Thursday, March 29, 2007

90. Philosophy- Any original thoughts?

Philosophy is an engaging academic discipline. While I have not studied it formally, I enjoy a wide range of philosophical teachings- from Socrates and Aristotle, to Hume, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Kant. Fortunately through audio books, video lectures, the Internet and the classics themselves, the discipline is more available than ever to amateur philosophers.

Wikipedia defines philosophy this way: "Philosophy concerns itself with what is the best way to live (ethics), what sorts of things really exist and what are their true natures (metaphysics), what is to count as genuine knowledge (epistemology), and what are the correct principles of reasoning (logic)." In a sense, philosophy is about thinking- thinking about everything. What could be more enjoyable?

However, the study of philosophy today is largely regulated to discussing and analyzing previous philosophers. And, of course, as time goes on, the ideas of ancient philosophers become antiquated either by the commonalty of the information or the advancement of science. Thus, without an influx of modern philosophical ideas, some, including myself, are wondering if philosophy, as a social influence, is becoming obsolete. Free Inquiry Magazine posed the same question a couple of years ago, and the following highlight some of the comments:

"There are roughly 9,000 Philosophy Ph.D.s in the country. More than 5,000 of them teach in four-year colleges...but few Americans would be able to recognize the name, much less the work, of a single one." -Peter Edidin, New York Times

" may be that cognitive science is poised to settle core debates over human nature that were formerly the philosophers' exclusive preserve." -Tom Flynn

"...every success of the scientific and technological endeavors weakens the hold of religion and its secular arm, namely philosophical idealism" -Mario Bunge

My concern is that modern philosophers spend too much time in their ivory towers, socializing in private clubs or narrowing their interest in studying constricted philosophical ideas or philosophers. They often seem to share a propensity for attempting to impress others with their archaic references rather than promoting an original idea. Furthermore, if philosophy encompasses some of life's most difficult questions and moral dilemmas, I wonder why there is not a greater social contribution from modern day philosophers.

Mario Bunge similarly asked, "Why do not moral philosophers devote more attention to the problems affecting billions of people- such as those of poverty and unemployment- than those that only affect a few such as abortion or euthanasia?" I think the question is a fair one. Perhaps the answer is that philosophers prefer to dwell into those questions that cannot be answered objectively. Philosophies concerning poverty can be tested, the moral basis for abortion, is relative, and cannot. Or, perhaps, issues such as abortion may offer greater attention than the plight of the poor.

In offering the question to members of a local philosophical club, I was disappointed in the lack of passion expressed. Some said philosopher professors worked too hard to contribute modern works; while others attempted to take credit for ideas such as "string theory" as a philosophical premise. It would be apt to dismiss both accounts. I find the idea that philosophy professors are busier than other publishing professors a ridiculous one. And while there is a matter of philosophy, which science cannot test, in string theory, it is an idea born from scientists- based on chemistry and physics, not Plato.

Certainly science has encroached on philosophy, as Bertrand Russell proposed, "Science is what you know, philosophy is what you don't know." Our scientific knowledge, from moral and social issues, to in depth disciplines such as neuroscience, has eroded that which may be pondered in relation to the human experience. Russell's proposal, thus, may be reworded to "the more we know, the less philosophy we need." Philosophy flourished in ancient Greece through the mid-nineteenth century, a period of time void of significant scientific influence.

I will not conclude that philosophy is obsolete, however I will concede that is has lost much of its influence on modern society. I think there is much to learn from the great philosophers of yesteryear. However, I would love to see some modern applications of those philosophical ideas. Our human experience has a number of social issues, including poverty and social injustice, which might benefit from fresh philosophical ideas.

Socrates used to walk the streets of ancient Greece asking "What is truth?" and "What is justice?" Modern philosophers just may need to return to their roots, step out of their ivory towers, and ask ordinary citizens, "Why is there poverty?" and "Why is there injustice?" I think they would find the undertaking rewarding, and if they do, we will keep the hemlock on the shelf.

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