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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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Klaus Rohde
September 30th, 2016
1:09 AM
Philosophy is indeed essential to understand the limitations of AI and its potential dangers. See articles on AI including the one on Artificial intelligence and dangerous robots: barking up the wrong tree in http://krohde.wordpress.com/

Anonymous
September 30th, 2016
1:09 AM
Philosophical considerations are indeed essential to understand the limitations of AI and its potential dangers:see "Artificial intelligence and dangerous robots: barking up the wrong tree" and some related articles in http://krohde.wordpress.com/

Jon
September 29th, 2016
9:09 PM
Philosophy properly conceived is the study of language -- what we can and cannot say. As such it can be interesting and extremely useful in its own right, as well as providing first-rate training in critical thought. But where the philosophers cited by the author -- and to some extent the profession in general -- has gone wrong is in thinking that what they have to say about words reflects in some way on the nature of reality. Dispense with that illusion, and philosophy can be a discipline of great value.

Anonymous
September 29th, 2016
6:09 PM
@witters the article you posted in your comment is absolutely awful. Complete trash.

RA Landbeck
September 29th, 2016
3:09 PM
"Philosophy, then, is not some kind of moral panacea" And there's the rub. For human nature has no moral anchor within itself to prevent the corruption of what appear to be 'good' ideas into something much more sinister. And that door to our darker side is held open by the likes of Pete Singer. Philosophy has already “blown the opportunity to create something truly wonderful" by wrongly presuming on the very potential of human nature itself. Unable to comprehend that evolution has both fixed and limited the moral construct to which we are able to realize. Religion might once have had the means to resolve that conundrum, but having failed at their own prime imperative, like philosophy, we can yet only dream without the means to realize those ideals we dream about! Thus our default to create the illusions of reason as a rational for our own limitations.

Jan Sand
September 29th, 2016
4:09 AM
I find this a very odd article which seems to agree that philosophy is valuable but lays out evidence that even prominent current philosophers seem steeped in prejudice and ignorance.

witters
September 29th, 2016
2:09 AM
I do hope your daughter had a look at this: http://philosopher.io/10-Reasons-Not-to-be-a-Philosopher

Ted Schrey Montreal
September 29th, 2016
2:09 AM
the fourth word is datasal but what it means I do not know. Do I still pass?

Ted Schrey MontrealAnonymous
September 29th, 2016
2:09 AM
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. Read Sartre's Being and Nothingness and in particular any introduction by someone who is not Sartre himself.

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