Why Is Philosophy Important? An Expanded Comment

Daily Nous, the philosophy blog, posted a recent query raising this question in response to an undergraduate who had fallen in love with the subject. Presumably she’d gotten some flak from friends or maybe family. The blog’s editor, Justin Weinberg (South Carolina), solicited and received a number of responses. Most were interesting and worthwhile. One was from yours truly. Reviewing it, I decided to expand on it here because I think more can be said on, Why Is Philosophy Important? Some of it I’ve said before, but it bears repeating.

First, and as my comment noted (perhaps a bit too brusquely for the delicate tastes of most career academics), very little academic philosophy is important. It provides a paycheck for those fortunate enough to have found jobs in the field, or who didn’t eventually abandon them out of frustration.

Let me envision two roles for philosophy that could secure its importance in civilization. I will call them philosophy as service and philosophy as thought-leadership.

Philosophy as service will center on critical thinking and the analysis of language, offering a kind of mental housecleaning. This is appropriate for the academic setting if the instructor approaches it in the right way, warning in advance that some people might believe their toes are being stepped on. A good course in the subject should provide a student with a sense of what it means to support a conclusion with reasons (premises) and why this might matter. The student should learn what makes reasoning cogent or fallacious. Ideally, students will not be as prone to fallacious reasoning either in themselves or in others. A student should also come away from a philosophy course alert to the fact that not everything in our reasoning is stated openly. One’s beliefs might (usually?) contain hidden premises. How we identify these, and what we do then, will be crucial.

Philosophy might also draw attention to what seem to be the limits of our reasoning. Reason alone cannot answer every possible question or settle every dispute. First premises are notoriously difficult to prove or disprove, after all. Otherwise they would not be first premises!

A more practical focus on language in philosophy ought to alert us all to the fact that there are plenty of people in this world who use language as a means of control or even domination, sometimes as the equivalent of a weapon. Words or phrases, carefully selected, will encourage some lines of thought while inhibiting others. The political and commentary spheres provide an abundance of examples. Any reasonably intelligent person should be able to go to any popular newsfeed and find a dozen examples in less than a half hour.

If anything will hobble this approach to philosophy as service, as mental housecleaning, it is because as an academic subject, philosophy has been self-limiting and self-deprecating for well over a century now. Much of this was due to its deference to science in matters epistemic. From Auguste Comte on, positivists and their descendants saw themselves as, at best, handmaidens to science in the sense that Aquinas saw philosophy as a handmaiden to theology. For a long time, this was understandable. Unfortunately, philosophy as handmaiden to science tells us little about how to evaluate all manner of recent scientific developments ranging from nuclear weapons to genetic engineering to artificial intelligence and beyond. As Dr. Ian Malcolm (played by Jeff Goldblum) quipped to other characters in the film Jurassic Park, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they forgot to stop and ask if they should!”

Positivism is therefore dead and buried, one of our worst modern wrong turns. But self-limitations on philosophy have remained. As I’ve noted previously, the analytic tradition whether in its formal or natural language varieties developed powerful techniques but never used them to their full potential. Used to their full potential, philosophical analyses of how words and phrases have crept into our the general lexicon and what they are used to do might shed great light on how those seeking controls over others’ thought accomplish this. Did Wittgenstein not say near the end of the Tractatus that asking, What do we actually use this word or proposition for? repeatedly leads to valuable insights? It also matters who the speaker is, how he or she self-identifies, where he or she is, i.e., at what level of which hierarchy, etc.

If one needs examples, consider the phrase conspiracy theory. A simple search would turn up dozens of usages. What are these usages attempting to do? This example illustrates how any good analysis of a term or phrase should include its origin and history, as the origin of this phrase with the Central Intelligence Agency back in 1967 is known. The CIA’s aim, in introducing the usage, was to circumvent, a priori, all serious discussions of ideas or theories those in power did not want around.

Or consider the term homophobia, which for over 20 years now has come to be used reflexively in response to conservatives who criticize the homosexual lifestyle and its political and legal protections. What is a phobia? The term has a recognized use, as an irrational fear of something (think of a legitimate usage, e.g., agoraphobia). Use of the term therefore automatically suggests that critics of homosexual conduct and its promoters are by definition irrational. That which is irrational is not to be answered with logic but with cured with therapy. Hence the power of the term to misdirect and confuse. Good philosophical analysis should unearth this, but typically does not for obvious reasons: it quickly runs up against powerful prevailing political / cultural currents. (Use of the phrases transphobia and Islamophobia indicates that the phobia suffix is spreading. Why not play a successful meme for all the mileage one can get from it?)

