The golden age of philosophy has long past. Plato, Aristotle, Rene Descartes, David Hume and the controversial Friedrich Nietzsche are no longer popular figures in today’s intellectual discussions.
Philosophical concepts such as Eternal Recurrent (Nietzsche), Dasein (Heidegger), or Deontology (Kant) are confusing, if not incomprehensible. Moreover, no one talks about the once hot topics of Foucault’s power relations, Deleuze’s lines of flight, or Derrida’s deconstruction anymore – except in some academic corners and magazines, of course. Philosophy has become passé, and to study or to do philosophy is obtuse and even irrelevant nowadays. Or, is that true?
Is philosophy dead for good?
In 2010, the late renowned theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking, made quite a stir when he announced that philosophy is dead. News media covered the story and some academic philosophers came to the defense of philosophy. But the general opinion was that philosophy is, indeed, a boring and secluded enterprise. In the book The Grand Design, Professor Hawking (co-authored with Leonard Mlodinow) wrote that philosophy is dead because it “has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics.” In the past, great human intellectual achievements and revolutions were pioneered by philosophers, or “philosophically literate” people. These include the great luminaries like Descartes, Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Albert Einstein. But now, according to Professor Hawking, scientists rather than philosophers have become the “bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.”
The claim that ‘philosophy is dead’, or the announcement of the ‘end of philosophy’ is not new. We can trace such sentiment or statement as early in the late-nineteenth century, most notably to Nietzsche, and later to Wittgenstein and Heidegger. Nietzsche’s infamous ‘God is dead’ philosophy suggests that there is no more superior moral authority, and thus, man must search and work for their own meaning in life. For Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), the work of philosophy has come to an end, and all that is left to do for the philosopher is to analyze the meaning of language and utterances.
Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) also announced the “end of philosophy” in that philosophical investigation as traditionally conceived and practiced is dead. For, as Heidegger claimed, Nietzsche had killed it. Moreover, philosophy is, for Heidegger, ‘metaphysics’, and he lamented the fact that philosophical activities have dissolved into various fields of studies and disciplines in modern times.
In fact, today we have – besides the main branches of philosophy, namely ethics, metaphysics, aesthetics and epistemology – a whole lot of various other fields of philosophical study, such as philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, philosophy of language, philosophy of history, philosophy of religion, philosophy of education and political philosophy and many subcategories and topics more.
A quick and superficial look at these statements might make one think that philosophy is indeed dead and that implementing philosophy is redundant, and even irrelevant, in our time. So one would argue that if philosophy is dead and no longer relevant, what’s the point of doing philosophy, or studying it? Why should we be wasting our time and energy by aimlessly pursuing it? However, a closer and broader look will show that philosophy is quite still alive and relevant today and perhaps even more important than ever before. Firstly, if ‘God is dead’ and man must create his or her own meaning in life, he or she will need rational reasoning and philosophical reflections all the more. Secondly, there is much more in life for man than to painstakingly and boringly work to uncover (decipher) the meaning of every nonsense people scribbled or uttered. Thirdly, philosophy encompasses a wider scope and more profound depth than only metaphysics.
Moreover, it doesn’t necessarily mean that philosophers must tackle every problem in the world and participate in every scientific contribution made. The fact that philosophy has “not kept up with modern developments in science” doesn’t necessarily mean that philosophy is dead. Quite the contrary, while it’s true that philosophy has not made significant contributions in recent scientific developments, it played a crucial role in dealing with many other modern daily problems, socio-cultural issues and political crises we face today and in providing answers or possible alternatives, such as in work, individual freedom, equality, campus politics, animal rights, social media ethics, and much else. (Truth be told, science, especially theoretical physics, has not made much progress either, except what was already found to be settled or discussed in the last half of the 20th century.) So the argument that ‘philosophy is dead’ doesn’t present a compelling reason or evidence for the dismissal of philosophy as a whole. Nor is it a meaningful statement anymore other than an attempt to downplay philosophy, or to stir up public sensation. In fact, to announce ‘philosophy is dead’ is not vogue or hot anymore; it’s more like merely repeating a century-old refrain.
