Has academic philosophy lost its way?

(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

Philosophy is the discipline of human thought that allows us to interpret and make sense of our experience of ourselves and of reality, thereby giving meaning to our lives. While science constructs models of reality to predict what will happen with certain arrangements of matter and energy under certain circumstances, philosophy asks the questions: What does it mean when reality behaves as if these models were true? How does it all relate to our condition as living entities? Without philosophy, science is merely an enabler of technology; it tells us nothing about the "nature of nature," despite Richard Feynman's best hopes. Science provides mechanistic tools that mostly work, but it is philosophy, even when done by scientists, which interprets those tools in the framework of reality and of our being. This way, the importance of philosophy for giving meaning to our lives cannot be overestimated. Yet, for over a century now, I believe, philosophy has lost its way and become nearly irrelevant to most educated people.

If you ask an educated non-philosopher to draw up a short list of key philosophers in chronological order, he or she will likely start with Socrates or Plato, mention a few key names like Spinoza or perhaps Descartes, and probably end with Nietzsche. Nietzsche's contribution to human thought at large, and his cultural influence in society, are undeniable. He guided the transition of our culture from theism to a secular worldview, and tackled the immense effects of such transition as far as our need for finding meaning in life. Countless people have read and been inspired by him. Political movements, like the Nazi regime in Germany, have misappropriated and distorted Nietzsche's ideas for political gain. The man had tremendous influence in the human psyche. But Nietzsche died at the turn of the 20th century. How many philosophers of the 20th or 21st century do you know to have had similar impact on our culture? What happened to philosophy in the 20th century?

What happened is that philosophy became academic and departmentalized. In itself, there is nothing wrong with that; on the contrary: it's a recognition of the relevance of philosophy. But a side-effect was that, in trying to emulate science and mathematics to gain more respectability within academia, academic philosophy formalized itself more and more. The problems dealt with by academic philosophers were more and more strictly framed and circumscribed. Eventually, the problems were so tightly circumscribed and limited that they became irrelevant to the lives of educated people at large. Academic philosophy became so formalized that it begun to resemble a highly abstract form of mathematical logic or linguistics, far removed from our immediate experience of reality. It was then that it earned itself the name "analytic philosophy." Few people described this transition better than Alan Watts in this short talk. Indeed, perhaps the greatest academic philosopher of the 20th century was Ludwig Wittgenstein, but how many lives has he touched? Have you ever heard of him? How many people are able to read and understand his "famous" book Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus? You see, the great ontological questions of existence, like the nature of reality and the meaning of human life, so cogently tackled by the likes of Nietzsche, Kant, Goethe (who I consider a philosopher before a poet), Plato, and even Jung (who I consider a philosopher before a psychiatrist), were left out; they couldn't be framed in sufficiently formal terms. In other words, they were fluffy and flaky, not enough amenable to strict, objective argumentation. Even the elusive and suspicious notion of "philosophical proof," an echo of mathematics, gained popularity among academic philosophers. Was academic philosophy being inspired by science and mathematics, or was it jealous of science and mathematics?

Today, the role academic philosophers should play in helping us all make sense of our lives, of our psychology, of our culture and science, of our historical nexus, and of our condition as living entities in general, has been left to others: priests, inspirational speakers, self-help literature, psychotherapists, and even scientists. This is a tragedy; it has caused our civilization to lose its bearings. Terence McKenna once talked about the consequences of this as a "balkanization of epistemology." Where are the Plato's, Nietzsche's, Kant's, Goethe's, and Jung's of our times? Who is guiding us to construct sensible worldviews and relate to reality in a mature manner? Not academic philosophers, but the evening news anchor, unfortunately; because academic philosophers are locked away in obscure conferences discussing unfathomably abstract issues of little relevance to the educated person on the street. Academic philosophy has shunned its own humanity, losing its link to our culture in the process.

Academic philosophy has succumbed to the insane notion that the original approach of classical philosophy, which harmoniously integrated the subjective and objective aspects of the total human being, was inferior (instead of complementary!) to those of science and mathematics. It began to believe that to "prove" an idea was more important than for that idea to resonate with the innermost selves of people and, thereby, make a true difference. Like a teenager unsure of his or her identity when standing next to older bullies, academic philosophy became blind to its own value, seeking instead to become something it didn't need to, and perhaps couldn't, be. In doing so, it forfeited its own role and relevance in our culture. You see, the only carrier of reality as far as anyone can know is conscious experience. And conscious experience, while projecting objectivity onto the world at large, is fundamentally affective. By denying the affective nature of reality, academic philosophy has alienated itself from a large and significant part of what it means to be a human being alive in the world. In seeking to become more objective and real, it ended up distancing itself from reality.

As our civilization begins to face the inherent contradictions of the way it relates to reality and life, we need philosophy more than ever. The absence of true, integral philosophy is not a symptom, but a cause of the current world crisis. Academic philosophers must wake up, find their own identity and cultural role again, and make a palpable contribution to society at large. We cannot go through this crisis without quality guidance. The advances of analytic philosophy, developed at such great cost over the last one hundred years, must be integrated (not discarded) into a renewed philosophy, but one that takes on board the broader nature of the human being and reality. A new path must be found; one that brings academic philosophy closer to the people and the culture.

