In spite of good intentions, academic philosophy all too often concerns itself with increasing rationalism (Wilshire 112) and crawls ever deeper into the cold but safe cave of her marriage to science to watch shadows dancing on the walls. Surprisingly, this imprisonment in the intellectualist method is perpetuated by members of all camps – the one mocks, the other bangs their knives and forks. All the while, the problems we face mount in number and intensity: war continues, political partisanship brings us to the brink of disaster, fundamentalist religion attacks the dignity of the other, and the planet continues to warm. All the while manic production, mass consumerism, and faux celebrity continue to dominate the culture at the expense of education and development of meaningful lives.
Thankfully, there seems to be an ever growing sentiment that philosophy must meaningfully evolve and should again concern itself, as a practice, with social engagement. In essence, this really is the question of the value of philosophy in our current period of history; a questioning of the value and simultaneously a response to the professionalization of the discipline in recent years, as described by Wilshire (102). It is a move toward revitalization; a reappropriation of the civic and personal values of compassion and imagination which the practice of philosophy and the arts, such as the Greek tragedy, once had (Nussbaum 93). It has always been a hallmark of the discipline to continuously question itself (Wilshire 102), and this search for meaning in the public sphere, on the basis of thoughtful openness and discourse, is a welcome sign of the continuation of that self-examination.
Providing a snapshot of the state of philosophy in the contemporary world proves to be a difficult task, but as always in the history of philosophy, we find ourselves in one moment of an ongoing conversation. The main thrust and dominant form of contemporary western philosophy is the analysis of and search for, through formal logic, of abstract truth,with less focus on accounting for or enabling a fuller and meaningful experience of being human on a broader scale (Wilshire 118-119, 123). In contrast to this, there is reason to believe that the philosophers of the ancient world were concerned with achieving, through philosophical discourse, spiritual exercises, and a way of life, the means to allow for the experience of a full human existence (Hadot 176). Thus, ancient philosophy can be characterized as a transformative practice, traces of which can be and are still present in contemporary philosophy (Hadot 275).
Considering the immense gulf between our roots in philosophy as a practice and as a search for abstract truth raises many questions. The current state of philosophy, then, emerges as a complex conversation attempting to reconcile these voices. We might be tempted to invoke the nebulous idea of progress in justifying the departure from our philosophical heritage and, without attempting to clarify the meaning of progress, this justification might be admitted as self-evident. However, the question must still be posed – what is the value of philosophy in the contemporary world? How can the search for abstract truth, even if it is found, be of benefit to us on a broader scale as we struggle with political, social, and environmental issues on a scale never before faced by humanity? In examining this, Hadot suggests that it isn’t so much the state of philosophy that we should inquire into as much as the idea of what constitutes a philosopher. In this, he brings to the conversation the idea that philosophy should be broadened to include everyone, not just professional philosophers (Hadot 275). The value of this must also be considered.
In the post-modern era philosophy has taken a strictly scientific worldview as the starting point for its endeavors, and when compared to preceding eras, has raised to new levels the importance of rational method within its inquiries (Wilshire 112). Wilshire claims that the transformative task of the ancients has thereby been rejected by and is not possible for contemporary philosophers:
Philosophers will tend to assume that the latest findings of natural science (whatever the “state of the art” is assumed to be) are the best detailed word on the way things are, and on which things actually exist. The philosopher is, then, not set to imagine revolutionary reconceptions of the nature of individuals, coming perhaps from science itself, or from images and metaphors in poetry. The buoying sense of possibility is pricked and a suffocating constriction of imaginal space occurs; the self – call it a soul if you wish – is confined to a pedestrian zone of reference.(113)
This “pedestrian zone” inability to account for the full and transformative nature of the self can be explained in light of Hadot’s claim that the main focus of ancient philosophy was practice intended to concentrate on and expand the self. The joining of contemporary philosophy to science is a clear departure from its ancient roots, which held philosophy as a practice intended to nurture the full human being (Hadot 174). It is precisely a lack of self-reflection and critical awareness that characterizes contemporary philosophy, in spite of attempts of the early modern philosophers to integrate the traditional with the modern (Wilshire 102-103). It is the loss of transformation of self through practice that prevents the contemporary philosopher from enabling the “revolutionary reconceptions” quoted above.
