academic concerns.

When we think of philosophers who had major impact on the larger culture, we do not think of logicians or analysts, but of William James, John Dewey, Sartre, the later Heidegger or the later Russell (the Russell who claimed he was no longer doing philosophy!) – Philosophers capable of addressing the broad issues of lived experience, rather than narrow questions of sentence construction. The problems of sentence construction are important, but philosophy cannot be reduced to this and all else delivered to science or politics; otherwise people will not see the need for those devoted to it – they will continue to philosophize, of course, but they will do so believing that they are merely perceiving ‘the truth,’ without reflection (which is nonsense).

Think about the question of whether the West Bank lies under Israeli or Palestinian dominion? The question is political, but politics always evokes the philosophical (and for Jerusalem, religious) views embedded in collective interests.

One doesn’t need to be a professional to philosophize. I suggest philosophizing cannot be avoided. Whenever we think reflectively, philosophy appears.

The historical fact is that professional philosophy colluded in its own current marginalization. In the 19th century many believed that one true picture of reality – from physics to metaphysics – would at last reveal itself. Being true, it would no longer need argumentation, only clarification. By the 20th century, many – including many philosophers of certain schools – came to believe that the only means of revealing this truth would be through science.

Logical Positivism was essentially anti-philosophical philosophy, and attempted to defend itself within a scientistic worldview by insisting on the need for clarification through logical analysis. But the language of science is largely mathematics – buttressed by and explained in sophisticated common language requiring no better analysis than that provided by an educated journal editor. The Logical Positivists had dug a niche for themselves that most scientists didn’t see as necessary.

However, Positivists’ own anti-philosophical nature revealed itself in their dismissal of any philosophizing concerning matters not scientific – ethics, politics, aesthetics, etc. Their work not only lost relevance to the larger community, but the Positivists welcomed this. By the 1980s, when professionals in other fields of the humanities were arguing strenuously for the social importance of their studies, many Analytic inheritors of Positivism were wittily emptying what was left of the Positivist project of any content; e.g., ‘philosophy of mind? why bother when AI and neurosciences can do better?’ – the founding promise of Cognitive Science.

(We all know that philosophers in the Continental tradition dug their own niche of inscrutable esoterica; but here we’re discussing the American situation.)

Don’t miss the larger picture of the university system – enormous amounts of money are wasted on popular programs that have little use – especially in sports, and in the ‘soft’ sciences with little hope of practical result (like ‘bio-criminology’). At one college I taught at, much money went into sports, successfully attracting many students on the promise that they could begin their professional careers there, even though the college had produced precisely zero professional players. The university is a special kind of business, with entrenched interests and a convoluted set of protocols for succeeding in it.

The economic and political structure of the university requires separate consideration. Here allow that many professors believe in what they do, and all will do what they must to survive in that structure.

Nonetheless, insisting on the ‘special,’ somewhat insular nature of professional philosophy is no way to make an argument for its social importance, supportive of its academic positioning. I’m much too old and disappointed to believe that philosophy must ‘take a stand’ or pretend to offer a vision of the social future – such offers have proven empty time and again, and occasionally, even dangerous. But that doesn’t mean philosophy cannot address concerns of the larger community. Indeed, it should. It should speak to us critically and analytically, not about our sentences, but about our significations. Not only about how we signify, but, more importantly, about what we take to be significant.

The public intellectual – whether psychologist, political theorist, scientist, etc. – is engaged in philosophy, no matter how he or she might disclaim otherwise. Philosophers, to attract greater support, must also step out from the university and become public intellectuals.

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3 thoughts on “Philosophy, academy, society

  1. I think Schopenhauer had a point. What I cannot understand is why so many people think that philosophy cannot produce results. I feel that this pessimism is one of the tunes played by the paymasters, not a result of dispassionate analysis. We are complaining about professional philosophy but accepting its attitudes and conclusions, which seems an unproductive thing to do.

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    • It’s not a matter of pessimism, PeterJ, it’s a question of what constitutes best practice in philosophy. Many philosophers have tried to reach final conclusions, and some of these efforts have been truly spectacular, eg, the Summas of Aquinas. But ultimately, philosophies best practice is in inquiry – even the proposed conclusions are mere bi-products of the real thinking that of the questions.

      All thinking’s explicit effect is in actions and their pre-disposing decisions. What philosophy does is provide the pre-dispositions. But differing pre-dispositions can have equally successful results – one reason conflicting philosophical conclusions can be maintained by in debate for centuries.

      But I see no problem with this – that’s the point. Differing philosophies don’t need to reach conclusion – they only need to ask the interesting questions.

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