Like most academic disciplines, academic philosophy has become increasingly technical and inaccessible to the general reader over the years. It wasn’t always that way. When reading Plato’s dialogues, we meet Plato’s teacher Socrates who is walking the streets of Athens, asking the city’s young men simple-looking questions such as: “Why is it better to know that something is the case than believe it and be right?” “Can you be wise without knowing the limits of your intellect?” and “Should a man you deem innocent accept the prison sentence given to him on the basis of fair deliberation?” The questions look innocent but underneath the innocence lies deep philosophical insight with potentially dire consequences. Plato tellingly refers to Socrates as a “gadfly” – an insect that regularly stings the Athenians and leaves an annoying itch.
To engage the public in philosophical discourse, Socrates relies on “The Socratic Method”, a type of pedagogy taking its name from the grandmaster himself. The method aims at gently guiding the amateur philosopher to a new level of understanding.The process consists in raising a series of seemingly uncomplicated yet covertly challenging questions. The questions typically prompt the apprentice to agree to erroneous lines of reasoning. With the aid of concrete examples from ordinary life, the interlocutor seeks to demonstrate that fallacious reasoning normally produces the wrong result. This cycle of question/answer/insight is repeated until the conversationalists have come to a gratifying resolution or have run out of time or energy. The following excerpt from Plato’s dialogue Meno, written in 380 B.C.E., nicely illustrates the method of the gadfly.
Socrates: I mean that good men are necessarily useful or profitable. Were we not right in admitting this? It must be so.
Socrates: And in supposing that they will be useful only if they are true guides to us of action –there we were also right?
Socrates: But when we said that a man cannot be a good guide unless he have knowledge [Greek: phrhonesis], this we were wrong.
Meno: What do you mean by the word “right”?
Socrates: I will explain. If a man knew the way to Larisa, or anywhere else, and went to the place and led others thither, would he not be a right and good guide?
Socrates: And a person who had a right opinion [belief] about the way, but had never been and did not know, might be a good guide also, might he not?
Socrates: And while he has true opinion [belief] about that which the other knows, he will be just as good a guide if he thinks the truth, as he who knows the truth?
Socrates: Then true opinion is as good a guide to correct action as knowledge […].
Socrates: Then right opinion is not less useful than knowledge?
Meno: The difference, Socrates, is only that he who has knowledge will always be right; but he who has right opinion will sometimes be right, and sometimes not.
Socrates: What do you mean? Can he be wrong who has right opinion, so long as he has right opinion?
Meno: I admit the cogency of your argument, and therefore, Socrates, I wonder that knowledge should be preferred to right opinion [belief] — or why they should ever differ.
In the excerpt Socrates invites us to imagine a case of a tour guide who guides his group to Larisa by relying on unjustified beliefs about how to get there. The reason the tour guide is successful is that despite the fact that he does not have any good reason for thinking that the route will lead to Larisa, luck is on his side: it just so happens that the carelessly picked route is indeed a way to get to Larisa. Socrates intentionally lures Meno into agreeing to the preposterous view that being right about something by accident is just as good as having knowledge — a view Meno would never have accepted at the outset of the dialogue. Yet following Socrates’ skilful argumentation Meno cannot put his finger on what led him astray. The subsequent dialogue continues in the same style, until the Athenian gadfly appears to be satisfied with Meno’s newly acquired knowledge about why opinion supported by reasons is more valuable than simply being right.
The ways of Socrates, which ultimately led to his execution for corrupting the youth of Athens, illustrate the central role philosophy once played in the public realm. Plato paints a picture of philosophy as a dialectical enterprise. While taught in The Academy, it is also a way for the public to gain insight into wisdom, morality and public affairs.