In contrast, ancient philosophy was aimed at a transformation of self, which Hadot describes as concentration on self and other, and the expansion of self (189). Philosophy was a way of life, a way of transformation; “a spiritual exercise intended to carry out a radical change in our being” (Hadot 176). Through a philosophical life of discourse and practice, the individual was able to acknowledge self and other, and to expand the self into the universe, thus relating from a higher perspective to the full richness of the human experience. The philosophical transformation came from this broader and truer perspective on things, which as Hadot concludes, “has been, since Plato, the very essence of philosophy” (207).
This vehicle for transformation, this essence of philosophy, seems lost. Instead, we are left with the dominant but narrow focus of academic philosophy which impedes an innovative response and transformation by being unable to provide an adequate foundation to fully engage our contemporary condition: “the emphasis on logic, on the formal manipulation of content, obscures the possibility of new creation of content” (Wilshire 118). The assumption of the existence of a final rational explanation is a major challenge to philosophy that should be avoided (Bernstein 91). Contemporary philosophy though, it would seem, has succumbed to the idea that it is able to always account for all eventualities and instead has become rigidly professionalized (Wilshire 102), unable to adapt to the new situations of the ongoing conversation.
It must be noted that the loss of the essence of philosophy is not limited by any means to philosophy and is more of a general characterization of the early modern period that can be traced back to Descartes and to the Reformation (Wilshire 103). It is evident that such massive societal shifts have distracted philosophers from their “archaic background of existence” (Wilshire 103-104) in philosophy as a practice. It instead evolved into positivism which permitted only a narrow band of evidence as knowing and hence worthy of full philosophical consideration (Jaggar 246). In the early years of the 20th century this tendency ultimately resulted in the founding of the American Philosophical Association that, in spite of its stated goal of separating philosophy into its own domain, leaned heavily on science. The APA spent much effort in shifting philosophy to a scientific method of formal logic and definition of terminology (Wilshire 104-105) and the main occupation of philosophy became the “sorting out” of things, intending to describe the “logical universe” in a language understood by all (Wilshire 110). Instead of a practice intended to enrich human life, philosophy became an academic discipline which sought only to explain the what-is, not to provide the means on a wider scale to engage that what-is.
It becomes apparent that the development of contemporary philosophy has resulted in a dichotomy with the ideas of the ancients, and is no longer providing an adequate container for a meaningful human life. This is the current state of the ongoing conversation of philosophy, but just as the German Idealists and Romantics were responding to the tumultuous and overly rational period around the time of the French revolution (Seyham 2), so too are voices now being raised in response to the scientific and narrowly academic philosophy of the post-modern (Wilshire 124, 125). These voices are calling for a broader exploration of the fullness of human existence. Quoting Whitehead, Wilshire notes the need for a more adequate method to compensate for the inadequacy of contemporary philosophy to fully account for the human condition:
the very notion of philosophy as an autonomous zone of expertise is questionable. Whitehead writes: “there is always the dim background from which we derive and to which we return. We are not enjoying a limited dolls’ house of clear and distinct things, secluded from all ambiguity. In the darkness behind there ever looms the vague mass which is the universe begetting us. (117)
This would seem to imply that philosophy must evolve, must open itself to be more adequate, but rather than suggesting philosophy should change, Hadot brings the question closer to home by asking if instead our perception of the philosopher should change. He calls for a return to the ancient idea of the philosopher as a “living, choosing philosopher without whom the notion of philosophy has no meaning” (275). Rather than leaving the philosophical conversation in the sole care of professionalized philosophers, the most appropriate response is to allow the idea of the philosopher to include anyone who attempts to engage the full spectrum of human existence, not only in the university classroom, but in the trials and tribulations of daily life. He goes on to say:
Seen in this way, the practice of philosophy transcends the oppositions of particular philosophies. It is essentially an effort to become aware of ourselves, our being-in-the-world, and our being-with-others. It is also, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty used to say, an effort to “relearn how to see the world” and attain a universal vision, thanks to which we can put ourselves in the place of others and transcend our own partiality (276).
