Back to the Future: Renewing Philosophy

By Giles, James | Liberal Education, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Back to the Future: Renewing Philosophy


Giles, James, Liberal Education


OF ALL THE SUBJECTS taught at colleges and universities, it seems that philosophy most appropriately belongs in the public arena. Socrates roamed the agora, cajoling, berating, but most often, engaging those who would speak with him. In the agora, he spoke truth to power-and it cost him his life. The heirs of Socrates roam academe worrying less about truth and more about talking to each other rather than venturing into the public arena. Philosophy has become academic philosophy because the uncomfortable truth is that there is no philosophy outside of the academy. Philosophy has become a hothouse flower that can survive only in the artificial environment provided by institutions of higher education. Were it to be removed from this environment, it would wither and die.

If American colleges and universities decided to shut down all graduate and undergraduate departments of philosophy, beyond lamenting their personal fate, philosophers would be left to ponder the fate of the discipline of philosophy itself. Without graduate departments, no new philosophers would be trained. Without philosophers, conferences and journals devoted to a discussion of philosophical topics would gradually disappear. Of course, some individuals might persist in asking certain kinds of questions and invoking certain names that would seem to situate them, by a family resemblance, in what hitherto had been known as "philosophy." But philosophy would inevitably become as marginal to our future cultural enterprise as astrology is to the current enterprise.

Because academe is the only environment that currently sustains it, the dependence of philosophy on the academic is almost complete. In other disciplines, a distinction can be drawn between the academic treatment of the subject and what constitutes the subject. Novelists and poets would still produce novels and poems even if there were no departments of literature; chemists would still do research in chemistry even if there were no departments of chemistry. But, in philosophy, the academic treatment of the subject has become its essential subject matter.

Philosophers have developed a style of communication that assumes prior knowledge of the discipline because they believe-correctly-- that only other philosophers will be interested. Their style is ill adapted to communicating with the public and is, unfortunately, the only one most philosophers are familiar with. This is one reason that philosophers cannot make their work relevant to the larger culture even if they write on topics the public is interested in, like euthanasia and affirmative action. Writing on issues of public concern does not mean that the writing will be done in a public, that is, accessible, way. Another reason is that many public intellectuals like journalists and writers probably do a better job. Having spent a century professionalizing themselves, philosophers cannot readily discard the habits of specialization and writing for other philosophers. Can they do anything to escape the fate of extinction?

A modest proposal

What is needed is an alternative to the academic structure that encases philosophy like amber around fossils. An alternative inspired by the past and sustainable in the future is a return to the notion of the amateur philosophy, that is, bringing about public engagement by creating non-academic niches in which philosophy can flourish. If that could happen, philosophy's engagement in public issues would seem as natural as in Socrates's time.

It is easy to assume that the only "real" philosophers are professional ones and to think of "amateur" as a term of reproach and disdain, but this attitude is a relatively recent one in the history of philosophy. It has gained currency because professional or academic philosophy controls the image.

In Philosophy as Social Expression (1974), Albert Levi explores the historical transformation of the philosopher's self-image from amateur to professional. …

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