Philosophical Troubles: On the Death of Philosophy

“The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch, which hurts and is desired.

Philosophy is dead. It remains dead, and we have killed it. (Play overture 1812.) No more blaming the hard sciences for the public’s lack of interest! If we are to be honest, we know it is our fault. The onus rests firmly at our feet. When I say philosophy, I refer to the process by which we recursively judge the merits of a given practice. Philosophy is by it’s very nature meta-theoretic. Meaning we can use the tools it gives not only to find personal purpose in an otherwise nihilistic existence (which was Plato’s goal from the beginning); but also, as a means to guide any human endeavour, so long as that labour contains a concrete aim, and set of rules that are clearly defined. This endless recursive process is why there are philosophies of every serious human venture ranging from mathematics to humour. It is also why there can be a philosophy of philosophy ad infinitum. But if philosophy is all encompassing how can it be tedious? So boring in fact that as far as serious academic subjects go, it will not be long before it is stricken from the record. Eliminated entirely. Well, you knew this already, didn’t you?  If not I suggest that you have been too long in the books, and not enough in the mirror. But we all must gaze into the mirror occasionally, mustn’t we? (Even if we do not like what we see.)

But it is not the age, or the act of philosophy which necessitates the death rattle like creak of the door we all hear closing upon it. Nor is it our ability to philosophise. Ironically it is the very adherence to the ideals of being a serious academic subject that will – in the end – prevent it from continuing as one, and cause its entropy. References are more important than original ideas. Exegetical papers fly through University exam boards in droves (pass, pass, pass) while professors consider the consistency of thought, and number and relevance of books mentioned near exclusively. I feel for you too, comrades. It must feel like Groundhog Day reading papers which discuss over and over again, the same authors and topics which have been mined, and mined until all that is left is the bedrock to sift through. Where is the gold which once glimmered? Does it remain only in the past? Can no mind come up with a thesis which is original to it’s core? Or are we to hold the philosophers of old in such high-esteem that only they have the capacity (or opportunity) to put forward a monograph without needing to aim backwards, and it is our job to endlessly dig up their deeper meaning. (Here is the root of the problem!) If Wittgenstein had presented The Tractatus in Cambridge today he would be laughed out of those sacred halls for not including end-notes. Is this what we imagined when we first became enthralled with philosophical problems? When the reader of this paper first devoured Philosophical Investigations (or whichever classic first inspired them) and took it upon themselves to continue the tradition of work which lay before them. Was the idea to dig deeper into the old, or give birth something new? If the latter, then you will know why philosophy is dead. We have murdered not only it’s spirit, but our own in doing so.

If we were to imagine philosophy as an art, instead of a science for example – we could consider how many students that would be interested in pursuing art degrees, if all they were capable of in their studies was the endless reconfiguration, and then replication of a previous artwork. Thirty students giving slightly differing interpretations of the same four paintings, and then discussing why their take is original, year in year out. (What is an acute definition of hell?) How many times can one imagine from a different perspective the same object? Further, we can then take into consideration how the banality of such an act would affect the public’s perception of art more generally. Perhaps, it would continue for a period. But in the end the practice would cease to have any real purpose. Indeed, much like philosophy, it would wither and rot… and eventually die.

“What can be done?” I hear you ask.  We must philosophise freely again! For philosophy is not a business model but a way of life. We must come to an understanding that the rigour that academia provides is only but one useful tool, and that philosophy (as it is meta-theoretic) wraps her arms around it and not the other way around! We must walk, and write, and think again! But for ourselves and not for grants, or publishing rights, or pieces of paper emblazoned with capital letters which we once believed would give us the right to call ourselves what we were born to be: Philosophers once more! Finally, you must inspire your students as you were once inspired. Not solely by the belief that an academic grade, or position will offer what life has already bestowed upon us all: the right to philosophise as we choose. To be honest with our convictions, and to offers answers to the problems of philosophy as they strike us! That is what we must do!

Or otherwise we must give up the ghost entirely.
(I’d rather we didn’t.)


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