Is philosophy dead?

Every now and then I hear this idea that philosophy is dead. Or that philosophy is no good, or that the philosophers are living in their own fantasy world and do nothing useful. I find this interesting, and want to take these claims with respect.

At first I want to point out, the claim that philosophy is “dead” isn’t just something that’s said by ignorant, prejudiced, uneducated hobby-thinkers. Peter Suber, professor in philosophy, writes:

In the 20th century, western philosophy divided into two deeply opposed camps, the English-speaking “analytic” philosophers and the European or “continental” philosophers. It doesn’t matter much here how they differ, and how recent bridge-building initiatives have fared. One reason why philosophy seems to have died is that major figures from both camps, who agree on little else, seem to agree that it has died.

Martin Heidegger convinced the continental philosophers that philosophy was dead and that Nietzsche had killed it. Among the analytical philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein claimed he had once for all solved the philosophical problems, or rather dissolved the philosophical problems. What they are claimed to have killed or solved could perhaps be summed up in the somewhat ambigious term of “foundationalism”, such as the aims to understand actual reality or to obtain certain knowledge. However, if we in a wider sense ask ourselves questions:

Is it possible to come to new insights by reason?
Can problems be solved by the use of intellect?
Can one become wiser by sharing thoughts with other people?

Most people would reply yes to these questions. As a starting point of view, I don’t think philosophy needs to be more complicated than this.1 The word “philosophy” origins from the Greek “philo” and “sophia”, which roughly means “love of wisdom”, sometimes also referred to as “friend of insight” and similar.2

It can further be stressed that the aim for “certain knowledge” and understanding the “actual reality” and such wasn’t all what interested the first so-called philosophers. I.e. they concerned themselves with the developing of a just society (as Plato’s Republic), and they were doing natural sciences (as Aristotle). It’s not true that all modern philosophers only focus on specific “philosophical problems” either. Richard Rorty, famous philosopher of 20th century, claimed “there is nothing philosophically interesting in the concept of Truth”. He called himself “neopragmatist”, working for what he called “social hope”. Another example is Jürgen Habermas who agrees there is no interest to search for absolute foundations, but still thinks the philosopher can act as a guardian of rationality, and be a mediator between the scientific, ethical and aesthetic disciplines. Also Wittgenstein didn’t say that all philosophising was meaningless, he just rejected an old conception about philosophy:

Roughly speaking, according to the old conception – for instance that of the (great) western philosophers – there have been two kinds of problems in fields of knowledge: essential, great, universal, and inessential, quasi-accidental problems. And against this stands our conception, that there is no such thing as a great, essential problem in the sense of “problem” in the field of knowledge. 3

Is philosophy dead? Whether it’s dead or not depends on how you define philosophy, and what you mean by dead. Some of the common objections I’ve noticed people have against philosophers:

One view is that the philosophers are on an impossible mission, talk a lot of nonsense and never find any answers. Another view is that the philosophers just talk with each other, don’t reach out to the people, and make nothing of value. A third view is that the academical philosophers are too atomic, analytic and lacks in seeing the big picture.

My aim here can be seen twofold; Firstly to identify the bad reputation of philosophy, and secondly point out that it doesn’t need to be this way. It can be seen as a caution to the ones only positive of (academical) philosophy, and an apology to the ones only negative about it.

There are a lot of preconceptions about what is philosophy. People have different views on what it’s all about, and how it is to be done. To understand the essence and possibilities of philosophy in an unprejudiced way seems to be one of the toughest tasks. Below I post link to Wittgenstein whom I think brings interesting views on this topic. However, I believe it’s a question that suits well to be attacked from different directions. I think it’s important to perceive wide (this is hard), and not agree to just call them ‘academical philosophers’ philosophers. Philosophy can be so much more than what’s being taught at university.

References and further reading

Ludwig Wittgenstein – “Philosophy”
Jürgen Habermas – “Philosophy as Stand-In and Interpreter”, in Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action (1990) Here is a PPT-presentation on this essay, which presents the central ideas of the text short and comprehensible:
Peter Suber – “Is Philosophy Dead?”


1Note well that I write “starting point“, which is not the same as to define “actual philosophy”. At some point we might reach something specific and transcendental “higher wisdom” in philosophy, but not by starting with denying what’s considered as ordinary and practical, I believe.
2 What the words “philo” and “sophia” really meant in their original sense might not be so easy for us to grasp. It refers to concepts that we cannot quite relate to, as we live in another time, under other circumstances. One thing we may note is that the Greeks didn’t make any difference between ‘science’ and ‘philosophy’.
3This quote is easily misunderstood, if one doesn’t know the context in which it’s written. I.e. Wittgenstein didn’t ignore the so-called “great” and “universal” problems, as one may think by reading this quote.

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