If the current state of philosophy can be viewed as a turning-point in the philosophical conversation, this broader definition of the philosopher might become the defining characteristic of a developing response that integrates the public discipline and private practice of philosophy into a single, broader voice. In the contemporary situation, the goal of ancient philosophy to nurture the whole human being through discourse and practice has been at least partly taken up by religion and psychology. These can still be regarded as philosophy, as they provide a means to engage human life on an individual and societal level, and a foundation of thought and understanding in order to facilitate human engagement with the universe. This has perhaps been the constant within the philosophical conversation throughout all epochs – the providing of a body of thought to humanity, regardless of academic discipline, as a means to better acknowledge and participate in existence within the respective historical context. History and human culture are dynamic, and any philosophy meant to enable the individual to engage life within that dynamic context must also be in the dynamic form of an ongoing conversation. Considering the nature of the human to communicate and the complexity of issues philosophy addresses, there is reason to believe that the conversation will continue. The proper way to view philosophy in the present must be informed by this and engaged with as one point in the larger conversation.
The pluralistic nature of the contemporary world must be acknowledged. No one has a full grasp on truth, and no philosophy can discern the full truth. The obligation to seek the truth though is real and immediate to philosophy, and to that end, it must be willing look beyond the blinders of intellectualist logic (James, “Believe” 722-723). It must be willing to not only look, but to act. Real and actual human existence has never been fully realized in ivory towers, nor is it to be expected that it ever will be. Let us assume, then, that the notion of the philosopher, and accordingly philosophy as a whole, broadens to include anyone who attempts to engage a meaningful practice of human existence. This paints an even broader mural of pluralism, with countless individual philosophers engaging and practicing on their own. Where would that bring us? Would philosophy retreat from the public sphere to hide in private libraries?
The individual human existence is an ongoing event within a larger and pluralistic sphere of human society that demands an appropriate and adequate moral worldview (James, “Overview” 801, 808). Therefore, philosophy can and must be socially engaged. It is qualified, justified, and obligated to do so. Yet, the decision and ability to be socially engaged can only be determined by the individual philosopher, in accordance with his or her natural and acquired abilities, temperament, and passions. It is in the nature of philosophy to be public, but to ensure that any public philosophy is meaningful and beneficial to that public, it must be initiated by a sound private philosophy, and that can only be experienced and validated by the individual philosopher. Rather than through abstract ideas emanating from ivory towers, the validity and truth of any private philosophy must be measured by the contribution of vital benefit to the individual, as evidenced through his or her experience (James, “Pragmatism” 377). If the validity of that private philosophy is sufficient, it will as a matter of course transform the philosopher and transition on the sliding scale from a private to a sound and meaningful public philosophy.
If the question why or to what degree philosophy should concern itself with social engagement is to be posed, which it must be, let us look to Socrates for an example of a philosopher moving from the private to the public. Referring to a speech in the Symposium given by Alcibiades in praise of Socrates, Hadot describes how and why Socrates, and indeed any philosophy, must go public:
He reveals to mankind something of the world of gods, or something of the world of wisdom. He is like those statuettes known as silenoi – figurines that seem grotesque and ridiculous from the outside but that reveal statues of the gods when they are opened up. Thus Socrates, by the magical and demonic effect of his life and his speech, forces Alcibiades to question himself and admit that his life is not worth living if he continues to behave as he does. (47)
The ‘effect of his life and his speech’ is telling. It wasn’t only his life that inspired Alcibiades to want to change his ways. It wasn’t only his speech. It was his life and his speech; his private and public being. The philosophy of the ancients was not done in an ivory tower between the hours of noon and three. It was private philosophy, lived publicly. Philosophy was not a job or a means to exhibit extraordinary ability in order to claim some coveted status of sage, but a way of life intended to allow for the experience of a full human existence (Hadot 176). Philosophy was not limited to an academic discipline. Drama was also philosophy, as Nussbaum points out, and the Greek tragedy was not “understood to be an “aesthetic experience,” if that means an experience detached from civic and political concerns” (93). In other words, it was public philosophy. Thus, ancient philosophy can be characterized as a private and public transformative practice.
