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Does philosophy matter?

Philosophers love to complain about bad reasoning. How can those other people commit such silly fallacies? Don’t they see how arbitrary and inconsistent their positions are? Aren’t the counter examples obvious? After complaining, philosophers often turn to humor. Can you believe what they said! Ha, ha, ha. Let’s make fun of those stupid people.

I also enjoy complaining and joking, but I worry that this widespread tendency among philosophers puts us out of touch with the rest of society, including academics in other fields. It puts us out of touch partly because they cannot touch us: we cannot learn from others if we see them as unworthy of careful attention and charitable interpretation. This tendency also puts us out of touch with society because we cannot touch them: they will not listen to us if we openly show contempt for them.

One sign of this contempt is the refusal of most philosophers even to try to express their views clearly and concisely enough for readers without extraordinary patience and training. Another sign is that many top departments today view colleagues with suspicion when they choose to write accessible books instead of technical journal articles. 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?

As a result, philosophers talk only to their own kind and not even to all philosophers. Analytic philosophers complain that continental philosophers are unintelligible. Continental philosophers reply that analytic philosophers pick nits. Both charges contain quite a bit of truth. And how can we expect non-philosophers to understand philosophers if philosophers cannot even understand each other?

Of course, there is a place for professional discourse. Other academic fields from physics to neuroscience also contain tons of technical terms. Professional science journals are rarely enjoyable to read. The difference is that these other fields often work hard to communicate their ideas to outsiders in other venues, whereas most leading philosophers make no such effort. As a result, the general public often sees philosophy as an obscure game that is no fun to play. If philosophers do not find some way to communicate the importance of philosophy, we should not be surprised when nobody else understands why philosophy is important.

This misunderstanding is sad, because philosophy deals with important issues that affect real people. Metaphysicians propose views on free will and causation that could change the way law ascribes responsibility for crimes or limits access to pornography on the grounds that it causes violence to women. Political philosophers defend theories with useful lessons for governments. Philosophers of science raise questions about the objectivity of science that could affect public confidence in evolution or climate change. Philosophers of religion and of human nature present arguments that bear on our place in the universe and nature. Philosophers of language help us understand how we can understand each other when we talk. And, of course, ethicists talk about what is morally wrong or right, good or bad, in situations that we all face and care about.

Because of these potential applications, there must be some way for philosophers to show why and how philosophy is important and to do so clearly and concisely enough that non-philosophers can come to appreciate the value of philosophy. There also must be some way to write philosophy in a lively and engaging fashion, so that the general public will want to read it. A few philosophers already do this. Their examples show that others could do it, but not enough philosophers follow their models. The profession needs to enable and encourage more philosophers to reach beyond the profession.

Feature Image Credit: Dawn Sun Mountain Landscape by danfador. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. […] (Duke), and appears here via a special arrangement with Oxford University Press and the OUP Blog, at which it is also […]

  2. Ketchup

    The Brian Greene of philosophy?

  3. ziad safi

    Philosophy is not dead, my respect to so many who still think they know it all…please read my following note:
    ziad safi

  4. Daniel Brennan

    Would you mind listing some of the philosophers who write clearly and well, and also for the general population?

  5. John Whittle

    The history of idea’s is a fascinating subject and delivering idea’s with punch and clarity is not just a garnishing job, it becomes a work of originality. The best exponents of the art realised how to hold an audience and they achieved this by being totally transfixed by the process themselves because they realised that how you express an idea cannot ultimately be separated by the idea itself.

  6. Mary E. Latela

    Sounds as if philosophers – in their cubicles have a case of academic arrogance. It’s about time that – across disciplines – scientists and philosophers, writers, art history experts – realize that we all inhabit the same cosmos, and probably ought to try to listen to one another, and speak the same language.

  7. Rikus

    While its true that philosophers make their work inaccessible. There is also a case to be made for the idea that there is some (great) method to this madness.

    As an undergrad (mostly continental philosophy) I’ve moved from frustration to appreciation of the difficult and onscure style of writing.

    Philosophers are often trying to articulate that which is unarticulatable. And this requires a way of writing that doesnt just give a clear argument (often it is not clear) but which gives readers a “feel” for what is being said. Being too clear (i.e. “Mainstream”) allows for ideas which are critical to be incorporated too easily into the dominant discourse. So it is legitimate that philosophers try to avoid being pinned down.

    As for being more public. Yes! Philosophers ought to do this- though without dumbing down their ideas. Have some faith in non-philosophers. Challenge them to try and understand your language. This will help philosophers serve the critical role which I believe is essential.

    Philosophy should never be reduced to a logic which equates good philosophy to understandable and useful philosophy. Since the very fact that philosophy avoids being bound by this logic (so dominant nowdays) allows it to function as a critical counterpoint.

  8. […] Walter Sinnott-Armstrong  asks, Does Philosophy Matter?  (Spoiler Alert: Yes. Again, I’m inclined to […]

  9. […] This is in reply to Does Philosophy Matter?, a blog post by  Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, originally published at the OUP Blog. […]

  10. […] this year, the ethicist Walter-Sinnot Armstrong asked whether philosophers were out of touch with, even contemptuous, of ordinary people and everyday life. The picture he paints isn’t […]

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