Making Philosophy Relevant

12 03 2009

fig3Where, 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some kind of divine status amongst contemporary philosophers, who draw upon their wisdom as though it weren’t centuries out of date.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, 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.




13 responses

23 03 2009
Relevance and the fulfilled life « Irresistible (Dis)Grace

[…] 2009 I was reading Ockham’s Beard the other day…that site is like what I would like philosophy to be if I were a philosopher…and anyway, I was reading his review of Clive Hamilton’s […]

30 03 2009
The Case for Secular Morality « Ockham’s Beard

[…] Philosophy should branch into pure philosophy, which continues as it is today debating meanings and definitions, with no pretension for practical matters; and applied philosophy, which uses the tools of pure philosophy to deal with real world issues, such as developing secular morality. […]

5 04 2009
Matthew H

Tim, you say:

…the vast majority of contemporary analytic philosophy is pointless, and the vast majority of contemporary continental philosophy is meaningless.

Regarding continental philosophy I tend to agree with you. Even when I have made my best effort to be charitable, I have found continental philosophy to be obscure and incoherent. As such I have trouble taking it seriously as an area of intellectual inquiry. Of course this could just reflect my own ignorance or prejudice and, noting this possibility, I tolerate the existence of continental philosophy in the academic arena despite my pessimistic evaluation of it.

However while I think you are right about continental philosophy, I think you are wrong about analytic philosophy. I reject your suggestion that most analytic philosophy is pointless. But before I explain why I reject this I should clarify your use of the word ‘pointless’.

Given the context, I posit that there are two plausible interpretations of what you mean by ‘pointless’. First, you may mean ‘pointless with respect to current social standards of what has value or use’; meaning roughly that most analytic philosophy does not instrumentally contribute to the ends that society currently endorses.

Second, you could mean ‘pointless by some objective standards’; meaning roughly that some things are intrinsically valuable or useful, and that most analytic philosophy does not instrumentally contribute to the things that are of intrinsic value.

Regarding the former interpretation of ‘pointless’, I have three points to make. First, at least some analytic philosophy has been instrumentally useful by society’s standards. For example, society seems to value computers and many developments in computing have utilized work done by analytic philosophers on formal logic and it’s applications to natural language. Second, philosophy, like much of the hard sciences, is a discipline where it is hard to predict what research programs will have useful practical applications. When Maxwell was working out his differential equations in the 1850’s he did not have practical applications in mind and yet electrical technologies could not exist without his discovery. Similarly, when philosophers in the 50’s were working on relevance logics, it was an esoteric philosophical problem that motivated their work and yet this work has had practical applications in computer science. Thus it seems instrumentally useful for society to support esoteric intellectual inquiry even if it is unknown whether this work will have practical applications. Third, we may reasonably wonder whether the things that society currently values are really worthwhile. For example, perhaps society currently values material prosperity; but should material prosperity really be a fundamental value? These kinds of questions are philosophical questions and hence philosophy serves the important purpose of questioning our decisions about what to value.

The other interpretation of ‘pointless’ was ‘pointless by some objective standards’. But if this is what you mean then you are relying on several controversial philosophical assumptions. For the question of what (if any) things have intrinsic value or usefulness, is difficult and controversial. Most influential discussions of this question have come from philosophers and most people will agree that this questions is fundamentally a philosophical question, even if other disciplines can contribute to answering it. In any case, if this is what you meant by ‘pointless’ then you need to be more specific about what the intrinsically valuable things are that you claim most analytic philosophy fails to contribute to. For example perhaps you count truth as intrinsically valuable. If so then I would reject your claim that analytic philosophy is useless on the grounds that most analytic philosophy contributes to the goal of building a true theory of the world.

5 04 2009
Tim Dean

Brilliant Matthew! And I agree with pretty much everything you have to say.

Granted, I was making a somewhat hyperbolic dig at analytic philosophy (given I’m in the analytic school myself), but… allow me to offer some counterpoints in the spirit of friendly argument. I’ll try to restrict myself to sweeping unsupported claims:

GE Moore derailed discussions of how to live a good life to steer us down a meandering track to nowhere arguing over the definition of the good. But he begs the question – he assumes there is an axiomatic definition of the good. And I think it won’t be long before we acknowledge that the naturalistic fallacy isn’t a fallacy (which makes it a naturalistic fallacy fallacy…) and we can get on with the hard work of figuring out how to live a good life.

Philosophy of mind
Chalmers (and others) derailed useful enquiry in to the nature of the mind with his Hard Problem. Now talk of zombies – entertaining as it is – keeps us from learning how to cope with the fact that consciousness is but a slippery illusion.

Internalism/externalism. Realism/anti-realism. Knowledge-that/knowledge-how. Free will/incompatibilism. All these issues are non-problems that rest on faulty assumptions that themselves are the product of unreliable introspection and over-abstraction.

Wittgenstein drew a line in the sand on thinking, but that line was mired in language as a starting point rather than tool of discourse. Cute, but I don’t think it ‘solved’ the problems he was hoping it would. And we’re still talking about stuff on which Wittgenstein thought we should be silent.


Ultimately, I think the process of analytic philosophy – conceptual analysis, logic, pushing definitions to their limits, exploring presuppositions and implications to their limits etc – are all incredibly valuable. And all the above do that. (So, yes, it’s not pointless in that sense.)