As previously noted, despite some traces of this practice still to be found in modern philosophy (Hadot 275), the main thrust and dominant form of contemporary philosophy is mostly limited to the logical analysis of the what-is, with little concern for a practice of enabling a full experience of being (Wilshire 118-119, 123). This is a bit disconcerting considering the numerous and complex challenges facing our post-modern world. This surely was said of all historical periods, but with the veritable explosion of technology making our world smaller and smaller, the situation of today is different than at any other period of human history. It is no longer enough for us to know what the world is; we more than ever need to know how to engage that world. In the face of this complexity, philosophy faces daunting challenges.
The history of thought is an ongoing conversation, with one epoch responding to the one preceding, while at the same time responding to its own unique challenges. Midgley wrote “the size and nature of our world picture determines the range of our moral horizon” (47). As the world grows smaller, our world picture necessarily grows not only larger, but also quicker. It is time for philosophy to formulate a new and morally adequate response to a conversation that has changed dramatically because of the unique historical circumstances and immensity of the challenges facing us today. The broadening of our world picture demands a broadening of imagination, and not a narrowing, such as the one that has dogged philosophy since the renaissance (Midgley 47). In looking back to the private and public nature of Socrates we find much of value that can enable the essential re-broadening of our philosophical worldview; a re-broadening which has become especially urgent in the face of the many social challenges which confront us.
With technological capabilities that would astonish people of only a few decades ago, we operate today with seemingly little insight on how to be in the midst of the other, in the midst of the world. We need insight. The complexity of today’s world makes answering the ‘how’ question anything but straightforward. Engaging the cultural, environmental, religious, and personal challenges before us is not possible without an adequate philosophy, but we are left with a stubborn intellectual inheritance that is based on enlightenment thought mostly concerned with self-interest. This has proven to be a dynamic inheritance, one that has strayed far into the embrace of empirical science in its search for philosophical universality. Mere recognition of the challenges and the resulting fear is not enough to motivate change (Midgley 44). This kind of philosophy tends to remain entranced with formal logic and concerns itself only with the pursuit of rationality in attempts to explain the ‘what,’ thereby making the experience of the ‘how’ more and more confusing (James, “Critique” 565, 566). In many ways we are engaging the world in ignorance, like rash young Phaëthon scorching the earth as he desperately attempts to keep his father’s sun chariot under control (Ovid 49).
This is not to say that progress has not been made, but only to draw attention to the fact that many obstacles remain. Much of contemporary philosophy follows all too often and all too closely in the footsteps of the distant ancestors of the enlightenment (Midgley 44), and thus falls into the futile exercise of verbosity and wasted intellectual energy. Through this, it usually fails to ask the right questions, and thereby fails also to offer anything of value other than tonnage of verbiage. The discussion between Habermas and Derrida in regards to the public or private nature of philosophy is one such example. It is interesting, but utterly useless in any larger scheme. It simply does not ask the right question, instead placing at issue whether philosophy should be private or public, or attempting to discern whether Nietzsche was a good private philosopher or a bad public philosopher (Rorty, 310). Rorty explains what Habermas called the ‘Philosophy of Subjectivity’ as “one more misguided attempt to combine the public and the private. It is an attempt to synthesize activities that would be better to keep distinct” (308).
This is not the real issue though. Despite Rorty’s claim to be working toward a reconciliation of the differing views of public and private philosophy, it remains “competitive rather than cooperative,” and is obviously in need of a “wider framework of other motives” (Midgley 46). What is needed is the broader recognition that the dichotomy of private and public is not a dichotomy at all, but different points in a single, cyclic progression, and therefore not even in need of reconciliation. There is also no need to combine the two. The conversation need not be dropped; it must only be realized that public and private philosophy is one entity, and should thus be encompassed as such by philosophers. The question that must be asked is not whether philosophy should be private or public, but how and when can or should any philosopher transition from private to public. This question must apply to everyone, for everyone, according to the ancient Greeks, engages in philosophy, except Gods, who are already wise, and senseless people who only think they are wise (Hadot 44).
