Why I am (still) a philosopher

 (Click here for part 1)

Dear Raymond,

Do we have to be as pessimistic about the future of philosophy as you are in your latest book? I still hold some hope for the subject and believe it, in fact, to be needed today more than ever.

That said, I agree with you that the current state of philosophy is not good. You are right that philosophy as conducted in our Universities and Colleges seems to be turning more and more into a propaedeutic enterprise for future lawyers. But what we call “philosophy” has often been two very different things: on the one hand, a scholastic undertaking for schooling young minds, and, on the other, a creative form of thinking on “fundamental” issues and the latter has frequently taken place outside the educational institutions. Of the philosophical thinkers you discuss in your book only some were professors. Socrates was a public gadfly and nuisance, Lucretius a poet, Augustine a bishop, Montaigne a bit of a hermit, and Hobbes a courtier. It may turn out that the most serious thinkers of the future will not be found in philosophy departments.

Philosophy as serious thinking has, of course, never been an academic “discipline” with set boundaries and doctrines. It has always moved, as you describe in your book, from subject to subject, and for question to question, like a snake wriggling here and there, constantly shedding its old skin. Since science has changed our intellectual climate and technology our social environment, we shouldn’t expect philosophy to remain the same. I like a phrase that Wittgenstein used to describe his own work; he called it “one of the heirs of the subject that used to be called ‘philosophy’.” So, whatever it was that once went under the label of philosophy has left an inheritance; something is left over to be carried into the future; but the inheritance is dispersed; there is more than one heir. That seems to capture where we find ourselves today.

I like to believe that there will be those in the future who will continue to ask questions about all kinds of things that others are leaving unquestioned. There will be those who continue to invent new concepts and with their help recast what may already have been said by others; there will be those who experiment with new ways of looking at ourselves and the world; there will be those who attend to all kinds of details of things that others pass by; and there will also be those who test arguments for and against all kinds of sane or insane convictions. All that will hopefully go on and we may as well call what is practiced in some such a way by the old name of “philosophy.” There is surely no harm in appropriating that word for ourselves. In doing so we are waving our hand at those who have come before us, indicating to them that we are still walking on the road on which they have walked.

But if we say that philosophy as serious creative thinking is still needed, we must be clear on where and how it is. We must ask ourselves: what calls most urgently for such thinking? We have been through a period where philosophers would have said that we need to think most urgently about the foundations of knowledge, logic, mathematics, or science. I believe that our priorities must be different and here I think you and I will agree. What most calls for thinking today is our social and political existence because we can see today how fragile their structure has become. And if we can’t secure our social and political existence, then nothing else can be secured. This alerts us to the fact that our entire reality is changing dramatically and that we will therefore also need a new kind to creative thinking, one that can keep up with the changes around us. Our question then becomes, who will be able to engage in the kind of thinking that is now needed. This is where the challenge of your book really begins to bite. Of how much creativity is our philosophizing capable? There may, of course, be no theoretical answer to this. All we can do is commit ourselves to the project of serious thinking and continue to work as well as we can with what we have inherited.

Your friend,