The Continuing Irrelevance of Philosophy

I’ve always thought I should love the discipline of philosophy. After all, it studies (my Apple dictionary tells me) “the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence” — topics that are at the heart of my quest for goodness. Once again, though, I find that I’m underwhelmed by the reality of the discipline as opposed to its ideal. The whole thing appears, at least at first glance, to be so untethered from real life that it’s of no use to us struggling humans who are trying to live moral and good lives. Witness Peter Railton’s essay on morality in Sunday’s New York Times.

The Perrin Professor of Philosophy at the University of Michigan, Railton goes on at length about morality and natural selection. This piece is so disconnected from any aspect of everyday life that “irrelevant” is the kindest term that can be used to describe it. This is an essay that only a mother — or another philosopher — might love.

Railton does much better in a bloggingheads.tv conversation with Robert Wright, the author of The Evolution of God. Much of that talk is only suitable for academia, but it gets interesting in the 27th minute as they finally consider real-world examples.

I apologize for posting with so much snark in my fingertips. I try not to do that. I also suppose this post also shows my lack of philosophical education. The only excuse I can give is that the first place I searched in my quest for goodness was the philosophy section of the University of Kansas Library.

While the topics and titles seemed relevant, the contents of the books were a complete turnoff. They appeared to be written by men (and they were largely men) who  had the odd idea that human beings aren’t, well, human. To these learned folk, the psychology and physiology of the human mind don’t exist, and all we have to do is think our way to goodness. If only that were true.

In Railton’s case, he does admit to our “monkey” nature, but expends all his energy contemplating the impact of our genes and natural selection. OK. I’ll bite. Why the heck should I care?

And to all you lovers of philosophy: Bring it on! What am I missing? What do I not understand?

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5 Responses to The Continuing Irrelevance of Philosophy

  1. Susan Cooper says:

    I see that you are “railing” against philosophy as an area of study, but perhaps you got there today because of this particular essay? I was a philosophy student (minor) and did study all of those stodgy, seemingly disconnected male philosophers. What I brought out of that course of study was the ability to think and analyze, to weigh an argument, to support my thesis, and to discard what was simply insupportable. Railston seems to be discussing, like Rifkin is in his “The Empathic Civilization”, the connection between how “man” has been understood in a pseudo-Darwinian manner as only surviving if actually the fittest/strongest/most cunning, etc, and in how “man” is coming to be understood as emobodied emotions that contribute to survival rather than hinder it. I do understand your frustration with philosophy as the behemoth it can appear! The route I took as I struggled with the “so what?” question was that of Applied Sociology. Looking at my world with these lenses helped me fing that all this study of our humanness within a social context can result, when applied to particular situations, in something positive for all humankind.

  2. dianesilver says:

    Great point, Susan! You give me hope and remind me that “some” does not mean “all.” That’s a fallacy if there ever was one! You also provide a good perspective on Railston’s essay, not to mention sending me to look into Applied Sociology. Got any suggestions for authors to seek in that field? Applied sociology books to read? Thinkers to interview?

    • Susan C says:

      I hesitate to recommend, but ultimately I think a basic read in the sociology of religion, sociology of morality, are good starts. The applied part is just taking as much of the scientific method (including field observation and participant observation) into a social setting/society and studying with a sociological perspective. Most basic sociology texts will tell you that there are three different perspectives (conflict, functionalism, symbolic interactionism). Renzetti & Curran, the authors of the textbook I used when teaching intro, included a fourth: feminist perspective. This was not just the idea of looking at how women are located/treated in society, but carrying that extra lens that focuses on inequalities based on other than socioeconomic differences. It seems that your question of “good”, “goodness”, etc., would be considered by sociologists with a big dose of context and cultural relativity, while seeking to learn whether there are those “universals.” Perhaps tossing in sociology only muddles things a bit more?! :0)

  3. Some years ago, in one of my “maybe I’ll just go back to school fits” (I fantasize about these things but never do it), I thought about studying philosophy. It seemed to me that there were many areas of modern life where experts on ethics were in demand, and the study of philosophy seemed to be the path to that life.

    But, of course, what I wanted to study was philosophy in light of Aikido and related principles. I didn’t object to studying some Aristotle and Plato; I just didn’t want to limit myself to western thinking. But near as I could tell, most universities in the U.S. did not even offer courses in Asian thinking through their philosophy departments. In Asian studies departments, yes, but not as part of a philosophy degree. Philosophy as taught seems to be limited to European thinkers and those following in the tradition of European thinkers. Perhaps there are one or two courses that touch on other things.

    That strikes me as incredibly odd, but it might explain some of the disconnect you’re seeing. Philosophy as taught is incomplete.

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