Philosophy once helped us make sense of our confusing, ever-changing political world. What happened?

Philosophy should have a place outside of dusty libraries.
Philosophy should have a place outside of dusty libraries.
Image: Reuters/ Francois Lenoir
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This week, Slavoj Žižek, one of the most famous living philosophers, endorsed Donald Trump for president. As someone who cares greatly about philosophy’s role in the world, I was disappointed by this news, and not simply because I disagree with him. Žižek is an unusual philosopher. While he’s highly controversial, he’s both publicly and academically renowned and he uses his own philosophy and ideas from great historical thinkers to engage with contemporary events. As a result, he’s one of the few philosophers whose political views are widely reported and listened to.

Unfortunately, this means that when Žižek speaks about Trump, he does so in a public-philosophy vacuum, as there are few other philosophers who can or will publicly debate his ideas. Ironically, by wading into discussion over the US election, Žižek has effectively highlighted philosophy’s failure to engage in contemporary public discourse.

Philosophy’s civic duty 

It wasn’t always this way. Philosophers once considered it their civic duty to engage with the public. In Ancient Greece, Socrates would address crowds in the marketplace, while Plato wrote accessible dialogues, rather than convoluted papers, to appeal to a wide audience. Throughout history, great philosophers have made writing for a non-academic audience a key part of their work. Sartre and Camus both wrote newspaper articles on their philosophy and contemporary affairs, as did Arendt, Hegel, Mill, and countless other eminent thinkers.

This level of engagement is a far cry from today where, of all the disciplines, philosophy is infamous for being locked in its ivory tower. Far from being considered a civic duty, writing for a popular audience is actively discouraged by many academic departments. Several Ivy League professors have told me they’d like to write non-academic books on their ideas, but have to wait until they have the security of tenure for fear of being penalized. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, philosophy professor at Duke University, wrote about this suspicion for Oxford University Press’s blog:

“Philosophers often risk their professional reputations when they appear on television or write for newspapers or magazines. How can they be serious about philosophy if they are willing to water down their views that much? Are they getting soft?”

Narrow and increasingly irrelevant thinking

Unfortunately, reluctance to engage in public affairs isn’t the only problem. Over the past few decades, academic philosophy has become increasingly narrow and abstruse, and so more irrelevant to daily life.

Earlier this year, one of the most famous living philosophers, Daniel Dennett, told me that much of contemporary philosophy is a “luxury decoration on society” and that many philosophical questions studied are simply idle games. “Philosophy in some quarters has become self-indulgent, clever play in a vacuum that’s not dealing with problems of any intrinsic interest,” he added.

This is a criticism often levied at philosophy from those outside the field, but was particularly striking coming from someone so well respected in academia. Dennett blamed the pressure to publish in journals for this trend; rather than developing a detailed understanding of something truly important, graduate students show off their skills with “cute counterarguments” that may be clever, but are ultimately unimportant.

Massimo Piglucci, philosophy professor at City College of New York, made a similar complaint in The Philosopher’s Magazine. Philosophy is getting narrower partly due to the pressure to publish, he wrote, and partly because, “whatever could be said of broad import about Socrates, Kant and so forth has already been said, many times over, so one needs to invent newer (and by necessity narrower) niches to claim to have done something novel, thus augmenting his odds to survive the academic rat race.”

There are broader problems too. In January, Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle, philosophy professors at the University of North Texas, argued in the New York Times that philosophy lost its way when it entered the formal university setting. Whereas philosophy was once a discipline that underpinned all schools of thought and was integrated with society, it became isolated in academia. “Philosophy, previously the queen of the disciplines, was displaced, as the natural and social sciences divided the world between them,” they write.

Briggle and Frodeman believe that philosophy adapted by mimicking the structures of the natural sciences, focusing on research, peer-reviewed articles, and complex ideas that are incomprehensible to anyone outside that particular subject. “Philosophic activity devolved into a contest to prove just how clever one can be in creating or destroying arguments,” they add.

Why can’t philosophers be public figures?

There are exceptions, of course. I’ve written in the past about the many ways in which philosophy is highly practical and useful, and why the subject should not be unilaterally dismissed. But those who suspect that philosophers are too clever by half, or that the field is disengaged from everyday concerns, are not entirely wrong.

This election, my editor has repeatedly asked me what philosophers are saying about the state of US politics. Where are the online forums and debates, where are the thinkers applying their deep knowledge to contemporary affairs? Surely, in all of philosophy, there are ideas that can help us make sense of the turbulent events around the world?

Occasionally, the odd political theorist has stepped out of the enclaves of academia to write an opinion piece or blog post. But overwhelmingly, discussions about social and political affairs are entirely uninfluenced by those working in philosophy.

Philosophers could be on television and twitter, parsing ideas about democracy, political rhetoric, and our moral obligation to those overseas. There could be thinkers who don’t simply point out Žižek’s “maddening rhetorical strategies” in journals, but challenge his political views in public.

Unfortunately, such scenarios are far removed from the current reality. We still have a need for philosophers who engage with society but, dishearteningly, the field has largely retreated into its academic libraries and obscure journals. Žižek, with his maddening ramblings, is one of the few who speaks to an audience outside the academy.