Philosophers: Who Needs Them

During the 2016 Republican primaries, Senator Marco Rubio somewhat notoriously declared philosophers to be less useful than welders. No, really. He was trying to make the point that our schools should do a better job at vocational education—training welders—rather than trying to push everyone to go to college. But he went a little farther than that, literally saying, “We need more welders and less philosophers.” Please, fellow philosophy majors, try to resist the temptation to correct him with “fewer.”

Apparently Senator Rubio has now changed his mind, though he chose the least philosophical medium in which to announce it: Twitter.* “I made fun of philosophy 3 years ago but then I was challenged to study it, so I started reading the stoics. I’ve changed my view on philosophy. But not on welders. We need both! Vocational training for workers & philosophers to make sense of the world.”

Maybe he actually listened to those of us who argued back in defense of philosophy. Or maybe Rubio is just another flip-flopping politician who was against philosophy before he was for it.

Whatever the case, he’s right this time around. We do need philosophers, and what has happened in the past three years demonstrates all the more seriously why we need them.

“Philosophy” is an Ancient Greek word meaning “love of wisdom.” Historically, it referred to all kinds of wisdom, including “natural philosophy” which is what we call “science” today. Today it refers to asking the big questions about the meaning of life—and not settling for vague Oprah-style platitudes as answers.

The primary purpose of philosophy is to offer guidance for your own life. It asks questions like: How do we distinguish truth from falsehood? How do we know what is right or wrong? What is the moral purpose of our lives? Do we have a choice over our personality and control over our destiny? When we say philosophy talks about “the meaning of life,” that’s not an understatement. These are the kinds of questions that, depending on the answers, can give meaning and coherence to the course of our lives.

They also make a tangible difference in how we live it. If you don’t think you have control over your life—if you think everything is determined by your genes or your upbringing or God or “the system, man”—then you’re not likely to take much action to improve your life. So the questions that philosophy deals with are the kind of questions that really matter. (If you need more convincing, the ultimate case for philosophy is here.)

What philosophy does for a single person’s life, it also does for the political life of a nation. If we want to make America great again, for example, we need to know what “greatness” is and how to achieve it. We need to know what government can do, what it ought to do, and what it shouldn’t do. All of these questions have huge, life-and-death consequences. If a country adopts a philosophy that says the collective always takes precedence over the individual, so that the state must be given total power, it ends up like North Korea. If a country adopts a philosophy that says the race and the nation are supremely important and foreigners are always the enemy, it ends up—well, it also ends up like North Korea. And if we believe those two philosophies are total opposites, we risk ending up like North Korea even as we think we’re moving in the opposite direction.

The most important thing philosophy contributes is the method by which we debate these questions. Philosophy has its origin in the influence of the Ancient Greek teacher Socrates, who set out to take established notions about truth and justice and subject them to rigorous rational analysis, attempting to sort out what is real and provable from assumptions that persist only because nobody has really examined them. At the time, this seemed subversive. To debate the established order of things felt like it called everything into doubt and undermined the very foundations of society, which is why a jury convicted him of “corrupting the youth of Athens” and sentenced him to death. But Socrates established the idea of using reason and argument to settle big questions. In the long run, that has turned out to be the far less violent way of dealing with our disputes.

This is why philosophy is absolutely vital to civilization. Without it, we’ll never figure out what we’re doing, and just as important, we’ll never be able to come to any agreement about it.

In that regard, there are whole schools of philosophy—included the ones that are dominant today—that undermine the role of philosophy itself. They are helping to turn us into an unphilosophical country with an unphilosophical political culture. The dominant schools today are essentially subjectivist. They encourage you, Oprah-style, to assert “your truth,” which is valid because you feel it—so there’s no need to listen to anyone else. The subjectivists have cultivated a reputation for being “open-minded” and freewheeling, but this actually shuts down discussion. As I have observed before, this is how we get the peculiar dogmatism of Political Correctness.

[T]here is no universal truth, just your “perspective,” as a trans person of color or a left-handed lesbian tugboat worker, or whatever. And no one else is entitled to question your perspective. It’s true because it’s true for you. If you are aggrieved, the very fact of your grievance validates itself.

If that’s the case, what’s the point of discussing any of it? It’s not for others to question or for you to explain. You just scream out your rage and frustration, and they have to cave.

The same thing happens if you turn toward the seemingly opposite side of the coin, making appeals purely to faith or tradition rather than reason. The result is the kind of political debate we have now, summed up in a video that made the rounds recently of a woman disrupting a pro-Trump rally by screaming at the top of her lungs. That was her protest: no message, no argument, nothing to say, just screaming and rude gestures. The pro-Trump crowd responds by surrounding her and bellowing back a chant of “Don-ald Trump.” The worst part is that everyone in this video seems to be enjoying themselves. The woman seems to be engaged in some kind of political version of primal scream therapy, while the Trump supporters seem to be enjoying an opportunity to “trigger the snowflakes.” But nobody is solving any problems or convincing anybody.

This is a microcosm of what the overall political debate looks like today, and it’s a result of too little regard for philosophy.

When we disregard philosophy, when we don’t used reasoned debate to examine our moral and political assumptions, then all that’s left is some kind of appeal to emotion. When you appeal to emotion, as most people do these days, then the only people you can gather to your side are those who are already inclined to feel the same emotions you do. You end up appealing only to people like you, to those with the same background and upbringing. College-educated blue staters will agree with college-educated blue-staters. Blue-collar red-staters agree with blue-collar red-staters.

Actually, in today’s politics, the responses are even narrower, because so much of the political debate is based on an appeal to our emotions about a particular person. Do you love or hate Hillary Clinton? Do you love or hate Donald Trump? That’s all you need to know to determine where you stand in a partisan fight, and even on public policy.

The end of the road for the appeal to emotion is the kind of tribalism and cult of personality that we see in today’s politics. The only cure for it is philosophy.

For me, one of the big disappointments of the past few years has been the extent to which many on the right have failed to understand or refer back to the philosophical underpinnings of the movement—any of them, even the ones I disagree with. There was a lot of talk a few years ago about a need for reform and renewal on the right. I expect there will be even more urgent talk about that once the Trump moment is over and we’re struggling with its aftermath. For that process of rebuilding, guess who we’re going to need? We’re going to need philosophers—and we’re going to need them badly.

* No, I am not back on Twitter. Someone who knew I would be interested sent me the link.

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