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Question of the Month

What Is The Present Nature, And The Future, Of Philosophy?

The following answers to this question of philosophy each win a random book.

Philosophy, it seems, currently has three main avenues, which, though clogged, it tries to flow through. One is academic philosophy, which is, one gathers, largely mired in esoteric analysis or self-referential in-house debates. Another might collectively be called ‘street philosophy’. It wants to be some modern version of ancient Greek marketplace philosophy, but the correspondence doesn’t stick. The third realm is ‘hidden philosophy’, held non-publicly by individuals whose intellect and values funnel out into practice and postures seen and unseen, burbling out in things like voting, how a person feels he or she has been educated, and what the zeitgeist in the public square is like. They purl into public discourse only in dribs and drabs; but then philosophy has always had an uphill climb.

Philosophy is currently struggling to find its identity. Science, such as physics, carries it into very interesting and uncharted areas. Will it follow this lead or will it lead science with a framework that changes the nature of the ‘observed’? It strives to comprehend huge social changes added onto planet-wide environmental changes, and, like many a pulpit, spits out something apparently coherent but ultimately non-efficacious. Philosophy always feels like it is about to make a breakthrough, and a practical one, but currently it is sidelined and, too often, self-sidelined and marginalized.

The future of philosophy is likely various forms of ‘holism.’ Understanding human possibility in relation to a whole planet of ecosystems is a wonderful frontier for philosophy. It could ground beneficial societal change and help create unity where things should be whole, such as in education, thinking, and in the halls of power. Philosophy is also terrific at establishing and synthesizing values, which is also about whether something is whole and sound, integrated and viable. I hope that in the future philosophy applies its charge of being the love of wisdom to how people negotiate our union with nature. It could be a bright future, but it likely won’t be a bright one without philosophy leading the cavalcade of change and adaptation.

Andrew Porter, Lexington, MA

Philosophy departments are being shut down at all levels, and book and journal prices are soaring. So philosophy, especially academic philosophy, is on the at-risk register, if not yet on the endangered list. It’s worryingly at risk from people who prioritise facts rather than understanding, and who cannot see that education is life-long and a valuable end in itself, not just a tooth on a cog in the cash nexus. Philosophising has no limits, no topics are disallowed; but for ‘unbounded’ it is possible to read ‘amorphous’, ‘porous’, or, ‘just too etiolated to live’. This other possible danger is inherent in the subject. It is wrong and invidious to try and contain the love of wisdom, to channel it down established paths. However if philosophy is to flourish in the future, then philosophers need to consider that philosophy is ultimately a resource for everybody, not just other ‘trained’ philosophers – it is not and never should be a closed system. This does not mean that difficult topics and concepts must be shunned, far from it: it is the difficult subjects that probably deserve the most rigorous attention.

As a believer in value pluralism and ‘common sense’, I have to say that philosophy will not now or ever in the future provide absolutely correct answers or comprehensive grand narratives. But what it does provide are the tools with which to think and make our own judgements. If you cannot interpret the world you cannot hope to change it, and change comes about as new concepts, theories, and paradigms vie for attention, jostling with the old stock in the universal store of wisdom. To survive therefore, philosophy must maintain its place and role in the public square. Not every philosopher needs to be a ‘public philosopher’, but philosophy needs dialogue, and cannot take place in a vacuum.

Steve Foulger, Leyton, London

In a world full of mumbo-jumbo communicated instantly at the press of a button, there is a desperate and continuing need for careful, disciplined thinking and language. Indeed, new technologies, with their promises and threats, bring an urgency to traditional questions about liberty and the nature of the good society. We are moving beyond the subtle control of the hidden persuaders, into the anxieties of the surveillance society, with data mining, personality profiling, and ubiquitous CCTV cameras. How long before drones begin to circle the skies of the First World?

So what can one hope for from philosophy? The intractable problems of consciousness and free will, much influenced by progress in the sciences, will occupy much effort, as will the implications of other scientific work, such as in genetic engineering. Climate change and globalisation pose pressing questions about the distribution of the world’s resources, and about the nature of justice, but they also highlight issues about how we make good and lasting decisions, and move away from the temptations of instant gratification. How long before we acknowledge that our greed is destroying us?

We need to bring clarity of thinking to things that really matter. Philosophers generally need the confidence, shown by some, to be engaged in the issues of the day – to be prepared to campaign, to challenge, to cut a path through the swamp of media commentary. In short, to be gadflies.

When giving their time and energy to public debate, philosophers must speak in straightforward and accessible language, for that in itself will be a challenge to the obfuscations of those in authority. We must support the philosophy in schools movement, giving young people the tools to think for themselves, for that too will encourage resistance to the ever-increasing demands for conformity.

One cannot predict the future. The best one can do is to outline one’s hopes; in so doing, there is an implicit recognition of what is missing from the present, as well as a statement of the desire for something different. In a changed world, philosophers could be guardians of education, defenders of freedom, advocates for humanity, campaigners for justice and common decency. That would be a future to hope for.

