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Detail of “The Death of Socrates”, by Jacques-Louis David, 1787


This autumn, our youngest daughter went to university to read philosophy. Some of the family were not entirely sure that this choice of subject was a good idea: what, they asked, would a philosophy degree do to help her earn a living? I, however, defended her decision — not that it would have mattered if I hadn’t, as she is a determined young woman — on the grounds that philosophy not only teaches practical skills — to think, argue and write well, for example — but that it is a good thing to study for its own sake. Philosophy is the cornerstone of high culture, or so I have believed ever since I discovered its pleasures at school in the dialogues of Plato and the aphorisms of Nietzsche. No educated person ought to be entirely ignorant of philosophy, any more than of science or mathematics, literature or the arts. How are we to make sense of the world, of other people, or of ourselves, without the tools with which the great philosophers have provided us? Above all, though, philosophy can be fun. Where would we be without Ockham’s Razor or Zeno’s Arrow, the Principle of Sufficient Reason or the Categorical Imperative, the Veil of Ignorance or the Liar’s Paradox? To philosophise is not only to learn how to die, but also how to live life to the full.

That, at least, is what I told my family and myself. But is it really true? There are at least three things wrong with the way philosophy is practised and taught at our universities today. The first (“Objection 1”) is that so much philosophy now takes the form of specialised, highly technical and often quite recondite commentary on other philosophers’ work. This is hardly a novel phenomenon: in the 16th century Montaigne already complained of such learned obscurity: “There is more business in interpreting interpretations than in interpreting things, and more books on books than on any other subject: all we do is gloss each other.” Even if the Scholastics had debated how many angels could dance on a pin-head, which in fact they never did, they could never have competed with the pointy-headed pointlessness of many present-day philosophical debates.

The second caveat (“Objection 2”) is that insofar as contemporary philosophy does come up with intelligible conclusions, they are frequently banal. Take, for example, On What Matters, the Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit’s two-volume magnum opus, published in 2011. His 1,400-odd pages are unusually clear and cogent; it was generally praised as a major work making original contributions to the whole field of present-day philosophical debate. Yet his answer to the question “What matters most?” is underwhelming. In Volume One he writes: “What now matters most is that we rich people give up some of our luxuries, ceasing to overheat the Earth’s atmosphere, and taking care of this planet in other ways, so that it continues to support intelligent life.” This seems to me to be not much better than a statement of today’s — probably ephemeral — conventional wisdom. Philosophers have no special insight into natural phenomena such as climate change; you don’t need to study ethics to renounce luxuries or take care of the planet. Volume Two concludes: “What matters most is that we avoid ending human history.” This may be true; but apart from mad dictators or religious fanatics, such as the Supreme Leaders of North Korea and Iran, Kim Jong-un and Ayatollah Khameini, who on earth would disagree? If this is the best that philosophers can do to explain the meaning of life, the rest of us may well think that we can save ourselves the trouble of reading them.

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nepomuk onderdonk
December 22nd, 2016
6:12 PM
--- it's the profession of finding meaning, it's for the shaman in the marketplace, rising up out of the established pattern to find a new way, to be the shepherd rather than the sheep; I’ve heard the college students laugh at the major that leads to a night job at the warehouse, but I like to point out that my mom majored in philosophy, and started a market research business that led to doing focus groups for the government in foreign countries, and of the many stories she tells is one where she credits herself with the freedom of Chile from Pinochet, called a 'national treasure' by her employers, the original character behind the movie "no!"; it was the innovative and skilled thinking around problems that others had not been able to solve, skills she may have always had, but were surely nurtured by her college philosophy degree, that carried her through her satisfying and meaningful life.

ted schrey montreal
December 16th, 2016
10:12 PM
Oops. Response to a comment made on Oct 1. Space, time and causality have no role in existential philosophy. And why should they? The only sensible definition of consciousness is that the word stands for the absence of all that is, which means that it indicates the potential of all that is. I get very tired of the term being used in a meaningless fashion.

Alicia Sinclair
December 15th, 2016
9:12 PM
A great read-that the Left have had the self-righteous machinations of language and culture to themselves these last forty years or so now means we have two generations of lily-livered relativist and godless snowflakes to deal with. They are not democratic, have not been taught respect or how to argue a case, Because they`ve had no need to. Running to law, censorship or banning if not violence itself. But in 2016, the worms have turned, they do not like it one bit. Ah well, all to the good.

