In a recent article on the field of Philosophy, authors argue that by its delimitation to the academic settings, one of oldest fields of study has lost its original purpose. There were quite a lot of disagreements among philosophers across the globe but their original intention was to make people think and teach them strategies on how to live a virtuous and meaningful life. Authors say that the institutionalization of Philosophy created a quandary on the purpose of a Philosopher.
This was the act of purification that gave birth to the concept of philosophy most of us know today. As a result, and to a degree rarely acknowledged, the institutional imperative of the university has come to drive the theoretical agenda. If philosophy was going to have a secure place in the academy, it needed its own discrete domain, its own arcane language, its own standards of success and its own specialized concerns.
I agree with the article. Philosophy is indeed in a sad state. Numerous conversations that are potentially valuable to “normal” people, never see the light outside of “mysterious” philosophical journals. Esoteric language, that seems unavoidable to philosophers, complicates the topic for someone from outside the field who is trying to extract the larger points from the papers or articles in these journals. This in turn frustrates the reader into losing interest and inhabit a fear of reading academic material. They instead try to statiate their hunger by reading popular philosophy blog posts or books by the likes of Peter Singer, Alain de Botton, Sam Harris etc. These public intellectuals are useful but unfortunately few in number and hence cannot cover plethora of interesting topics that academic philosophy engages in.
Other than what article covers as the reasons for Philosophy’s demise in public conscious, a little more can be said about why this has happened. For instance, this could be a natural progression for any discipline that invites a healthy competition amongst its knowledge seekers. In order to stand out in a field of study, you need to broadcast your specialization or why anyone should listen to you. What would be a best way to broadcast this? Get a prestigious degree of course! For past two-three centuries, academic institutions have monopolized the process of awarding someone a specialization in a field of study. This monopolization has disconnected most studies from public conscious. Management, for example, has immense knowledge that should be more readily available to general public but superficially carved paths (i.e. an MBA degree) detach these useful topics from society in order to provide them to only who intend to specialize in them and earn money for it.
Any good philosopher (not necessarily an academic one) or a psychologist with some understand of human behaviour could manage people better without any MBA degree focusing on HR skills. But of course that image won’t help the profits of academic institutions. On a less cynical note, these degrees help the employers since they are always on a look out for a convenient and simple way to filter good from bad. This tendency of humans (to filter) with a quick superficial metric manifests itself even in racism or racial profiling, so its inevitable that academic degrees - which are really what makes a person worth anything in today’s economy - will also play the same role. Philosophy is just one of many victims that have succumbed to that force.
Another reason for why this could have happened to Philosophy, is that during the course of maturity of any field, the knowledge coming out of that discipline increases. Unpacking of that knowledge makes the field chaotic by increasing the level of entropy in that field. This is inevitably followed by creation of new definitions and concepts to convey big and somewhat vague ideas in as efficient way as possible (of course all of this happens inside the walled garden of academic journals). And as the number of these agreed upon definitions and concepts grows, it becomes harder for normal public to keep up or pay attention, hence converting many discussions that just feel incomprehensible and rather boring and pointless. This is not always the case as Peter Singer notes in his criticism of the article that sparked my article:
It’s very strange that an article like this can ignore the impact philosophy is having on the contemporary world through the teaching of practical or applied ethics. To mention just the two areas in which I have been most involved, philosophers have played crucial roles in the rise of the modern movement to raise the moral status of nonhuman animals, as well as on the emerging movement of effective altruism. Every semester, I see the courses I teach change the lives of my students, who will in turn change the lives of others – and I know that among those who teach practical ethics, this is a common experience. Philosophers may, with few exceptions, have positions in universities, but through those positions, they have influenced, directly and indirectly, the lives of millions of people, and billions of animals.
