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Does Philosophy Get Out of Date?

Mary Midgley says philosophy is about understanding the context and about understanding how we came to be where we are.

I started to wonder about this topic some time back when rumours reached me that, in some universities, no philosophy was being taught except what had been published in the last twenty years. These rumours were hard to check and clearly practice is very variable. It seems cars have been seen in the States with bumper-stickers bearing the message, ‘Just Say No To History of Philosophy’. And Gilbert Harman at Princeton had a notice to that effect outside his office door. It also emerges that the term ‘History of Philosophy’ has changed its meaning. It is now being used to describe all study of older writers, not just study with a historical angle. So Harman’s idea is that you shouldn’t read them at all and should certainly not take them seriously. At Cambridge, a student recently told a friend of mine that he had spent his whole undergraduate career without reading a word of Aristotle, Descartes or Kant. At this, (said my informant) “my heart sank.”

Well, so does mine. But we need to ask just why our hearts sink, and we should ask too what the people who make these changes are aiming at? Wondering about this, I remembered some things that happened in the Thatcher years, when cuts first began to threaten universities. Administrators, sternly told to economize, saw that the quickest way to do it was simply to close small departments. This would also enable them to harmonize with the mystique of ‘centres of excellence’ which was then in fashion. These centres were supposed to be big schools in which the study of a given subject would be so well covered that no other departments elsewhere would be needed at all. Thus, ideally, all the physics could be done at Manchester, all the economics at LSE, and all the philosophy (if any was still needed) at Oxford.

Since philosophy departments were usually small, universities did indeed start to close them. Eight of them in Britain went in the end. As one after another vanished, it struck me that nobody was saying that this ought not to happen. Nobody was suggesting that the subject was important in itself – that universities needed to teach it, that, if they stopped doing so they would become, in some sense, hardly universities at all. Fired by this thought I wrote to a number of the eminent philosophers of the time saying, in effect, “Do something! Write to The Times (which was what one did in those days). Let people know that this is important.’’

Nothing much came of this, but one of the replies that came back still strikes me as significant. I didn’t keep it because it made me so cross, but I remember perfectly well what it said. It came from that very distinguished Oxford philosopher Michael Dummett, and he told me flatly that it was wrong in principle to try to preserve all these provincial academic departments. Philosophy, he said, was a serious and highly technical subject which should only be studied at its own proper level. Any less professional approaches to it were useless and might even do harm. And what Dummett meant by the proper level is clear from a well-known passage in his writings where he said that “the proper object of philosophy” had only been finally established with the rise of “the modern logical and analytical style of philosophizing.” This object, he said, was… “the analysis of the structure of thought, [for which] the only proper method is the analysis of language.” And, not surprisingly, he thought this business of linguistic analysis had now become a highly technical pursuit – something increasingly like nuclear physics – which could only be carried on by people specially trained in it

The question Dummett raised is about the aim – the point, the proper object of philosophy. What are we actually trying to do? And it strikes me at once that, when Socrates talked about the great dangers that threaten human life, he didn’t actually mention the danger of unexamined thought or unexamined language. What Socrates warned us against was an unexamined life. And it is surely the attempt to examine life as a whole, to make sense of it, to locate its central confusions and resolve its big conflicts, that has been the prime business of traditional philosophy. Only quite lately has a quite different pattern of philosophizing caught on – a pattern that is modelled closely on the physical sciences and is reverently called Research. In those sciences, progress can be seen as consisting in accumulating a string of facts, in moving on from one empirical discovery to another. This seems often to be imagined as a mining operation, a steady process of digging through the intervening strata to reach the truth – the precious metal that lies hidden far beneath. In this process, the obstacles that have been removed are, of course, only of passing concern. Once they have been conquered they become irrelevant to the enquiry. That is why, to a physicist, past physical discoveries often have only a mild historical interest. His business is always with the next discovery. This accounts for his exclusive concentration on the latest journals, and also for the very revealing metaphor of the ‘cutting edge’ of research.

Now of course this sort of progress does happen and it can go on usefully for a long time. But, even in physical science, it is never the whole story. It can only work so long as there is a given linear pattern, a preset journey which will go reliably from A to B and so on to the end of the alphabet in the expected direction. Even in the sciences, that pattern isn’t always there. Often the next important discovery is going to crop up somewhere quite different – right off to the side of the expected route. Some awkward character such as Copernicus or Einstein or Faraday or Darwin mentions a new thought which calls for a quite new direction, a new way of envisaging the subject. Similarly, Peter Higgs has explained that the work by which he discovered his famous Boson was right off his official line of research, and if it had been noticed that he was doing it he might have been in for trouble. The reason why these people can make their unexpected forays is that they themselves have been looking at things differently. They have found new standpoints from which entirely unexpected things can be seen.

