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Where Have All The Philosophers Gone?

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Where have all the philosophers gone? What are they doing with themselves? Why isn't there a small army of sages out in the media and on the shelves of our bookstores helping with the worries and confusions that beset us as we tiptoe tentatively up to the doorstep of what's likely to be a challenging new year?

I could probably name three or four contemporary philosophers who are publicly addressing the serious issues of our time, and of our lives, in a clear, wise, and accessible way. But, given that there are thousands of professional philosophers teaching in our colleges and universities, it seems more than a little surprising that so few can be found outside the classroom, working to bring insight to a world so obviously in need of it.

Philosophy is etymologically "the love of wisdom." And wisdom is understood in most world cultures as simply insight for life. The history of philosophy has encompassed two broad endeavors - a theoretical investigation of ultimate issues, and a practical quest for life guidance. The theoretical work has sought to raise and understand fundamental questions about knowing and being. The practical undertaking has involved an extended attempt to grasp the most important truths about living. What should we value? How should we act? What is the shape of a good life?

On theoretical issues, philosophers have notoriously disagreed. It's even been said that a philosopher can be defined as a person who contradicts other philosophers. From our lofty vantage point in the early twenty-first century, it's hard to imagine how these hoary battles could ever be settled, once and for all. Yet, just as remarkable as the endless theoretical disputes, and much less reported, is the remarkable degree of convergence to be seen throughout the centuries and across the cultures on many issues of the most practical relevance: How should we handle anger? What leads to success? Why is courage so important for a good life? Where can happiness most reliably be found? It's not as if there is unanimity on such issues, either, but the closer philosophers have stayed to the lived realities of daily existence, the more their analysis and advice seems both deeply harmonious and powerfully helpful to our own adventures in the world.

For most of the past century, philosophers have been keen on imitating the natural sciences, due in some measure to an envy of their results. But this emulation has been seriously incomplete, with a fixation on purely theoretical matters, and surprising little interest in practical implications. Science pays off in technology and medicine. Where does contemporary philosophy pay off?

In my own education and fifteen-year tenure as a professor of philosophy, I discovered a widespread prejudice in the academic world correlating abstractness with importance. I was trained in matters and methods of thought so esoteric that some of my academic essays and early books could be read with profit and understood thoroughly by no more than a few hundred people around the globe. And they were almost utterly devoid of practical implications. It can of course be argued that knowledge is valuable for its own sake and needs no pragmatic justification. But there's no good reason for thinking that knowledge put into the service of our fellow human beings isn't even more valuable.

An old friend just sent me the first results from a survey of 3,226 intellectuals throughout the world described as "professional philosophers" - largely, denizens of philosophy departments. The survey sought to determine their views on a wide variety of issues considered important in the profession. The first questions alone made me smile.

A priori knowledge: yes or no?
Accept or lean toward: yes 662 / 931 (71.1%)
Accept or lean toward: no 171 / 931 (18.3%)
Other 98 / 931 (10.5%)

Abstract objects: Platonism or nominalism?
Accept or lean toward: Platonism 366 / 931 (39.3%)
Accept or lean toward: nominalism 351 / 931 (37.7%)
Other 214 / 931 (22.9%)

I'd be completely remiss not to display the final question of the survey as well, which, though ordered throughout in an alphabetical arrangement of Big-Issues-To-Philosophers-These-Days, seems to culminate in a spectacular nadir of non-practicality, and yet with a splash of undeniable pizazz:

Zombies: inconceivable, conceivable but not metaphysically possible, or metaphysically possible?
Accept or lean toward: conceivable but not metaphysically possible 331 / 931 (35.5%)
Other 234 / 931 (25.1%)
Accept or lean toward: metaphysically possible 217 / 931 (23.3%)
Accept or lean toward: inconceivable 149 / 931 (16%)

I think it's safe to say that these aren't exactly burning issues in the lives of most people. There's not likely to be an Oprah show devoted to any of them. Out of the total of thirty questions asked of all these philosophers, not a single one had to do with the everyday problems of emotion, attitude, or choice that we face and struggle with in an often-difficult world. None provided insight into the most pressing world affairs, or a needed perspective on our most difficult domestic problems. And only one - "God: Theism or Atheism?" - raised a concern that, while in one sense being an issue of "theory," is also traditionally viewed as ultimately important for determining the overall shape of a life.

So, where indeed have all the philosophers gone? I suspect most of them are in their studies, or offices, working away on such issues as those highlighted in the survey. I wish more were using their considerable training and acumen to be of help in a time of need.

Go into any bookstore with a philosophy section. You'll likely find lots of books by theoreticians, with only an occasional practical thinker like Marcus Aurelius or Seneca thrown into the mix. To read more on the life issues that intrigued and moved them, you'll have to go to the Self-Improvement section, where, unfortunately, the watchword these days is "Caveat" - since there is no particular education, background, perspicacity, or overall tenor of mind required for authoring a book of general life advice, and far too often a vapid new mysticism of wishful thinking passing itself off as wisdom crowds the shelves with clever titles and brash claims. We need more of the real philosophers in our time to turn their attention to the shape of the life they join the rest of us in living.

Socrates was unjustly executed on a charge of corrupting the youth of his day. It's hard to imagine any of our current philosophers being convicted of having any sort of broad influence on the youth - or the rest of us - at all. It's their absence from the fray that's nearly criminal. And yet, as a result in this case, the rest of the culture ends up drinking the deadly hemlock of poisonous pseudo-wisdom.