The tradition of public philosophy outlined in Plato’s dialogues has continued in various forms throughout the centuries and has recurrently been brought to a halt on the basis of its potential threat to traditional culture, policies and values. The public sphere of Vienna of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century remains one of the most vivid examples of the public lushly engaging in philosophical dialogue. If we could travel back to the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, we might have spotted Sigmund Freud at an outdoor table at Vienna’s legendary Café Griensteidl, Café Landtmann or Café Central discussing the foundations of psychoanalysis with analytic philosophers, struggling artists, and lunching store owners. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, before Nazi fascism persecuted the unbiased culture of imperial Vienna, Vienna’s intellectuals were a lively mix of people with different faiths, world views and ethnic, educational and economic backgrounds. While there was a distinguished Viennese intellectual elite comprising such prominent thinkers as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, the economist Friedrich Hayek, and the mathematician John von Neumann, these legendary personas did not operate in academic solitude but partook in the cafe society of Vienna alongside painters, musicians, poets, journalists, architects and business owners. In Vienna’s coffeehouses, Viennese progressives spent time reading, writing, playing cards, debating public affairs or incubating new ideas. The intellectual life in the enlightened monarchy of the late 19th and early 20th century was for everyone.
The Future of Philosophy
Whether we want to admit it or not, academic philosophy is a far cry from what it was in imperial Vienna’s cafe culture. The Austro-Hungarian Empire has long ago collapsed. The Viennese intellectuals who helped build the foundation of contemporary philosophy have passed away, most without leaving a trace to prove that they ever existed. Ever since the collapse of the Empire and the abrupt termination of intellectual inclusiveness and liberalism, we have witnessed an increasing degree of specialisation and seclusion in academia. Faculty in the humanistic disciplines and the formal sciences (mathematics, computer science, and economics) routinely work behind closed doors in more and more specialised areas of their discipline. Philosophers may be the most extreme in this regard.
The isolation of professional philosophers from colleagues, students and the public is likely the best explanation of why academic philosophy is a sinking ship. Cuts continue to be made to the size of philosophy departments, philosophy lines are terminated, and Ph.D. programs, M.A. programs and philosophy majors are recurrently defunded and discontinued. Few people see the value of funding a deteriorating discipline. As a result, there are fewer and fewer permanent teaching and research positions available in philosophy, and often the pay received by the lucky ones who land a job is barely higher than that of a biology postdoc ten years ago.
This decay of the discipline is reflected in students’ choices of major. As philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel recently announced on his blog The Splintered Mind, there has been a sharp decline in philosophy majors since 2010. In 2009-2010, 58 percent of graduating students majored in philosophy. In 2015-2016, 39 percent did. This is quite alarming. Here are the numbers and percentages of students graduating with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in the U.S year by year.
2010: 9297 philosophy BAs (58% of all graduates)
2011: 9309 (56%)
2012: 9376 (54%)
2013: 9439 (53%)
2014: 8837 (47%)
2015: 8198 (43%)
2016: 7507 (39%)
The number of students out of all graduates who majored in philosophy dropped by almost 20 percent in six years, which is a very telling sign that philosophy as it is currently conducted has dire prospects.
Increased specialisation is, of course, only one explanation of the decline in philosophy majors. But this factor relates to another likely explanation of why students shun philosophy. In his summary of an essay by senior editor Yoni Appelbaum in The Atlantic, philosopher Brian Leiter remarks that the price of a college education has skyrocketed. $60,000 per year for tuition, room and board is not unusual for a private liberal arts college. This may be a further factor in explaining the decline in philosophy majors, Leiter notes. Owing to the rising costs of a college education, families may put pressure on students to major in areas that have better job prospects and promise an immediate economic return on financial investments.
Will academic philosophy – like the productive collisions of worldviews in the imperial Viennese cafe culture – soon be a distant memory? This is hard to predict. But the way the trends are, the prospects for philosophy as a discipline seem gloomy. It is certainly difficult to look past the criticism and obstacles facing the humanities in academia today.
The question is: do we care? In the past philosophy helped shape the natural and social sciences. But can’t we live without it now that the sciences have already taken shape and have become their own innovative disciplines?