How is this possible? Historians sometimes treat these achievements either as something inevitable or as a kind of miracle due to individual genius. (This is why some misguided people demand a further dissection of Einstein’s brain, as if that would explain his discoveries.) But what is really happening is something both more obvious and more interesting. It is that these original thinkers have stood back from their local problem. They have placed it in its wider context and thought about how it connects with the surrounding scenery. They have been using telescopes rather than microscopes, so they can deal with a larger subject-matter. In short, they have been philosophizing.

This business of looking at life as a whole – finding wider contexts to give sense to our immediate problems – is philosophy’s distinctive activity. It is what makes it a genuinely important occupation, in fact an occupation that matters to all of us. Philosophy is not just one speciality among others. It’s a kind of conceptual geography which looks at the relation between the subject-matters of various ways of thinking and tries to map it. The reason why some philosophers become well-known is not that they have discovered new facts but that they have shifted the whole standpoint of thought. Philosophers have repeatedly brought absurdities to the attention of their age by displaying current customs against a new background and pointing out the strange assumptions that are distorting them. After this, new ways of thinking become possible.

Portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Édouard Lacretelle

For instance, when Rousseau started his book on the Social Contract by saying, “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains”, he was lighting up some crashing discrepancies between theory and practice which had to be investigated if current problems were ever to be properly dealt with. Similarly, when this same Rousseau pointed out the strangely unnatural way in which babies were being reared – babies who were removed from their mothers, bandaged onto boards and handed over to carers who might well not care much about them – people started to notice anomalies in their whole idea of what nature is, and how it relates to our species. These anomalies had never struck them before. More immediately, they also started for the first time to pay some serious attention to small children, as they have gone on doing ever since.

It is interesting that our forefathers apparently could not see through these previous muddled ways of thinking until someone like Rousseau pointed them out. The assumptions that had produced these earlier customs simply persisted till some shock was delivered – till they were plainly stated in a form that could be grasped and made more workable. This shows how deeply our thought depends on a mass of unstated assumptions, very much in the way that our physical life rests on the hidden shifting masses of the earth beneath us. We don’t notice these assumptions till things start to go wrong – until, so to speak, the smell coming up from below is so bad that we are forced to take up the floor-boards and do something about it. This is why I have often suggested that philosophy is best understood as a form of plumbing. It’s the way in which we service the deep infrastructure of our life – the patterns in life that are taken for granted because they have never been noticed. This is something both deeper and more outward-looking than just examining the structure of our current thought and language, which seems to be what Dummett was calling for.

Another useful piece of plumbing was done in the late seventeenth century, when John Locke worked out the concept of Tolerance. During most of that century people throughout Europe had assumed that they must not tolerate disagreement. If they couldn’t agree on a single truth about religion, they must just go on fighting till they did, and meanwhile individual heretics must all be converted or punished. The idea that different opinions could perfectly well be allowed to exist side by side was seen as a culpable weakness, leading to anarchy. What eventually struck Locke, and what he managed to express in his writings, was that this system of competing dogmas can’t work because the truth is simply too complex. Nobody ever has the whole truth, and people who grasp different bits of it can, in fact, perfectly well live peacefully together. Indeed, that may be the best way of putting the various partial truths together in the end.

This ‘discovery’ was not, of course, (as scientific discoveries sometimes are) simply a matter of finding a brand-new ready-made fact, such as that the Earth goes round the Sun. It was much more like inventing a new musical instrument and working out how to play it. Locke and the people who worked with him had to learn how to tolerate what had previously seemed intolerable, and how to do business with people they had previously thought were outside the pale. They had to learn, too, how to look at the outer borders of this toleration and decide what must still be regarded as intolerable.

Letter Concerning Toleration
Original title page of John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration (1689)

In fact, toleration, like all big philosophical ideas, is a very complex instrument, as hard to play as the cello or bassoon, which is why we still have so much difficulty learning how to handle it properly and why we still need to go on thinking out the ideas behind it. And the other ideals round which we try to structure our lives, ideals such as equality, freedom, compassion, fraternity or sisterhood, justice – are all as complicated as they are attractive. Yet they all have to be thought out and used together by the whole orchestra,

These ideals were, of course, central to the message of the Enlightenment, a message which we now assume is the obvious framework for any decent human life. But the Enlightenment story itself wasn’t always obvious. It didn’t drop ready-made out of a machine called History. It had to be invented, devised with a great deal of hard, grinding work by philosophers like Locke and Rousseau and it has had to be thought through with increasing labour up to the present day. In every age, more work of this kind is needed because the truth about the world is endlessly complicated.

• • •

Are we getting any clearer now about what is the real aim of philosophical enquiry? One thing that is already clear surely is that it can’t be at all like the aim of any physical science. Physical sciences spiral inward and down onto particular bits of the truth, which sometimes are ready-made facts, while philosophy ranges indefinitely outward looking for new connections – new ways of thinking and living. So it is quite proper for nuclear physicists to know more and more about less and less. But philosophers are supposed to do almost the opposite – to find links that will restructure the whole scope of our experience and allow us to live differently. Their use is to extend our range. They can bring a landscape in sight that nobody even knew existed.

