Monday, April 11, 2011

Mailbag Monday: The Future of Philosophy

Mailbag Monday: A weekly segment that covers readers' questions and concerns about all things Philosophy, Bro, and Philosophy Bro that don't quite fit anywhere else. Send your questions to with 'Mailbag Monday' in the subject line.


Zummy writes,
To me, it seems like philosophy is becoming less important over the years, maybe because all the older gents figured most of it out now, or that people are just losing interest in the subject as a collective whole and moving on to more technical stuff for our industrial society.  While I like the subject, I haven't indulged much time into reading/looking/researching much of it.  What do you think about the trend of philosophy and philosophers?  How do you feel about modern philosophy vs. ancient, and the outlook of future philosophy?  What do you think about the role that philosophy plays today, as apposed [sic] to Hellenic Greece?

Interested to hear what a more seasoned bro has to say about this.
Good question Zummy, and it strikes very close to the heart of the broad project that is Philosophy Bro. Why does philosophy matter? Does it make a difference to the lives of individuals? It's also a pretty fucking important question - indeed, urgent - in light of the ongoing battles in a practical sense over funding philosophy. For example, not long ago the Nevada state government proposed cutting the entire philosophy department at UNLV - if philosophy is useless, or largely complete, why bother?

Stephen Hawking has attacked philosophy from a different direction - he has expressed the opinion that philosophers like to sit around and argue with each other, but that it has little practical value, and scientists who ignore philosophers are making headway nonetheless. "Yeah, philosophy was once useful. Karl Popper? Falsifiability? Quine on holism? Important as shit. But who gives a shit over whether everything is made of properties or sets? Why does it matter if possible worlds are propositions or concrete objects, or whether there's a completely inaccessible world behind our perceptions? We've got better things to worry about. While you guys are busy arguing over whether there's a soul or not, we're inventing fusion reactors and curing cancer, bitches."

I don't think that's an unfair criticism of some philosophy, to be perfectly honest. I once heard a philosophy student tell a physicist that it's impossible to conclusively prove anything, and the physicist went, "So the fuck what? First you said we can't know truth. Fine, so we went with certainty. Then you said we can't have absolute certainty. So we said 'Fine. We conclusively know that this theory is truer than that one.' Now you want conclusive too? Whatever, bro, just give me a word I can slap on the progress we're making, so we can go back to unraveling the universe. I'll name it after your grandma if that's what you want, as long as you leave me alone." Hawking's point is this: we can now pinpoint someone's location using satellites we put in space that know to correct for Relativitistic effects, and the shit works. Who cares whether relativity is true or explainable?

Back in the day, we still had some important questions to answer - how do we know things? Aristotle said something like "we know x if x is true, we believe x is true, and and we have good reason to believe x is true." We accepted that for literally thousands of years. Then a bro named Edmund Gettier came along and blew all that shit up with one three page paper, and since then  philosophers have scrambled to come up with an account for how we know things. But it's not like people are standing around paralyzed like, "SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME HOW I KNOW THINGS SO I CAN GET BACK TO MY LIFE!" They just... act like they know shit. 
We used to wonder how governments could be legitimate - there are a couple opinions out there, but some bros have proposed different social contract models; Locke even helped lay the groundwork for the American Constitution. Rawls pushed us toward what he sees as more just governments. But while philosophers are arguing about how exactly social contracts work, it's not like governments are grinding to a halt with bated breath, waiting for an answer as to exactly how people participate, or should participate, or can participate. They hold elections and go about their business. If they're shutting down, it's for significantly different reasons. So it seems like contemporary philosophers have become caught up in nitpicking, while the world moves on.

