Philosophy is DEAD!

I do my work in cafes. I am of the tribe of lone Mac toting, slow sippers, who ‘hot desk’ for the price of a double espresso. Amidst this tribe of authors, playwrights, English students, designers, entrepreneurs, aspiring or otherwise, I work, I think, I write. The hot young baristas serve me with friendly familiarity, yet with no suspicion of what I do.

I am a philosopher.

I tend to keep this to myself. There is a great deal of misapprehension about what that means — to be a philosopher. It can really kill a conversation, especially at parties, when a philosopher can no longer evade the question ‘so, what do you do?’ If eyes do not automatically glaze over, or the subject fails to be immediately changed, you risk the earnest: ‘Ahh, cool. So what’s your philosophy? Is it like Deepak Chopra’s, I think I’ve read something by him?’

‘Um…no. That’s spirituality.’

‘Oh, so what do you believe in then?’

‘Sorry, that’s theology.’

‘Well, are you some kind of psychoanalyst?’

‘No. Psychology.’

Once you have patiently gone via most of academia and beyond, you ask your questioner ‘so what’s your favourite movie/band/colour?’ and both of you get on with the evening.

If you are lucky (or particularly unlucky) you will get those who apparently know a thing or two about philosophy. Especially, the well-meaning scientist and/or just one of the millions who own an unread copy of A Short History of the Universe and/or have watched a Brian Cox documentary. They just want to teach you the error of your ways, declaring: ‘Philosophy is DEAD.’

Instead of ‘DEAD,’ the more subtle may describe it in various shades for faeces. Smiling politely throughout, this corrective barrage will only cease once — as a philosopher — you confess to being dedicated to the masturbatory. Of course I have had fulfilling, interesting, stimulating conversations about philosophy with non-philosophers of all descriptions, even at parties. Nevertheless, the overriding feeling is that being a philosopher is pointless academic folly. Parroting many eminent scientists, one predominant way to express this is to claim science is ultimately the answer to everything.

This is an interesting claim: ‘Science is the answer to everything.’ And its corollary ‘Philosophy is dead.’ An interesting philosophical claim. Yes, a philosophical claim. Well, it cannot be a scientific one. Science cannot prove it. No experiment can demonstrate it, nor can it be derived from some equation. It is not a scientific fact. It is a philosophical position. One entrenched in about 300 years of philosophical discourse. Unfortunately, well-meaning scientists at parties everywhere, once you make such a declaration you are doing philosophy. Actually there are some very eminent philosophers who could help you refine your arguments.

The confusion may lie in the fact that philosophy has been largely rarefied into ‘academic philosophy’ only to be practiced in the darkest corners of universities. Notwithstanding this, at its heart contemporary philosophy is still deeply concerned with the fundamental questions:

What is there?

What can I know?

What do I feel?

How ought I act?

Ancient philosophy expressed these questions singularly as ‘how to live?’ The enigmatic Oracle of Delphi posed the answer ‘know thyself’. Since Socrates, the enduring puzzle has been to work out what this could even mean, and how can we get from that question to this answer. Scientific method and its defence is (only) one of the longstanding attempts to work this out.

Still, you may not be convinced that this question requires a distinct field of study with dedicated institutions and practitioners. Surely, everyone is working out how to live simply by being alive! I agree — we are all philosophers. But, like everything, not everyone is equally skilled or well-trained; as some party-going scientists demonstrate, often, we are not even aware when we are doing philosophy. To address this, maybe philosophers should be less evasive at parties, but also, a more considered response would help. Let these conversations live. In fact philosophy started out mostly as conversations at Athenian symposiums, that is, ancient Greek drinking parties. Yes, parties.

To be a philosopher takes effort, dedication, training, and practise. In the course of this Blog, I shall explore the practice of being a philosopher. It is my aim to converse with you on the value and need to be good philosophers, and how philosophy touches your everyday every day. Most significantly, I am going to concentrate on philosophical practice, rather than, philosophical ideas, emphasising form over content.

I definitely consider it a privilege to be a full-time philosopher — to be dedicated to contemplating and critically engaging with these questions — but it is mistaken to think it to be a complete folly, a decline into masturbation. (Though, like every field we philosophers are not immune to this sort of behaviour.) Fittingly, some of the greatest philosophy came out of conversations in eighteenth-century English coffee houses. So it is apt that this, my opening conversation, is being composed in a cafe. Make mine an espresso…

Next time: Know thyself?

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6 thoughts on “Philosophy is DEAD!

    • Indeed coffee and I share a fraught relationship, depending on the day one shot can can be a sensuous, mindful moment or cause falling over! Nevertheless, I am glad my Blog can act as my proxy, enjoyed accompanying your flat white!

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  1. I too found myself reminiscing about cafe days with you. I can see us now as we sat in milk and honey (no longer there- perhaps because their service was lacking in actual service but that’s a story for another day). Studying for law exams while you did other writings having already finished your exams, encouraging (with the promise of fish and chips for dinner) the relentless preparation for exams. If only you were here now…..would much rather a coffee than being at work.

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  2. You said:

    “To address this, maybe philosophers should be less evasive at parties, but also, a more considered response would help. Let these conversations live”

    I think this cuts right to the heart of the matter. Some philosophers are too content in the fact that they can see that their work is of intrinsic value. If one is not prepared to say why one’s work is of value independent of the intrinsic beauty of the stuff, then I think one has lapsed into the masturbatory. Thankfully, I’m quite confident philosophy has extrinsic application as well. Most of the concepts we deal with are so entrenched in human thinking, it’s hard to think of a philosophical argument that would have *no* bearing on how people behave. We just need to get better at explaining why people should be interested.

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    • I agree! Though, I am not sure that there is a strong intrinsic/extrinsic distinction in value. I think one, if not ‘the’, way that philosophers should express the value of their work is in the everyday, ordinary questions that any person would have cause to wonder. (It may not be something we regularly, ordinarily wonder but something we have cause to, and whether or not we value that wondering is a different question.) For example, I struggle to track the technical terms and abstract thinking of focussed areas of philosophy of language/linguistics/semantics, but I do wonder about the questions that I understand to underpin much of it; such as, language can be vague, ambiguous, disordered, and changes, so how can we say anything that makes sense? Or since language is so vague, ambiguous, disordered and changeable how do we make sense of it?
      I suggest this cuts both ways. Philosophers can and should express their work in the everyday to the everyperson; but also, if philosophers cannot express or link their work to the everyperson in the everyday then it is not clear that such work should be pursued philosophically. I think everyday is very inclusive, so little philosophy should fall into the latter; rather, for me, I think everyday expression is a good test to keep my philosophical work grounded and relevant.

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