What Philosophy Owes Society

How should philosophers live in the political world (also known simply as the world)? In many respects, this question explicitly animates the Vim. The question is implicit in everything philosophers, as philosophers, do. So let’s do what philosophers do: make what is implicit explicit. I mean this in two ways. First, I want to prompt some reflection on how philosophers think about their place in the world. In my view, many of those thoughts are self-serving and rooted in complacency. Second, by coming to recognize that our actions are political actions, maybe I can play a rhetorical role, one that prompts more self-conscious action. What I have is not so much an argument as an invitation. Like with everything at the Vim, if you can do better, do it.

For better or worse, I have shown my cards. If you are a philosopher and already outraged and annoyed by my first paragraph, what follows is for you. If you aren’t a philosopher, I hope much of what follows is insightful nonetheless.

Let’s start with a story.  

In 1665 Baruch Spinoza was working diligently on a highly abstract and challenging book called the Ethics. Its title is somewhat misleading since its main topics include theology, psychology, and epistemology. But he does get around to telling you how to live the good life.

The Ethics is among one of the most opaque and profound books in all of philosophy. But he decided to set that work aside when the political climate of his region of the Netherlands turned dark. There were bitter disputes over religious leadership; the ideals of tolerance and freedom, tenuously championed by a great Dutch statesmen at the time, were waning; and two of Spinoza’s personal friends were arrested for heresy. One of those friends, a doctor named Adriaan Koerbagh, was convicted and died in prison after a year.

Spinoza saw in the tragedy a dangerous mixture of state and religious authority. He saw people in his country losing their grip on important principles. The citizens were falling prey to fear, and hence open to those selling hope. So Spinoza, at 33 years old, entered the political world. He decided to do exactly what his friends were arrested for. There was danger. The stakes were high. Spinoza gave us a radical work that advocates democracy and freedom of expression. The Tractatus Theologico-Politicus was massively influential and nearly cost Spinoza his life.

Spinoza is my favorite philosopher not simply because his ideas are provocative (and mostly true), but because he was one of the best human beings in the history of philosophers. By all accounts he was kind, gentle, and a good friend. He is worthy of emulation.

He went on to finish his masterpiece, the Ethics, and we study it with interest and exasperation today. But it is worth thinking about the hiatus. What inspired or necessitated it? Had history unfolded differently, Spinoza would not have lived to finish the Ethics. Spinoza’s courage is the virtue that interests me most—a virtue found far too infrequently in philosophers. Especially today. It is true to say that people are doing courageous work today, but it is false to say that plenty of people are doing courageous work today

This raises a host of issues. Most broadly, I am interested in what philosophy, and the group of people who do it, owes its fellow citizens. In an ideal world, it would be nice to have a community of people studying recondite and highly specialized topics that don’t have immediate “real world” implications. We are happy that Spinoza wrote the Ethics, even though a relatively small number of people have read it, let alone understood it. But at times the real world intrudes and the specializations cannot but lose some of their significance. At times it becomes obvious that we don’t live in an ideal world. This means that when we choose our specializations, we are making a moral choice. The choice is implicitly a choice to neglect other topics, causes, and questions. Are we making the right choice? Do we go about making the choice in the right way? Why didn’t Spinoza simply keep working on the Ethics?  

I happen to think philosophers do a pretty crappy job of choosing their specializations. ‘Interest’, in my view, is not all that important. But I will set that controversial claim somewhat to the side. We all have an interest in living in a stable and just society—a society that, if we are fully and only selfish, at least allows for the open practice of philosophy as a career. But our lives are about more. Surely we aren’t fully selfish. We have families and hobbies. We need clean food and air. We need the confidence that we won’t be killed by a fellow citizen or a foreign airborne weapon. All of this serves as a necessary precondition for Philosophy. Professional Philosophy owes its existence to a certain type of society. It immediately ties philosophers to the political world. Since the political component is omnipresent, it is easy to miss, like David Foster Wallace’s fish asking, “What is water?”

We become acutely aware of the political tie when Philosophy comes under threat, when something upsets the idyllic academic life. Whether it is funding cuts in the department or the collapse of the national economy, there are moments that show just how much comfort and privilege Philosophy requires. We hope that it wouldn’t take a threat to Philosophy for philosophers to take political action. There are certainly many philosophers fighting and organizing right now. We should all be emulating them.