Anon
November 15th, 2016
2:11 PM
'Jon' has a non-philosophic notion of what philosophy is. Language is the tool and the means, not the end. And arguably, philosophy that is not political philosophy -- the exploration of what we live for and the discussion of who should rule -- is not philosophy at all.

amcdonald
October 15th, 2016
5:10 PM
There`s more philosophy in 24 hours of anyone`s life than in all the philosophies. The 21st century expression of this is the 17.4 million people who voted for Brexit. Remainia has 16.1 million anti-philosophers regarding "the quiet revolution" (Theresa May) Take the proposition " Islam is not to be mocked.Islam is to be celebrated" (a Ramadan official quoted in the Spectator) and the proposition " Islam is to be mocked not celebrated". Only the latter is true. What is being mocked is stupidity and anti-democracy. Perhaps it`s necessary foe May and Gove etc to say Islam is a religion of peace and a source of spiritual sustenance. For diplomatic reasons. But Islam is neither. It`s not a religion at all. Wittgenstein proposed that a philosophy could consist entirely of a series of jokes. Not in Islam it couldn`t. Wittgenstein was a Christian. The full name of the gorilla that smashed it`s way out of it`s enclosure in London Zoo is Kumbuka Mohamud Islam. It`s keeper says it likes to show who`s boss. So Zizek is right in claiming philosophy/philosophising is more important than ever. Unfortunately he was for Remainia but has partially changed his mind in favour of Brexit. We have outlived the Gods. We breathe life into them not the other way round. Out of 1000 men only one will be a Leader of Men. The other 999 are following women.

amcdonald
October 8th, 2016
7:10 PM
Young artist Akiane Kramarik is on the Oprah Winfrey Show again today. What`s it got to do with philosophy? Everything. But the feminist Guerilla Girls at the Whitechapel and Tate Gallery are still silent about her. As are Trump and Clinton and Zizek and Paglia. And all the brit philosophers , the BBC and Royal Academy.

Frank Williams
October 5th, 2016
2:10 AM
This is not just a philosophers' problem - a good many academic fields have the same problems.

Klaus Rohde
October 1st, 2016
11:10 PM
I disagree with Ted Schrey's comment that "I can really and honestly only recommend reading existential philosophy; anything else that purports to go by the name of philosophy is either entirely outdated or boring beyond belief in addition to being blatant nonsense." See Space, time and causality in Kant’s and Schopenhauer’s philosophy, and in physics. The role of our consciousness" in http://krohde.wordpress.com/ These are the central problems in philosophy and what has Sartre to say about it?

harderwijk
October 1st, 2016
11:10 AM
@Jon “Philosophy … is the study of language -- what we can and cannot say. … [Dispense with] thinking that what [there is] to say about words reflects … on the nature of reality … and philosophy can be a discipline of great value.” Except that those words, too, are subject to interpretation. As soon as the sentence begins with “[the subject] is”, the lens – being indispensable – becomes foggy. In my neck of the woods, this article could be construed as ‘having two bob each way’. First, there is much talk here of ‘philosophers’ having an obligation to explain ‘The Meaning of Life’ [properly the estate of religion]. Only to finally insist that philosophy cannot deliver the universal panacea for solving ‘the human dilemma’. Daniel Johnson is an accomplished journalist. With no professed pretensions to ‘having done Philosophy’. [The essential First Amendment obligation to manufacture consent is encumbered enough with its own kitbag of conceits.] To declare that “Philosophy is the study of language” [even when “properly conceived”] cannot escape the inherent ‘Liar’s Paradox’. If one thing is really something else, why not ‘call a spade a spade’? [“That’s no lady, that’s my wife.”] What is Architecture? What is Making Love? What is Faith? To offer a convenient ‘definition’ to ‘represent’ [stand instead of] the universal market-place rubric may lightly be perceived as little removed from frankly admitting that every shop-front shingle is subject to mis-apprehension. Is a hairdresser really a psychoanalyst? If, however, philosophy is what you make it [because the sense one makes of the words in common circulation is each one’s own], then philosophy can have no truck with ‘morality’ – universal questions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. If philosophy is indeed the ‘love of reason’, then it ought to matter less what one ought to think, than how. Which is, true to the paradox inherent to all attempts at ‘telling it like it is’, all the same, still nothing less than didactic dogma. Consider – Time is an illusion. Data is not information. Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not understanding. Understanding is not wisdom. Evidence is not proof and experience is not reality. Proof is the solitary reassuring province of mathematics. Experience is confined to what is called ‘the here and now’. Which has no discernible dimension. As such, experience is not accessible to language. All we can ever talk about is the strictly formalised narrative. About ‘the past’. That is then marketed as ‘what really happened’. Even as ’the present moment’ recedes rapidly into the shadows of intensely private, individual memory. And that is as good as ‘reality’ gets. To speak of an illusion as anathema to reality, is to treat reality as a given – potentially another illusion. History and Reality are manufactured. By means of the words that enjoy contemporary currency. And no less real, for all that. The self-styled philosopher and the renowned physicist fossick alike for temporarily appropriate questions. The answers rely for integrity on blind faith. Truth is moot.

Buonarotti
September 30th, 2016
6:09 PM
Two other students of Heidegger, Jacob Klein and Leo Strauss, were formative influences on the "New" program at St. John's College. I heard them together in a Friday lecture at the College agree that one of the great tragedies of their time was that Heidegger's intellectual virtue was not matched by moral virtue. The importance of keeping that distinction in mind has stayed with me lo these nearly fifty years. That is a gift of philosophy.

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