Monday, March 11, 2019

Four ways philosophy can fail to point toward a better future

Every philosopher wants truth, and most aspire to some form of fairness and equality as they understand those concepts. But does philosophy succeed in making the world a better place? Here's several ways it can fail to achieve its goal.

1. Everyone cares, but the philosopher can't offer a practical road forward

Peter Levine pointed out in 2013 that many thinkers can envision a better society but can't explain how to get there.

Either Rawls did not take responsibility for changing the world, or he hoped to change it by the following roundabout strategy: first develop a theory of the best possible society by means of academic scholarship, primarily addressed to colleagues and advanced students, and then popularize (or let someone else popularize) the results so that they might influence public opinion and thereby change influential popular votes. I see no evidence that this strategy had any impact, despite Rawls’s enormous prestige in the academy. Public policy in the United States is less Rawlsian than it was in 1970, and liberal activists and leaders who share some of his principles rarely look to him for arguments or guidance. Nor has any other political philosopher had more success than Rawls or his followers and interpreters. This is not a refutation of Rawls’s philosophy, which may be correct on its own terms. I am not a pragmatist who thinks that the only justification of intellectual work is its impact, what William James used to call its 'cash value.' A theory can have intrinsic merit. I would, however, assert that Rawls and his colleagues are no longer writing in the same genre as Plato, Machiavelli, Hamilton, and Madison (and many in-between). Contemporary academic political philosophy does not offer a path to a better society but only an indication of what one would be like. It is a highway without the on-ramp."

Philosophy that isn't actionable arguably doesn't inspire others to action, and, realizing this, the philosopher may not be optimistic about ever reaching the future they have so carefully imagined.

2. Everyone cares, but there is no answer to be found

The novelist Erich Maria Remarque pointed out in 1957 that, if there were a One True Philosophy, the project of philosophy would have already come to an end, just as the discovery of a working medicine generally puts all the snake oil salesmen out of business.

"I walk over to the shelves that contain the works on religion and philosophy. They are Arthur Bauer's pride. Here he has, collected in one place, pretty much everything that humanity has thought in a couple of thousand years about the meaning of life, and so it should be possible for a couple of hundred thousand marks to become adequately informed on the subject — for even less really, let us say for twenty or thirty thousand marks; for if the meaning of life were knowable, a single book should suffice. But where is it? I glance up and down the rows. The section is very extensive, and this suddenly makes me distrustful. It seems to me that with truth and the meaning of life the situation is the same as with hair tonics — each firm praises its own as the only satisfactory one, and yet Georg Kroll, who has tried them all, still has a bald head just as he should have known from the beginning he would have. If there were a hair tonic that really grew hair, there would only be that one and all the others would long ago have gone out of business."

3. The philosopher cares, but no one else does

The English literary critic John Rodker wrote in 1926:

“It is impossible to tell the truth so that it is understood and not be believed, said Blake, but to-day, in the general slackening of all standards, truth, however much understood, has less moral force than it ever had. So that, although some individual be affected to raving point or another utterly blasted, the mass has no use for it, and writing, searching for an absolute truth, goes on at the side of all other activities but influencing them less and less.”

As quoted by Rodker, Blake meant: If people really grasped what the truth meant, they'd believe it. It's like understanding that food and sunshine is good: to be exposed to it is to appreciate its value. Rodker challenged this (albeit from a sideways angle) by observing that people seem to understand the truth, and perhaps therefore they believe it, yet they do not act upon it. This presents a challenge for the philosopher.

4. Not even the philosopher cares

About a decade after Rodker, Ernst Cassirer proposed a reason for this failure of philosophy. He thought it was too wrapped up in making predictions about the future and in accepting fate.

"As soon as philosophy no longer trusts its own power, as soon as it gives way to a merely passive attitude, it can no longer fulfill its most important educational task. It cannot teach man how to develop his active faculties in order to form his individual and social life. A philosophy that indulges in somber predictions about the decline and the inevitable destruction of human culture, a philosophy whose whole attention is focused on the Geworfenheit, the Being-thrown of man [as coined by Heidegger, in reference to accepting one’s fate], can no longer do its duty."

Philosophy has to trust its own power, in Cassirer's words. It needs to teach people how to develop themselves to become active members of society. The philosopher has to care about this potential of philosophy, or no one else will.

