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Philosophy in The Real World

By Jack Walker - Philosophy Student @ Churchill College, Cambridge


Philosophy is typically seen as a pretty useless discipline. I take it that most people don’t really understand what philosophy really is other than something like ‘considering big abstract questions with little relevance to the real world’. Perhaps it is because of this reputation then, that philosophy is often high up the list of departments on the chopping block for funding cuts in universities. Don’t worry, this is not meant to be some self-pitying essay about the job market for those in the humanities and ‘Boo-hoo why couldn’t I have been an engineer’. Despite studying philosophy for three years and deeply loving it as a discipline, I am forced to admit that its critics do have a point. Some might defensively shoot back with the fact that philosophers tend to do incredibly well on tests of general reasoning and intelligence, such as the LSAT and the GRE, than other disciplines, often matched only by physics and economics graduates. However, performances on standardised exams are not enough to salvage any claims about the usefulness of the discipline as a whole.

The problem as I see it is that a lot of philosophy is not public facing enough. For example, I think there is something wrong with the fact that the vast majority of academics in philosophy spend huge amounts of time and energy publishing articles that are only read by a small handful of other philosophers working in their area of specialisation. Indeed, it is difficult, even as a philosophy student myself, to see how papers like ‘‘semantical conditions on modal logic’ and ‘’Against grounding necessitarianism’ contribute to the public good. This is certainly not to say that there is no value in these types of enquiry. Rather, the point is that philosophy as a disciple should aim to make more of a difference to the real world.

There are difficult questions here as to how this should be achieved. For example, some philosophers have gone so far as to argue that there is a genuine conflict between philosophy and practical decision making since the former is concerned exclusively with truth whereas the latter focuses on promoting good consequences. In his paper ‘Truth or Consequences’, Dan Brock recalls working on a Congressionally mandated bioethics council with non-philosophers and some of the difficulties this raised. For example, he experienced tension between whether to express his philosophical views despite their political unpopularity. To speak up was to risk not being listened to by members of the council who were political appointees and so not be able to make a difference in future conversations.

These are serious concerns but I think we can give a more optimistic sketch of the prospects of philosophy as a public discipline. For example, as it stands there are lots of barriers which limit public philosophy, since it is not typically valued by structures of promotion and reward within universities. These structures are not immutable and can be changed to ensure that philosophers interested in public engagement are not left alone and unsupported. Furthermore, we must allow our standards as to what counts as ‘good philosophy’ to be context relative. C. Thi Nguyen describes a feeling of having to ‘‘fight all the instincts that have been programmed into you’ when engaging in public philosophy. For example, instead of an almost absurd focus on precision and technical rigour, public philosophy instead requires one to adopt a wide scope and sketch loosely with clear examples which relate to the audience you are presenting to i.e. not professional philosophers. In other words, philosophy in the real world is all about starting a conversation. It is these conversations which will shape how philosophy is perceived and the differences it is able to make. As a result, their value cannot be overstated.

Further reading:

  1. Truth or Consequences - Dan Brock

  2. Ethics and Public Policy - Jonathan Wolff

  3. Manifesto for Public Philosophy - C. Thi Nguyen


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