The question is then about how many philosophers society needs out there—in the streets, legislatures, city councils, headphones, and newspapers. The answer has to do with how serious and multifaceted the problems are. Broken societies need more from philosophers than utopias do. Philosophers are, after all, citizens—citizens who happen to receive a great deal from their society. It is therefore reasonable to say that philosophers, as philosophers, have civic obligations.

So we ask how serious the problems faced by society today are. But we must also think about the nature and character of the problems. I have suggested that we are facing a crisis of critical thinking. By this I mean that America—and, due to America’s power, the whole world—is facing dire threats because a critical mass of people are unable to consume media responsibly, recognize incompetence and poor argument, reflect honestly on their biases and moral commitments, and have serious rational conversation with each other.   

All of this falls squarely in the domain of philosophy.

So we can start to make out the outline of a shade of something that resembles a part of an argument. Philosophers, like everyone else, have an interest in living in a stable and just society. But the need for stability and prosperity hits especially close to home for philosophers. They need freedom of inquiry and plentiful funding, most likely from the government. So when a society appears to be losing its way, philosophers should remind themselves of all that they need. But consider the specific ways that we are losing our way. They come from a failure of self-awareness, a failure of critical thought, a failure of moral reflection. They come from a lack of what philosophy is meant to stand for.

At what point do we conclude that philosophers need to be better? I think we are at that point right now.Orange

I hear the responses:

  • “But America is an anti-intellectual culture.”
  • “But how much is it reasonable to expect philosophers to do?”
  • “But I’m not suited for public philosophy. Plus, my ideas are too complicated for the commoner.”
  • “Ok, fine. But what is the relationship between academic philosophy and public philosophy?”

Let’s explore these issues next.


1 thought on “What Philosophy Owes Society”

  1. I used to be optimistic that people would be forced to learn better critical thinking skills by encountering occasional “intrusions of history” into their daily lives. By “intrusions of history,” I mean those historical events that make it impossible to coast along an existing course through daily life. Dilemmas for which there are no “pat answers” to fall back on, no expert consensus (or perhaps multiple, mutually-exclusive, competing answers coming from a divided elite), no traditional rules of thumb, etc. Dilemmas like: an economic depression that causes people to lose their jobs and life savings, a military draft that scoops them up and sends them off to the Eastern Front upon pain of imprisonment, an invasion by a foreign power that destroys their city, kills their family members, and installs an oppressive government that is hell-bent on changing their culture or way of life, or a coup d’etat that installs a dictatorship that throws family members in concentration camps, etc. Granted, these are all horrible things to happen to people, and I’d be a real monster if I wanted such things to actually come to pass. That said, I used to be optimistic that, if such catastrophes should come to pass, they would at least have the silver lining of shocking people out of complacency and lazy intellectual habits.

    Nowadays, I am not so sure…for the following reasons:

    1. America is like the Titanic. Big. Magnificent. Powerful. Seemingly impregnable. Both were founded on some ingenious construction principles. Checks and balances. Dull-hulled bulkheads. Fail-safes. Most icebergs don’t scratch it. For example, America fights its wars overseas and usually wins them. In economic terms, when America sneezes the world catches a cold (although nowadays people are starting to say that more and more about China…)

    My history professor from Hungary used to tell us, “America is like Imperial Russia or Ming China. A great civilization. And by “great,” I mean big. You have miles of land and ocean separating most of your citizens from any would-be attacker. You hold your weaker neighbors in orbit. You are the Middle Kingdom, the center of the world. Like Imperial China, you show your arrogance not necessarily by disparaging other countries, but by pretending that they don’t exist. And you can get away with that attitude because you are so big and strong and wealthy. You are insulated from world events. You are not like Hungary or Poland or some small European country that has to worry if its borders or its national culture or its historical memories will exist a decade thence, and not instead be ground into the dust by some jackbooted thugs as your children are taught to be Russians or Germans or Romanians. You don’t know what it’s like to have to take special care to shepherd your traditions or ideas or memories through dark, evil times, lest they be lost forever.”

