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BIG philosophy!

John Mann conducts an opinion survey in cyberspace.

Unless you’ve been living on Mars for the last six months, you’ll already have heard of the Internet - the name given collectively to a worldwide network of computer networks. It is also known as the Net or the Information Superhighway. Quite a few philosophers now have Internet access, and are using it to chat and exchange information with their counterparts around the world. John Mann has been testing the water.

This is an account of a search I ran using Internet philosophy lists for some modern Big Philosophy. By Big Philosophy I mean a philosophy with views on God and metaphysical issues, on politics and on knowledge and science. My feeling is that too many modern philosophers tend either to dismiss such areas, or to specialise in one area to the exclusion of all others. To discover whether this feeling was correct, or whether there was indeed some Big Philosophy going on, I sent the following question entitled ‘Big Philosophy’ to two Internet lists (philos-1 at Liverpool and philosop at York):

Can anyone recommend a contemporary philosopher who has a world-view which includes views on politics, God/religion and science/knowledge?

I don’t want ‘small philosophy’ (philosophy of language, deconstruction, hermeneutics, Wittgenstein etc.):-)

John Mann (john_mann@blyth.com)

Over the next few days I received quite a number of replies, which I saved, and finally I was able to broadcast my results:

Thanks to everyone who replied to my request for information on Big Philosophy. For anyone who is interested, here is a summary of my replies:

I received 50 replies.

I was recommended a total of 56 different philosophers.

Those philosophers who received more than one recommendation were as follows (in descending order of ‘votes’):

6 votes: Robert Nozick
4 votes: Jiirgen Habermas
3 votes: K. Popper, A.N. Whitehead, C. Hartshorne
2 votes: B. Russell, Stephen Clark, Thomas Nagel,
John Dewey, Mortimer Adler, A. Maclntyre.

One person replied that the whole search for Big Philosophy was mistaken.

One person disagreed with my including Wittgenstein in the small philosophy list.

Two people disagreed with my suggestion that hermeneutics was small philosophy.

Thanks again to everyone who replied, I shall try to investigate as many as possible!

One reply that I found particularly intriguing was the suggestion that philosophy is not today being done solely by philosophers. This was the argument given to me by Sheldon Richmond:

I find what you say about Big Philosophy and specialisation very interesting. Though I read Popper for Big Philosophy, there are other writers outside Philosophy period who seek wisdom: For instance I am currently reading Charles Handy, a management writer, (The Empty Raincoat). I also find Stephen Covey’s works, another management guru, and Warren Bennis, who is also a management writer, both fascinating thinkers seeking wisdom.

I find that Covey’s works sometimes grates because he seems to write as if he knows the ultimate answers. But, in my opinion, Bennis and Handy are more sceptical and inquisitive.

I think that academic philosophy, for the most part, is the last place to look for Philosophy. Academics, for the most part, work in a disintegrating, vertical, and hierarchical system. Philosophers are not only fragmented into schools that have incommensurable ‘paradigms’, but individuals are fragmented psychologically. Moreover, I am finding that the unintentional Big Philosophy that is converging from the specialists is a form of anti-intellectualism that says there is nothing but X, and asking why, wherefore, whither, when, what X, are useless and illegitimate. At best, philosophy just reports on X whether X is the current state of science, text, common sense, language…. At best philosophy can point out when we are supposedly straying from X by asking meta-X, or speaking in some form of tongue that breaks the rules of X.

Personally, I thing that the Big Question of today is where are we? Our organisations, which are hierarchical and closed, don’t fit the dominant technology, which is horizontal and open: what is the dynamic of this conflict?

How can we individually and collectively gain some control as social organisations restructure themselves to adapt to the new reality of interactive and global technical systems?

I was surprised that there weren’t a lot of ‘Green’ philosophers around with views on Gaia, green politics and ecology and science - but at least according to these philosophy lists there are not. Perhaps readers of Philosophy Now have other ideas?

© J. Mann 1995

John Mann works as a programmer; his Internet address is john_mann@blyth.com

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