…on a sinking ship, who needs philosophy?
Jocular though it may be, this is a very serious question. In just about every aspect of people’s lives, philosophy seems to play a minimal role. There is no emergency situation philosophy can fix. People’s daily lives operate almost entirely in the practical realm, thinking little about anything profound or theoretical. And even during those customary occasions which call for a measure of deep thought, spirituality and contemplation, people seem to defer to ritual, platitude or inspirational quotes on their office walls–a kind of “philosophy lite” which is as intellectual as it is caloric.
This is a problem for me. I am a recent graduate with a degree in Philosophy and I think my intellectual life has been defined entirely by the search for a justification for philosophy. Is it true that the examined life is the only life worth living? Is conscious thought the only true way we can be free, distinguishing ourselves from the deterministic world around us?
All of these justifications, very convincing in their own time, seem to crumble in the face of the sheer power and force of Life. Think of the Shire. The Hobbits live simple, contented lives. Reaping their plentiful harvest, brewing their heady ale, and baking their honest cakes and loaves. The Philosopher stays awake throughout the night, tormented by thoughts yet unexpressed, struggling to be formed. No one sleeps as soundly as a Hobbit. In the face of Life, philosophy has nothing to offer.
Maybe one day in the future, with the movement toward local, sustainable communities (and if we can avert global financial, environmental and geopolitical disaster) we may live this kind of life. But in the meantime, I truly think that one realm in which philosophy serves as a tangible force for progress is in the political. The meaning of life, the nature of reality, consciousness, ethics…these are all vital areas of investigation that doubtlessly affect people’s lives, but they do so as a social undercurrent–monumental forces of movement which shape entire societies and the collective consciousness. Often, the individual cannot gain perspective on his place in this grand scheme, but neither does he oft concern himself with such thoughts; for the monumentality of these forces makes them indetectible. Can you feel the earth rotating? The political realm is also subject to this movement, but its influence upon the individual’s life is overt. The political exercises its force upon our lives regardless of our will. It imposes itself on us, and forces us to obey certain rules of conduct and positions of authority.
Yet the central problem with the political realm is that it is so clearly riddled with inconsistent moral dictates, hypocritical reasoning and incompatible philosophical premises, that perhaps the most influential social force is also the most dysfunctional. Philosophy is not only for the navel gazer; in the political realm anyone can see philosophy at work, for anyone can see how desperately the political realm requires rigorous philosophical examination.
Perhaps philosophy cannot help stymie the leak in a sinking ship, but when it comes to building a better politics–uncovering the contradictions and inconsistencies in our political landscape–philosophy may be our most useful tool.
So thanks for reading. On these here digital pages are my thoughts on politics, philosophy, and life in general. I hope that this is just the beginning of a much larger conversation.