Sure Dr. Singer. I believe you and I am sure the authors would too. But the point is that it takes a philosopher with celebrity status to turn his academic ideas comprehensible and attractive to normal public. This positive outcome for the subject of animal ethics wasn’t only achieved by Singer’s popular books but also by numerous magazines and newspapers that reiterated his ideas for general public, either through his book’s reviews or interviews. He was quite controversial when he first came out with some of his ideas on animal ethics. Media loves controversy. But do we want to turn every topic in philosophy into controversial sound bites for people to pay attention to this field? Another reason for his success in spreading animal ethics was tangible harmful effects on the environment and personal health associated with factory farming and consumption of meat. But most philosphical topics aren’t so clearly significant to people on the first sight. Moreover, our society celebrates very very few philosphers Peter Singer is an exception, not the norm. Therefore, I don’t think Singer can use his success as a counterargument to author’s general concern about the state of Philosophy
Another speculation that is worth pondering upon is that this treatment of Philosophy could have played a role in decreasing the spread of critical thinking skills in various societies. If current generation’s interest in philosophical topics has actually declined due to its public image as an esoteric or boring subject, this could be directly impacting the amount of logical thinking or introspection that an average human engages in. The nature of Philosophy is such, that doing it requires that you ask questions and deliberate about whatever happens to pique your interest. So for example, one would think that popularity of this subject would make people a bit more skeptical and question our political and societal norms more often. But with the constant influx of hedonistic and narcissistic distractions from social media and not many Philosophers to celebrate, the exact opposite seems to be happening. The average human thought mostly revolves around what society as a whole usually indulges in. And what our societies currently indulge themselves in, isn’t exactly intellectually stimulating. To this day continues to excite only our primal regions of the brain.
So I argue that the shift towards acceptance of Philosophy as an entertaining subject can only be augmented by academic Philosphers who need to reevaluate the ideas on communicating their arcane philosophical language to general public. Science communication has been at its best for the past ten years with authors like Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Neil De Grey Tyson, Brain Greene and many other popular science bloggers who have done a tremendous job of increasing societie’s average interest in Science. As the authors of the article observe:
people stop listening when philosophers only debate amongst themselves.
There is also a genuine concern over lack of diversity (in terms of women and minority) in Western institutes. Eugene Sun Park wrote a rant on why she left Academia which highlights some of the problem that might play a role in contributing towards an apathy towards this field. I quote here a large paragraph from her article because I think all of it is important for the context:
As I discovered over the course of my graduate career, in order to be taken seriously in the discipline, and to have any hope of landing a tenure-track job, one must write a dissertation in one of the “core areas” of philosophy. What are these core areas? Philosophers quibble about how exactly to slice up the philosophical pie, but generally the divisions look something like this:
*Metaphysics & Epistemology *Logic & Philosophy of Language *Philosophy of Mind *Value Theory *History
Such is the menu of choices available to the philosopher-in-training today. (See, for example, the PhD requirements at these prominent philosophy departments: Penn, Berkeley, and Duke.) On the surface, this might look like a wide range of options. But appearances are deceiving. For instance, the subfield of philosophy of mind does not typically engage at all with Indian, East Asian, African, or Native American ideas about the nature of mind. It’s as if non-Western thinkers had nothing to say about the matter. Similarly, those who work in the history of philosophy work almost exclusively on the history of Western philosophy—e.g., Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Russell, Wittgenstein, etc.
Although I do disagree with one of her reasons for why such is the case(she partially attributes it to racism), its definitely a worthy concern. To not have a global outlook on historical philosophy is a pity because there is a high likelihood that different cultures with different languages and memes can come up with different outlooks on life. Buddhism, which has only recently caught up in Western culture, provides ideas that have almost never been articulated in most of the world’s history. The practice of meditation can lead to interesting insights about the nature of mind and absence of such content(along with other philosophies from East Asia) makes Philosophy less exciting to study.
If we hope to enlighten the future generations with fascinating meanings and questions associated with this complex thing we call Life, we better start working harder to address the serious issues that surround the study of Philosophy.