Is Philosophy Irrelevant?


Is Philosophy largely irrelevant? Or at the very least, no different then say, gardening?

Like many other people, I always hope that when I teach logic it would help my students to argue more effectively, more critically, and really, more logically. I am not the first I am sure to be disappointed. Even the students who can understand and conceptualize the techniques of logic often can’t seem to execute these skills in day to day situations. What they learned in the logic classroom becomes irrelevant. All that ” logic stuff:” truth-tables, syllogisms, Venn diagrams, existential factuals etc. were of no use to the reasoning students face day to day, whether in another course, or while listening to our country’s leaders prate upon god knows what. The addition of critical thinking to the term logic, thus creating the Logic and Critical Thinking course, which was supposed to curb some of these problems by making it more relevant (let’s look at arguments found in our lives using some fancy techniques), but it is more of the same. Many of my students are all too ready to take things at face value, often misunderstanding rhetoric as rhetoric, misunderstanding the role ideology plays in daily life, and often have trouble recognizing the difference between a nicely constructed argument and a fallacious one when we compare them side by side. While I understand this as the my role as the teacher, e.g. to teach how to dissect, analyze and critique an argument, it’s rather disheartening sometimes.

Many of my students are lower/middle class and come from families not part of the meritocracy. I think that on the whole the institution I work at has an opportunity to convince its students of how little “gnosis” (as someone I know puts it) we actually have in our possession, and how dangerous is the illusion that fulfillment can come from either spiritually-minded or political ideologies. My students are not suspicious enough, however much I prod them. Nothing seems to faze them. However, I think this is a symptom of the broader American culture.

Consider this. Why is the work produced by/within the American Philosophical Association (and here we may as well add those identity-politic festishizers over at the American Academy of Religion) completely ignored by the rest of the country? Why don’t congressmen, business leaders, the White House, have “philosophical advisors?” One might point to the last 100 years of philosophy. Many of the recent philosophical trends, not least deconstruction, part of the general “turn to language” in the 20th century–a movement, as one of my friends would argue, that began with Hegel–seems on the face of it to be largely irrelevant to the concerns of the larger population. And why not? Let’s take the “recent deconstruction phenomenon” for one example. In one (albeit reductive)sense, isn’t “deconstruction” simply the continual clever manipulation of words, syntax etc? This points to another question that gestures back to Aristotle, do philosophers in the academy concern themselves with the “good life?” Or other forms of life? One might even ask if philosophers in the academy are actually philosophers in this sense?

And this points to another problem: the vast amount of secondary literature that is produced, is on the whole, solely produced to be a line or two on the cv. The publish or perish attitude promotes this, which in fact is flooding libraries, the internet, bookstores and databases with largely monotonous, narcissistic mediocre academic drek (I include myself). I wonder what it would mean to refuse this structure. After all, philosophers weren’t bona fide professionals until the late 18th or 19th century.

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14 thoughts on “Is Philosophy Irrelevant?

  1. i think this is a rather large issue that probably demands more attention but i’m not sure i would say philsophy has ever been really relevenat or “useful” in a sense and i’m not sure it should really concern itself with such tasks – yes, students won’t be able to use “logic” much even if it seems to be one of the more “useful” subjects or “ethics” or even things like “aesthetics” – partly it might be the fault of the philosophical establishment, the academy, but partly, it seems, it’s just the general development of specialization both in terms of philosophy becoming divided into narrrow fields and the outside society becoming more and more fragmented and specialized to a point where a coherent view of reality is not longer “relevant”… say more about you second point on the narcissistic drek – i’ve been thinking about similar issues lately, maybe we can have a full-blown blog-fight – it’s about time this blog had one of those…

  2. It is a large issue, I know. However, what started out as a post about how I become disheartened by my student’s lack of surprise or astonishment along with some of their inability to “apply” the techniques of logic led me to thinking about more general problems, such as “What is the University and what role does it have in our culture? “What is philosophy?” “Why is philosophy so irrelevant to American culture? To the question what is philosophy, we could certainly say well, philosophy is about creating concepts, philosophy is about posing productive questions, philosophy is like a toolbox etc.

    The question, what is the university, is quite problematic. Is it a marketplace of ideas? I’m not so sure. Grade inflation, I’m convinced, is a cover for lowering of standards; and student evaluations, a device to trick the students, which encourage their anti-intellectual equation of the good professor with the one who gives them all grade of “A.”

    Have the universities have renounced their historical task of cultural critique and embraced their role in making sure that the students are satisfied as they increasingly act like demanding customers? Horowitz, somewhat, shall we say, misguided at best, on the university, suggests I would think, that grade inflation is a symptom of the leftist indoctrination of students and of the larger university’s role in directing students towards the left. While this is a rather overstated (if not paranoid) case, it is interesting to note that Horowitz claims to have been a leftie in the 60s, and is now a neo-con, which seems to me to be two sides of the same coin. Indeed, it was not only the far left that pointed at American complicity in 9/11, but also the far right. It is the University’s job to be critical of the broader culture, not to perpetuate it, extend it and accelerate it into the mediocre. There is no genuine debate because uur politicians “know” their “truths” the way fascists were and are similarly convinced of their superiority.

    However, one thing that this neo-con assault on the university has gotten me thinking about is the stupidity of “social justice” and “Justice and Peace” programs/majors!! What the hell, isn’t this just disciplining that which we can identify, rather than about which we can study? Let the stupid AAR do that work, oh wait, they already do, yawn.

