Why On Earth Should Anyone Study Philosophy?

There are at least three things wrong with the way the subject is taught at our universities today

Daniel Johnson

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.

The third and final problem (“Objection 3”) is contemporary philosophy’s tendency to undermine, rather than to underpin, Western civilisation. This is, in part, a déformation professionnelle: philosophers once took it for granted that they belonged at the top of the intellectual hierarchy, at least on questions of a theoretical, especially moral or metaphysical, kind. Today that doesn’t seem to happen very often. When intractable questions of ethics, politics or aesthetics preoccupy the public, one looks in vain to find philosophers consulted by the media, or by politicians, or indeed by anybody, except perhaps other philosophers. This loss of pre-eminent status has led many philosophers to question or even condemn the system that has dethroned them. The cultural amnesia of the West now means that the public square is occupied by, for the most part, argumentative individuals who have no idea how to argue. Philosophers are reduced to justifying themselves by teaching “critical thinking”, or vulgarise their own subject by affecting a frivolous manner in public. But they rarely perform their proper task of making the case for a free society against the barbarians or defending high culture against the philistines. Often, indeed, they seem to be uncomfortable with our civilisation, preferring to be destructive rather than constructive.

In defence of today’s philosophers, it must be said that most of them would deny that it is their proper task to justify anything. Ever since Socrates, who was obliged to drink hemlock for corrupting the youth of Athens, many philosophers have dismissed Objection 3 on the grounds that they must follow the dictates of reason rather than of society or the state. Some have resisted tyrants: St Anselm of Canterbury, who invented the Ontological Argument for the Existence of God, was also the first archbishop to defy the King after the Norman Conquest, protecting the liberty of the Church and abolishing slavery in England. And some philosophers have embodied what we now think of as Western civilisation. For example, Renaissance humanists such as Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa and Erasmus of Rotterdam worked to reunite Christendom, as did later philosophers such as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Benedict Spinoza and John Locke, who pioneered religious toleration. Philosophers have often led the way in championing the rights of men and women against the powers that be. Perhaps the biggest impact on recent history by a professor of philosophy was that of Karol Wojtyla, better known as Pope (now Saint) John Paul II, without whose example of defiance of the Communist system in the 1980s, the Polish people might not have begun the process that eventually brought down the Berlin Wall. But his case also illustrates that philosophy has its limits; for while phenomenology, the tradition then dominant in Poland, undoubtedly shaped Wojtyla’s intellectual formation, it was his faith that enabled him to move mountains.

One living philosopher who has profound doubts about Western civilisation but cannot be accused of obscurity is Peter Singer, best known for his radical views on animal rights, abortion and euthanasia. In a new book, Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter (Princeton, £19.95), Singer demonstrates how to write pungently and succinctly about moral philosophy, though many of these brief essays are online columns from the website Project Syndicate. In one of them, he makes bold claims for philosophy, based on the 2013 rankings of the top 100 Global Thought Leaders compiled by the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute, a Swiss think tank.

Of the top five global thinkers, four were philosophers: Slavoj Žižek, Daniel Dennett, Jürgen Habermas and Peter Singer himself. (The non-philosopher, hilariously, was Al Gore.) The rankings, inevitably, are based on social media and other internet measures, so are open to challenge, but they tell us something about who is being watched, talked about and read. Singer concludes from the remarkable prominence of philosophers in the public sphere that the billion or so people who don’t have to worry about food and other basics are hungry for answers to the great questions of life, a hunger that only philosophy can satisfy. “I know from my own experience,” Singer writes, “that taking a course in philosophy can lead students to turn vegan, pursue careers that enable them to give half their income to effective charities, and even donate a kidney to a stranger. How many other disciplines can say that?”