Even some philosophers have felt this way. The Philosophical Investigations, certainly one of the most challenging works of philosophy in the twentieth century, seems to be telling us to get over ourselves and get the fuck on with our lives. How do we know what words mean or how we know things? It doesn't fucking matter - in fact, they're bad questions. We have to start from somewhere, and a philosophy that tries to undermine everything gets us nowhere. Question how language works all you want, but people are going to keep speaking. Investigate the nature of pain all you like, but we all know what it's like to hurt. Richard Rorty, a philosopher who eventually left philosophy to teach the humanities at-large, constructed a society in his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature that doesn't even have a notion of souls, but still believes in the afterlife and functions just fine - in fact, we would be able to communicate with them quite easily, even though they seem to be strict physicalists. His point is, even beliefs about things like religion and morality don't depend one fucking bit on which "metaphysics" we endorse.

For some reason, whenever a reporter asks a philosopher about Hawking's criticism, they always find some charismatic jackoff who is willing to jettison large portions of philosophy and defend only the obviously useful stuff. Does philosophy have an answer to all of this, or are we just a big giant fucking circlejerk at this point? Is the outlook of philosophy as bleak as this? Do philosophers have a role to play?

Look, maybe I'm a bit biased, but I'd say fuck yes we do important shit. Just because it looks like we work on fringe cases doesn't mean what we do isn't important. Consider the problem of psychopathy - there are bros in society who seem incapable of remorse for crimes, who will definitely commit crimes again given the chance, and it looks like they're born that way. Should we lock them up for life? What if they haven't done anything wrong, they just have a predisposition? Should we watch them closely? This is a problem law-makers deal with every single day. Is it fair that these bros can't help it, through no fault of their own, and we want to lock them up forever? Sure, perhaps lawmakers aren't sitting around waiting for us to come up with an answer, and we have a framework for punishments for 99% of lawbreakers. But these one percent of cases are fucking tricky, bro, and we're playing with people's lives. Philosophy of law matters. 

What about treaties? Once (if) Egypt gets a stable democracy, are they bound by a treaty with the US and Israel? If not, do Israel and the US still have obligations to each other? Political philosophy matters.

How should we treat the mentally ill? Well that depends on what exactly 'the mental' is. Is the mind just the brain, or does it 'emerge' in some relevant way? Philosophy of mind matters.

Peter van Inwagen advanced the thesis that there really is no such thing as 'chairs' or 'tables' or, really, anything except 'atomic' particles arranged in certain ways and living beings, which do exist. "Yeah, but I'm still sitting and reading on a non-living computer. How could that matter?" Except it has really important things to say about our identity as physical beings and whether destroying our bodies and putting them back together is okay, whether that will affect us as persons. Even metaphysics matters. If someone commits a bunch of crime, gets amnesia, and starts a whole new life where he's not a huge dick, can we fairly punish him? Is he the 'same person' who committed the crime?

Kripke has argued that, since eggs split in the womb to make twins, even after conception you could have been you, you could have been you and your twin, or you could have been your twin - when does personal identity start? But that argument works way better on a Plantingan conception of modality than a Lewisian model - so even shit like modal metaphysics matters.

But, I think, more importantly: people are going to do philosophy one way or another. When a politician argues that a bill unfairly impinges on our freedoms, he's doing philosophy. When someone expresses a belief in God, she's doing philosophy. If we stop teaching people how philosophy is done, we're not going to get less philosophy, we're going to get shitty philosophy, which leads to shitty, incoherent policies. And the argument that contemporary philosophy works on 'useless fringe cases', that we have enough groundwork to function just fine from day-to-day, isn't very convincing - sometimes, fringe cases are important as fuck.

Here's an analogy to physics: back in the 1900s, Lord Kelvin, a big fucking deal in physics, said "Look, physics is almost done, kids. Really, there are only two problems left - how light works, and how the atom works. Once we solve those, it'll be done. And we're real fucking close. So don't bother with physics - study something else." Except those two problems gave birth to General Relativity and quantum mechanics respectively - they turned out to be real tough problems which have opened up a shitton of avenues of research. 

