One of the more esoteric problems of philosophy is that no one knows what it is. I exaggerate, of course, but philosophy as an academic discipline is notoriously difficult to define. Translated from the Greek, philosophy indicates love of wisdom. In practice, however, philosophers engage in a variety of pursuits and approaches that defy summary—so much so that we might despair as to what they have in common. That said, much of what we see in philosophy’s traditions and pursuits can be summed up, a bit untidily, as follows: philosophy is a reason-based attempt to answer deep, persistent questions that have long caused puzzlement and anxiety.
Which questions? Every philosopher has a preferred list, but here are just a few. Is there a god or an afterlife? Do we possess free will? How can we know about the external world? Are moral rules objectively binding on us? What is a good life for a human being? What is the nature of a just society? At a more esoteric level of discussion, what sort of evidence might be needed to answer questions such as these? Can we even explain what we’re talking about when we employ terminology such as free will? To deal with all this, philosophy extends into examining the foundations, and perhaps the limits, of inquiry itself. Thus, its subdisciplines include logic and epistemology (or theory of knowledge).
We should note that the world’s religions offer answers to many of these questions, but their answers notoriously conflict with each other. Furthermore, they must be taken on faith; at the least, they require trust in nonrational “ways of knowing” such as messages from angels or God. It seems worth the effort of examining how far evidence and human reason can take us in addressing philosophy’s big questions.
In theory, at least—and often in practice—philosophy proceeds by way of rational inquiry and argument, so why hasn’t it yet answered its deep, persistent questions? This is, I think, a genuine concern. Even professional philosophers often worry about their discipline’s lack of consensus and progress, and I don’t know of any single decisive response. However, there is some merit in a notion that I owe to the British philosopher Jonathan Glover: progress in philosophy relates to understanding the logical relationships between beliefs. On Glover’s account, philosophical inquiry might not be able to force someone to abandon whatever beliefs she or he started with, but it might show that retaining a particular belief carries a high price. If I cling, desperately, to a cherished belief, the price might be accepting other beliefs that seem absurd—to others, if not to me—or employing standards of logic and evidence that I would not use in other contexts.
Admittedly, the price for resisting a philosophical conclusion—about, for example, the existence of God, free will, or objective morality—is unlikely to be anything as drastic as that for resisting well-evidenced scientific findings. For that reason, seemingly defeated beliefs about philosophical issues can survive indefinitely, and their adherents can continue to make some sort of case. Worse, as the resulting arguments become increasingly sophisticated, with relatively little correction from empirical observations, the result can seem more like an increasingly complex game than like intellectual progress. For many people, including many potential philosophy students, philosophy can appear inaccessible, hyper-specialized, and irrelevant.
Philosophy is encountering other problems. Political arguments about higher-education funding are increasingly dominated by narrowly framed issues of graduate employability. There are relentless pressures to devalue the concept of a liberal education and to transform universities into something more like vocational colleges. This bodes ill for a discipline such as philosophy, whatever its inherent social and cultural importance, or even its ability to teach generic skills that employers are seeking. Meanwhile, other social forces—not least the availability of Templeton Foundation money for religion-friendly research—blunt philosophy’s skeptical cutting edge.
There’s still much to say in philosophy’s favor. Even its persistent state of ferment and dissensus (that is, widespread dissent) has benefits. Allow me to whisper that philosophy should not be too quick to declare its large and existentially fraught questions settled—more or less officially—and thus declare an academic orthodoxy. Philosophy’s wariness of orthodoxies, and consequential declarations of heresy, can be frustrating, but in a way it is also admirable.
To be clear, and honest, I think some of philosophy’s perennial questions do have answers. In some cases, so it seems to me, decisive arguments have already been given. Some philosophical views may come to prevail over time, though nowhere near as rapidly as well-supported hypotheses in the physical and biological sciences. For all that, the ongoing, and socially accepted, dissensus within philosophy often plays out positively. It can encourage respect for principled disagreement, patience in studying and understanding the views of others (and in explaining our own views), charity in attribution of motives to opponents, rigorous independent thinking, and openness to argument.
Philosophers and students of philosophy can also bring their characteristic skills and values to some of the great practical questions of our age, not least those relating to social and global injustices and to the emerging risks to humanity’s future. All too often, the debates that surround these topics are dominated by tribalism, partisan bitterness, and emotional manipulation. With its emphasis on reason and clarity, the study of philosophy can provide something of a counterweight.
Philosophy, then, is not exactly a discipline in crisis, but it is being attacked from many sides and (as Tom Flynn suggests elsewhere in this issue of Free Inquiry) to some extent corrupted. Nothing I have stated in this column is meant to deny philosophy’s distinct identity and importance. Rather, it is to state that these cry out for reexamination and reassertion. For philosophy as an organized discipline, this might involve some painful self-questioning.