Inordinate Ordnance - The War on Philosophy

Monday, June 16, 2014

1 Comment

Written by Chris Carr

As I round third, on my way to a nice, plump philosophy degree, I am finding more and more, my degree is largely—according to others—useless. The important and wholly career-affecting part of that sentence is, “according to others”.

Throughout my entire career and as philosophy major, I’ve had myriad concerns from others about what I could possibly do with my degree. “And you’ll be able to do what, exactly, with your degree?” mouth-breathing family members and gob-struck friends have asked me on more occasions that even Thomas Kuhn could figure out.

“Uh, I could go into law, or teach.” I’d say in response, hoping I could disappear in a quick cloud of non-thought. Because, really, I have no idea what kind of career I am capable or trained to do. But that doesn’t really concern me. I may be a poor post-grad, but I’ll be an educated one.

What really concerns me is the growing trend of people who outright detest the pursuit of philosophy as a discipline. Even some of our own—professors who teach philosophy—say how useless the major is.

“People who are signing up for philosophy…want to learn something about the ‘ultimate nature of reality’, and their position related to it.” Says Peter Unger, Professor of Philosophy at New York University. “And when you’re doing philosophy, you don’t have a prayer of offering anything close to a correct or even intelligible answer to any of these questions.”

Pretty rough. Especially considering the mountain of debt the average student undertakes to learn to do philosophy. The allegory of the plight of Sisyphus fits so nicely here for philosophy students: endlessly rolling a rock uphill only to have it fall down before it reaches the hill’s top, over and over, ad infinitum, until death. Studying philosophy is turning into one of it’s own tenets: a practical example of absurdity.

One of the reasons for this turn against knowledge and deeper pursuits, is an overall feeling of practical experience that universities have become. University is no longer a college, fit for the learned mind, but rather, another slot filled on the list of reasons why you should be making more money. Another, is fiscal climate concerns: our generation needs more money and armchair pontification doesn’t always keep the lights lit and our bellies full.

However, I would argue the chief reason for the fall of the philosophical mind is rather, ignorance. All of the defenses against studying philosophy seem to come from people who have no idea what philosophy actually is. The critiques are all about the usefulness of wondering, rather than the practicum of hands-on work.

It is true that philosophy won’t build you a house or plant you a garden. However the pursuit of a philosophy dictates how you treat your neighbours once that house is built and what is ethically safe to eat, from your garden.

People seem to think these skills are innate, obvious to the regular thinker. Such thoughts on what one ought to do are something we know a priori (it means, to know something naturally or without outside involvement. Something you learn in philosophy). However, this is merely blind hubris. If a contractor can tell you how to build a house, a philosopher can tell you if you’d ought to.

If the best option was always the one that we took, the world would be free of regret, corruption, crime and anything else that sucks. So why would our first line of defense against mad decision-making be under such scrutiny?

Philosophy is the study of the too-distance reaches of human understanding, not always according to the concrete world around us, but far, far beyond the confines of normative science. A war on philosophy is a war on human development. It’s just that simple.

What is less important than the answers that science grants us, are the questions philosophy cultivates. Only then can the answers have any real meaning. 

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  1. Posted by: on Jul 15, 2014 @ 10:30am

    There is no war on philosphy. You quote Peter Unger but you do it out of context. Unger, according to his new book Empty Ideas: A Critique of Analytical Philosophy, states that:

    "And so philosophers proceed to write up these stories, and they’re under the impression that they’re saying something new and interesting about how it is about the world, when in fact this is all an illusion. To say new and interesting things about the world — and that’s very hard, things of any generality I mean, or even anything interesting — you really have to engage with a lot of science. And very few philosophers do any of that, at least in any relevant way."


    Philosophy isn't under attack. Philosophers are. And it seems, according the Unger, because philosophers think they are offering new ideas, critiques or insight when really they're "blowing smoke".

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