After he published the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein thought he'd solved all of philosophy and went off and taught kindergarten. In his spare time, he gardened. Yeah, he was that fucking sure. Eventually, though, he realized some things about language, so he went back revolutionized (again, the asshole) the way we did philosophy, the way we thought about language - and it was all because someone asked him about the meaning of an obscene gesture. That's pretty much as fringe as they come, isn't it? "What does 'fuck you' mean?" is the question that spawned maybe the greatest single collection of ideas in a century. We never know when the next big breakthrough is coming - John Rawls came out of nowhere to argue about what justice is, and he influenced generations of thinking about equality and justice.

So, in Hellenic society, they were working out some pretty fundamental questions, so fundamental that there are plenty of areas of philosophy still split into Platonic and Aristotelian camps. Yeah, they did important shit. And bros like Hume and Popper and Quine revolutionized how we did science; bros like Locke and Kant and Mill revolutionized how we thought about morality and government. And all of these revolutions influenced how people interacted, what governments did, and so on. Now w're working on more specific shit, but "fringe cases" aren't always small cases - sometimes they can lead to even bigger revolutions than what preceded them.

Besides, how people think, even when it's not obviously applicable, affects how they act and what they support - Heidegger's radical ontology, which seems pretty obscure, led him to lend his support to the Nazi party (Godwin's Law! I know, I know); so even fights about what existence means have had historical impact. 

Not all philosophy is as useful as the examples I've given, but that's not the point. People have questions, and just because they can't test answers doesn't mean they don't want answers. Philosophy will continue to inform decision makers and ordinary people on a whole range of questions, some more important than others, but all of which have assumptions that must be challenged. That's why I advocate learning philosophy as a set of methods before learning it as a history - asking the right questions is as important as knowing what has already been asked.

If you're interested in some of the philosophical underpinnings of post-modernism, or critiques of philosophy as practiced, pick up Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, which doesn't get read enough in departments anymore.

Seriously, if you want to take your game to the next level, Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations are really important. It's where he repudiates much of the attitude that spawned his own Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

John Rawls' A Theory of Justice and Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia completely changed the direction of political discourse in the mid-twentieth century.


  1. Thanks for the post, bro.

    If you're interested, Bill Vallicella of "Maverick Philosopher" has a similar post up here.

  2. Zummy here,

    Thanks for answering, that's awesome enough as-is.

    Your answer is even better. I'm definitely picking up those books now that you mention it. I haven't heard of any of them, so I'm glad you brought them up.

    Keep it up, I loved the read, and I'll keep looking forward to updates.

  3. Thanks for posting this, bro.

    Here's my take, based on the top classifications of philosophy:

    Ontology - Pretty much synonymous with philosophy for many people. These are the big questions that have never been solved, that everyone ponders about from time to time (usually when high). Also, some ontological theories can have important ramifications at the boundaries of theoretical physics.

    Logic - This is the foundation of philosophical thinking. How to argue logically, how to judge the validity of an argument, how to derive logical conclusions. Very important stuff. Also, logic forms the basis for computer programming, which is important for things like, oh, the Internet.

    Ethics - Duh. We still haven't created a completely just society, so ethics is still as important as it ever was in helping us to determine how to treat other people, as well as animals and possibly the environment.

    Aesthetics - Art and beauty are no less important in modern times than they were for the Greeks. Our aesthetic values help to guide the design of the world around us, and have a vital impact on human experience.

    Epistemology - A big part of philosophy is about questioning your beliefs, and epistemology plays a huge role in that. Also plays a role in disciplines such as psychology and information theory.

    Philosophy of Mind - Probably one of the biggest philosophical questions out there is what is consciousness. The answer could completely change the way we view the world. Also has ramifications for ethics and ontology. See also robots and artificial intelligence.

    Philosophy of Religion - Yep, religion still plays a key role in human affairs even in the 21st century.

    That covers most of the main ones.

