As I write this, in December 2017, the future of philosophy is intriguingly uncertain: there are forces pulling in opposite directions, and we don’t know which prevail.
On the one hand, we have hopeful, exciting developments: For quite a long time, work that engages with real world issues, like race, gender, class and disability has been marginalised in philosophy. Ideal theory has had far greater status and visibility than work that grapples with our unjust realities. In most philosophy departments, writing work that could be read and used by non-philosophers was considered a professional mistake. All this is now, I think, changing. Departments are advertising for philosophers of race and gender. Philosophical work written for a popular audience is gaining increasing respect. More and more philosophers are realising how vital such work can be, and wanting to learn how to do it. This is all, I think, very much to the good. Philosophy is better when it engages with things that matter to people’s lives in the ways that these issues do. And I hope it can have a positive impact on the world.
There was already a trend in this direction, but I think it’s undeniable that the twin political shocks of 2016 – Trump and Brexit – have given a further boost to this movement. The rise of far-right nationalism, overt misogyny and overt racism have led many to feel that they have an obligation to learn how to do philosophy that engages with the world – and given them (I hope) a new respect for those who were already doing this. A further boost has come from the rejection of reasoned discourse which has helped to fuel the rise of the far right. Even philosophers who don’t work on political issues are feeling the urgency of defending reason itself.
But of course this boost to philosophical engagement with real world issues has come from a terrible development in the world. My topic is the future of philosophy, so I will mostly focus on that. It bears noticing that a world which is increasingly filled with hatred, racist violence, and misogyny and which increasingly lacks any sort of safety net, will be one that impoverishes philosophy as more and more people are unable to find their voices, or even survive. But the harm to philosophy is trivial compared to the harm to humanity.
Philosophy is, however, in danger. Contempt for expertise, reason, and education are widespread and rising, due to very successful campaigns by the far right in both the US and the UK. Universities are in enormous financial jeopardy. Worse yet, these campaigns are particularly targeting academics who teach such things as race and gender – attempting to defund these programs, as well as targeting individuals.
The future of philosophy, then, is far from clear. It may be a revitalised discipline that engages with important real world issues in truly exciting ways. Or it may be reduced to a shadow of its former self by the rising forces of the far right.