I think the answer to this question is a clear and loud “no”. Countless important questions remain for philosophers to tackle. As far as I see it, most of these questions belong to the realm of the normative. There are questions that need to be answered anew (or for the first time) as society and technology change — questions such as “Is a life spent mostly in cyberspace worth living?” “How do we avoid becoming second-rate citizens once machine intelligence surpasses human intelligence?” “Is our perpetual fear of terrorism irrational?” “Do I have a right to reproduce in an already overpopulated world that soon may be uninhabitable owing to global warming?” “How can I be kinder to people from other cultures?” “Is it imprudent for a person with no experience with firearms to own a gun?” “Is the misogynist lyrics of rap music inexcusable or an intrinsic part of the art form?” “Do online dating apps like Tinder and Bumble trigger a superficial and self-indulgent approach to love and relationships?”
Normative questions concern what we ought to do or not do in particular circumstances, all things considered. As our culture and technology evolve, new circumstances need to be addressed. But this requires an analysis of what we should mean by new concepts as well an assessment of whether old concepts are in need of a serious overhaul in light of new developments. Relatively new concepts in need of scrutiny include “cyberspace”, “the technological singularity”, “global warming”, “overpopulation”, “online dating”, and “rap music”. Old concepts in need of a makeover include “a life worth living”, “intelligence”, “terrorism”, “people from other cultures”, and “misogynist”. Before we can assess what we ought to do in light of new developments, we thus need to analyze new concepts and reassess old ones.
Normative questions have recently captured the interest of natural and social scientists, including, thinkers in political science, criminal justice, anthropology and archaeology as well as in cross-disciplinary areas like cognitive science, moral psychology, positive psychology, happiness studies, welfare economics and behavioural economics. However, the natural and social sciences are not primarily concerned with the analysis of normative issues. This is because, by definition, normative questions – questions about what we ought to do – cannot be studied using scientific methodology. You can, of course, collect data about, say, people’s ethical attitudes toward climate change, the number of hours people spend on parenting in comparison to work and their methods for improving their romantic relationships. But no analysis of this sort can answer genuine normative questions about what people ought or ought not do. So, philosophy retains an important purpose in today’s society, for example, as a tool for approaching normative questions in light of changes in societal trends and advances in technology.
The issues that resist a resolution using scientific methodology go beyond those that concern what we ought to do in particular everyday circumstances. Critical normative issues include those that concern the foundations, methods, and implications of the natural or social sciences. A few examples: the philosophy of science can help shed light on the question of what counts as a good scientific explanation. The philosophy of psychiatry can help illuminate the question of whether psychiatric disorders are best diagnosed on the basis of information about the brain, information about behaviour or information about subjective attitudes and feelings. The philosophy of social science can help address the relative merits of different statistical methods, given practical considerations. The philosophy of mathematics can help shed light on whether logic can indeed serve as a foundation for mathematics in the way envisaged by many prominent logicians in the past. Although these subject matters concern the STEM disciplines directly, they encompass questions that cannot be answered scientifically. It is precisely for these reasons that I find it hard to believe that philosophy will ever be redundant. What I find easy to believe is that well-off top administrators at universities and colleges as well as world leaders will decide that an ancient discipline that once upon a time provided a foundation for the natural and social sciences is an unnecessary expenditure in an already tight economy.
If philosophy is to continue to play a central role in the natural and social sciences, thereby facilitating scientific progress and paradigm shifts, then how do we slow down the current large-scale down-sizing of the humanistic disciplines in academia and not least the relentless trimming of philosophy faculty? This too is hard to know. But one thing is for certain. If philosophers keep carrying out their business in isolation from other academic disciplines and from the society as a whole, then no one will be able to see that philosophy is valuable and is not simply used as an excuse for introverted narcissists to perform intellectual mind games in their oversized armchairs and earn a living by doing it.
