MUNICH — The Enlightenment seems to be taking a few steps backwards these days. The citizens of Britain voted against the idea of a unified Europe. Politicians in Eastern Europe are celebrated for sounding off on refugees and building and re-building walls and fences. The new U.S. president, meanwhile, is a man named Donald Trump.
So where are the philosophers to sound the alarm, to explain and categorize everything? Are they too afraid? Do we not hear them as clearly as we should? Or do they simply not have anything left to say?
By now there is more at stake than the debate on the refugee crisis, nationalism or anti-liberal thoughts. With Trump, a man has become president of the most influential and enlightened nation in the world thanks in large part to lies, half-truths and cleverly placed fake news. And he is extremely successful with this strategy. The truth itself has become a matter of debate in the digital age.
This is a dangerous development, not just in terms of politics, but from a history-of-ideas perspective. A core discipline of philosophy is to obtain and explain indisputable knowledge. That, at least, is what philosophers told us for thousands of years. Philosophers should be fuming with rage over the abuse of knowledge systems such as the Internet. Instead they keep silent.
Daniel Dennett, one of the most important contemporary philosophers, recently said that "a majority of philosophy nowadays does not even deserve a place in this world." Occasionally, philosophers do still make their voices heard. Prior to the U.S. elections, for example, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek went so far as to recommend that people vote Trump. Why? Because he had the "desperate hope" that this will be such a shock to Democrats and Republicans alike that a new political movement may spring from it. For the most part, though, philosophical forays into current affairs are rare.
Be brave and risk everything
"Contemporary philosophy […] has failed to serve society’s needs," Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle, both professors in Texas, suggest in their recent book Socrates Tenured: The Institutions of 21st Century Philosophy. The book is a destructive reckoning of their very own discipline. The philosophical practice in the style of Socrates, i.e. hanging around the market square and provoking people to start thinking, is no longer in existence. And anyone who would try to do so nowadays would be laughed off 'stage' for being a "hopeless amateur." Instead, university philosophers write texts that only other academic philosophers can understand.
"Socrates could never get a position today in a philosophy […] department," argue Briggle and Frodeman. They say the reason, paradoxically, is philosophy's elevation to the status of professional science. When the first natural sciences and humanities emerged at the end of the 19th century, philosophers had no other choice but to become more academic themselves (or at least act that way). The thinkers adapted to the structures of their universities and became more and more specialized. Frodeman calls this specialization the "original sin" that resulted, ultimately, in philosophy's irrelevance.
Socrates and other Greek star thinkers — Photo: Matt Neale
As a solution to the problem, the U.S. philosophers suggest we become more like Socrates. The recalcitrant scruff lived in Athens in the 4th century B.C. Instead of recording his ideas, he preferred to talk to everyone and anyone on the street, was often at loggerheads with the mighty and powerful, and was eventually sentenced to death for godlessness. The lesson here? Be brave and risk everything.
"Philosophy has to get outside. The sun will do it good," writes Frodeman. Now, more than ever, there is a desperate need for street-level philosophy, he argues. That's because the market square is dilapidated, and the lessons to be discussed — from autonomous killer robots to privacy in the digital age, climate change and the impact of biotechnology on human development — are literally choking the streets.
The military journalist Franz-Stefan Gady even suggested sending a Socrates-like philosopher to the Pentagon. A type of "Philosopher in Chief" would be very useful, he argues, to question the behavior of military personnel and constantly bombard them with questions such as "What is the military?" or "What does victory even mean?"
Slaves and rebels
Thomas Vašek, founder and editor in chief of the Philosophy magazine Hohe Luft (High Air), is of a similar mind. "Clearly the hour of the philosopher is now," he says. "The word of the year — 'post-truth,' for example — is a philosophically highly problematic term."
Vašek sees the need for a reprimanding voice, especially in these heated times. Hohe Luft recently published a "philosophical manifesto" calling on philosophers to once again become role models, to take digitalization seriously, and stop acting like an estranged elite. Vašek describes it as "something of a wake-up call" but doesn't expect it'll have much effect on universities. "Some people within the academic system think that they have to have a PhD at the very least before they are allowed to open their mouths." Vašek pins his hopes, therefore, on the young, people outside the academic system, rather than on the "old, established authorities."
Frodeman and Briggle call these young thinkers the "Republic of Letters," reminiscent of the brotherhood of European scientists in the 17th and 18th centuries. Business managers, scientists, engineers and futurists are part of this informal network nowadays. In short, people who work for the research branches of Google and Apple rather than at a university; people who "philosophize on the fly," applying ad-hoc philosophy to concrete problems.
The direction this new philosophy is taking can, of course, be a bit strange sometimes. In Silicon Valley, for example, stoicism — with its emphasis on sensory chastity, self-control and insusceptibility towards setbacks — seems to be making a comeback. Even Google is said to have held seminars on stoicism for its employees.
Others argue that stoicism is the last thing the world needs right now. Philosopher Sandy Grant of the University of Cambridge recently called stoicism "a philosophy for a time of slaves." Indeed, one of the early proponents of stoicism was the Roman slave Epictetus. Grant says that if people accept the idea that things are beyond their control, they won't rebel. What we need instead, she says, is for people in times of injustice and oppression to act in unison, even when our situation seem irreversible.
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