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.