Philosophy in the Popular Imagination

In my life nothing good has ever come of the “what do you do” question. Once off my lips, the line “I work on moral philosophy, on ethics” can lead in only one of two directions. Either my acquaintance unschooled in philosophy will be almost preternaturally interested in what I have to say as if she’s happened upon some sublime creature only thought to exist on blanched parchment, or she’ll be absolutely dumbstruck by the stupidity of a life well-wasted. Though, chances are, her rejoinder could go either way, in this particular case she’s lighted on the latter path. “Philosophy, it doesn’t get you anywhere,” she states, reveling in a truth that she believes is as certain as the claim that now is night.

In instances such as the one above, I’ve yet to come up with a good reply, probably because there’s no such thing. A joke, you think? “Oh, I don’t know, it certainly puts you in debt.” Or a plea for clarification? “I suppose it depends on what you mean by ‘get you anywhere.’”

The truth is that neither will do. For if my conversational partner is genuinely interested in my thoughts on philosophy, then it’s likely because she has the wrong conception of philosophy in mind or it’s for the wrong reason. If, however, she’s not at all interested in my reply, then she “can’t be bothered,” as my former English landlady was fond of saying, with listening to a full rebuttal and she won’t brook a sharp counterexample. Like many others, she has already made up her mind—or, better put, her mind has already been made up for her.

To do philosophy in the public sphere today is to be immediately put on the defensive and, in most cases, to stand in the wrong. How we got to the point where philosophy has been put on all fours—either fetishized for not being a part of the real world or vilified for playing no part within it—still needs to be explained. A first, modest step would be to get straight in our minds how lay persons conceive of “philosophy,” “philosophers,” and “doing philosophy” and why this should matter to those of us who believe, somewhat antiquely, in the life of the mind.

                                                             * * *

The place to begin is with my interlocutor’s claim that when philosophers discuss something, they only go round in circles. By this formulation, she could mean one of three things: first, that philosophers get mired in endless debate that stymies forward progress, such debate yielding nothing in the way of concrete resolution; second, that they make something out of nothing, causing all parties involved to be brought to a state of mental confusion; or, third, that in the game of philosophy there’s no way to resolve who’s right and who’s wrong. These three doubts, individually and collectively, present considerable challenges to philosophy’s basic self-conception. The first doubt would have it that there can be no valid conclusions drawn from a set of competing claims, the second that no mental tranquility can be gained due to the endless jostling over definitions and the petty squabbling over overnice distinctions, and the third that there can be no certain judgments concerning winners and losers. Once we enter the philosopher’s world, the lay person believes, we’re bound to soon find ourselves in a muddle.

Rather than respond to each of the three doubts in turn (we’re not going to play that game, are we?), it occurs to me that it would be wiser to ask about what assumption lies behind my interlocutor’s worries. I suspect that she feels deep within herself the loss of faith in the power of reason to help us understand ourselves and our world. She needn’t be a relativist or a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic to believe this. She may simply believe that some hodgepodge of emotions, instincts, past experiences, hunches, friends’ advice, and expectations is better than reason at determining how we should act. By contrast, the philosopher’s belief that reason has its own set of powers (as well as its own inherent limitations) requires an attitudinal shift so profound that where once there was impatience now there is humility. The light of reason can only shine after we’ve discovered how to quiet our minds and distance ourselves from our “empirical self.” There is a long education of the soul, an itinerary of sorts, that leads ultimately to this state of mind, a path that the uninitiated hasn’t known or hasn’t taken and, in consequence, can’t find value in.

Still, my interlocutor might concede that if philosophy means anything, it means that everyone has his own personal philosophy. A personal philosophy, she might insist, is a fundamental set of beliefs that one lives by. Think of the book subtitle of the popular radio program “This I Believe,” “The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women,” as giving credence to this definition. In this vein, we would be justified in saying that a coach has her own coaching philosophy, a company its corporate philosophy, a party its governing philosophy.

I’m not so sure that this notion of personal philosophy gets us very far, for three reasons. One is that it’s not clear to me that the person espousing a personal philosophy is ultimately committed to this set of beliefs and not to some other. How do we know that she sets her course so that it lines up with her ownmost beliefs, or that, when the chips are down, she won’t jump ship, or that—to change metaphors—it’s not sometimes better to bend like a reed, as Haemon advises his father Creon to do, than it is to remain as rooted as an oak tree? In the end, how her beliefs line up with her actions has yet to be fully investigated. Another is that we would need to know whether the beliefs she stands by are worth standing by. Merely saying “this I believe” can’t be the end of the discussion but must be the starting point to any probing inquiry. And the last, already more than hinted at in my remarks above, is that philosophy, whatever it is and however it sets about its ultimate task of self-transformation, must be more than a doctrine; it must be a certain style of thought, a way of examining one’s life with the goal of determining whether the life I’m leading amounts to anything. The question concerning whether (and why) it’s a good thing to have a personal philosophy still remains unasked and unconsidered as if it were enough just to purport to have one.

“All right. But if you’re going to dismiss talk of personal philosophy as hopelessly ‘unphilosophical,’ then you’ll have to come round to agreeing with me that philosophy is otherwise useless. After all, it has no bearing on the real world, and it’s mostly an academic pursuit full of puzzles, word games, and the kind of thing that’s done in universities: up in the clouds, I mean, not done here on earth, and nowhere else.”

“Granted, contemporary professional philosophy has, in general, become unhinged from the concerns common to all of us. And, yes, the worst of it has degenerated into logical puzzles and the search for ingenious counterexamples and knockdown arguments. But, beyond these worries, I can hear in your voice the more potent criticism that philosophy is worthless on the grounds that acting is more important than thinking. ‘Getting things done,’ you seem to imply, should be ranked much higher than ‘pie-in-the-sky thoughts.’”

Suppose for a moment that my interlocutor is right. But then aren’t there times when we don’t know how to act and, what’s worse, times when we’re completely at a loss concerning how to go on and how we got to where we are, to a place we would prefer not to be? When we’re in a crisis over which we seem to have no control? When our lives seem no longer to make any sense? At such times, wouldn’t it be wise for us to try to think our way through it in order to come to some deeper, more complete understanding of ourselves and of our place in the order of things?

It is, I want to say, at such tragic moments that the moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s question concerning what we care most about and what (and who) is worthy of our care can’t but ring in our ears. At its best, philosophy asks us to be honest with ourselves. It teaches us how to look closely at the hand we’ve been dealt, to determine the extent to which we’ve helped or harmed ourselves and others, to figure out what ultimately matters to us, and to assess, in the most basic terms we can fathom, how we’ve lived.

Reason, it turns out, is neither omnipotent nor impotent in matters of the head and heart, philosophy neither so rare as to be entirely extinct from the world we inhabit nor so common as to be readily purchasable in the marketplace. Yet thanks to our mature recognition that things aren’tas they ought to be and thanks also to our desire to reconcile ourselves with the world, self-examination will continue to have a reason for being because it promises to bring us peace of mind.

About the Author

Andrew Taggart writes on ethics and lives in Brooklyn, NY.

36 Responses to “Philosophy in the Popular Imagination”