Where, once, philosophers were respected members of society, offering counsel to world leaders and shaping the tone of public discourse, these days we’re not even ridiculed, we’re just dismissed as irrelevant. As a philosopher, the natural question for me to ask is: why? And my sad conclusion is: because of the desperately sorry state of philosophy today.
I say with all sincerity, and no small amount of regret, that the vast majority of contemporary analytic philosophy is pointless, and the vast majority of contemporary continental philosophy is meaningless.
The former has devolved over the past century to squabbling over the minutiae of desperately overextended abstractions and the meanings of meanings. It has looked inward and become shockingly recursive and has failed to look outwards and engage with the real world. One example is how ethics changed with G.E Moore’s 1903 Principia Ethica, which shifted the tack of the topic from ‘what is the good life’, to ‘what is the meaning of good’. And in one fell swoop did ethics detach itself from the world at large.
Meanwhile continental philosophy has devolved into an elitist club of word-wranglers who are so wrapped up in their own postmodern and poststructural mumbo-jumbo of hermeneutics and semiotics that they, too, are unable to engage with the real world.
And both branches are so laden with jargon so as to be nigh unintelligible to any but devoted practitioners. The great danger with this – a danger that might also be threatening quantum physics today – is that in order to engage in the debate at all, one must be so immersed in the frame of reference, the jargon, and perspective of the day that it becomes virtually impossible to break free and offer any genuine alternatives.
But that’s not to say no-one’s making progress on the big questions. One need only wander a decent book store (such as one that even has a philosophy section) to see who is trying to understand the world and make contributions to improving it.
In the philosophy section you’ll find two thirds of the books are written authors long dead. Yet they still maintain some kind of divine status amongst contemporary philosophers, who draw upon their wisdom as though it weren’t centuries out of date. The remaining third will be compendiums of dead, by nearly dead, authors, or reimaginings of a long passed author in view of a different long passed author – not much help if they’ve all based their philosophies on obsolete assumptions about the world.
Compare this to the science shelves. Here you’ll find a bounty of books authored by individuals who, for the most part, are still very much alive and kicking. You’ll find dozens of books revealing the strange and wonderful nature of the world; a job that used to belong to the philosopher. I don’t begrudge science taking over this pursuit, but I do resent philosophy not paying attention to the revelations made by its younger cousin. One need only review the way psychology has changed in the last century to see that virtually any speculation about the way we think made before 1900, or even 2000, was bound to build on some fundamentally faulty assumptions. One example is the shocking unreliability of introspection – a popular tool in many a philosopher’s kit.
When it comes to the big questions: what is reality; what is life; do we have free will; what is consciousness; what happens after death etc, science is tackling them head on – and making good headway, according to a recent article in New Scientist magazine – compared to contemporary philosophy, which is still stuck on the ground floor debating terms.
This is not to say that philosophy is without value. In fact, I’d suggest philosophy is not only important, but it’s essential to a healthy society. I just think the vast majority of contemporary philosophy doesn’t even try to contribute to a healthy society. And that might be because an entire discipline of philosophy has been neglected for far too long.
For example, we have pure mathematics, but we also have applied mathematics. The former explores the unbounded reaches of numbers, developing new methods and new tools, without regard for application to the real world. The latter takes those tools and puts them to work in physics, economics, statistics, engineering, meteorology and much more.
But we only seem to have pure philosophy. Where is the applied philosophy? Sure, we have a few scattered journals and societies for applied philosophy, mainly concerned with ethical issues. But these only make up a tangential sliver of philosophy, and it certainly doesn’t direct philosophical enquiry.
What we need is a full and thriving branch of philosophy that draws upon the tools of pure philosophy and pointedly applies them to the world. There should be just as many applied philosophers – if not more – than their pure brethren.
And they should speak loudly, and be heard.
Then there’s the further issue that in the modern world – unlike the world of the Enlightenment, where our liberal education tradition was born – no one person can have more than a passing acquaintance with more than one academic discipline. The last of the polymaths, such as Isaac Asimov, have passed from this world and are unlikely to return. Even Karl Kruszelnicki – wonderful though he is – doesn’t possess the depth and breadth of knowledge of Asimov.
What concerns me about this is there are surely many revelations from one discipline that are relevant to many others. Yet, despite all the talk of ‘interdisciplinary’ work (talk that has proven distressingly hollow when it comes to my own experiences in academia), there is very little emphasis on digesting the discoveries made by one discipline and sharing them with others.
Yet this seems to be the perfect job for philosophers. I call it synthesis.
The idea is to create a new discipline – a meta-discipline – the task of which is to find the common threads in all other disciplines and tie them together into one broad interconnected tapestry. Synthesists would look for commonalities, as well as incompatibilities and contradictions. They would inform new research by opening up new avenues of thinking about existing topics given discoveries in new areas. They would draw big picture conclusions on broad topics like climate change, genetic engineering or the future of humanity. They could advise on issues such as the cause of the current global financial crisis in terms of economics, but also psychology, game theory, anthropology and ethics. They do this not by being experts in every field, but by collaborating with experts in every field.
Synthesists would be advisors to politicians, business leaders, social organisations. They would form committees, societies and schools to promote the interconnected nature of the world and encourage it’s comprehension and appreciation. I’ve established an embryonic website for anyone interested in this idea at http://synthphil.org, and I welcome all expressions of interest or contributions.
In this increasingly complex world, can we afford not to have synthesists?
Philosophy is relevant. Philosophers just need to make it so.