Still, it’s noteworthy that those disturbing claims about the death of philosophy were made by none other than practicing philosophers themselves. (Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Heidegger were on the list of the greatest philosophers of all time. Stephen Hawking can be considered a philosopher too, since scientists, especially theoretical physicists, are also ‘philosophers, with extra eyes and hands’ (that is, with their laboratory equipment and facilities.)) That fact many suggest that their statements were rather an urge to improve and advance philosophy than to discredit or abandon it, as they themselves were practitioners of the said intellectual enterprise. On the other hand, those kinds of views and attitudes toward philosophy tell us something about the way it is perceived and practiced. Therefore, it is important that we redefine and reconceptualize the meaning, methods, and practices of philosophy.
The Need to Reconceptualize Philosophy
We need to redefine philosophy because the way we define things reflects and affects how we see, think and practice them. In this case, philosophy should not be limited merely to the pursuits of metaphysics. Nor should it try to grapple with the big fundamental questions only. Instead, philosophy should have interest in trivial but important everyday things too. We also need to reconsider how we approach and practice philosophy, because those methods and practices can limit or broaden our own perceptions and understanding. Moreover, they can also influence the way people see and think about philosophy and philosophical undertakings. Unfortunately, due to the way it was written and presented in the past, philosophy is seen as a boring, obscure and secluded enterprise undertaken only by some old-school academics and obscurantists in some dark corners of university departments and in the academies.
This needs to change. Doing philosophy should not necessarily be rigorous, difficult and traditional. Instead, we need to seek more presentable methods and ways of communicating ideas. Philosophers have been cited for their notoriously messy, obscure and difficult writing styles, sentence constructions and word usages. This needs to change too. From the language and terminology we choose, to the platform and medium of presentation we use, which should be profound, attractive, inventive, artistic, dynamic and transformative. Professor Michael Sandel, who was aptly named the Public Philosopher, is an excellent example for communicating deep and profound ideas in simple yet attractive ways. Every year, thousands of students flocked to the auditorium to take his “Justice” classes in Harvard University. (Note: A free online course for Justice Series is available in edx.org, for those interested in). His example shows that philosophy can be popular, attractive, transformative and fashionable.
To redefine and re-conceptualize philosophy, thus, it also means that we need to be able to escape from the grip of the long-holding and permeating philosophical traditions like Aristotelianism, Scholasticism, and even Modernisms – that is, from whatever and whichever thoughts and traditions that are hindrance to our progress and development, or those which are no longer relevant to our modern societies. For today, we no longer talk about substance, essence, monads, the ultimate reality, or the absolute ideal. We don’t believe that the universe is composed of four elements, namely earth, air, fire, and water (in Western culture), or five elements, namely wood, earth, water, fire, and metal (as in Eastern Taoist culture) anymore. If we do discuss such topics, it will be only in the context of discussing about the historical development of thoughts (history of philosophy), or studying about a particular philosopher or philosophical tradition for a certain purpose. Instead, today we talk about social consciousness, emotions, freedom, justice, cosmetics, workplace success, identity politics, immigration, gender equality, social media, global network, spirituality, yoga, soundbites, Netflix and microchips. So philosophy should address and deal with these day-to-day issues and pressing concerns in our personal lives as well as in our modern societies. The “founder of modern linguistics”, the prominent philosopher and public intellectual, Noam Chomsky, has been active in this concern.
The World of Media and Shopping Malls
Philosophy has been out of favor (and out of the picture) in our societies for a long time now. Instead of engaging in rational thinking, intellectual inquiries and philosophical reflections, people are more fascinated and obsessed with celebrity gossip, the libido, the sexy body, InstaMag, Candy Crush, fake news and post-truth. Of course, engaging or having interest in those things is not necessarily a bad thing as such, as long as they do not cause people to lose their ability to think and make conscious life choices. However, many people seem to be on the losing end, in that they are uncritically doing or following things.
