The humanities are increasingly in a beleaguered position in Universities and Colleges across the country. Academic philosophers like to think that their place is still secure because their subject is the most ancient of the so-called humanities; it is a discipline devoted to promoting basic intellectual skills; and it has connections with a diversity of other fields. But the turbulence that is affecting our institutions is not making halt before philosophy departments.
Our epistemologists are used to ask some very general questions: What is knowledge? What is the relation between observation and theory? How do we justify claims to knowledge? Digital technology is changing how information is collected, organized, and disseminated. The proliferation of claims to knowledge in the Internet highlights moreover the issue of error, mis- and disinformation, of “Fake News,” of its distribution and the question how to disarm it. We need an epistemology for the digital age that looks at knowledge not only in the usual timeless fashion but takes into account the changing landscape of human knowledge.
Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of the leading philosophical minds of the twentieth century and his thought remains of live interest. Twenty years ago, David Stern and I published the Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein which was intended to help readers of Wittgenstein along. We have now brought out a second edition of this work with some great new contributions and a completely updated bibliography.
Hegel famously wrote that the owl of Minerva starts its flight at dusk. He meant to say that philosophy, far from being avant-garde, is, in some ways, always behind its time. For first comes reality and only then, belatedly, comes our understanding of it. Our words and theories are always chasing after the facts.
Imperfect cognitive states are characteristic of social and political life. But these are not the cognitive states our epistemologists have in view. We need to consider, in particular, states of uncertainty and disorientation since those are now so prevalent in our politics.
We have learned that the ocean waves pulverize our plastic debris which is then consumed as dust by the fish we eat. The circle is closed and the poisons we have created come back to us in this altered form. The internet pulverizes human knowledge and feeds it back to us as unconnected bits of information. Our minds are bound to be ultimately overwhelmed by all this new kind of poisonous debris.
Digital technology has had the peculiar effect of atomizing human knowledge and this in two ways. It has favored the creation of small bits of information which are passed around in digital messages. And it has overwhelmed our ability to concentrate on extended lines of reasoning. There is too much information, tempting us to move quickly from one bit to another. We are distracted by all these bits of knowledge that are offered to us so enticingly on all the websites of the world. This is already showing disastrously in our students who find it increasingly difficult to read whole books. We feed them instead with power point slides that contain carefully selected bits of information. Even this blog illustrates what is happening. Blogs are signals of the decreasing attention spans of those who write them and those who consume them.
January 19, 2018 - Our sharpest break with the tradition has come with the realization of the disunity of knowledge (of thought, the mind, the world, and pretty much else that concerns philosophy). We are no longer trying to construct “a system;” we are not looking for “the foundations” of a single structure; we have abandoned the belief in completeness and in our capacity to make everything cohere.
Raymond Geuss, Changing the Subject. Philosophy from Socrates to Adorno, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass. 2017
Does philosophy have a future? That is the question Raymond Geuss asks in his latest book. And the answer he gives is unsettling. Philosophy, as we have known it, may, in fact, have already come to an end behind our backs – sometime in the second half of the twentieth century - without any of us realizing this.