Friday, 12 August 2011

Does philosophy still have a place in modern society?

I suppose the popular view of philosophy is that it is just "a load of out-of-date beard-stroking with no practical relevance," or that, in a best-case scenario, it's just got something to say about [the meaning of life]( But it's much more than that.

Let me start by giving a brief history of Philosophy for those who think that it's just a "way of thinking" - as in "our company's philosophy is to give good service".

The term "Philosophy" comes from Greek, meaning love of wisdom. The ancient Greeks, from around 500 BC, until their schools were banned by the Christians, dedicated their time to theorising. They dealt with all manner of topics - mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and general issues like politics, ethics, and truth. The style of their philosophy was formal and methodical. Now, once Western civilisation reached the "Enlightenment" period, the various topics that philosophy used to cover branched off as separate sciences. Indeed, even now, the "Chair of Philosophy" in some universities is the professorship of Physics. Physics used to be called "natural philosophy". So historically speaking, philosophy is the parent of Western knowledge.

But is it relevant today? I argue that it is. Take Karl Marx, for example. An economist, you might argue, or a politician. But in reality, his work, Das Kapital, is primarily a work of speculative philosophy. It is only nowadays that we call his work 'sociology'; the term is a modern invention. Now consider Friedrich Nietzsche. Officially a linguistics professor, he was a philosopher. But if we combine these two men, we see the history of the 20th century play out before us: Nietzsche was admired, for the wrong reasons, by Hitler. And Marx by Stalin and Lenin. So the whole future of the 20th century, from World War II all the way to the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, was pretty much determined by the writings of two philosophers in the late 19th century.

If you don't believe this point, ask yourself, what was Jesus, if not an itinerant philosopher? His views on the world have determined the history of the over half the world's nations for 2000 years. Of course philosophy is influential, and of course it is relevant. We cannot begin to think or explain away any social movement without first referring to the philosophers who first penned its foundational beliefs. Consider Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the French Revolution. Consider Machiavelli and the Borgias of Renaissance Italy. Consider the Existentialists and Humanists, and modern socialism's concern for individuals' well-being. Consider Bentham and Mill, and the existence of modern democracy. The world would probably still be run by aristocrats if it weren't for them. Indeed, as the British Government mulls banning hoodies and Facebook due to the riots, they'd do well to read Thomas Hobbes who was quite in favour of such approaches.

But what about today, in the modern world, now that their job is putatively done? Well, let's think about it. What does modern philosophy offer? Before I begin, let me point out that there are at least four types of philosophy practiced in the modern world, of which I am only an expert in one. Specifically, they are: Eastern Philosophy, Continental, Poststructuralist, and Analytic. There was a humanist or Existentialist branch as well, but it is now considered Continental, largely. Eastern Philosophy, broadly speaking, covers the Eastern religions and their take on the world. Continental philosophy is work done by European philosophers who are neither Poststructuralist nor Analytic. Poststructuralists, sometimes called Postmodernists, are a recent variety of philosopher, owing most of their pedigree to French writers like Lacan and Foucault. Their primary concern is not with truth but with power. As such, their critical work is of great importance in sociology, psychology, and politics. I am not an expert in any of these; my area is Analytic, which is largely an Anglo-German affair.

Analytic philosophy concerns itself with correct argument structure, truth-seeking, valid and sound arguments, formal logic, and similar things. This may sound rather dry, until I explain further. This is just its method. The Analytic method also considers itself mathematically rigorous or scientific. That is, it aims to use only strictly verifiable premises or basic ideas on which to build its arguments; it dips into scientific evidence, and uses strict Boolean or computer-style logic to get its answers. Naturally, this is an idealised characterisation of it, but its style is unmistakeable. If you read a piece that concerns itself primarily with the meaning of a phrase or word, and it goes into many thought experiments, examples of use, counter-examples, and so on, you're looking at an Analytic work.