    The point that I am leading to is this, if the university itself has become something other than it should be, e.g. marketplace of ideas, critic of culture, favoring more of a bottom line mentality, then what does that make those who teach philosophy in departments? The University should be in the business of cultivating and producing creative, lone voices that stand outside of the pack, rather than more of the same. To embrace the marketplace metaphor, I cannot do more than let the students choose, even if their ability to choose is undercut by a number of unfortunate cultural trends, not least American pornographic (the bad kind that introduces a cool distance) culture itself, bottom line educational mentality etc. Then, much of the work, much of it narcisistic drek continues to pour out of the academy, “oh look how clever I am, I’m so bright and morally superior to boot” which is a reflection on the larger capital driven society, up production forsake quality. Anybody who has written a dissertation knows that there are tomes of secondary literature, but how many of those people actually had something novel or interesting to say, something that wasn’t a hair splitting disagreement without real consequence, something that wasn’t a repetition of previous interpretations through a new “lens” and on and on. How many people really have had something interesting to say about Derrida? Of course, I am generalizing, there is good work being done, but ultimately, to what ends? Perhaps, if one is to be serious about living “the good life” and cultivating the “life of the mind” it is best done outside of the traditional University system , or, to simply refuse the “publish or perish” mentality and focus on teaching, and writing on one’s own terms, even if it leads to something like a desperate obscurity…

  3. i would certainly agree with you on some points, but i think my own limited experience of American educational system makes me both a somewhat naive believer in the role of the University and a rather uninformed critic of its possible deficiencies. i think i would approach the issue in terms of two major questions that, it seems to me, need to be kept separate – 1) what does it mean to be a philosopher? 2) what does it mean to teach philosophy at a college/university?

    i think the first question, as full of pathos as it is, is in the dire need of addressing precisely because so many, both on the inside and outside, confuse “being a philosopher” with “teaching philosophy at a university” – you and i both know a number of people who are forced to teach “logic” or “ethics” or “intro to philosophy” to either make some money or to simply find a way to get some “teaching experience” to mention in CV – i mean let’s be honest here – would either of us teach at some shitty state college for little pay and no satisfaction?

    i think it is precisly the unfortunate conflation of the two separate issues is what causes much of the debate – instead of either doing philosophy or being philosophers we end up going through a decade of education that results only in more useless work like trying to publish mediocre or outright idiotic opinions to get tenure or just to hold on to a job of some kind. on the other hand, in order to secure our status as philosophers (while being simply teachers of philosophy or history of philosophy to be precise), we dismiss any attempt to take philosophy out of university – what will we do then? i mean do you think anything like “philosophy outside of university” even possible these days? or are we too professionalized and stubborn to let go of the academia?

  4. Yes, those are very good questions, Mikhail, and thanks for commenting so carefully. You are right, your questions largely cut directly to one of the points I’m trying to make about “What is a philosopher,” one of the other main points/problems being the reevaluation of the American university system from top to bottom I think, but I tend to see it as simply a reflection of the broader American culture in part.

    Back to the issue of philosopher vs teacher of philosophy. How many times have you heard someone say, “oh, yes, I study and publish X and Y, but when I get tenure I will do Z and A, those are my real interests.” This is unfortunate, and mimics the same problem as one teaching philosophy to a bunch of students who have no “fire in the belly” for learning (at whatever type of school that may be) to either make some money or for a line or two on the cv in order to do “real work” at a “better” (e.g. more respected) school. That in itself is problematic, no? the other point to be made is that of secondary literature, one just churns out mediocre papers to file in the tenure box and waits until one can do the more “risky” or “adventurous” work, in my view this cuts directly back to the teacher/philosopher problem, which doubles back on the broader university structure.

    I suppose in one sense to do “philosophy outside of the university” would be for the culture to relegate one’s status akin to that of a “writer.” But why must it take this form? Once again, that question of the professionalization of philosophy is tied back to the inherent structure/problematics of the university, the larger culture and the discipline itself. I know one philosopher, who is somewhat of a reactionary, and thinks that philosophy is directly related to age, so that one grows into being a philosopher, which would be constituitively different then the teacher of philosophy, as we both have pointed out.

    These are just a few knee jerk responses to your comments, however.

    More on this later, I have to fight procrastination (e.g. blogging) and grade papers before it’s pub time! It’s Friday night in America and it’s my god given right to cash my paycheck and get piss drunk! Only I get paid monthly by the college…

  5. Oh Please, Mikhail. You know that’s bullshit. You spent the early weekend trolling the interweb for hardcore pornography, drinking too much Curz all the while listening to Shostakovich to add an air of sophistication to appease your guilt!! Ha!

    Yes, I’ll be sure to update my sophistication, here’s one. I’ve reached a new low, I got drunk over the weekend and now I think I’m a member of the American Academy for Religion. See, drinking can ruin your life.

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  13. It’s not so much philosophy itself – it’s that philosophers have proved themselves irrelevant. Endless time spent arguing over what exactly is Locke’s theory of property, or if we *are* ever truly justified in lying to a murderer knocking at our door, or if ‘personhood’ can be identified with the brain – ‘here is my thought experiment involving human cloning and brain bisecting to prove it’ – changes no working conditions and doesn’t challenge any dominant ideologies if it is tedious and of professional academic concern only, and if no effort is made to actively reach a broader audience. What use is critique, the goal of which is to assist in transforming the world into one less oppressive and authoritarian, if no one is reading it?

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