Of course the contrast between these two forms of thought is not complete because (as we have seen) physical scientists do sometimes have to widen their views in order to shift their focus, and philosophers too must sometimes deal with detailed technical questions. But in their general balance these two approaches really are opposed – not because they are at war, but because they serve quite different needs. Nuclear physicists are normally addressing a limited audience of specialists – people who already share much of their knowledge and want to know more about a particular aspect of it. But the philosophers’ business is something that concerns everybody. Philosophy aims to bring together those aspects of life that have not yet been properly connected so as to make a more coherent, more workable world-picture. And that coherent world-picture is not a private luxury. It’s something absolutely essential for human life,

John Locke (1632-1704)

World-pictures – perspectives, imaginative visions of how the whole world is – are the necessary background of all our lives. They are often much more important to us than our factual knowledge, as may be seen in the case of climate sceptics whose traditional views remain unchanged whatever new evidence appears that seems to disprove them. We all have these background pictures and we usually get them half-consciously from the people around us. We often don’t ask where they came from. But, if we do ask, we shall probably find that they have been shaped by earlier philosophers who have influenced our tradition. For us, at present, that often means the prophets of the Enlightenment, people like Locke, Rousseau, Descartes, Hobbes, Hume, Mill, Marx and Nietzsche. This earlier philosophy doesn’t get obsolete. Far from that, it’s still vigorously alive. It has shaped the way we think. It has deep roots in the soil of our lives and it goes on developing there in its own characteristic way until somebody comes along and rethinks it. That is why people who refuse to think philosophically so often end up trapped in bits of earlier philosophy that they have unconsciously taken on from their predecessors.

The alternative to being enslaved by past thought in this way is to attend directly to what these earlier philosophers actually said and to see how it relates to our life today. If we do this, we shall often find that these people’s message was far more subtle than the crude versions of it that are still working in the tradition. In fact, it is still throwing out shoots that can help us today. The reason why these philosophers caught the attention of their times was (as I have said) not just that they had solved particular problems but that they had lit up life from unexpected angles. They suggested, not just new thoughts but new concepts, distinctive approaches, whole new ways of thinking. Of course none of these new approaches solves all problems, but each of them gives us a fresh stance, fresh tools for the endless balancing act by which we try to understand our confusing world We can see how influential these suggestions still are, not just because people today often still quote from (say) Marx or Nietzsche or Plato or Buddha for their illustrations, but because current thinking as a whole is still often visibly shaped by these people; coloured through in a way that the people using it now are no longer aware of.

So, how can it be plausible to think that they are out of date and we can now forget about them? How could it not be necessary for us to attend to these still influential factors in our lives? The point is not just that – as I’ve suggested – we need to check their details to protect ourselves against distorted versions of their message that are still working in our tradition. We need also to attend to these mighty trees themselves for their own sake. We need to understand them because they have shaped the whole way of life that we still live by. They are still active features of our present life, parts of the tangled forest through which we are still travelling. In fact, the reason why we need to learn about the history of philosophy is just the same as the reason why we need to learn about the rest our history; namely that, without grasping the past, we can’t hope to understand the present.

On the political scene this is obvious. We know that, if we haven’t grasped the past history of the ravenous way in which Western nations competed to gobble up other countries during the nineteenth century, we can’t hope to understand why so many people in those gobbled countries still feel so bitterly resentful towards ourselves. Historical epochs don’t just succeed one another randomly like successive spinnings of a roulette wheel. They are phases in a continuum, organically connected, so that you often really cannot understand where you are now without grasping how you got there.

And if this background is necessary for understanding politics it is still more necessary for our moral and intellectual life. Without it, we can’t really make sense of current conflicts. In particular, any student who is now expected to study the philosophy of the last twenty years without being told about the long sweep of history that produced it is surely doomed to frustration. And this student has all the more right to resent that frustration because (as we have seen) it affects not just his or her knowledge but their whole world-view, their imaginative understanding of life. We need to grasp the story of our past intellectual evolution so as to understand where we are today, just as badly as we need to know about our past biological evolution.

Philosophy, in fact, is not just one specialized subject like another, something which you need not take up unless you mean to lecture on it. Instead it is something we all do all the time, a continuous, background activity which is likely to go badly if we don’t attend to it. In this way it is perhaps more like driving a car or using money than it is like nuclear physics. And perhaps it is more like music than it is like any of these other occupations. Anyway, like good music, good philosophy does not easily get out of date.

© Dr Mary Midgley 2014

Mary Midgley lectured at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne until 1980. Her best known books include Beast and Man; Wickedness; The Ethical Primate; Science and Poetry and a memoir, The Owl of Minerva. She was given Philosophy Now’s 2011 Award for Contributions in the Fight Against Stupidity.

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