The matter is urgent.


  1. Thank you for a most interesting article, Bernardo, and I very much enjoyed the videos you posted. Frankly, I didn’t know much about Nietzsche and only vaguely imagined that in some way he was associated with Nazism – I wasn’t aware his work had been misappropriated.

    My take on him is that he was sincere, but misguided. The fact that society was increasingly moving towards secular humanism didn’t reify the notion that “God is dead”. It’s a point of view, but not one I accept; nonetheless, if one does accept it, one can see how profoundly depressing a philosophy it is, and how impossible it was for Nietzsche or anyone else to come up with a coherent way of dealing with the world.

    On another point, Philosophers in the twentieth/twenty-first centuries (but what about Whitehead?) may have largely abandoned the big questions, but one wonders if this might, at least in part, be because they think their predecessors had already covered the ground.

    I think the questions are actually still being addressed, though possibly not by “philosophers” in the academic usage of the term. We’re both fond of Alan Watts, for example, whose Wikipedia entry does actually say he was a philosopher (though whether other philosophers would agree, I don’t know), and there are people like Ken Wilber and even Rupert Sheldrake. There might be a dearth of “philosophers” as such who are still interested in and exploring the great existential questions, but I actually think there may be a burgeoning of people of high intellect with an interest in them, associated with a burgeoning of general interest in the lay public.

    In other words, perhaps I am not as pessimistic as you. A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.

    Michael Larkin

    1. Hi Michael,
      You raise, as usual, several interesting points.
      I also do not agree with Nietzsche's conclusions. My point was more that he did philosophy with a heart, and was connected to the zeitgeist of his time; connected to the culture and the people. As such, I think he played an important role during his time, helping the culture adapt to the realization that the human being was ultimately responsible for the meaning of his or her own life; and that meaning there was still. Another thing to keep in mind is that it's very hard pass literal judgment about a philosopher's ideas and language over a hundred years later. For instance, when Nietzsche said that "God was dead" he likely meant the caricatural, antropomorphic old-man Christian God sitting on a throne; he probably meant that we, humans, needed to take responsibility for the meaning and course of our lives.
      You raise a good point about there having been important philosophers in the 20th century, like Alan Watts. I agree. My point was centred on _academic_ philosophy, which I think lost contact with the cuulture, with the zeitgeist of its time. Watts was not an academic philosopher, and neither is Wilber.
      And it's good to be optimistic... ;-)

  2. Very interesting, Roberto.
    But Ludwig Wittgenstein was a great philosopher of "our" times, as was Alfred North Whitehead. Many modern philosophers are still interested in the big questions, I believe, see this book for example: http://www.amazon.com/Waning-Materialism-Robert-C-Koons/dp/0199556199/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1319202847&sr=1-1
    But I agree that it is unfortunate to leave metaphysical philosophy in the hands of people like Dawkins and Hawkins. Or "self help prophets", like Chopra (even though I respect all three mentioned).


    1. Great examples you bring up! In the USA, the cultural debate is dominated by philosophy-dummies like Dawkins on one side, or evangelical priests on the other. This is an example of the gargantuan role academic philosophy is leaving open by cutting its connections with the culture. Philosophy departments in Universities are funded by us, tax-payers. We deserve more from professional philosophers than apathy in the face of a mounting cultural crisis. Cheers, BERNArdo. ;-)

  3. Bernardo: You fail to notice the connection between philosophy and politics. We have transcended the nation-state and democracy, and placed the global market in its place. The global technocracy manufactures both products and consumers. Things are things, and people are things. I am my brain. Since everything consists in things, power rests in the technocrats who manipulate things toward utilitarian objectives. Analytical philosophy is the symbolization of this post-democratic order of things. There is no higher truth or higher calling than what some mass advertiser instills in me. The highest reality is the reality of the technique, the scientific method broadly conceived, and the highest calling is the mastery of the technique of manipulation. We live in the age of rhetoric, and all professional philosophers are by definition rhetoricians. Philosophy can only be ideology, or in the alternative, formal manipulations of meaningless symbols. Rationality, rather than the ordering of the passions under a rational, ethical ideal, becomes the formal manipulation of symbols. Philosophy is not apathetic to the cultural crisis, they serve as the chief propagandists of the cultural crisis and chief means of its legitimation. As to why this system exists, we must ask not whether the positions of our adversaries are rationally cogent, but who benefits from installing these people in places of higher learning?

    1. I am very largely -- perhaps totally -- with you! In my upcoming book 'Brief Peeks Beyond' I make precisely this point in an essay about education. Maybe this is something I should emphasize more from now on...

  4. Alan Watts never saw the Universe as a mystery, he stated existence doesn't need to explain itself because existence already is its own self explanation. Alan Watts gave the show away if it was meant for you to understand that he gave the show away, "what happens once always happens once or it doesn't ever happen at all." The game of eternity is to always believe you first exist as an origin story, this keeps the game repeating itself therefore eternity is a reproductive state, I always have and I always will first believe to write this same exact comment.