Although compromise is a viable solution to many problems, the public vs. private question is not one of them, and we need not seek a middle ground. It is not a “hopeless gap between reality and ideals” that needs to be connected (Midgley 43) as much as it is a need for broader insight on how to navigate a single space of philosophy. There are times when philosophy should be private and times when it should go public. It is a sliding scale. All personal philosophy begins in private, and that is as it must be in order for a society to evolve. Nussbaum illustrates this through her essay on the importance of literature in cultivating narrative imagination and compassion in order to enable the individual to participate in a democratic society (85). Is this an illustration of public or private philosophy? Literature is public. Or is it private? The reader is reading in private. In actuality, it is a cyclical progression from private to public and back to private. Navigation of philosophy, not the perpetuation of the private or public dichotomy, is what must be nurtured through education. Not only is the private vs. public debate narrow, pointless, and a waste of time, but, especially in light of the urgency of the issues we face as a society and as a species, it is also irresponsible.
We live in a unified ecology of private and public philosophy. It is not possible for an evolved society to emerge from a constituency of un-evolved members. Likewise, it is not possible for an un-evolved society to emerge from a constituency of evolved members. By the same token, an un-evolved society cannot encourage an evolved constituency. This means that in order for either the individual or the society to evolve, philosophers must accept and engage the ecology of society as it is, and engage in private and public philosophy. Though it can be inspired publicly, personal philosophy must begin in earnest privately, and then transition into a public transformation. This is a necessary and integral aspect of private philosophy. If it is authentic it will by its very nature erupt into public philosophy. It cannot stay private. This is where anyone who engages in the debate of public vs. private has missed the mark. They overlook the true nature of transformation and attempt to assign it to either the public or the private, and fail to see that it is a cyclical progression, from private to public to private (or from public to private to public, depending on where one begins counting; it makes no difference to a circle where it begins or ends).
The ecology of private and public philosophy is not located within a static society. Any limitation of philosophy to the private is not due to some desire to remain private, it is a function of some parts of society to silence, or at best to ignore, those who threaten to upset their status quo. Our society today is a numbing juggernaut with arms of consumerism and celebrity, fangs of medication, and claws of conformity. Instead of engaging in pointless debates, philosophers are the ones who can challenge this juggernaut, and in so doing institute new lines of discourse, essential and meaningful conversations characterized by openness, which form the true bedrock of any democratic society (Sen 29). As society changes, the juggernaut will be de-clawed and the limitation of philosophy to the private will dissipate. Public philosophy will be encouraged and expected on a widening scale, and will further the de-clawing of the juggernaut. The cyclical nature of private and public philosophy becomes apparent.
It is somewhat astonishing, confusing at best, when Rorty says: “I want to see the line of thought that runs from Nietzsche to Heidegger to Derrida (even if this was not the intent of these writers themselves) opening up new private possibilities, possibilities only incidentally and contingently relevant to liberal social hope” (311). Instead of thus encouraging the perpetuation of the false dichotomy, philosophy should embrace the private and the public for what it is – a conversation of a single entity with itself. The transition from private to public is not a grand opening with a ribbon cutting ceremony, but occurs autonomously as a result of the person’s individuation process. This is not the same as saying that the public is incidental to private (Rorty 308), or vice versa. An inevitable and integral part of a cyclical process cannot be incidental but is essential and necessary. Any assertion that either the public or private is incidental is the assertion of the dominant universality of the other, which cannot be conducive to ensuring the adequacy of philosophy in the face of our current situation. Midgley says of the attempt at universality:
that quest was always a mistaken and trivial one. The kind of universality that can reasonably be sought seems to be a wide appeal to thoughtful people, coherent with the other ideals they accept – an appeal strong enough to lead to action and rational enough to fit in with important elements in existing morality. On all major moral questions, such appeals have many elements. They are made in different terms according to the kind of issue involved and the particular public addressed. Of course, the relation between these different conceptual schemes must be watched and thought out carefully. But moral pluralism of this kind is neither confused nor dishonest. It is simply a recognition of the complexity of life. The idea that reductive simplicity here is particularly rational or “scientific” is mere confusion. (53)
Mere confusion. The public vs. private conversation is mere confusion because it cannot have ‘wide appeal to thoughtful people,’ but even more so because it cannot be reconciled with experience and other elements of morality. The debate is divisive and unproductive. Private philosophy must be nurtured, and a part of that nurturing must be the unfolding into the public, which in turn must inspire new private engagement of philosophy, and so on. This cyclical nature can be reconciled with experience, and fits in with existing morality. Neither the one pole nor the other of the private vs. public debate can be universalized.
