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The Uses and Misuses of Philosophy

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I wanted to take this opportunity to consider some of the ways philosophy has been used and misused in contemporary political debates to justify a broad range of positions.”

Far-right activist Stefan Molyneux recently called himself the, “most influential modern philosopher,” likely referring to both the impact of his various media presentations and the publication of his recent book  Essential Philosophy: How to Know What On Earth is Going On. The book itself has very serious limitations, as my frequent collaborator Ben Burgis and I intend to point out in a forthcoming review. One of the most glaring is Molyneux defines philosophy in a huge number of ways. To give a partial list of definitions given in one short book: philosophy is “the study of truth,” and it is a “methodology that helps you determine the difference between subjective experiences and facts.” Later Molyneux claims that, “the heart of philosophy…is morality” and that “the purpose of philosophy is to get you to change your moral habits.” At one point we get the contention that, “very essence of philosophy is to differentiate between various states, to point to the best preferred” and that, “philosophy is the rational hypothesis of empirical action.” Philosophy is apparently the, “largest circle of mental disciplines,” is “founded on hostility to authority,” is a “practice (involving) the creation of arguments.” And, of course, at one point Molyneux claims that, “philosophy is like exercise.” 

To avoid spoiling the full review, I will refrain from extensive criticisms of these definitional problems here. Instead, I wanted to take this opportunity to consider some of the ways philosophy has been used and misused in contemporary political debates to justify a broad range of positions. I will then put forward my own speculations on what the proper use of philosophy in public discourse should be. However, I will follow the sound advice of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in their classic What is Philosophy? and will refrain from putting forward a definition of the philosophical enterprise. This is, in part, because I agree with Deleuze and Guattari that a rich understanding of the philosophical enterprise can only come near the end of the a life spent examined. To put forward a definition prematurely would only cheapen philosophy, and the intention of this article is partly to rescue it from such debasement. It will also draw in part from my earlier article on the purposes of a post-secondary education in the humanities and social sciences.

Philosophy Should be the Handmaiden of Tradition

For some, the purposes of philosophy should be the elaboration upon and justification of settled traditions. This conservative interpretation has deep roots in various traditions. One can arguably connect it to the thinking of both Confucius and Aristotle in very different parts of the world. Both men stressed that—at least—moral philosophy had to be embedded in a rich set of traditions and practices, which outlined what characteristics a moral individual would embody. This approach carried down through the work of conservative thinkers such as David Hume and Edmund Burke and finds expression today in the work of aestheticians like Roger Scruton, political theorists like Yoram Hazony, and (problematically) pundits like Ben Shapiro (whose book I reviewed here). More theologically inclined philosophers may even aspire to take up the Miltonian challenge of, “[justifying] the ways of God to men” through philosophical speculation on the nature of various religious beliefs. 

At its best, philosophers in the vein of Alasdair MacIntyre stress that philosophy done in this vein simultaneously justifies a tradition, while rejuvenating it through critical interpretation. Traditions should never be seen as static entities, and indeed these philosophers will argue that the history of a continuous line of philosophical thought is partly a history of self-critique. This can certainly be the case with figures like Hume or MacIntyre himself, who almost paradoxically preserve philosophical tradition through radically changing it. But at its worst, this kind of outlook can simply become fodder for irrational and dogmatic attachment to calcified ideas, even when they can no longer be justified by appeals to reason or insulated from foundational critique. This attitude is well expressed in the reactionary outlook of Joseph de Maistre, who famously had tart words about the uses of philosophy: 

Some of the men of this age seem to me to raise themselves at moments to a hatred for Divinity, but this frightful act is not needed to make useless to most strenuous creative efforts: the neglect of, let alone scorn for, the great Being brings an irrevocable curse on the human works stained by it. Every conceivable institution either rests on a religious idea or is ephemeral. Institutions are strong and durable to the degree that they partake of the Divinity. Not only is human reason, or what is ignorantly called philosophy, unable to replace those foundations ignorantly called superstitions, but philosophy is, on the contrary, an essentially destructive force.”

As I have observed elsewhere, the danger of the reactionary mentality is constant in many of these conservative efforts to relate philosophy to a defense of tradition. This, in part, flows from a fundamental disjunction between the philosopher’s typically critical disposition and the respect for various kinds of authority that usually characterizes intellectual conservatism. These sources of authority can range from state and legal structures to religious doctrines. Attempting to insulate or guard these authorities from philosophical critique poses a significant problem for the traditionalist, particularly in a modern era where the Socratic and Voltairean injunction to question everything has become widely popular.  

