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.