The Scandal of Philosophy

by Dwight Furrow

Philosophy, as we teach it in the U.S. and Europe, originated in Ancient Greece, specifically in the person of Socrates who wandered the marketplace tormenting fellow citizens with incessant questions and losing his life for his efforts. For Socrates, there was one overriding question that not only defined philosophy and distinguished it from other inquiries but was a question all human beings should urgently and persistently ask. What is the best life for human beings? His answer was that only a life in pursuit of wisdom regarding what is good could be fully satisfying and complete. The implication was that philosophy was not only a way of life but the best form of life possible since it was uniquely the job of philosophy to discover wisdom.

Today, few philosophers believe philosophy is a way of life, let alone the fullest and most complete way of life. Or if they do believe it, they won’t admit it in public. Only a handful of scholars, those studying ancient Greek ethics, have much to say about wisdom. Few think the question of the best human life has an answer, and if philosophy is a way of life, it consists of trolling rivals at department meetings and writing journal articles for an audience of ten specialists.

The scandal is not that modern life has moved on from issues the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers thought were important. Surely, the question of how one ought to live remains a pertinent question for anyone to ask. The scandal is that philosophy no longer thinks of itself as providing a guide to life and seems unconcerned about this. The question we fear most coming from non-academics is “What is your philosophy of life?” In public, the question is met with embarrassed silence. In private, it is a source of mirth and derision that someone is so jejune as to think such a thing is something philosophers ought to have.

But if not philosophy, who? Who makes the human good the core object of study aside from philosophers? Of course, there are many philosophers who think hard about questions of value. Much of this is good, rigorous, and important work. But you could spend months searching the library stacks for something useful for non-theorists to know. No doubt many reflective people today ask questions such as “how should I live my life?” But they cannot turn to philosophers to help answer the question; they’re not interested.

The point I’m making here is not original, and I am very much aware of attempts to remedy this. Philosophical practitioners, who advocate philosophy as a kind of cognitive therapy, put out their shingles. Public intellectuals such as Martha Nussbaum and Slavoj Žižek lend their voices to important issues. Popular writers with a philosophical background such as Alain de Botton always have a handy quip to add to the conversation. The work of Pierre Hadot, John Cooper and others have taken up this theme of philosophy as a way of life and developed it for contemporary readers. The scandal is that this discourse is marginalized in academia. Philosophy’s birthright is no longer treated as central to its mission. As a discipline we deeply admire Socrates, and we sell that admiration to our students. But our professional philosophical lives no longer resemble the life of Socrates even in broad outline, sequestered as it is in institutions devoted to pumping out research and students on schedule.

As many have pointed out, one reason for this scandal is that we have lost the metaphysical underpinnings that enabled ancient Greek and Roman philosophers to arrive at their sweeping conclusions about wisdom and philosophy’s role in discovering its nature. Socrates, like the Stoics and Platonists, believed the universe was a divinely sanctioned, rational moral order and only philosophical reasoning could discover its inner workings. They also believed that reason provided its own motivation and that the good and wise person could not be harmed. Reason was the only authority on how to live because it alone could identify and articulate a human nature which conformed to the nature of the cosmos. Philosophy was the perfection of that reason.

These claims are no longer widely accepted and in many cases are manifestly implausible by contemporary standards. We have discovered that reality is more or less orderly, but the order is a causal/mathematical order illuminated by science. Moral values are viewed as having no part in that order but are something we must formulate for ourselves. Thus, science and the metaphysics that views science as foundational cannot be a sufficient guide to life because the question of how one should live does not appear to be a question that could be answered by biology, chemistry, or physics.

That appears to leave moral philosophy as the discipline through which we investigate questions about value and how to live. Moral philosophy investigates the norms that govern our social lives and tries to distinguish rational norms from those that fail to meet rational standards. However, we’ve also come to believe that desires motivate, not reason alone. To have good reason to live in some way may not move us unless we have a desire to do so. However, it isn’t clear how philosophical reasons can engage the ordinary preferences and desires that drive our everyday decisions. Reason may show some norms or ways of life to be incompatible with our social natures but investigations into social reality and ethics seem less secure than the truths that science uncovers and less capable of providing the psychological certainty of faith, which many non-philosophers rely on to inform their motivations.