Philosophy is a Useless Discipline

Another popular claim, perhaps most associated with the late Stephen Hawking, is that philosophy is “dead.” This is naturally a bold assertion, even from an intellect as profound as Hawking’s. In its most superficial variants, the usual claim is that philosophy is simply unimportant from an economic standpoint. Articles like “The Top Four Reason You Should Never Major in Philosophy” point out that the only job you will likely be qualified for is being a philosophy professor, which in today’s tough job market is unlikely. Other shallow critiques in this variant often stress that philosophy is of calculable economic value, often raising clever but endless questions that permit no resolution. Ironically, Stefan Molyneux himself occasionally invokes this trope when he struggles to answer a formidable objection to his favored positions. A good example is when he preliminarily (there is a more sustained but also very flawed response later in the book) tries to answer Cartesian skeptics about the certainty of our sense data by saying: “if a proposition has no practical value or benefit…then we can definitively file it under the category of who cares?” Of course, one can respond to these by pointing out that, whatever their “cash” value, philosophical problems do not simply dissolve in the morass of our everyday activities because we wish them to. We may decide we no longer care about them, but that does not give us the right to declare that we have solutions to what indeed often seem like bottomless problems. It just means that we have ducked the challenge by focusing on other things. Moreover, as Martha Nussbaum points out in her great book Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities these economistic or “cash value” oriented positions underestimate the political value of philosophy to democracy. This is particularly the case when considering how it can impart critical virtues unto citizens which can be necessary in securing a robust public sphere necessary to preserve democratic societies.

The claim is usually that philosophy once served a useful purpose in staging some important questions but has now largely or entirely been superseded by science.

The more sophisticated variants of these critiques do not try to duck these challenges but answer them in another way. The claim is usually that philosophy once served a useful purpose in staging some important questions but has now largely or entirely been superseded by science. Scientific inquiry, according to this view, now offers a more rigorous and fulfilling method of answering basic questions about what is reality, what is the nature of consciousness, and potentially even moral questions, which were long thought to be estranged from science due to the is/ought problem formulated by Hume. Moreover, Hawking and his supporters claim that philosophy has failed to adequately keep up with fundamental issues in science. For instance, a fixation on the mind-body problem popular since Descartes ignores how disciplines like neurology can respond to the issue empirically. More problematically, a fixation on traditional philosophical puzzles also ignores how quantum theory problematizes claims that there even is a sharp disjunction between the mind and/or brain and the external world. 

These objections are understandable up to a point, but I also believe that they overstate the case. Many traditional philosophical problems persist despite the objections of scientists, ranging from attempts by logicians like Saul Kripke to develop a rigorous  theory of truthto the efforts of political and legal philosophers to seek to formulate fundamental principles of legitimacy. Moreover, the efforts of scientifically-inclined critics to wade into philosophy’s domain without seriously attempting to learn about its basic problems have been mixed to say the least. Many have observed that efforts to solve philosophical problems without taking philosophy seriously have often just produced bad and arrogant theorizing. 

Philosophy’s task must be to point out the limits of all approaches to truth, including that of philosophy itself. 

Philosophy as a Critique of What Is 

The last approach to philosophy—and the one I admire the most—is the critical disposition. This approach goes back at least to Socrates, who insisted that the goal of the philosopher was to subject both his or her own life and the social lives of those around them to constant scrutiny. This meant emphatically rejecting the conceits of what the economist Kenneth Galbraith would call “conventional wisdom”—or what I characterize as traditionalism. It also meant remaining skeptical that any one approach to the truth, even philosophy and science, can necessarily provide all the answers through unreflective praxis. Philosophy’s task must be to point out the limits of all approaches to truth, including that of philosophy itself. 

Many different iterations of this approach have emerged over time. One can point to the critical and open minded philosophical ruptures in the Mughal Empire under the Muslim Emperor Akbar, when inter-religious criticism and dialogue were broadly encouraged. Or one can point to the various feminist critiques, which emerged starting with Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, where she observed that the revolutionary French philosophes failed to apply the consequences of their own emancipatory reasoning to the female sex.  Personally, I take my cues on this approach from Immanuel Kant. In his short essay “What is Enlightenment,” Kant emphasized the power of reason—especially philosophical reason—to awaken us from our partial and self-serving thoughts about the world and instead subject it to continuous scrutiny. The point of philosophy was, therefore. not to impart one way of thinking about the world but to encourage all to think for themselves. 

“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another.  This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding! Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large proportion of men, even when nature has long emancipated them from alien guidance (naturaliter maiorennes), nevertheless gladly remain immature for life. For the same reasons, it is all too easy for others to set themselves up as their guardians. It is so convenient to be immature! If I have a book to have understanding in place of me, a spiritual adviser to have a conscience for me, a doctor to judge my diet for me, and so on, I need not make any efforts at all. I need not think, so long as I can pay; others will soon enough take the tiresome job over for me. The guardians who have kindly taken upon themselves the work of supervision will soon see to it that by far the largest part of mankind (including the entire fair sex) should consider the step forward to maturity not only as difficult but also as highly dangerous. Having first infatuated their domesticated animals, and carefully prevented the docile creatures from daring to take a single step without the leading-strings to which they are tied, they next show them the danger which threatens them if they try to walk unaided.”

This also relates back to the fundamental political ambition of a critical philosophy. But encouraging people to use their own understanding and not rely on “guardians” and authorities to interpret the world for them is a challenge. However, it is a foundational exercise for the establishment of a free society of equals, who are each entitled to use their own independent reason to corporate in exploring and changing the world. Because I find this vision deeply inspiring, I look with skepticism upon those who insist philosophy should only be the guardian of tradition, assessed based upon its cash value or its relationship to the authority of science.

Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at or added on Twitter via @MattPolProf.

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