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Has Philosophy Lost Its Way?

John Lachs thinks it can get back on track.

Philosophy has lost its way. At one point, it was the queen of the sciences, but the sciences grew up and, like naughty children, came to believe they didn’t need her. Many once thought she was the guide to life, rivaling religion but offering a more rational way. However, philosophy could not match the emotional power of the offer of salvation. Then philosophy fell in love with physics and tried to imitate the precision of its inquiry. But it was incapable of discovering a single new fact.

That’s when the siren sang and told philosophers to move into the safe, sacred confines of the university. The siren explained that sufficient technical virtuosity would secure philosophers an entire department in the knowledge factory. There would be jobs, and they would be accorded the same honor as scientists (or almost the same). To be sure, they would have to teach a few students, but they could spend their time in the classroom discussing technique with little reference to results.

To those who love philosophy, much of it spreads delight: it is an end in itself that is fun to do. But it should also be good for something, and it is if viewed in the proper light. Nevertheless, philosophy is always in crisis, and its death is frequently announced. Yet it is a survivor and tends to outlive its murderers and morticians. The reason becomes obvious upon even short reflection: at its best, philosophy deals with the most persistent and most difficult questions of human life. In inquiring about the nature of mind, the foundation of knowledge, the justification of morality, the proper organization of the community, and the finality of death, we are at the limit of our capacity. We have theories, but so far we have found no way to confirm them. We do a better job criticizing each other, but no positive truth emerges from the rubble of the systems. Disappointment and cynicism abound as philosophers surrender the quest and settle for work in logic or the history of thought.

We should not be surprised at our inability to answer the ultimate questions of existence, and we should not be disappointed that our theories are only stabs in the dark. We are, after all, finite beings – a fact we assert not as an excuse but as an assessment of our chances of getting final answers. Yet there is a great opportunity we overlook: we have, ready at hand, a laboratory for learning something about the problems of life. Each of us is a test subject in the great experiment of living. Each of us is in a position of getting answers to what is valuable in the world and what actions yield satisfaction in a more than temporary way. The choices we make from early childhood on reveal and revamp the values we hold dear. The infant’s love of shiny objects is soon superseded by more permanent and reliable fascinations. Young people’s confidence in their strength or attractiveness gives way to a painful sense of limits. Self-seeking often yields lamentable results, as does mindless commitment to unachievable tasks. As the pragmatists have pointed out again and again, experience is a series of experiments. To learn from the experiments, we have to move a notch or two beyond turbulent emotions: we need to be in sufficient possession of ourselves to gain calm understanding. For many, this is impossible without a healing distance, but it is more likely to occur if we enter the fray with the prior conviction that we are trying something that may not work.

Many experiments fail and it is good that they do. Young people may try a night of drinking and know, by the middle of the next morning, that it is better to look for pleasure in other ways. There is always something to learn, either to avoid or to replicate. Unfortunately, not everyone is a quick study. Circumstances may be so compelling that one has to resist seeing the lesson of the event, yet some people manage to go through life making the same mistakes again and again. Individuals who start businesses repeat naïve errors, and second wives/husbands often look and act strikingly like the first.

Of course it doesn’t have to be this way. We can learn about our weaknesses and our values, and thereby acquire tools for a better life. The more consciously we approach the experiments, the more likely it becomes that, whether they succeed or not, we will profit by the undertaking. Here is where philosophers come in. Because they specialize in the analysis of evidence and the examination of values, they can offer a dispassionate, global view of proposed courses of action. They can help us to envisage the likely consequences of what we do and understand the human responses to our experiments. They have useful things to say about the dangers of ideologies. Most important perhaps, they can draw on a vast tradition of successful lives by reference to which we can plan and execute our own.

Of course, the credibility of philosophers is proportional to the visible relevance to their lives of what they claim to believe. This places a heavy burden on anyone who would help with vital decisions: those in need of assistance can reasonably ask, “How successful have you been in the experiments of life?” This is the most frightening question for philosophers. If they don’t want to be convicted as frauds or charlatans, they had better be able to show the power of their ideas deployed first and foremost in their own lives. Philosophers who recommend charity have to be able to show what difference good works make to their lives. Friends of democracy must engage in civic conversations; pragmatists in projects of improvement. Thinkers who reject the significance of individuals cannot make an exception of themselves, and those who believe in immortality cannot act as if they’ve surmised that death finishes it all. Most importantly, persons who claim to be devoted to science or reason must not act in haphazard or irrational ways. There are over 12,000 credentialed philosophers in the United States, and perhaps over 25,000 globally. How many of this staggering number can hold themselves up as exemplars of reason whose lives could be examined with the same profit as their teachings? How many would have reason to fear that they are no different from ordinary people, whose words and deeds live in cozy disagreement?

The world is no less perplexing now than it has ever been. The proliferation of social workers, counselors, therapists, advisors, psychologists, psychiatrists and life coaches testifies to the desperate need of people for guidance, or at least intelligent advice. A vital job of philosophers consists precisely in providing such guidance, first for themselves and then for whoever feels crushed by the pressures of the modern world. Philosophy has ample resources for this task: many of the great classics of the field are manuals for how to lead good lives. We need to refocus our efforts and substitute concrete help for dreamy theorizing.

The time has come to understand that not every field in the knowledge factory is in the business of discovering new facts. The physical and the social sciences largely are, but art practice and music composition are not. Philosophy belongs with these creative fields. Their products are gorgeous works of art and lovely music; its valued results consist of beautiful or at least satisfying lives. If philosophy took this turn, could anyone ever announce the death of philosophy?

© Dr John Lachs 2013

John Lachs is Centennial Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University, Nashville.

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