Howl of the Day: Feb 9, 2016

In an impressive article in the New York Times, Robert Frogeman and Adam Briggle call for a re-examination of the place of philosophy in society.

Articles like this one are much needed to inform discussions in today’s intellectual, political, and educational realms. The authors, Frogeman and Briggle, do an admirable job of tackling a difficult subject, and they do it in a lucid and accessible manner. Their article rightly draws our attention to some of the problems associated with the attempt to place philosophy into an academic setting in the 19th century. They show how these problems persist today and have indeed worsened over time, and they give some indication as to how it is not just philosophy which has lost it’s way, but perhaps all of human inquiry as a result.

There is a weakness of the piece, however, that is worth consideration. Frogeman and Briggle appear to overestimate the extent to which philosophy becoming lost has been caused by the trend toward specialization in the universities that it has ostensibly inhabited since the late 19th century. The authors do point to an earlier, more profound trend – the divorce of the sciences (natural and social) from philosophy. No doubt that is a greater cause of the loss than academic specialization. But wasn’t there always a problem?

Philosophy began with a problem – it was a comprehensive way of life (as we tend to forget) that was in tension with the demands of the city, or with political life. This tension constitutes, of course, the basic action of Plato’s “Apology”, in which the philosopher, Socrates, is put on trial by the city of Athens and sentenced to death.

Philosophy could never be part of the academy, nor the establishment, not really. It was at its outset and it remains a calling for rare and individual men. So what does it mean to lament its absence in the academy? Does philosophy really need the universities? Has it ever? Or do the universities need philosophy?

Perhaps a clue to the source of the piece’s weakness lies in the following assertion – “There was a brief window when philosophy could have replaced religion as the glue of society; but the moment passed.” In this, the authors of the piece appear to be paraphrasing the academic philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, and adding something of their assent to the view. But the very notion that philosophy, rather than being an irritant to society, could in fact become the “glue” that holds it together, or, in other words, that philosophy could become politics, shows how far adrift we have gone from understanding philosophy as a way of life, a difficult one, and one which furnishes the organizing principle of human knowledge. It is actually the mistaken idea that society can be governed philosophically, or that society can become philosophic in general, that undergirds the break between philosophy and science, the rise of specializations, and so much more.