Singer is right — but his argument cuts both ways. Philosophy certainly can do such things, but it can also turn students into stormtroopers. The most influential German philosopher of the 20th century, Martin Heidegger, is a case in point. As the most original pupil of Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, Heidegger became a celebrity with his first book, Being and Time; but what he did with his fame, including his betrayal of his teacher and other Jewish colleagues, will live in infamy. When Hitler took power, Heidegger became a Nazi and as Rector of Freiburg University tried to align the German universities with National Socialism, which he saw as a world-historical resistance movement against the depredations of modernity. At the end of the war, Heidegger lost his chair, but as his Nazi past receded he came to exercise a unique sway over Continental intellectual life. Yet though his prestige grew steadily, largely thanks to Jewish former pupils such as Hannah Arendt and admirers such as the poet Paul Celan, he never repudiated that part of his past and died unrepentant in 1976.

For better or worse, Heidegger’s ideas live on, not only in his writings but also through those of his students. One of these, Ernst Nolte, has just died in August aged 93. Nolte is best known as a historian, but his doctorate was in philosophy and Heidegger was by far the most important influence on his life and work. As a student, Nolte was responsible for helping Heidegger and his wife to escape arrest by the French at the end of the war; he remained a family friend. In the 1960s Nolte gained an international reputation as a historian of fascism, but by the time I arrived at the Free University in Berlin in 1979-80, he was already notorious for his reactionary, though not yet neo-Nazi, sympathies.

I attended several of his lectures on a collection of texts about fascist ideology, which he was among the first scholars to take seriously. He made quite an entrance, preceded by a procession of favoured students carrying his books and notes. His delivery was dry and old-fashioned but the content was provocative. Nolte argued that fascism and communism were both opposition movements to Western liberal democracy, but that Lenin and Stalin were both more original and more radical in their methods than Mussolini and Hitler. I found Nolte tendentious and soon stopped attending his lectures; I later heard that protesters had brought the course to a premature end. Nolte seemed to relish such notoriety, though not when the Autonomen blew up his car in 1988. Rather than blame these masked anarchist thugs, he denounced the “intellectual initiator” of the attack, the left-liberal historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler. That this was an unfounded accusation did not stop him making (and some believing) it.

Indeed, Nolte moved ever further to the Right. In 1986 he unleashed the Historikerstreit, the “Historians’ Dispute”, in a newspaper article, “The Past that will not pass away”, that still has the power to shock. Nolte demanded that Germany draw “a line [Schlussstrich] under the [Nazi] past” and he sought to demonstrate that there was nothing new about the Holocaust “with the sole exception of the technical process of gassing”. Nolte posed his thesis in a series of rhetorical questions, insinuating that Hitler and the Nazis committed genocide against the Jews only because they feared annihilation by the Bolsheviks: “Wasn’t the ‘Gulag Archipelago’ more original than Auschwitz?” The response to Nolte’s bombshell was a public scandal, creating an international sensation that still resonates today. His principal opponent was Habermas, the left-wing philosopher who is still, 30 years later, Germany’s leading public intellectual. Habermas deliberately polarised the debate by suggesting that there was a conspiracy of “neoconservative” historians to promote a “Nato philosophy”, downplaying the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes in order to bolster Germany’s place in the Atlantic Alliance. Other historians in the firing line, such as Michael Stürmer and Joachim Fest, who did not share Nolte’s far-Right politics or apologetic attitude to the Nazis, nevertheless felt stung into responding to Habermas. He in turn gathered numerous supporters. The furore lasted for two years.

The Historians’ Dispute’s long-term effect has been to exclude Holocaust denial from the academic world; one consequence was the 1996 David Irving-Deborah Lipstadt libel trial, now the subject of a Hollywood film. Yet Nolte’s writings took on an ever more anti-Semitic hue, as he suggested that Hitler had been entitled to take measures against the Jews (even if not mass murder) because the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann had aligned his movement with the Allies in 1939. State and society distanced themselves from such grotesque arguments: Angela Merkel pointedly refused to share a podium with Nolte at a prizegiving ceremony. But Nolte, whose academic reputation was further undermined by a series of increasingly eccentric and extremist books, lived to see his ideas inspire the rise of the Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD (“Alternative for Germany”), which in the last two years has risen to become a major force in German politics.

