Where have all the philosophers gone?

Johnston Sun Rise ·

Where have all the philosophers gone?

Once upon a time those who practiced “the love of wisdom” were considered wise for their willingness to ask life’s big questions. Today, philosophy is often considered quaint, B.S., irrelevant or so esoteric that only brainy weirdoes study it. The demise of a discipline that encouraged us to search for meaning has now, seemingly, been relegated to the basement of history.

During a session of the East Greenwich High School Philosophy Club one Thursday afternoon I asked a group of intrepid young seekers how their parents would feel if they decided to attend college and become a philosophy major. In nearly every case students felt it would not be received well. The kids asserted that their parents would consider studying philosophy a waste of money and time. Who would have thought that Socrates, Aristotle, Voltaire and Kierkegaard would have been considered not worthy of scrutiny?

It seems as though emphasis on those courses that are tested for are foremost in parent’s minds when they dole out money for college. In today’s economic climate there is a great deal of sense to this argument. But, should there be additional considerations? While jobs and money certainly are important, I am wondering why purpose, along with meaning, aren’t factored in. 

Not only has philosophy been devalued, so has History and Civics. I am wondering if there is any correlation between the anger driven vitriol permeating America these days and the demise of civics, critical thinking and believing in a purpose that exceeds the perfunctory? Didn’t Nietzsche once tell us, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how?” Asking a few more whys might be helpful for young people as they go through the education process. 

The contributions made by philosophers to political science, religion, mathematics, science, literature, psychology and history are well documented. In some ways, philosophy has been a precursor of Political Science (Plato’s Republic comes to mind). In addition, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche strongly impacted Sartre’s Existentialism. Eventually, leading folks like Rollo May and Viktor Frankl to include such concepts into their work as therapists. Has it reached the point that we have forgotten such things? Even worse, do we even care to ask the questions that Philosophy pose? 

The need for philosophical discourse is as apparent as ever. While much of mankind might think that soft disciplines are not necessary, it seems as though we still struggle over religion, relationships, purpose, the best form of government, etc. In truth, philosophy is still practiced. Comedians, some writers, and musical artists take us there from time to time.

In many ways we have forgotten the process that goes along with discovery and learning. Even our schools have fallen prey to this by placing so much emphasis on testing and school rankings. While Machiavellianism appears to be the philosophy of the day, having it taught within subject matter and scrutinized, must be considered as well.

In an era that has computers doing much of the process work, young learners are shying away from reading books. Whys and hows are being pushed aside for the whats. Progress? Perhaps. Balance? You tell me. Philosophy can interject a reason behind the quest for knowledge. Philosophy can also challenge us to place a value on what we have learned. 

To some extent I am questioning whether or not curiosity and creativity continue to matter (at least as much as they have in the past). Surely things change. Each time is presented with challenges. Sometimes the challenges run their course, others, innovation comes about to chart new directions. At the heart of a new direction is philosophical thought. Philosophy sets a tone. That tone may not always be pretty, but it is based on love, politics, power, religion, etc. All are philosophical considerations. Hopefully ethics will also be part of the mix. Man, being a social animal, in perpetual need of belonging and meaning, is rudderless unless engaged in examining purpose. It is amazing that the most important things are not taught. Life without purpose, facts without meaning, all lead to an existence that is perfunctory in nature.

Young children often ask the deepest philosophical questions. They wonder what God looks like, why do they have to abide by rules, what is the last number in the world, and how come they can’t have everything within sight? Later, as teenagers, they will question whether God exists, why a certain school subject matters, should marijuana be legalized, and how come people cannot get along? Tragically, we, the adults avoid answering many of these questions. We actually truncate process, with answers that amount to, ‘because that’s the way it is’ and yes’s and no’s without exploration. Philosophy has been set aside by adults as they grow older. Dreaming, imagining and philosophizing are not immediately tangible. 

Rhode Island has a poet laureate. We also have a Music Hall of Fame. Isn’t it ironic that no city or town has a town philosopher (or state philosopher)? Setting this aside, how many job postings have you seen for philosophers? Just imagine this ad: “Wanted, Philosopher to ask big questions, create a vision, help instill purpose and a sense of meaning among employees. Toga, goatee, along with a non-conformist attitude required.” Let me know when you find such a job offer.

Perhaps one day soon parents and children will ask why there wasn’t more time spent searching for meaning in school. For after one gets a bunch of A’s, heads to college, attains employment, purchases a house and starts a family, basic philosophical questions will remain. Life’s journey should factor in so much more. Carpe diem.

A long-time contributor to these pages, Bob Houghtaling directs the East Greenwich Drug Program.