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.
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.