In his poem Bread and Wine, Hölderlin asks, ‘wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit?’ (what use are poets in times of need?) (156). The same can be asked of philosophers today – what is the value of philosophy? The answer is extremely relevant but becomes very difficult to answer in the ‘mere confusion’ of the search for the universality of private or public. The example of Socrates given as the archetype of a private and public philosopher might seem dated, as the context in which we find ourselves today is obviously very different. Perhaps we should find a more current example in order to discover the value of philosophy.
Recently, in a room full of highly intelligent university philosophy majors, I challenged the validity of philosophy as an academic discipline, asking what philosophy does that other disciplines have not taken over as their own and that they are not fully capable of doing well. The response was lively, as could be expected from philosophers. There were many points raised in the defense of philosophy, most of which would likely be agreed upon by most, if not all, philosophers. These responses fell into two main categories: 1) as the love of wisdom, philosophy is at the root of all disciplines, it is the ancestor of all learning, and 2) the other disciplines are not very good at questioning themselves and routinely get happily trapped in silos of outdated knowledge; philosophy practices self-examination and revision.
In these responses, we find the value of philosophy and the reasons why it must be private and public; why it is, in fact, both. Firstly, if philosophy is at the root of all disciplines, it is at the root of the discipline of social work. It does not need elucidation to say that social work can hardly remain private and remain true to its purpose. That being the case, it might be argued, let social workers be the public arm, as it were, of philosophy, let philosophy proper remain private. This argument is rejected though by the second reason – philosophy is adept at questioning itself and its assumptions with the goal of moving forward. If thinkers in other disciplines are not as skilled in this self-examination, is it really a viable alternative to expect them to be able to engage the immensity and complexity of the social issues facing us today? The astonishing persistence of many problems suggests it truly is not. Would philosophy not be better able to engage in a meaningful way the challenges of our contemporary world? The tradition of self-examination would certainly seem to indicate that it should be. It is essential that this tradition not be forgotten, and as it continues, it must not exclude from its examination the public sphere on the grounds of that being the domain of other disciplines.
It is difficult to give a final answer on the question of philosophy’s value to the contemporary world, but it is related to the question as to why or to which degree it should be socially engaged. Accepting the assumption that philosophy is self-examining and therefore better suited to be socially engaged in the modern world, the ‘why’ is easy to answer– because it is qualified and justified, indeed obligated, to not attempt to limit itself to the private. If it is to remain true to itself, it must engage the ecology of society in both the private and public. Unfortunately, attempting to answer the ‘to which degree’ question would be an attempt at universality. Ultimately, the extent to which philosophy becomes socially engaged must be dependent on the philosopher, who, according to Hadot should be the broader measure of philosophy (275). It is the ‘vital benefit’ of the philosopher which will determine the good (James, “Pragmatism” 377) and thus the reach of his or her private philosophy into the public. If the vital benefit of the private philosophy is real and transformative, the reach into the public will be inevitable, wide, authentic, and meaningful. The value of philosophy in the contemporary world lies in the moral obligation of all philosophers to determine for themselves their private philosophy, which, if authentic, will spill over into a passionate cry for expression of that value into the public sphere.
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