05/04/2009 02:29 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The End of Philosophy?

Columnist David Brooks recently wrote an essay on moral judgment in the New York Times with the cleverly ambiguous title, "The End of Philosophy." Unfortunately, it has caused some casual readers to nod their heads in satisfied agreement that the demise of this hoary tradition of abstract reasoning, from togas to tweed jackets, is finally upon us. But it seems to me that this is not the thrust of the title, or the essay at all. In the end, it is the quite different, purposive sense of "end" - as objective, or target - that's operative. In this sense, the end of philosophy is its point, its rationale, or its reason for being.

The end, or purposive goal, of philosophy is to understand the world, and the human adventure in it, in the most conceptually clear, comprehensive, and deeply practical way possible.

There have always been two strands to philosophy as an enterprise: the theoretical side, which has dominated our colleges and universities now for decades, and the practical side, which flourished in the ancient world, and throughout the centuries until recently. For the practical side, philosophy is not so much the speculative business of puzzling over the world and drawing a few conclusions, as it is an imminently useful endeavor of seeking to get our bearings and wisely steer our way forward through life. After all, the word "philosophy" is just, etymologically, "the love of wisdom" - admittedly not something you'd easily guess from quick visits to philosophy classrooms around the country. But for most of its history, the life of philosophy has consisted not just in endless talk and argument about esoteric topics at the periphery of life, but also in a real search for personal understanding of a sort that can truly matter to the living of a good life, both individually, and collectively. Philosophy is ultimately about living well.

Brooks rightly points out that many philosophers in the modern world may have been approaching their enterprise in a fundamentally unhelpful way. To say that the main tool of philosophy is reason is not to imply that the sole source of philosophical understanding is some elusive thing accessible only to the mind. Reasoned argument is important, logic is crucial, and the postulation of theories and principles is unavoidable in the philosophic quest, but taking seriously the full range of human experience is just as important, and indeed necessary.

Philosophy cannot, for example, afford to hide away in armchair cogitation and ignore the best results of the natural sciences. But neither can it simply, like a faithful and well-trained dog, trot along one pace behind science, held tight by a fashionable leash to its latest results. Philosophy has its own proper concerns: What is a good life? What is success? How can we best live together? What is of ultimate value? What are the illusions that trap us, and that keep us from the freedom and happiness we most deeply desire? Nothing from a lab will ever answer these genuine and practical human concerns. And these are, of course, merely a few examples of the distinctive topics of philosophy.

Brooks sees, from recent developments in cognitive science and evolutionary psychology, some important new avenues and ideas for understanding the moral life. I wholeheartedly agree. Moral decision-making, for instance, isn't paradigmatically, as many philosophers of the past seem to have supposed, the deduction of specific actions from abstract and general principles. It's a more complex and organic process, based on a rich and multifaceted history of attention, valuation, habit, and wisdom, or often a lack thereof.

Brooks says that moral judgments, rather than being philosophical deductions, "are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain." And this seems very often to be true. Moral decision-making sometimes happens very quickly through intuition, and is often influenced by emotion. But there are also times when our intuitions are weak, or aren't clear, or in fact conflict. And whether all the emotions impinging on a decision ought to be affirmed, and acted on, is not a question we wisely let the emotions themselves always settle. What else is needed? That is a philosophic, and not a scientific, issue.

Understanding emotions and intuitions, rather than particular philosophical theories and principles, as central to the moral life may be a marked improvement in several ways. But this shift of our attention, prompted science, would signal the demise of philosophy itself as an important and useful human enterprise only if it were inherently invested in one, never particularly persuasive, picture of human thought and action that is being eroded. And it isn't. Philosophy as an enterprise is never tied to just one way of thinking. It's an ongoing quest to find all the best ways of thinking.

I understand the end or purpose of philosophy to be a good life, made possible by wisdom. Anything that advances us in this quest enhances the philosophical adventure, rather than detracting from it, or threatening it. It's hard to see how the results of the sciences could ever replace this endeavor. Brooks seems to acknowledge this in the end when he points out the apparent inability of the scientific models we have to give us a full explanation and understanding of such things as our "feelings of awe, transcendence, patriotism, joy and self-sacrifice" as well as our fundamental intuition and sense of "individual responsibility." About such things, philosophy has much of interest to say.

Brooks rightly points out that there is a famous gap in our experience between principle and practice that much modern philosophy seems blithely to ignore. If philosophy promised us improved practices, but could give us only impotent principles, that would indeed be a problem. Intellectually grasping philosophical propositions about life does not necessarily translate into living better. We've long known that. But philosophers have not just announced abstract principles, hoping that progress would ensue. They have grappled with questions about the cultivation of virtue, and about what it takes to convey real wisdom in such a way as to make a discernible difference in daily life.

As Aristotle pointed out long ago, our aim is not just to understand goodness, but to embody it. And if that is so, if the overall enterprise of philosophy is ultimately a practical one having to do with the understanding and proper guidance of human life and society into something truly great, or at least much better than what we would otherwise be likely to experience, then we can welcome the breakup of unhelpful paradigms from the past and celebrate the ways in which we can now partner with new developments in science to see things anew, and perhaps do new things as well.

The job of philosophy begins afresh with each individual life. And the tools of its trade are expanding, with no clear end in sight.