But how do we return to a popular culture infiltrated by a desire to engage in philosophical inquiry in today’s society? How to we cultivate unyielding Socratic gadflies that can shake up conventions and existing policies? How do we reintroduce the intellectual culture of imperial Vienna? As I see it, the only viable way to accomplish this is to find a way to bridge the gap between academic intellectuals and their peers in the sciences as well as the general population.
Philosophers can learn from scientists who have already taken a big step in this direction, despite the fact that they do not have the same need as philosophers to reach out to the general population in order to protect their livelihood. Most scientists have nonetheless long ago realised that citizen involvement may help make real scientific progress. Amateurs eager to contribute to scientific research are commonly referred to as “citizen scientists”. The notions of citizen science and citizen scientist were first used in the mid-1990s although they didn’t enter the Oxford English Dictionary until June 2014. Citizen science is scientific research carried out by amateurs with no formal training in the area in which they conduct research. While the terminology is new, the practice of amateur science is not. Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, and Charles Darwin were all in an important sense citizen scientists. But unable to rely on today’s resources for crowd sourcing and networking, they worked mostly in isolation from the establishment.
Today’s citizen scientists have individually or collectively made astronomical scientific advances in areas such as linguistics, genetics, ornithology, zoology, oceanography and astrophysics. In some cases, citizen scientists have contributed in collaboration with professional scientists, as in the case of Sharon Terry whose two children suffer from PXE – a rare genetic condition that destroys elastic fibres in the skin, eyes and blood vessels and can lead to premature atherosclerosis. Together with professional scientists Terry has helped develop tests, conduct clinical trials and identify the gene for PXE. But not all citizen scientists work as volunteer members of a professional team. In some cases, citizen scientists are collecting data via crowd-sourcing made possible by advances in technology. Crowdsourcing can help conduct large-scale scientific studies that would be too costly and time consuming for any regularly-sized professional team of scientists to conduct. A good example of discoveries that have been made by crowdsourcing is that of the Galaxy Zoo project. Within the boundaries of this project, lay people have contributed significantly to the classification of distant galaxies that have been detected by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.
Advances in technology help explain the new ways in which citizen science can be a useful tool for making scientific progress. But technological development is not the only factor facilitating citizen science. Public outreach is essential in order for amateurs to obtain the kind of basic science education needed for public contributions to be of value to science as a whole.
For philosophy to survive going forward, the discipline may benefit from embracing inclusiveness on the model of the sciences. An important first step toward the development of “citizen philosophy” will be for academic philosophers to discard their elitist stances, lonely existences and lofty ideas. A next natural step will be to mirror what the sciences have done to increase public outreach. This requires the resources, willingness and ability to report technical material in an accessible language analogously to the way popular science is communicated in forums such as ScienceDaily, LifeScience, Scientific American and Science Friday.
Philosophy has a long way to go. As of now, The Philosophers’ Magazine, Philosophy Talk, the occasional trade book and a handful of privately run blogs exhaust the venues that display philosophical musings that are intelligible to the general reader. Other venues devoted to informal philosophical discussion still largely cater to a narrow circle of academic philosophers who attend the same workshops, conduct hires by exchanging recent graduates and contribute to each others’ edited book volumes.
For philosophers to make real progress and gain the attention of fund-granting agencies, they need see the value in spending the time and resources and acquiring the skills needed to facilitate public outreach as well as collaboration with amateur citizens. Opening up to this kind of inclusiveness may be the most effective way for philosophy to be considered a worthwhile enterprise by the general public as well as administrators and leaders in charge of the fate of the discipline. Once this sort of public outreach and public collaboration have become commonplace in the profession, we might see a rise in civic engagement and more jobs and higher pays in academic philosophy.
I will end this essay with a couple of central questions in dire need of discussion. How can citizen philosophers help make important contributions to philosophy? How can public philosophy accelerate philosophical progress? How might crowdsourcing be used to gain insight into normative issues? Answering these questions as well as making a serious effort to reach out to the general public may be our only realistic hope for a future for philosophy.