Philosophy Weekend: Living in a Dark Age

Why does philosophy get so little respect?

I first noticed this problem when I was in college. Sometimes people thought I was joking when I told them I was a philosophy major. Others pitied me. “What are you going to do with that?” The true answer was that I was trying to learn some principles to live by, but I never got very far explaining that.

Nothing’s changed since then. The field is considered a joke, a dead art, a complete waste of time. At best, the study of philosophy is considered a quaint immersion in the past. Nobody seems to believe it has anything to do with the future.

Was it ever different? This is an important question, and I’m not sure of the answer. It’s a common mistake to think that past civilizations were better than ours. I doubt there was ever a golden society that embraced the pursuit of knowledge above the pursuit of wealth or material satisfaction. It’s our basic human nature to scoff at high-level intellectual pursuits, and this must have been true in every civilization since the beginning of time.

And yet, certain mythical golden ages and enlightened societies have come down to us in history: Athens in the age of Socrates, Paris in the age of Voltaire and Rousseau, Philadelphia in the age of Franklin and Jefferson, Austria and Germany in the age of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. There seem to have been moments in history when a civilization seemed to be thinking in leaps, overcoming boundaries and prejudices at astonishing speeds, making discoveries and laying down intellectual tracks of great importance. There were times when societies seemed to be thinking hard as a whole.

And, it’s safe to say, the society I live in today — roughly, mainstream American culture — is in a more muddled state than those listed above.

That’s not to say we don’t live in some kind of golden age right now. Our era explodes with creativity and innovation. Yet it seems to have been the case for at least the past hundred years that advances in technology — from cars to atomic bombs to computers — have badly outpaced advances in philosophy, psychology and sociology. Our tools are better than our understanding. We are often so dazzled by our tools that we freely admit to having no understanding — no philosophy, no ideals, no beliefs — at all.

I am constantly surprised to hear people I know and respect declare that they stand by no particular ideals. We are the agnostic society. This is the safest position to take. We recognize no moral principles at all, and trust nobody. Power and force are universally recognized as the only engines or our existence.

So we are living in a philosophical dark age. Whether or not Athens or Paris or Philadelphia or Vienna were ever really any better than us is questionable (they probably weren’t). Still, the level of moral cynicism I see and hear all around me is stunning, and I wonder why we can’t use our brilliant new tools — cell phones, the Internet, iPads — to reach a higher level of intellectual seriousness in the way we live our lives, and the way we discuss the choices we make. I think we ought to try.

Here’s one thing I learned when I got that college degree in philosophy, that degree everybody laughed at me for getting. Philosophy is a practical science. It helps you make better decisions. It can also help societies make better decisions.

This, I suppose, is why I’ve begun this weekend philosophy series here on Litkicks. I hope to write short articles each weekend that are interesting and useful on their own, and I also plan to develop some more extensive and ambitious ideas over the course of several weekly pieces.

For instance, the reason I want to establish that we live in a philosophical dark age is that another article I’ll be posting soon will answer the follow-up question. If we live in a dark age, what will it take to turn on the lights?

That’s the kind of question I really want to answer, and that article will be coming soon. Today, let’s just take a moment to recognize the darkness.

15 Responses

  1. Ah, the muddle. I’ve been
    Ah, the muddle. I’ve been reading David Bohm’s On Creativity and in Chapter Two “On the Relationships of Science and Art” he drills down on confusion, sorting out simple confusion–the kind of confusion that can arise from being in a new environment before one gets one’s bearings–and the muddle you’ve pinpointed. Bohm declares that:

    “…man has a fundamental need to assimilate all his experience, both of the external environmental and of his internal psychological process…

    …psychological experiences that are not properly ‘digested” can work in the mind as viruses do in the body to produce a “snowballing” state of ever-growing disharmony and conflict, which tends to destroy the mind as effectively as unassimilated proteins can destroy the body.”

    It can be dark indeed when buried under an avalanche.

  2. Is lack of respect for
    Is lack of respect for philosophy universal, or is it an American phenomenon?

  3. I would be surprised to find
    I would be surprised to find that there is anything uniquely American about it, Dan. However, I really don’t know for sure.

  4. “I wonder why we can’t use
    “I wonder why we can’t use our brilliant new tools — cell phones, the Internet, iPads — to reach a higher level of intellectual seriousness in the way we live our lives, and the way we discuss the choices we make.”

    This is a truly provocative question to ask, precisely because it seems so simple. We live in an age in which the free exchange of ideas and information is possible on a scale that would have seemed implausible to any other civilization, and yet at times it feels like our first impulse is to use these tools merely to more easily access pornography and hurl insults at strangers. Maybe in coming to terms with these new tools our higher cognitive abilities just need time to catch up? After all, it wasn’t like the invention of the printing press was immediately followed by a literary rebirth.

    I do take issue with the notion that philosophy encourages societies to make better decisions — sometimes it’s just the opposite. In fact, I would argue that some of the most interesting philosophers of the 20th century have been irreparably stigmatized because all their higher thinking couldn’t keep them from reaching some really bad conclusions. (Heidegger is the most obvious with his Nazi sympathies, but then there’s also Sartre, who leaned perilously close to becoming a cheerleader for Stalin at points. I would also argue that while Derrida had some frighteningly insightful ideas, in the end he couldn’t humanize them enough to make them mean much to anyone beyond ever-more esoteric theorists and professors, and all his philosophy ultimately wound up in this near-incomprehensible, rhetorical dead-end.)