Why, now, would Analytic philosophy be relevant? Well, because of the particular arguments that it deals with by means of its specific method. Analytic philosophy is divided into four official areas: Epistemology, Metaphysics, Ethics, and Aesthetics.

Epistemology covers what we know, and tries to define good argument structure, and what counts as truth. As such, it forms the basis of Boolean logic, which is the foundation of all computers. Furthermore, in its search for truth, Epistemology does not take recourse in blunt statements like "God just does exist" or "I just have faith". No, it insists on logic and evidence. It is the basis, ultimately, of the scientific method. Most epistemologists in the analytic tradition believe that there is an independent truth, which humans can access. Some, however, known as relativists, do not believe this, and believe, rather, that truth is socially constructed. As such, epistemologists consider Poststructuralists to be a subset of relativism. This is a bit of a religious war, so I will leave it there. The point is: truth matters. Because truth informs our beliefs, and our beliefs determine our actions. If you believe you can get away with crime, you will likely commit it, for example. Do you know you will get away with it, or do you just believe it? And so on.

But now we are entering the field of Ethics. The subdivision of Ethics deals with whatever is good to do or not do. There are many positions inside ethics. Let me enumerate just a few. Relativists claim that the good is socially constructed. So, for example, they would argue that a Burqa ought to not be banned, because it is good for Muslims. However, they might be forced to defend Hitler. Absolutists, on the other hand, insist that doctrines like the Ten Commandments are the real good. Then you get pragmatists, such as William James, who argue that whatever makes sense to do, is good. Then there are consequentialists, such as J. S. Mill, who argue that the best consequences for the most people, is what we ought to do. This view, incidentally, is what really gave impetus to modern democracy. So it is not enough to say "The Bible says so". The Bible says you must stone witches to death, as well as your son, if he is disobedient. But we no longer live by those Biblical morals. Ethics provides us with the possibility of a better, more modern path to truly moral behaviour. It is of paramount importance in guiding us. Believe it or not, most modern ethics, such as "the right to privacy", originate in old considerations by philosophers. What about software piracy? Is that ethical? Music piracy? So what if politicians are corrupt? What about abortion? HIV/AIDS confidentiality? Ethics addresses these issues.

Now what about metaphysics? This deals with what exists. So, it deals with issues like what mathematics really are, what fundamental particles could really exist, and importantly, whether God exists. With the current climate of religious violence, metaphysics has an incredibly important job, in considering such a matter. Not that the vigorously devout will heed any answer from a philosopher - indeed, Colossians 2:8 says: "Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy". But philosophy has much to say about God, and much more clearly, than any religious text. Then there are the scientists at the LHC, who are trying to find all these various particles. They could do well to chat to a philosopher. They may find that they're wasting their time in a massive quest to understand something that can be answered more simply. Or they may not. They may find that the philosopher could clarify their theoretical constructs for them. What is space-time, exactly? What is a superstring, exactly? Does it exist? And if it exists, can we use it? Could there really be multiple universes? Philosophy addresses these questions.

Lastly, Aesthetics. This is of enormous sociological significance. Is pornography, for example, beautiful? Is heavy metal music or gangster rap beautiful? To whom? Why? Can any such things be justified? Is beauty absolute for all people, or is it relative to individuals? Is it relative to societies? Is a woman in a Burqa beautiful, or a fanatic? Is a woman in a bikini beautiful or a prostitute? Are Jackson Pollock's paintings - consisting of splatters of paint and nothing more - beautiful? Should you really pay millions for one? What about Picasso? Or Dali? Is Le Corbusier's crude concrete architectural style beautiful or an eyesore? Should city planners allow it? What about piercings or tattoos? Should they be permitted or are they ugly? Are anorexic fashion models beautiful or hideous? Should the body be exposed, concealed, reviled or worshipped? Is popular music rubbish, is classical music the only true music? Or is it dusty and irrelevant?

Philosophy has much to offer. We ignore it at our peril. It shapes our societies without us realising it. Studying it is like opening your eyes after being blind all your life.

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