How valuable are ideas?

Ideas are a prerequisite to reasoned, planned action. Ideas on their own, however, if not followed by action, are so cheap and prolific as to be nearly meaningless and almost — by definition — useless. Everyone generates ideas. Some jot down keywords in notebooks. Others inflate them to small articles (like this one) that can be shared. Still others write and teach books of philosophy. But none of this achieves its full potential value if it doesn't also somehow lead to action or show others how they can take action. I wrote about this for LinkedIn: "Your old notes aren't exactly 'clutter'​ (but you might still want to throw them out)."

Violence is imaginable; call it by its names

Reflecting on the paintings of Francisco Goya, Sebastian Smee referred to the painter's "insistence on the stupendous, the monstrous, the scarcely creditable stupidity of human beings."

Smee had seen Goya's paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where they remained on temporary exhibition at the time of his article's publication. Smee is from Sydney, where he knew one of the murder victims in a recent hostage crisis. As he wrote in the Boston Globe in January 2015, he didn't know whether to describe the killer as bumbling idiot. He noted that people tend to use words like "tragedy" and "nightmare" — "uncomfortably heavy, or weirdly abstract" — rather than words that "in many ways feel more accurate. Senseless. Idiotic. Pathetic. Grotesque. Feebleminded beyond belief." People struggle to explain "the Boston Marathon bombing, the insane massacre of 132 schoolchildren that took place in Pakistan on the same day as the two deaths in Sydney, the slaughter of 20 small children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary, the routine, virtually random executions that take place in our inner cities daily, or — more dismally breaking news — the eye-rubbingly futile murders that took place at a satirical newspaper in Paris" earlier that week. None of it is "unimaginable." Goya imagined it in all its "remorseless, terrifying stupidity."

In Goya's paintings, too, we see that "reason is conspicuous only be its absence," and what we have instead is "sheer derangement. Monstrous folly." In Goya's paintings, Smee wrote, we have "a visceral registration of that which is most putrid and pitiful about humans," and we may begin to think that the proper response to atrocities is "not so much to shine the light of reason on them, the better to understand and digest them, but rather to swear never to come to terms with them, never to tolerate them."

How can we declare our intolerance to violence?

Here's one idea. In April 2019, Umair Haque wrote for Medium that the terms "genocide" and "crimes against humanity" represent "some of the most important and vital ideas and concepts in human history, crucial to the functioning of democracies, the rule of law, and the institutions of civilized societies." Those concepts mark where we "began to understand how to genuinely coexist as a world — where the red lines of democracy and civilization lie." When U.S. leaders, believing in American exceptionalism, do not employ these terms to criticize U.S. policies, "we are also saying three things. We are above history. We are above the world. And we are beyond morality. But all those are forms of folly, ignorance, and stupidity — which have come back to collapse our very own society."

After reading these two pieces, I draw my conclusion: It is rational to describe senseless violence in weighty terms — "tragedy" and "nightmare" (Smee), "genocide" and "crimes against humanity" (Haque). Anyone who fails to use such concepts to rationally criticize oneself and one's society has lapsed into the irrational realm — "Senseless. Idiotic. Pathetic. Grotesque. Feebleminded" (Smee), "folly, ignorance, and stupidity" (Haque). While such ignorance may not be the original cause of the violence, it is surely the consequence of not recognizing the significance of the violence. It is the vacuum that violence leaves behind when we do not respond properly. I agree with Smee's conclusion that we must resolve to resist or avoid future violence, and that this is more important than absorbing the meaning of past violence; however, I think that reason can be used in the service of the former as well as the latter.


Peter Levine. We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Erich Maria Remarque. The Black Obelisk (1957). USA: Crest, 1958. pp. 90-91.

John Rodker. The Future of Futurism. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co, Ltd. 1926. pp. 23-24.

Ernst Cassirer. Symbol, Myth, and Culture: Essays and Lectures of Ernst Cassirer 1935-1945. Donald Phillip Verene, ed. (1979) New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press. p. 230.

Sebastian Smee. "Atrocity exhibition." Boston Globe. January 11, 2015.

Umair Haque. "The Fascists Are Winning Because Americans are Too Dumb (or Too Afraid) to Call Out Fascism." Medium. April 9, 2019.