Hence, let pure philosophers continue to debate such matters and develop the tools to do so. But let’s not expect of them answers, less still practical insights. Let legions of applied philosophers work to those ends. But where are those legions?

6 04 2009
Matthew H

That seems like a reasonable clarification to me. Continuing the spirit of friendly argument here are replies to your points:

Metaethics – I think that questions about the meanings of our moral predicates are important philosophical questions (In fact, I am about to start work on a paper that defends a particular analysis of moral rightness and makes use of semantic theories that seem to explain why moral predicates have been difficult to analyse).

If by ‘axiomatic definition’ you mean Moore’s claim that ‘goodness’ is sui generis then I would suggest that Moore did not beg the question here because he offered an argument to support this claim – namely the open question argument.

I think there has been a consensus in metaethics now for a while that the open question argument (and hence the naturalistic fallacy) is not a good argument. However, this does not demonstrate any major flaw in analytic philosophy. Sure Moore advanced a bad argument that was influential for many years, but when philosophers finally worked out what was wrong with the argument it gradually lost its influence. Furthermore there is nothing particularly remarkable or insidious about Moore’s advocacy of this argument. Given the flawed semantic theory he was working with, the open question argument seems quite reasonable.

Philosophy of Mind – I don’t see how Chalmers ‘hard problem’ has derailed useful inquiry into the nature of the mind. I think Chalmers would acknowledge that looking for NCC’s is useful scientific work; it’s just that he thinks it leaves substantive issue about consciousness unresolved.

Your claim that consciousness is an illusion is disputed by many philosophers. You may well be right, but I think you are being disingenuous when you imply that those who reject your conclusion on the basis of sophisticated philosophical arguments are doing pointless philosophy.

Metaphysics – I’ve never heard of a metaphysical distinction that goes by the name internalism/externalism (but these terms are used to make different distinctions in semantics, epistemology and metaethics). I’m unsure which realism/anti-realism debate you are referring to (there are many). I don’t understand what you find untenable in the know-how/know-that distinction (do you want to claim that there is no such distinction but introspection leads us to falsely make one?) Ditto for freewill/compatiblism.

Language – Maybe you are right about Wittgenstein’s later work being unhelpful philosophy. Certainly some of the fanaticism of his followers has been unhelpful. But there has been much important work done in the philosophy of language since Wittgenstein (eg. Kripke).

6 04 2009
Matthew H

The idea of more applied philosophy sounds ok, but what exactly do you mean by ‘applied philosophy’?

17 04 2009
Tim Dean

I think applied philosophy could mean a few things, and could be used a few ways.

First, however, we need to leave pure philosophy as is. Let pure philosophers pursue whatever issues they wish without bound. But one of the jobs of applied philosophers is to use the tools developed by pure philosophers and apply them to real world problems.

Example might be examining the language and terminology used in certain real world discourses, such as medicine or law. However, this wouldn’t be done in philosophical journals – the main stomping ground of pure philosophy – but in reports, essays, newspaper articles or directly into the ears of business and political decision makers and the general public.

Applied philosophers should be the ones these people turn to in order to find clarity and advice on real world issues.

Now, I know this kind of stuff already goes on, but not much. And it’s not the fault of politicians or judges that they’re not engaging with philosophers. It’s the fault of the philosophers. We need to get out there and make ourselves useful if we want philosophy to have a use.

The second major stream – as I mention in this post – is synthesis. It’s really a straight forward concept of having a bunch of people who specialise in generalising. They span disciplines, find common threads, and differences of terminology or definition and try to spread the lessons of one discipline to the others. It amazes me that this isn’t be done already as a major academic endeavour.

18 04 2009
Matthew H

Tim, I like your proposal very much. Here is a business started by a philosopher that might be an example of what you have in mind –

14 09 2010
A Proposal for a Philosophical Community « Ethical Realism

[…] rather than wise, but even more Americans know nothing of philosophy at all. People can’t ridicule philosophy when they haven’t even heard anything about it. Philosophers are now hidden away at the […]

1 02 2013

Excellent piece!

9 04 2013

Reblogged this on The Spirit of Pragmatism and commented:
I’ve been thinking about this same sort of thing lately. This version of the problem is well articulated.

9 04 2013

Sound analysis. The disconnect between undergraduate and graduate philosophy classes has always puzzled me and speaks to the issues you raise. As an undergrad, I was introduced to these ‘big questions’ that captivated me and made me wonder ‘why doesn’t everybody think these questions are relevant?’ When I got to grad school, however, I was told that philosophers had ‘dissolved’ these questions and offered ‘deflationary’ accounts of all of the phenomena that interested me. Once the rug has been pulled out, what’s the point?

9 01 2014
The Challenge of Making the Humanities Relevant | Human, All-Too-Human

[…] It’s no secret that the humanities are suffering a bit of an image problem. Word on the street is that the humanities do little more than to train future baristas. Mind you, these remarks aren’t limited to those outside the humanities. My primary school history teacher once remarked that a history degree is only good if you want to go to law school, teach history or appear on the History Channel—and this was before the advent of slightly unhistorical, but extremely popular, shows like Ancient Aliens or Pawn Stars. My religious studies professor recently wondered if theologians—especially those who engaged in a holistic and critical analysis of sacred text—were becoming a dying breed. Philosophy isn’t doing much better either. Tim Dean of the University of New South Wales writes: […]

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