At present, if one is interested in this kinds of usages of language as instruments of control, one will glean far more from the writings of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell than from Wittgenstein or Quine or any of the other heroes of mainstream twentieth century Anglophone philosophy. The former, of course, did not have to worry about offending those signing their paychecks, or being blacklisted within the profession for having offended the wrong people with words or supposed conduct.

There is another, more ambitious role for philosophy, however, which rejects roles as handmaiden to something else, some other enterprise. This is the role of philosophy as thought-leadership.

The best role philosophy could play in present-day civilization as a repository of thought-leaders is in identifying, clarifying, and critically evaluating worldviews.

By worldviews we do not mean personal opinions. We mean usually tacit but still fairly comprehensive systems of thought that direct civilizations through their institutions (governing, mediating, etc.), manifesting themselves in culture.

These are not theories that philosophers simply spun out of their imaginations, although past philosophical theories influenced them. Those in other leadership positions, or simply in dominant ones, in society state or imply worldviews with their choices of words and phrases, or influential choices of what they see as important. Afterwards worldviews may operate as unstated premises in discussions of public issues.

Supporters of these premises may hold them so deeply that they do not see the need to state them openly. They may think anyone who rejects them (also implicitly) is pernicious, or evil. This may be one of the reasons why those on opposite sides of, e.g., the conservative vs. progressive divide increasingly tend to fly at each other’s throats instead of sitting down across a table and finding out what the other is thinking.

What they should do is explore their worldviews. Even if they still did not agree, they would have more clarity on what they were disagreeing about. They would surely not be any worse off. They might even find common ground and recognize a common foe.

Is there a dominant worldview in the West right now? Is there more than one, perhaps vying with each other for dominance? I have identified materialism as dominant even if it takes more than one form, and Christianity, once dominant, as still its chief competitor. It, too, takes more than one form. These qualify as worldviews whatever their other features, because they fully suffuse all significant aspects of the lives of those immersed in them. They define reality for that group.

A worldview will usually be expressed in some core text such as the Holy Scriptures or in key statements such as Darwin’s theory or Russell’s “A Free Man’s Worship.” It will find expression in a culture’s art, its music, what its leading voices see as of value or important, and sometimes in political ambitions. Why have some civilizations’ leaders taken it upon themselves to try to dominate the world, or as much of it as possible? Because their worldview defines not just empirical reality for them but all that is good and superior. They see universal allegiance to their worldview as the path to Utopia. Communists saw revolution against the bourgeoisie this way, in accordance with the historical laws of dialectical materialism (Marx’s phrase). Global corporate capitalists since the fall of the Soviet Union have seen the superiority of a consumption-oriented marketplace as key to general material prosperity, not just for Westerners but for everybody in the world. This, to them, is superior to all else.

This brings us to: is a prevailing worldview helping us or harming us … or, perhaps, helping some (perhaps empowering them) at the expense of others? Does identifying and examining worldviews help philosophers engage systems of power and propaganda, doing what Noam Chomsky once described as the responsibility of intellectuals: “to speak the truth and to expose lies” (see his essay “The Responsibility of Intellectuals”)?

The academic system doesn’t encourage any of this, of course. It doesn’t encourage my service role for philosophy in this form — not really. Which is why most critical thinking courses are just logic courses that leave out their most important potential applications. As that great comedian and social commentator George Carlin once wryly observed, the last thing the truly powerful, owners of the leviathan corporations, want is a population of critical thinkers. Much less do those in dominant institutions want publicly accessible critiques of their worldview.

But philosophy still has a job to do, if it is to be a force to be reckoned with, and otherwise, why consider it important? The two roles for philosophy I outlined above are fundamentally flipsides of the same coin, for doctrinaire and controlling language is bound to be worldview-embedded. How to carry forth this kind of project is the question those who see philosophy as important should be asking themselves and each other, and also nonphilosophers concerned about where Western civilization is going (if it is going anywhere).

If the self-identified professionals ever get out of their office cubicles, or break free of various ideologically-induced blinders, whether to look at their language or consider the role of worldviews in modern advanced civilization — if at least some can courageously rise above their present stations and engage these kinds of questions and see where they lead, then Yes, philosophy as a discipline will clearly be important. Some, I firmly believe, are up to this task. They will be the thought-leaders of tomorrow if the West is to survive.

About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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