David Howard, Church Stretton, Shropshire

The free market’s capability to create an economy suitable for the majority of people has been questioned in the light of continuing global recession. Some contemporary economists and philosophers ask whether a system that enriches a few seemingly at the expense of the many should be made subject to greater state intervention, whilst others have come forward to defend the system. The foreign policies of major powers such as the USA, specifically towards the Middle-East, have also been scrutinized. Certain political theorists question if military intervention to topple dictatorial regimes or (as they often claim) protect precious mineral resources, is desirable and effective, as it seems to result in costly military occupations. The rise of militant Islam and its implications for free speech, tolerance and other liberal democratic values is also a source of ongoing contemporary philosophical debate.

There is also considerable discussion on bioethical issues, due to scientific advancements in genome research and other medical developments. The possibility of creating spare organs by ‘harvesting’ stem-cells from cloned human fetuses that are later destroyed has been both opposed by parties stressing the ‘sanctity of life’, and championed by others who stress the benefits to medical science and wider society. We can envisage bioethics becoming increasingly important as the abilities to successfully clone, and to manipulate the human genome, advance. Furthermore, as neuroscience progresses, questions concerning the nature of mind and personal identity will, undoubtedly, come to the fore. Current scientific developments in neuroscience seem unable to silence debate in the philosophies of mind. Despite most philosophers and scientists believing the ‘the mind’ to be synonymous with brain-states, there are still some who think the human mind (and therefore personal identity) cannot be reduced to mere physiology.

How social and political philosophy will progress is highly uncertain, especially in regards to the actions of the principal economies and nation-states. Nor is it likely that the ethical and social challenges to liberal democracy of ideologies such as militant Islam will be settled soon. However, arguably, these are the most important questions to resolve: the social advancement and perhaps the future of humanity may rely on it.

Jonathan Tipton, Preston, Lancashire

I believe we can understand the present nature and future of philosophy better by considering how it addresses three timeless issues:

1) Most people say they value logic, and most believe their neighbor should be more logical.

Logic is the branch of philosophy in which we distinguish valid from invalid reasoning, and few things are as important. Most people think they are logical until they study it. Scientists and mathematicians only teach parts of it, but philosophy covers the whole of logic. So as long as logic is important, philosophy will remain important.

2) Most people want to live a meaningful, consistent, ethical, and/or beautiful life.

Ethics and aesthetics are the branches of philosophy in which we clarify our values and give advice on how to live well. You only need to read about Socrates’ conception of the soul, Aristotle’s golden mean, Stoic apathy, or Epicurean repose, to understand how enriching philosophy can be. As long as people want to live a good life, philosophy will remain important.

3) Many people want to know reality.

Epistemology (the study of knowledge) and metaphysics (the study of reality) are the branches of philosophy in which we examine the lenses through which we see the world, and imagine alternative realities. While scientists assume the external world exists, philosophers seek to justify this assumption. While scientists assume that the scientific method unproblematically uncovers reality, philosophers unveil assumptions that may distort our scientific view of reality. Scientists observe and measure space; philosophers ask whether observation presupposes space. Mathematicians discover truths; philosophers attempt to understand why math works. Everyone speaks of knowledge and truth; philosophers clarify the nature of both. As long as people want to know reality and clearly communicate it, philosophy will remain important.

So the nature of philosophy now is not much different than it has been or will be. It is basically using logic to explore fundamental logical, ethical, metaphysical, and epistemological questions. We may create new answers and clarify old ones, but the method and value of philosophy will remain the same.

Paul Stearns, Blinn College, Texas

For the past century or so, Anglophone philosophy, as opposed to the Continental variety, has been preoccupied with language, and different conceptions of meaning led to attempts to dispel perplexity by conceptual analysis. Since these attempts proved inconclusive, the assumption that this method was the key to solving philosophical problems was gradually abandoned, to be replaced by philosophy’s former interest in language. Moreover, the idea that speech acts express the intentional (mental) states of the speaker led to renewed interest in the philosophy of mind, but its traditional concern with the categories of mind and body was replaced by the computational and connectionist models proposed by cognitive scientists. Descriptive, as opposed to speculative, metaphysics, has reappeared in the form of the analysis of such categories as ‘persons’. In the future, explanations of mind will not be confined to brain processes, but will incorporate the mind’s interaction with its social environment. There will be continued interest in the functions of consciousness, and especially in the recent psychological theory that its apparent causal role, in, for example, decision-making, is illusory.

Moral philosophy has abandoned its former distinction between factual and evaluative moral terms. because it overlooked the fact that words such as ‘cruel’ simultaneously contain both fact and value elements. The modern kind of utilitarianism, which promotes the consideration of the suffering of all sentient beings, human and otherwise, in the calculation of ethical value, has been criticised for needing an impossibly dispassionate, omniscient observer, and for thinking that the suffering of victims of predators in the natural world can be alleviated. Future moral philosophy will be concerned with the nature of reasoning in moral debates, and participants will be regarded as trying to establish shared values or common ground to arrive at decisions. The existence of such common ground will be used to support the conclusion that moral judgement is not a matter of taste or opinion, as relativists say.

