A brief history of philosophy, part 15: what next?

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Posted Aug 24 2016 by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org

This is the final article in this series. Over the past 15 weeks I’ve tried to highlight the times in history where philosophy has helped, along with technology and events, to change the direction in which we’re moving. We’re in the philosophical doldrums right now – how many contemporary philosophers can you name, and when was the last time you saw a philosopher interviewed on primetime TV about current events or policies? Economists, scientists, politicians and business people, yes – but a philosopher? Philosophy is needed now more than ever, but we have to put up with sound bites and vested interests instead.

As for philosophical ideas – it’s not about whether you think a particular philosophy is right or not. It’s about its usefulness – whether it captures the zeitgeist, solves problems, moves us on. Thales was neither right nor wrong that we should investigate the universe using reason rather than myths. But that’s the way we went. Thomas Aquinas was neither right nor wrong to reconcile Aristotle with Christianity, but that happened too. The world would be a very different place now if they hadn’t. And maybe it would be a better place, who knows? But those ideas caught the spirit of their time and place, just as many others have in theirs.

What’s the current dialectic? Is it between left and right, or between postmodernism and positivism? The right focus on freedom and the left on equality. Why not a synthesis of the two – what’s the use of shrinking the power of the state, only for it to concentrate in business, and vice versa? I’d go so far as to say that true freedom is not possible without a degree of equality (i.e. much more than we have now), because concentration of wealth and therefore power will increase the freedom of some at the expense of others. In the same way, true equality can’t really exist without freedom. Lack of freedom suggests a master / slave relationship that is the opposite of equality.

Postmodernism reduces our ideas and thoughts to culture, and positivism reduces them to chemistry, or I suppose, ultimately, to physics. I believe that philosophy is bigger than that, and needs to take centre stage again. Let’s talk. Physics and culture should both give ground to philosophy, or if you don’t like this domineering approach – let’s balance relativism and materialism using philosophy. I think that one of the most interesting developments in this area is ‘participatory theory’, which rejects the subject-object split and locates meaning in the dialectical combination of positivist objective reality and postmodern mental projection. Harking back to Hegel, there is a realisation that the human mind (including imagination and reason) is not separate from the universe – it is an integral part of it, and perhaps an extremely important part. The human mind is not just for interpreting the universe – in a literal sense, it’s there to help the universe understand itself, and to shape its (and our own) future. The universe is evolving, and with it, the human mind.

The story of philosophy so far contains relatively few women. This is not, of course, due to lack of ability, but to oppression. In my lifetime, the biggest changes in society have probably been the internet and the burgeoning status of women. Both have only just begun. I predict that although the last 2000 years of human thought have been dominated by men, the next 2000 will not. We’ll need intelligent, compassionate, honest, reliable, loving people, who don’t reject the adventurous, rebellious, rational spirit that has brought us to this point, but who balance it with a nurturing, contemplative, imaginative spirit. Maybe then we can learn to co-operate, to live in harmony with nature, and to reject war as a way of resolving disputes.

But perhaps most importantly, philosophy needs to regain its previous importance. Current conditions are inimical to the evolution of consciousness. Philosophy has been usurped by economics, which means that the dominant thinking of our age is not about meaning, it’s about how to make money. Society is in the grip of economists and their clients just as firmly as it was in the grip of monarchy and church a thousand years ago. Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment meant that new structures and systems were developed that allowed power to shift to merchants and to money, where it remains to this day. Allowing moneyed interests to steer is even less sensible than allowing bloodlines or organised religion to steer. At least monarchs and priests might be amenable to philosophical arguments. Economists don’t even engage in philosophical arguments – profit is the yardstick by which all ideas are measured.

Science and art have been similarly hijacked by economics. Creative people have been sucked into advertising, and scientists have been marshalled into research that’s geared towards making money rather than unlocking the secrets of the cosmos. And here we are in the twenty-first century, the subtle intelligence of philosophy overshadowed by the crass dullness of economics – something that should concern anyone interested in preserving ecology, democracy and freedom.

Philosophy is the opposite of economics. Philosophy done well involves critical thinking about the nature of existence and our place in it. Classical economics done well (by its own standards) involves the destruction of ecology via the perpetual expansion of resource use and waste, and of democracy, equality and freedom through the concentration of wealth and power. Philosophy involves decision-making based on ethics; economics demands decision-making based on profit.

The two most dangerous threats facing humanity are probably (as far as we know) ecological collapse and nuclear war. Humans are much cleverer than we are wise. We don’t appear wise enough to control our technology in a way that prevents environmental destruction and war. We can achieve this wisdom through philosophy, whereas the dominance of economics will prevent wisdom. Philosophy needs to take the reins of technology from economics – quickly, before it’s too late.

Find our topic introduction with links to further philosophy resources here.