    What kind of event would it take to “rock the boat,” to seriously threaten America’s ship of state and the integrity of its civil society? All I know is that it won’t be pretty. It would have to be something that will make 9/11 or the “Great Recession” look like a flea bite. I remember the reactions to each. There was plenty of wailing and gnashing of teeth, scapegoating and hysteria, yes, but little soul-searching or critical thinking. Very little, “Hold on! Let’s back up, critically review our first principles, and make sure we are on the right track….” Instead, we got a lot of, “You know, people just don’t respect Comrade Stalin enough. There isn’t enough Stalinism in this country! I say we need two Stalins! No, fifty Stalins!” (Replace “Stalin” in the previous lines with “The War on Terror,” “government surveillance powers,” “tax cuts,” “de-regulation,” etc.) America is also like the Titanic in that it is slow to turn and has complacent lookouts—citizens who are likely to get blindsided when The Big One really does hit and they are forced to improvise some political response to that unprecedented situation. Who knows what their panic-stricken reaction will be after having previously given very little critical thought to history or political science or philosophy….

    2. I’m not so sure that even the most extreme events will reliably shock people out of complacency. One reason is that some events only appear extreme in hindsight. For example, daily life for most Germans did not radically change until about early 1943. Before then, if you were not a labor radical, a Jew, a homosexual, a Roma, an invalid, an outspoken Catholic, or some other outspoken dissenter, your daily life would not have been troubled by the politics of the day. Despite all of the horrible things happening to other groups up until then, for a typical German it was still easy to be complacent. There was no Gestapo knocking on *their* door (if anything, they would have been actively contacting the Gestapo to inform on others. The Gestapo’s police force was shockingly small, and the vast majority of its investigations were initiated from information that they got voluntarily by ordinary German citizens. Without them, the Gestapo would have been powerless (as it increasingly was in 1944, when the tips started drying up). It wasn’t the Gestapo that Germans should have feared the most; it was their fellow citizens).

    For most Germans, daily life only started to change in a major way in early 1943, when Hitler finally switched the German economy over to a total-war footing, and even then the only noticeable impact would have been that goods were more expensive or rationed, and some relatives would be off dying on the Eastern Front.

    Then, in ’44 the war came home to Germany’s borders. You’d think that would have been the tipping point when everyone in Germany would have collectively realized, “Mein Gott! We put a raving madman into power who has led our country to ruin.” To give the Italians credit, they DID realize that about Mussolini the moment American troops showed up on Italy’s borders, and the Italians suddenly discovered that they themselves were perfectly capable of throwing out his government well ahead of the foreign liberators (so much for the idea that the majority of Italians were merely the unwilling hostages of Mussolini’s government! Funny that, as soon as it becomes obvious that Mussolini had picked the wrong side in the war, the populace discovered that it was no longer paralyzed by fear of the “totalitarian” fascist state! And even Germany’s subsequent occupation of the northern half of Italy was not enough to deter the new resistance movement.)

    But in Germany? Not so much. To the credit of some of Germany’s generals, they did realize this and tried to assassinate Hitler. But not even all of the generals were onboard with that. And as far as Germany’s citizens were concerned, it is extraordinary how well the Nazi state held together and how much Germans continued to sacrifice up until the very last month of the war. A common justification was, “Hitler is doing everything he can to save us from the Bolsheviks…let’s hope we can sign a separate peace with the Americans and British and maybe even ally with them to take on the communists, who are obviously the real threat to civilization.”

    We are probably all familiar with the following poem by Martin Niemöller:
    “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Socialist.

    Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

    Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Jew.

    Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
    While this obviously applied to many in Nazi Germany, I’m not sure that this is as representative of the experience of the typical German citizen as most people assume. Rather, their version might have gone something like:
    “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Socialist.

    Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

    Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Jew.

    Then they came for anyone who expressed the slightest critical opinion of the government, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not interested in politics in the first place.

    Then they came for me—oh wait, they didn’t. Nevermind. I just kept my nose out of the government’s business and focused on my job and family, and until the last few years of the war the government and its policies were not particularly noticeable.”
    I say this not to argue that this is the attitude that Americans *should* take towards their government (oh, how I hate the reasoning that, “Only those who have something to hide should be worried about government surveillance. Just keep your head down and you’ll have nothing to worry about.”) I am simply predicting that this is how many (most?) Americans *would* react, even past the point where you would assume that “surely nobody could remain complacent after all of this!”


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