Thus, even when philosophers speak to issues in everyday life, what authority do their pronouncements have? If desires contradict reasons, why do reasons have authority? If desires don’t contradict reasons, then why does one need reasons?

Thus, much of academic philosophy today has little to do with the conduct of life even when ethics and morality are the topic of discussion. It is caught up in theoretical concerns of interest to other philosophers and when it does take up issues related to ordinary life it has no special authority to outweigh our embedded habits and desires. The promise that it would lead to a better life is contested and without foundation. The task of replacing those lost metaphysical foundations in order to reconstitute philosophy’s mission on new ground seems less than urgent.

No doubt many philosophers view their thought as a good in their lives that informs their practical deliberations. But this seems little more than an idiosyncratic interest, a peculiar preoccupation that requires an apology when confronted with the proverbial person in the next seat on the long flight who asks you what you do for a living. Answering “I think about how your life sucks when you think about it” tends to be a conversation stopper.

Of course, one might simply deny that philosophy ought to tell us much about human life that would be of practical value. Philosophical questions after all are interesting even if they have no practical application. But the cost of that approach is considerable. It amounts to admitting that on the most urgent issues that confront each of us every day, there is no discipline that can help us manage them aside from the shrink’s couch, the pharmaceutical lab, or the confessional. Surely that would be a scandal of even greater proportion.

The problem is not that we fail to provide more sophisticated answers to the questions that Socrates addressed. Perhaps we provide too many. Philosophical positions on any topic of interest proliferate like kudzu. Some are beautifully executed. Yet few grab onto human motivations in a way that could successfully guide our actions.

However, despite the questionable metaphysics, there is something important we can take away from Socrates. For him, philosophy always happened in the marketplace among citizens with different backgrounds, interests, and motivations. And it was always subject to the contingencies of conversation. The way issues arise and recede in importance, the influence of language, and the mental and physical condition of the participants all influenced what can be said. For Socrates, assertions must always be tested, and they can only be tested where values acquire stakes and complexity—philosophy must be lived. But this insight is largely absent from academia.

This is not to say that no contemporary philosopher lives life according to their considered beliefs. I have had the privilege to know many who do. But it isn’t a condition of membership in the tribe, neither do we ever hear the suggestion voiced that philosophy can be done well only as a way of life. To assert this would be a direct attack on the sufficiency of theory in the practice of philosophy. Philosophy cannot do without theory. But philosophical theories are born out of a concern for everyday life and must return to it after being worked over by the great conversation. It’s hard to make sense of the view that a philosophical theory is about how to live but need not be tested in the crucible of what it is like to live it.

Let me provide more focus for the question this discourse about philosophy as a way of life raises. Philosophy does many things but central to its historical and current mission is to study and enact standards of excellence regarding reason and to study and provide normative foundations for judgments about what is valuable or not valuable in human life. Other disciplines contribute to these questions, but only in philosophy do they form the core of the discipline. The question is this: Does philosophy generate such insight into the human condition that it provides the intellectual foundation and motivations for a life demonstrably better than a life guided by conventions. Or more succinctly, does it offer a distinctive and worthwhile form of happiness?

If the answer is yes, then philosophy must orient itself towards being a form of life rather than merely an academic subject. If the answer is no, then either reason does not play a central and authoritative role in a good human life or philosophy is not the paradigm of excellence in reasoning. The first implication is implausible. If not reason, what? The second raises complex questions about the nature of philosophy and the nature of reason. But for skeptics about philosophy as a way of life, this is where the battle must be joined.

I’m not holding my breath that philosophers will see the light. The incentives within academia for focusing exclusively on theory are powerful. There are also substantial obstacles to doing philosophy outside an academic context. But there is no reason why philosophy as a way of life cannot be practiced within academia. It often is. We just need to be persuaded that the scandal is indeed scandalous.

For more on philosophy as a way of life visit Philosophy: A Way of Life.