People follow trends, rather than follow rational thinking. They act according to desires rather than reason. They love opinions over facts. Terry Eagleton, a prominent literary theorist and cultural critic, fittingly described the disappointing and ironic reality of our time when he wrote that: —
“Structuralism, Marxism, post-structuralism and the like are no longer the sexy topic they were. What is sexy instead is sex …. Intellectual matters are no longer an ivory-tower affair, but belong to the world of media and shopping malls, bedrooms and brothels. As such they re-join everyday life – but only the at the risk of losing their ability to subject it to critique.” (After Theory, pp. 2, 3)
Modern Life Painting. Credits dou_ble_you
The world is fast changing, and it’s not quite for the better. In a world where social media becomes a defining factor, where everybody can be a pundit, a guru, a counselor, or an expert consultant, where everybody can tell you what-to-do and how-to live, philosophy – the exercise of rational and moral thinking – will be our guiding principle to discern what is trustworthy and what is not, what is beneficial to us and what is not. In a world that is increasingly becoming divided, polarized and impoverished, in which governments and corporate bodies monitor and control social thought and choices under the disguise of liberal and market orientations, in which totalitarian regimes perpetrate outright injustices and violent persecutions, philosophy will be not only a survival tool, but a defense to counter such dangers.
We must acknowledge that philosophy cannot tackle every aspect of life experiences and that philosophers cannot provide all the scientific knowledge we need in the world. Nor do we dare to claim that philosophy can provide conclusive answers to all problems, or offer all-time truth for any philosophical, social or ethical problem being raised and addressed. Yet we should acknowledge that philosophy does hold an ocean of brilliant and relevant ideas and wisdom for living a good life, for a more enlightening and enriching experience. We can look at the world through a new philosophical outlook, glean new insights and raise social and cultural awareness. We can constantly ask new, relevant, challenging questions and come up with new, satisfying, fresh ideas and solutions.
The world of philosophy is a very diverse and enriched one that people keep coming to and looking for answers and consolation through it. Today, many people go back to George Orwell, Hannah Arendt, or Michel Foucault, to see the warning signs and symptoms of government surveillance, social oppression, structural violence, and totalitarian ideologies. Many people revisit the age-old ideas of John Locke, Kant and John Stuart Mill for moral, political thinking. Others look to Marx and Engels for their relevance in how society and production works today. Kwame Anthony Appiah has been vocal in rethinking the concepts of race and identity. Peter Singer’s work has been influential in animal liberation movement. These are but only a few examples.
Far from dead, philosophy has become more important, and much needed, than ever before. Philosophy helps us not to lose our ability to critique social norms, lifestyles and popular opinions that give way to the more sensual, the more fashionable, or the nonsensical. It also helps us to keep our prejudices and personal biases in check, assess our attitudes and thinking, and make informed judgments and decisions, and thus produce appropriate, acceptable actions and behaviors. But for philosophy to be readily and accessibly available to a wider public for greater relevancy and significance, we need to make changes in the way we define it, the language we use to explain it, or the literary style we use to write about it, the topics we choose to discuss, and the platform or medium of presentation we use to communicate the philosophical concepts and ideas. Even if philosophy does not achieve its former levels of glorious status and prestige as in the Age of Socrates, the European Renaissance, or the Enlightenment, doing these things will help philosophy to gain its proper position and significance in both intellectual circles and public spheres once again.
Cited Works Acknowledgements
- Terry Eagleton (2003). After Theory. New York, NY: Basic Books.
- Will Buckingham et al (2011). The Philosophy Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained. London: DK Publishing.
- Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow. (2010). The Grand Design. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
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Gin Suan Tung
December 11, 2017 / Updated version January 25, 2019