    Anyway, I suppose I don’t really have many deep thoughts to add on the subject (I was raised in an intellectual dark age — can you blame me?), but this is a great intro to this new series of yours, and I’m very curious to see where you take it.

  5. it seems philosophy is always
    it seems philosophy is always relevant. what’s changed is the need for respect. or recognition. seeking it is the philosophy of most. acceptance, conformity, and mediocrity on one hand. rebellion, contratrends, and attention seeking on the other. the philosophy of “me” is alive and well. looking forward to these posts.

  6. Asher, I like the way you
    Asher, I like the way you think.

    The problem of philosophy is this: Whenever there is a golden age of reason, governments eventually begin raining bombs on the populace, putting the fear of God into everyone so we revert back to the lower stages of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

    Psychologist Abraham Maslow first introduced his “hierarchy of needs” in 1943. He proposed that human beings have five levels of need, and if the first ones aren’t being met, it’s very difficult to pursue the higher ones.

    The “needs” are:

    1. Physical – These are the most basic needs for survival, like water, food, air, and sleep.

    2. Security – Safety, shelter, steady employment

    3. Social – The sense of belonging, community, family, love and affection

    4. Esteem – Things that give you self-esteem, personal worth, and social recognition

    5. Self-actualizing Needs – Being self-aware, concerned with personal growth, less concerned with the opinions of others, the freedom & ability to explore new ideas without fear of persecution. Hard to do in war zones or climates of fear.

  7. philosophy is overrated…
    philosophy is overrated… and overrated by philosophers. honestly, it’s all talk and no action based on ideas, theories and opinions that only appeal to the philosophically-bent amongst us.

    what has changed in our world from the words of philosophers other than counter-productive arguments from the other side of the equations set forth by so-and-so..? do the words of one philosopher’s opinions make the lives of the hungry and sick any better? do the same words improve the understanding of our universe or make for better art to be appreciated? ask a philosopher the same questions and you’ll hear defensive arguments that spring from the intellect like a geyser spewing hot air which answers nothing but how much the philosopher thinks.

  8. I find the only way mentally
    I find the only way mentally to survive is to cede philosophy to the technicians who’ve pulled it from the very medium (to say nothing of the pursuit) of meaning. There’s something in this ceding (seceding?) of an _encounter_ with impossibility – cf. Bataille; impossibility as
    – displacer of object,
    – object
    and as
    – subject.
    Then again I’m a fragile sort.
    But if _thinking_ is to survive, both as individual and as collective practice – the two determinations are one, of course – I rather suspect it has to be broken of philosophy. There is of course no greater tribute to philosophy than that ….
    the index of a dark time

  9. I can’t imagine a better
    I can’t imagine a better thing to get one’s degree in than philosophy. I’ve never regarded college as a training ground for a career. I’ve always thought of it as training for the mind, and what better discipline than philosophy to train the mind?

    I think that often societies or civilizations concentrate on tools and technology for a while in a process of sorting and assembling information. Then, quite suddenly, a development in thinking occurs that leads to a time of philosophy and ideas.

    We are learning to handle enormous amounts of information right now. It is a development that is unprecedented in history. The computer has completely spun our heads around and it will take time for us to get our bearings. There’s really nothing wrong with this process taking one hundred years or more. Our entire energy is focused on sorting information. That’s why we can’t get back to the moon at this time. It’s irrelevant and distracts from what we’re really doing. All the information gathered during Apollo can be gathered in several days now with much cheaper equipment. Philosophy will not be harmed by this. It will return quite powerfully I think.

  10. The thing about studying
    The thing about studying philosophy, is that it’s sort of a pursuit for the privileged. Always was, probably always will be. Not that that’s a bad thing, but in our uber democratic modern world even the upper middle class must go out and make a living.

    Or, perhaps it’s because there are so many outlets now for leisure. Thinking is no longer the only respectable pastime for those who must never dirty their hands.

  11. I agree with Sue Lange. Most
    I agree with Sue Lange. Most people are stuck somewhere around levels 2 and 3 of Maslow’s Hierarchy, sometimes getting to level 4, but rarely to level 5 unless they are very fortunate.

  12. “Philosophy is a practical
    “Philosophy is a practical science.” Nicely put. And can I add many of the liberal arts fields to that statement? Such as literature or classics?

    Anyway, ours is quickly turning into a nation of doers and non-thinkers. Development and/or innovation have the very true possibility of falling on the wayside because our bachelor degrees are becoming more like technical degrees, where students learn to complete tasks without learning how to explore the world in which they live. Many students don’t think to ask why anymore, only if such things will be on tests or how can they benefit from it financially (that is, would it help them complete a job. And note, I did not say all, but merely many). I shudder to think what we’d do as a people without that practical science grounding us!

  13. blah! blah! blah! in my head,
    blah! blah! blah! in my head, I am falling safely tied to a rope that has come loose from its anchor, like having a debate on modern moral philosophy – what is the starting point? Perhaps I AM in 21 dimensions!

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