Maurice John Fryatt, Scarborough, Ontario

Philosophy was originally the study of everything. Much of its remit was theology and metaphysics. For an epoch, science was called ‘natural philosophy’. However, as science stole the bulk of philosophy, philosophy has redefined itself – one could say withdrawn – into a narrower spectrum. Its subjects today revolve around the mind: What is consciousness? What is knowledge? What is language? What is logic? What is ethics?

We could argue that language and logic will transmute into computer science or robotics, for, in the evolution of information technology into artificial intelligence, we must nail down language, logic, perhaps even epistemology. And ethics is really evolutionary psychology. What is left is consciousness. But anticipating the emergence of fully intelligent robots, we again find that philosophy will disappear into robotics.

The remaining area of doubt must revolve around Gödel’s theorems. Or we may discover that the universe is not a dichotomy between physical things and relationships – doesn’t fit a computer-like model of hardware and software – but is rather an integrated holistic event. In other words, only information, only knowledge, only relationships, actually exist.

In this interpretation of the universe, philosophy comes back into its own as the study of everything – because everything is ‘knowledge’. So, is philosophy really just education?

Dr Harry Fuchs, Flecknoe, Warwickshire

Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, philosophy has followed in the footsteps of the sciences by becoming specialized. Scientific specialization has meant many opportunities to learn, from the expansion of our knowledge of the body to the possible origins of the universe. Simply put, specialization gets things done by giving specific answers to specific questions. For this reason, it is no wonder that particularly analytic philosophy has attempted to follow suit. Unfortunately, philosophy is perceived to be largely stuck in a tornado of internally-focused dialogue that rambles nowhere, making it the opposite of strict and responsible argumentation whose purpose is to advance knowledge. We don’t always have clear answers often because we don’t even know the questions.

Specialization thrives upon particular assumptions, but methods of inquiry have to be rationally constructed and assumptions have to be continuously challenged for improvement. This is philosophy’s role. It digs deep, plays in the dirt of uncertainty, undermining all of our intellectual endeavors – challenging assumptions and acting as a gadfly to beliefs.

By examining fundamental beliefs and assumptions, philosophy does not just challenge ideas, but ourselves; allowing us not only to think of the world differently, but to enrich our experiences of it. It does not only bring us “truth statements”, but illumination of the passions and virtues, justice, truth, beauty, joy and laughter. Philosophy is not only the key to knowledge, it is the key to a passionate life, the true giver of meaning. This, I hope, will also be a part of the future of philosophy.

Teig Schneider, Chicago, IL

At one time philosophy was the central intellectual discipline, now it is peripheral. Few care about the ‘latest developments’ in philosophy. Some might say there are none: that philosophy doesn’t develop, it just asks the same old questions over and over, talks or writes a lot, and answers nothing. The predominant activity in both Continental and Anglo-American philosophy is, broadly speaking, analysis. The objects analyzed or criticized here are words, not facts. There is a preoccupation with language, texts, narratives. It’s a peripheral, confined scope of inquiry that leads to relativism and a general denial of or pessimism about knowing the fundamental nature of things. Preoccupied with words, it descends into an infinite regress of meanings. Preoccupied with analysis, it takes apart what is already known and yet adds nothing new.

So what should philosophy be in the future? There are no alternatives to philosophy when asking questions about fundamental concepts and their relationship to facts. To again become an important intellectual discipline, philosophy must produce knowledge that answers the questions only it asks. While analysis and criticism are essential, they are not enough: there must be synthesis. Analysis should be the preparation for construction. So instead of being an activity of isolated thinkers, philosophy must become like the sciences: a community of collaborators making progress, however slowly. The collaborators must include philosophical experts in all of the disciplines, who would discover the fundamental principles in their fields. Philosophy would be based on the sciences, in being about the real world and self-correcting. The task of philosophers would be to construct a comprehensive framework out of the presuppositions of the specialized disciplines. Philosophy can become useful if it provides a framework that relates the fundamental propositions of the natural, social, and behavioral sciences, and of law, religious studies, and history. This comprehensive framework would provide meaning, where ‘meaning means “fitting into the whole, not isolated, seen in relation.” It would provide wisdom, or comprehension of the whole – the ancient goal of philosophy.

John Talley, Rutherfordton, NC

Next Question of the Month

The next question is: What Is Life? Please give and justify your answer in less than 400 words. The prize is a semi-random book from our book mountain. Subject lines should be marked ‘Question of the Month’, and must be received by 9th December. If you want a chance of getting a book, please include your physical address. Submission implies permission to reproduce your answer physically and electronically. We need more answers from women too, please. Is that you?

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