The Need to Re-Define philosophy to Adapt Modern Life

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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 public discussions. Re-Define philosophy to Adapt Modern Life

Concepts such as Eternal Recurrent (Nietzsche), Dasein (Heidegger), or Deontology (Kant) are confusing, if not incomprehensible.

Is Philosophy dead?

No one talk about the “sexy” topics of Foucauldian power relations, Deleuzian lines of flight, or Derridian deconstruction anymore. That is, except in some philosophy departments and magazines, of course. Philosophy has become passé, and to study about philosophy is obtuse and even weird nowadays. Or, is that right?

Of recent, Stephen Hawking, the renown theoretical physicist, announced that philosophy is dead because it had not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly (theoretical) physics.

In the past, great scientific advances, discoveries and revolutions were pioneered by philosophers or “philosophically literate” persons. The greats like Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Albert Einstein included.

But now, according to Professor Hawking, scientists rather than philosophers have become the “bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.”

Taking these statements at face value, we can quickly assume that either philosophy is dead, or the job of philosophy, that is, philosophizing, is redundant, even irrelevant in our time.

The claim that philosophy is dead is not of recent conception. At least as early as in Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), we can see such claims. Wittgenstein, arguably the most influential philosopher of the twentieth century, especially in the analytic camp, declared that now all that is left to do for the philosopher is to analyze the meaning of language.

Another great thinker of the time, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), argued that philosophy ended with its dissolution into various different academic disciplines and areas of study.

Today, we have, besides the three main branches of philosophy – metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology, philosophical fields of study like

  • Philosophy of mind
  • Philosophy of knowledge
  • Philosophy of language
  • Philosophy of science
  • Philosophy of biology
  • Philosophy of history
  • Philosophy of religion
  • Moral philosophy
  • Political philosophy, etc., and many other subcategories and topics more.

For Heidegger, philosophy is metaphysics, and he lamented the shift of focuses of philosophical endeavors into other disciplines, like in the aforementioned fields and areas of study, and thus ignoring the fundamental questions of our existence – namely, being/Being.


Philosophy and metaphysics

Again, looking at the claims of Professor Hawking and Philosopher Martin, however, we can quickly see that what they are talking about is not the whole of philosophy.

Professor Hawking made his statements in reference to metaphysics – of time and space, and scientific knowledge. Philosopher Martin is primarily referring to metaphysics when he talked about philosophy. “Philosophy is metaphysics,” he said.

Both of them are talking about only part or one branch (or branches) of philosophy. They do not present a compelling-enough reason for the dismissal of philosophy altogether. So the claim that philosophy is dead, or the pronouncement of the end of philosophy is not a viable argument. Nor is it a “sexy” statement anymore.

Yet, we need to be aware that these kinds of attitudes and views on philosophy – that is, the view that philosophy is dead or the end of philosophy – also informed us something about the ways philosophy is perceived and practiced. In fact, isn’t that every attempt to dis-credit any existing idea or ideology is an attempt to improve it, to better-do it?

The need to reconceptualize

As of importance, therefore, we need to reconceptualize the methods and practices of philosophy. We need to be able to escape from the grip of long-holding and permeating traditions like Aristotelianism, scholasticisms, or even modernisms – that is, whatever that is hindrance and is no longer relevant to our society today.

The analytical philosophy camp’s obsessions with language and meaning, falsifiability and verifiability and the prized rigorous analytic method are also primary concerns for those who come to philosophy for the first time.

We also need to re-define philosophy – the scope, spectrum and depth of philosophy.

To define philosophy only to metaphysics, or rational reasoning, or moral reasoning is limiting and unsatisfying. The language we use and the environments and backgrounds that informed us, and the new consciousness also need to be reconsidered and calculated in doing philosophy.

At the same time, we must acknowledge that philosophy cannot tackle every aspect of life and that philosophers cannot provide all scientific knowledge we need in the world.

Today, we no longer talk about substance, essence, monads, the Ultimate Reality, or the Absolute Ideal, anymore. Even if we do, that will be only in some branche(s) or topics of the philosophical activity.

Rather, we talk about consciousness, emotions, freedom, rights, justice, cosmetics, body politics, inequality, identity, debit cards, borders politics, immigration, gender discrimination, sexuality, social media, global network, instant messaging, spirituality, yoga, soundbites and microchips.

To quote Terry Eagleton, from his book After Theory (2003),

“Structuralism, Marxism, post-structuralism and the like are no longer the sexy topics 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.” (pp. 2, 3)

Modern Life Painting. Credits dou_ble_you

Such is the world we live in today

Philosophy and cultural theory as practiced traditionally are out of favored now. Instead, we are more enamored with the Kardashians, Taylor Swift, or the libido, the sexy body, free-market, fake news, post-truth and populism.

We cannot blame ourselves or the society for things going this way, though. Nor can we avert current political and social systems to undo many social and political ills and existential dilemmas we face today.

But we can look at these through and with new philosophical outlooks and insights; raise social and cultural awareness; ask new, challenging questions and come up with fresh ideas and solutions. Far from “dead,” philosophy is more relevant and important than ever.

For examples, we can see many people go back to George Orwell, Hannah Arendt, or Michel Foucault, or to other great thinkers for illumination in the wake of social controls, government surveillance and totalitarian ideologies. Or, revisit the likes of John Locke, John Stuart Mill, John Rawls and Peter Singer for answers in moral and political thinking.


The philosophy  to live the examined life

As such, we need philosophy in order to be able to live the “examined life.” We should not lose our ability to “critique” our social norms, lifestyle, and emotions just because of the sensual, the more fashionable. We need to be able to keep our prejudices and biases in check, and assess our attitudes and thinking, make informed judgments and decisions, and thus produce right actions and behaviors.

Moreover, doing philosophy need not necessary be vigorous, difficult and analytic, but interesting, challenging, understandable and fashionable. Named the Public Philosopher, Michael J. Sandel is one such example. Not only that doing philosophy should guide us to live an examined, worthy life and help us to think more clearly and meaningfully, it also should be a pleasurable and enlightening activity.

Let us conclude this essay with a passage from The Philosophy Book (2011):

“Philosophy is not so much about coming up with the answers to fundamental questions as it is about the process of trying to find these answers, using reasoning rather than accepting without question conventional views or traditional authority.” (p. 12)


Read also The 10 Most Inspirational Philosophers of All Time


Cited Works Acknowledgements

  1. Terry Eagleton (2003). After Theory. New York, NY: Basic Books.
  2. Will Buckingham et al (2011). The Philosophy Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained. London: DK Publishing.

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Gin Suan Tung

December 11, 2017


Gin Suan Tung

Gin Suan Tung

Gin Suan Tung is a teacher and educator from Kalaymyo, Myanmar. He is interested in philosophy, science, history and theory.
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