  4. Nice post there bro. Another recent attempt to show the importance of philosophy has also been made by Martha Nussbaum in her book Not for Profit. In this book she shows how philosophy can teach people how to be awesome bro's (or fro's, female bro's) instead of mindless dickheads who only care about themselves. She shows why philosophy and the human sciences should have a more influential role in our educating system.
    Education seems to be focusing more and more on (practical) knowledge and less on how to live your life properly. For example: manners, ethics, broisms, etcetera. Or, as Lyotard puts it in his book The Postmodern Condition, there a more forms of knowledge then scientific knowledge alone. For example knowing-how-to-listen, knowing-how-to-act, etcetera.
    And it's a shame education in the Western world seems to be focusing more and more on scientific and practical knowledge alone. I think that's also one of the main reasons philosophy now a days is in such a bad position. We just want to educate people that have lots of practical knowledge so they can keep the economy growing and make us lots of money. The fact that those people don't learn proper bro manners any more doesn't seem to be an issue.

  5. "If we stop teaching people how philosophy is done, we're not going to get less philosophy, we're going to get shitty philosophy"

    Excellent job!

    Interesting comment you made about Heidegger. That was sort of what Levinas criticized him for: a human could approach him, and he would "let it be" to try and find some neutered universal conception of Being, thus completely ignoring the "face of the other" who speaks to him. As Levinas, and the Existentialists, showed us, ETHICS is perhaps the single most important topic for philosophical consideration. Why? Because we're always already doing it.

  6. All of your arguments explain why people should think critically but most of those problems are likely to be solved by people who are not necessarily trained philosophers. The philosophy of law? Solved by lawyers, Treaties and social issues? Solved by politicians. Now I'm not saying philosophy is not important, I think it is one of the most fundamental things to explore in life. But if you want to make a difference why become a philosopher and simply think about problems when you could become a lawyer or politician or physicist and apply your philosophies to improve humanity?

  7. @10:56 -

    Engineers might make a parallel argument about physicists - why become a physicist and sit around and do math all day when you can make a difference and design things?

    The answer is, at important, cutting-edge cases we need experts. Engineers couldn't solve general relativity, they just use it to design skyscrapers; lawyers can't solve philosophy of law, but they can apply it. No politician in the world could have written A Theory of Justice without dedicating his work to philosophy in a more-than-casual way.

  8. Well put, I agree entirely. It is interesting that you should use engineering as a parallel because I chose engineering over physics and philosophy for the very reason of real world impact. But I have profound respect for those who choose to be experts in those fundamental fields

  9. That was an excellent read.

  10. Possibly the most badass essay I've ever read. We'll see if anyone gets away with telling me my major is useless again.

  11. Very good read here. The discussion of philosophy and relevance will be here and there for awhile but in all reality lost forever with web technology and citizens thinking they have evolved beyond basic discourse. The problem is Philosophy serves as a bedrock of rational thought and maturity. Our reality TV world will eventually destroy it. Logic that evolves from rational discourse is endangered and in mainstream education/culture will dissolve through loud voices and emotion...your blog is nice...but expiring.

  12. Thank you for the excellent post. I'm feeling a lot better about pursuing philosophy in University now.

  13. Much love for including Nozick and Rawls too few people actually take the time to read. I would just include one more thing, that part of the reason philosophy is seen as becoming obsolete is many philosophers refusal to interact with the sciences and to engage in philosophy in a modern way. You, however, are doing so and I commend you for that. I will be fallowing your blog from now on.

  14. bro, thank you.


    This for me was the best rebuttal of Hawking's claim that Philosophy of Science is dead and worthless.

  16. "Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways — the point however is to change it."

    - Karl Marx

  17. BRA - it's like these people are judging philosophy from a purely Utilitarian I the only one who sees the irony in that?

    I agree with what Takeshi said. Philosophy our tree of knowledge. Entropy makes it seem like the branches are more important than the gotta be true to your roots bro.

  18. so what about Derrida, Deleuze, Agamben and so on?