Philosophy, once hailed as the “queen of the sciences”, is now going through bad times, and they are likely to get worse as the financial crisis deepens and lengthens. For those who take a more pragmatic approach to life, philosophy seems like the perfect example of useless knowledge: “What is philosophy good for?” asked my grandfather, at one point in a recent conversation. He wasn’t convinced by my answer, which focused on the contributions to society provided by philosophy. This experience caused me to rethink the importance of philosophy.
This widespread opinion probably has something to do with declining enrollments in philosophy programs in the U.S. (and abroad; cf. the article by Jaime Nubiola “In Defense of Philosophy”). Philosophy seems neither to bring good salaries, nor does it seem to have any purpose other than eternal arguments, disconnected from the concerns of human life, with no decisive resolution. Truth is supposed to be philosophy’s ultimate goal, but when every philosopher and his brother claims to have it, the easiest conclusion is that no one does. Why, then, should citizens pay to support this discipline in the University curriculum, and support the professors that study and teach it?
One answer is that philosophy has been, either directly or indirectly, an important factor in the development of society over the centuries, ever since human beings acquired the ability to look critically at their own way of living, indeed, their very way of being. We can characterize this critical investigation as “philosophical anthropology” (PA); it was only in the 20th century that this area of study was recognized as a philosophical discipline in its own right, but every philosopher who has had a view on the nature of the human being is, in a real sense, a practitioner.
I contend that this area of study will be critical in the years to come, and that the “anthropologies” that are proposed will strongly influence how human beings are treated in society for decades to come. An example is the Transhumanist movement, which redefines human nature by treating it as infinitely malleable, and teaches that more than an option, cooperation in the task of breeding better humans is an ethical obligation. The entire project of transhumanism, as an example, depends on what human beings are and should be; in turn, the study of the human being from the perspective of PA is linked strongly to a number of other philosophical disciplines, such as metaphysics, philosophy of nature, ethics, consciousness theory, political philosophy, philosophy of language and others.
It is the linkage between PA and political and social change that makes it a particularly interesting philosophical discipline, because it is one where the layperson can contribute to its development by supporting philosophy departments that study it. All of those who are interested in the future conditions of the human race can participate, by supporting those philosophy departments that take PA seriously through political action to prevent those departments from being closed, or endowing Chairs in philosophical anthropology, for instance, which can attract new students to the department and post-doc fellowships to study issues of interest to those Chairs.
The next time somebody asks you “what is philosophy good for”, you can answer “preserving your freedom and rights against those who would take them away”. People need to be made aware of those discourses today that seek to eliminate these crucial elements for a just and free society—corporations, Islam, philosophical antihumanism, among others—and promoting those approaches, such as the Enlightenment project, that seek to protect and strengthen the rights of man. (Another important philosophical task is deciding whether Enlightenment values are still appropriate today, but that’s a topic for another post.) Even Scott Brown might then understand why humanities, and in particular philosophy, will be crucial to the American project over the coming decades.