Monday, 27 June 2011


What is Philosophy by Jose Ortega y Gasset is one of the very few studies that describes the field of study, a task with which professional philosophers hardly bother. Like other academicians who do not describe their field but delve into it, philosophers immerse in the various branches of the discipline (13 total, according to some) such as metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, logic, language. etc. Other than sharpening and fulfilling the mind, what “cash value” does philosophy have in a modern technological society that has reduced human beings into commodities and consumers of commodities?

If philosophy has no “cash value,” is that the fault of philosophers who write for each other instead of addressing the entire population like a best-selling novelist? Recognizing that philosophy must be rooted in experience and in the masses instead of reserving for itself an elite and esoteric place among a few scholars, Ortega y Gasset argued that philosophy deals with the essence of life and allows people to gain a better understanding of life and society. Uncovering the multiple layers of one’s self and the environment that shapes those layers is philosophy’s goal, to return to the Socratic goal of the field.

A number of philosophers from Kant, Nietzsche, Husserl, and Heidegger influenced Ortega y Gasset, who lived during the interwar era when great thinkers breathed life into Existentialism from different perspectives–Sartre and Heidegger among the most influential and best exponents of the particular branch. Understanding Heidegger’s (Being and Time) and Sartre’s (Being and Nothingness), influenced by the former, is extraordinarily difficult and not very pleasant reading for the average person.

Even an elaborate glossary does not help, especially for Heidegger, unless the reader has substantial background in philosophy. This raises the question that John Eipper poignantly asked WAISers on 15 November: “why are modern philosophers incomprehensible? Is it because every profession needs its proprietary language, to keep out the amateurs? Have all the basic concepts been explored, à la Plato, leaving only the complex ones for philosophical reflection?”

With the exception of history, every other academic discipline has its own technical or proprietary language. In the case of philosophy, the difficulty emanates from the fact that the student cannot fully understand for example John Locke’s Treatises on Government without first having studied Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, and in addition having a fairly good command of the historical context in which both Hobbes and Locke wrote.

The reader of Locke or any other philosopher needs a broader sense not only of societal developments but understanding of the contemporary theories of science on which philosophy often relies. For example, the nexus between Locke’s epistemology based on empiricism and Newtonian physics provided the foundation for Enlightenment thought. Unless one studies the precursors to the Enlightenment (Locke, Newton and Descartes) it is more difficult to appreciate the Enlightenment.

Although a background in “Liberal Arts” education helps to understand philosophy, philosophers cannot resist writing for each other and to a large degree they have marginalized themselves, just as Ortega y Gasset warned more than eighty years ago. A very successful and influential philosopher, Bertrand Russell wrote in a very clear and simple style for which his works earned many distinctions and honors. This does not mean that to appreciate his works one need not study the historical context and the thinkers that influenced him.

In all cases, the manner that a person grasps philosophy or any other discipline for that matter, depends not merely on the writer but on the reader’s level of education, background, experience, social and cultural background,as well as the specific field of academic training. A banker understands the issue of wealth and poverty, for example, very differently than a theologian. Although both Protestant reformers, John Calvin with his legal background and political experience in Geneva (hieropolis) had a legalistic concept of Christianity that he imposed on the city, while Martin Luther with his background as monk and university professor did not have “puritanical legalism” as part of his doctrines.

From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, philosophy, profoundly influenced by the classical Greeks as well as Christianity, was an integral part of a general “Liberal Arts” education. Undergraduates studying philosophy were proud of the field instead of apologizing for “wasting their time” as today’s undergraduate majoring in chemistry may complain about “having to take a philosophy course.”

The advent of the Industrial Revolution accounting for advances in science and technology, and the practical application of the findings of these fields in the realm of business regimented educational training to the degree that philosophy became less relevant to daily life, associated increasingly with the aristocracy and the affluent who had “the leisure to engage in speculative thought.” The Industrial Revolution that accounted for changes in the social structure and institutions also brought changes in the value system of the Western World where philosophy’s place was gradually diminished.

As an ancient discipline rooted in religion and cosmology, philosophy from Locke’s “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” to Erwin Laszlo’s “Introduction to Systems Philosophy” and Ernest Nagel’s “Scientific Method” rely on advancements in science to explain the human condition in a holistic manner, although science within its framework of an institutional structure that influences peoples’ perceptions of it role.

Clearly Einstein influenced many philosophers, including Wittgenstein and Popper among many others, and philosophy in the 20th century would not be the same in the absence of Einstein. While it is understandable that the language and style of scientists must be technical and esoteric, the question is why must the same hold true for philosophers whose purpose as Ortega y Gasset argued is to enlighten the public about the essence of life, self-discovery and appreciation of the nature and the world.

The style, language, and method of philosophy, especially ever since Kant, is so out of reach for the general public that it has had less relevance to society and unfortunately less demand even in college curriculum designed to prepare students for a career by loading them with courses in their major field. While philosophers are partly to blame for making themselves less relevant, modern bourgeois society seeks out the “cash value” of knowledge and it does not have much use for philosophy any more than it does for creativity in the Fine Arts, unless of course it it has been reduced into a commodity like gold or pork bellies.

When William James wrote Pragmatism in 1907, philosophy still had some value for society. James was swept up by the Anglo-Saxon concept of “action-based, and results-oriented” value system that was popular during the era of Progressivism, an era based on the notion of improving self and society, mainly in the material sense of the word. John Dewey was also part of the era and he had a far reaching influence on American education. Material civilization immersed in pragmatism and a hedonistic value system has increasingly obviated the institutional need and individual intellectual quest for philosophy.

While I do not think that the time will ever come in human history that there will be no philosophy as a field of study, I also do not believe that there should be a Dummy’s Guide to Philosophy, (unfortunately, there is) as there is such guide for other fields, like accounting that people identify as “useful.” Today when society is confronting institutional structures that the political economy shapes and along with them the human mind, there is definitely a need for philosophers and academia to make philosophy relevant to society and to the individual no matter how the broader anti-intellectual culture militates against it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

......use ? ..... it helps to define priorities and preferences ... a very common problem ... Len Marten.