There was a time when Philosophy was one of the most respected intellectual disciplines in humanity. Philosophical greats such as Aristotle, Plato and Kant are world renowned today, even centuries after their death. Others like Pythagoras and Newton considered themselves to be natural philosophers, and their contributions to mathematics have made them scientific idols even today. Go to any society around the world, and you will hear of philosophers such as Buddha, Confucius, Adi Shankara and Ibn al-Haytham, who changed the course of entire societies. Even today, every single PhD candidate in any field at all, is awarded the title of Doctor of Philosophy, in recognition of the deep role Philosophy has always played in cultivating new knowledge.
Hence why it’s deeply jarring to see the derision and condescension heaped upon philosophy today. Not only by laymen, but even by fellow intellectuals. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the most public face of science, has actively denounced Philosophy, called it a useless field that detracts from real progress, and advised bright students not to major in Philosophy. Stephen Hawking, usually never a controversial or sensational figure, candidly declared that Philosophy is dead. Talk to the average Joe on the street, and you hear even more jibes.
“What did the Philosophy graduate say to the Business graduate?
Would you like fries with that?”
Looking at how Philosophy has fallen so far, it is time we had a soul searching discussion about why Philosophy is given so little respect by society, and what we can do to remedy this.
Many philosophers seem to take it as self-evident that their field is worthy of respect, and their status as philosophers entitles them to this respect. But before we can assume this, we need to first understand why. In order for any field to have value and be respected by society, it needs to accomplish a few things:
- Fulfill a need that society requires
- Build up a great deal of expertise, in fulfilling this need
- Demonstrate convincingly to a layperson, their superior expertise in fulfilling this need
Let’s take a look at certain professions that have achieved this well.
- They cure sick people, and save lives
- They spend a decade of their life training to be a doctor. They also conduct research clinical trials, studying the efficacy of various medical treatments.
- They publish studies, showing the efficacy of medical treatments, and how they are able to improve people’s health. They also conduct studies showing that non-recommended treatments are ineffective in healing diseases. At an anecdotal level, a philosopher trying to perform surgery will result in self-evident disaster. Hence why people trust doctors with all medical decisions.
- They design computer chips, which people need for all sorts of things
- They go to college and learn all the technical aspects of how to design a computer chip. They also do experiments and manufacture real chips to verify that their models are correct.
- They build computers that work. The proof is in the pudding. If a philosopher tried to design the next laptop processor, it would not even boot up. Hence why people trust computer engineers to design their CPUs.
- They operate businesses effectively, which is vital in a capitalist society run by businesses
- They go to college and earn MBA degrees, learning technical details and case studies of how to run a business effectively
- They build up their reputations as effective business leaders and managers. With time, businesses start trusting MBA grads as being effective leaders, and are thus willing to hire and delegate to them to responsibilities of running the business. If a philosopher with poor people skills and no understanding of company financials tried to run a company, profits would start dropping quickly. Hence why companies don’t hire non-business-savvy philosophers to run their business.
- They ask and answer important questions about how we should live our lives and pursue knowledge
- They go to college and learn philosophy
And that right there is the problem.
Bullet 1 is itself questionable to a layperson. Many philosophers do indeed wrestle with vitally important questions that do affect our lives. But many others engage in intellectual masturbation that society doesn’t care about, and is not affected by in any way.
But put that aside for a moment, and focus on bullet 3. Because this is where Philosophers lose all respect. How do Philosophers today demonstrate convincingly to society, their expertise in their subject matter?
In an ideal world, people will recognize the expertise that philosophers have when it comes to answering moral, ethical and intellectual questions. Hence, they will delegate to philosophers the making of moral decisions & methodologies for the pursuit of knowledge. In practice, no one ever asks a philosopher for advice.
At an individual level, they go to their priests, teachers or parents… and for the most part, they do just fine. At a scientific level, philosophers are hardly ever involved in major scientific research labs. And yet, these labs are making amazing progress. At a societal level, we elect lawyers, business leaders and career politicians into office, and they are the ones making all moral decisions in public policy… and they too are getting by without any problems. Why do we need philosophers when lawyers like Obama or actors like Reagan are doing just fine?
“But wait”, you say. “These guys aren’t doing ‘just fine.’ They would be much better off if they had philosophy training. Our teachers, priests and scientists would also be much better off if they had philosophy training. In fact, everyone would be better off if they had philosophy training, and listened to the advice of us sagely philosophers.”
Well, that’s all well and good, but can you prove it? Can you demonstrate this in a clear and convincing way? Because that’s how the world works. It’s not what you know… it’s not what you may think you know… it’s what you can prove. It’s what you can demonstrate.
I don’t know what form this proof or demonstration will take. Perhaps philosophers should be expected to write mainstream books and articles, and engage in current-events debates such as income inequality and immigration reform. Perhaps the standard for excellence in Philosophy should not be publication in academic journals, but rather, thought leadership in mainstream discussions over everyday societal issues. Perhaps philosophers should aim to establish their dominance in newspapers, the same way MBAs have established their dominance in corporate governance. This is an entirely different discussion worthy of extensive deliberation by itself.
But if we really think that the study of philosophy can add value to society, it’s time philosophy left its ivory towers, walked away from its silos, and started demonstrating its value to society. To every intellectual from other disciplines. To every layman. Because that’s what separates a profession from a hobby. Because that’s what separates a scientific discipline from intellectual masturbation. If we want philosophy to be taken seriously by society, it’s time to start proving its worth.