The AfD claims that the Nazi past is unfairly used to bully Germans into accepting mass immigration. After Nolte’s death, Die Welt ran an article under the headline: “He said first what the AfD now thinks.” The author, Richard Herzinger, pointed to the similarities between Nolte’s relativisation of the Holocaust and the views about German identity of the AfD’s party chairman, Alexander Gauland: “I believe that Auschwitz, also as a symbol, has destroyed a great deal in us.” The AfD seeks to rehabilitate Nazi terminology, such as Volksgemeinschaft (“people’s community”), which had been taboo since 1945. If in next year’s federal elections the AfD can repeat its success last month in pushing Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democrats into third place in her home state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and ejecting them from power in Berlin, Nolte will have gained a posthumous victory in his campaign to vindicate his master, Heidegger.

What has the cautionary tale of Ernst Nolte to do with the study of philosophy? It suggests to me that a thorough training in philosophy does not necessarily inoculate a student from holding false and even dangerous views. Nolte was well-versed in ancient and modern philosophy, read several languages and wrote his PhD thesis on Marx. His philosophical background was reflected in the self-consciously obscure language of “transcendence” in which he cloaked what proved to be unsavoury ideas and prejudices. He applied Hegelian dialectics to the study of fascism: the Action Française was the thesis, Italian Fascism the antithesis, and German National Socialism the synthesis; the result, Three Faces of Fascism, was for many years a standard text on student reading lists. His interpretation of the first half of the 20th century as “the European Civil War” has also found echoes. Nolte may have been as bad a philosopher as he was an historian, but he mastered the power of both professions to dominate our consciousness.

Philosophy, then, is not some kind of moral panacea. Its influence can be bad as well as good. Of course, Nolte might have become a Nazi apologist even without Heidegger’s indoctrination. In any case, people disagree about the whether such influences amount to “corruption of youth”: few would now defend the decision of the citizens of Athens to put Socrates to death. My daughter does not need Peter Singer to teach her the virtues of veganism, because she has already reached the conclusion that farming and killing animals for food cannot be ethically justified. But if she had not previously taken this view, and Singer had persuaded her to be a vegan, we as her parents might have worried about whether she was safe under his tutelage. In his new book, clearly aimed at a lay readership including students, he defends adult sibling incest, the cloning of human beings, and the euthanasia of disabled infants. All Singer’s arguments about bioethics may be summed up in one sentence: “We have no obligation to allow every being with the potential to become a rational being to realise that potential.” Yet elsewhere in the book, he argues against allowing the extinction of our species because if we do, “we will have blown the opportunity to create something truly wonderful: an astronomically large number of generations of human beings living rich and fulfilling lives, and reaching heights of knowledge and civilisation that are beyond the limits of our imagination.” Only a few rigorous pessimists, such as Arthur Schopenhauer or his South African disciple David Benatar, could disagree. Yet these future generations are only potential human beings, towards whom, according to Singer, we have no obligations. Why should we care about the future of our civilisation if we don’t think human life here and now necessarily matters? And what does it say about the philosophical community that Singer is now its most popular representative?

Despite all these doubts about whether philosophers really are fit guardians of posterity, I’m quite sanguine about placing my daughter in their hands for the next three years. You can’t beat seeing how philosophy is done — let alone doing it yourself. I have never forgotten the thrill of giving a paper to A.J. “Freddie” Ayer’s seminar at Oxford. I also enjoyed chairing a Standpoint Dialogue between Peter Singer — who is personally likeable, however outré some of his views — and the theologian Nigel Biggar. Intelligent students can decide for themselves whether their minds are being opened or closed by what they hear in the lecture hall and seminar room. A little modesty from the professors, though, would not come amiss. Philosophers today want to change the world; the point of them, though, is to try to understand it.

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