Why We (Still) Need Philosophy

Philosophy. Noun

  1. The study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, esp. when considered as an academic discipline.

What’s Wrong With Philosophy Today? The Source of Irrelevance 
Contemporary academic philosophy today, at least in the English-speaking world, is too rooted in idealism, and removed from the experiential, removed from real world problems, too fixated upon studying issues so far removed from our own lives and social issues that we fail to take it seriously. For those reasons, academic philosophy is on the decline. Ever since the material sciences seemingly removed philosophy’s relevance to understanding the physical reality humans inhabited, we’ve drifted away from seeing philosophy as a relevant way to grapple with issues in our world: instead we turn to the social and natural sciences, and, in cases that strike us as more perplexing, religion. Over the past few centuries, Western intellectuals have adopted a scientific, empirical view of the world, seemingly stripped of ideological perspective, or so they reasoned. All the while, philosophy in America and Britain shifted toward the Analytic camp, toward grappling with notions of logic and language, a more ‘meta’ view of intellectual constructs, and the discipline of philosophy’s influence on non-academic life fell by the wayside. A key process encouraging this development was the divide between Analytic and Continental philosophy, the former of which predominates in universities in Anglophone countries, and is more concerned with logical problems than tackling grand profundity of human experience and the issues surrounding it. Today, we need philosophy (less so from the Analytic tradition) more than ever as a guide through which we can interpret what science and direct experience tells us, as well as comprehend the essentially value laden nature of those experiences and empirical structures. The former more significantly, we must have a framework through which we can understand varying ontological perspectives and act accordingly with our own value systems. Integrating a more philosophically rigorous approach to decision-making, whether at a personal or societal level, requires not only allowing for philosophical education, but also bringing philosophy down from its ivory tower and away from the almost pointless goals its found itself entrenched in (my bias against fields such as philosophy of language is clearly showing here, and let it do so).

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Science and Philosophy
Before humans had the scientific understanding of the world they now hold due to the growth of natural sciences in the past several centuries – first, astronomy, as Galileo and others helped us find our place in the universe; chemistry, as we developed new compounds and understood the building blocks of existing ones; physics in the 20th century, as Einstein and others rewrote the presuppositions of intuition and proposed such concepts as general relativity; and biology, the primary current scientific pursuit as we grapple with the myriad biological processes surrounding us, including neuroscience, which is discarding our presuppositions about the (immaterial) “mind.” Each of these trajectories in the evolution of human thought included empirical observations understood through an analytical framework informing new ideals while leading to the dejection of aspects of current ones. There is no pure lens we can use to view the universe; our evaluation of it is constantly colored by our preexisting views. With the growth of science, came the relative decline of philosophy.

Philosophy can help with critical thinking, analytical skills, and, like Socrates in Plato’s Gorgias, piercing through the guise of truth inhabited by rhetoric and vying for exposition of truth. Moreover, even with the fast-paced improvements in our scientific knowledge, we’re still left with a need for value-based moral decision making that merely the acquisition of empirical knowledge cannot provide: we need more.  An example of science offering an incomplete answer I’ve found myself consumed in regards the burgeoning field of neuroscience. Even if neuroscience tells us how we form various ideas, act in certain ways, etc., it cannot tell us why, other than from a purely chemical standpoint. In other words, it can explain the processes behind what happens, but cannot ascribe significance to them. We need rigorously debated ideals, informed a posteriori by our earthly observations, but imbued with the moral fortitude of our convictions to supplement scientific understanding our creation of judgment. We also need to recognize when those ideals are making themselves apparent, whether in calls for war or debates over the merits of education, whatever the issue is.

While science can answer many questions from philosophy’s past, the debate rages on over whether it can replace it.

A Return to Philosophy
We must return to philosophy as a supplement to scientific understanding, shifting away from the focus on Analytic philosophy, which is detached from real world issues and is excessively “meta,” removed from the topic of focus (e.g. metaethics instead of study of ethics, philosophy of language instead of linguistics — the conclusions reached in these “meta” fields have little bearing on the real world). Philosophy has a more top-down approach, perhaps more deductive (see an inductive vs. deductive chart here), than academic disciplines that have followed it, the natural and social sciences in particular, which fail to satisfy the need for systemic thinking in order to supplement the empirical perceptions that they find their source in. The top-down approach recognizes ideological biases for it is consumed by them, though it is certainly not a replacement for real world observation. In modern academic thought there is too much focus on the bottom-up, inductive approach, denying the existence of biases with the growth of relativism and deference individual perspective, free will. A more appropriate way to integrate recognition of the structural power dynamic that exerts top-down influence would be pluralism: recognizing different subjective experiences and using bottom up data to inform ideological top down philosophy with philosophy providing the top; social and natural science provide bottom data and info. As a society we can’t disregard our need for values even in relativistic postmodern framework. Even in a world of such incredible inductive, scientific knowledge, navigating what we know and separating it from its biases requires a mindset unique to philosophy’s deliberative process.

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2 thoughts on “Why We (Still) Need Philosophy

  1. I actually like analytic philosophy, but I agree with you philosophers should be also focusing on more practical matters. The world is changing fast and people need some insight on what to do with it. Unfortunately, I have the feeling most philosophers are just as lost as the next guy.

  2. I also believe we need philosophy. Some of the things you write here seems good to me, some things I’m a bit skeptical but not necessarily negative about. Philosophy to me is a lot about method, finding methods. But also philosophy as a separate discipline I’m a bit skeptical about. I think that philosophers may be found in various areas of thought. Say for example Carl Jung, he was a psychiatrist, expert in certain empirical area, but also I think it’s fair to say he was a philosopher. On my blog I’ve tried to argue that Pierre Bourdieu is a good philosopher of our time, despite the fact he is usually only regarded as a sociologist. I think Bourdieu also bring good criticism of philosophy as a discipline, highlighting some of the problems which easily arises when one doesn’t engage in empirics.

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