In defense of philosophy

Authors question the dominant suspicion of philosophical inquiry and critical thinking in democratic societies.

"It would be wise to recognise, rather than marginalise, philosophy's contribution to democracy," write the authors [Reuters]

World Philosophy Day, which the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) celebrates every year on the third Thursday of November, emphasises the enduring “value of philosophy for the development of human thought, for each culture and for each individual”.

But we are not so sure whether we will celebrate the occasion in Australia and Spain, where we live – two democratic societies that pride themselves on their commitment to principles of liberty, democratic freedom, and social justice. Unfortunately, some of our politicians seem to disregard these principles when it comes to assessing the value of philosophy for their own society.

While Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has vowed that his new government will target philosophical research projects funded by the Australian Research Council that he deems to be “futile” or “wasteful”, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, has approved a new education law (with no support in Congress) where philosophy will be reduced to a marginal discipline in high school. Although both politicians are obviously using the economic crisis as an excuse, it’s clear there is more at stake as eminent Australian and Spanish philosophers such as Paul Redding, Jeff Malpas, Amelia Valcarcel [Sp], and Fernando Savater [Sp] recently declared.

It is our obligation as philosophers and citizens to celebrate this day by defending the role and the meaning philosophy has for society, in order to overcome the ideology behind these conservative politicians, who seem so ready to restrict young people’s opportunities to learn philosophy or to make philosophical research more available to the general public.

Defending philosophy

But in order to do this we are not going to defend philosophy “pragmatically” as something that can be equiped with critical reasoning skills that are highly prized in today’s complex economies. Rather, we shall defend it existentially, that is, as an invitation to become thoughtful and critical members of a democratic society as the UNESCO suggests. But in order to do this we must emphasise three fundamental features that must be taken into consideration when one defends philosophical thought in society.

Philosophy more generally can help us cultivate critical inquiry, questioning norms, and challenging opinion in ways that will enable citizens to acknowledge their differences, resolve their disputes, and argue for the best aspects of their cultural and political community.

The first is the dominance of economic benefit as the sole determinant of value that counts in contemporary political discourse. Not all things, however, that we value in a democratic society – such as freedom of thought and expression, personal and political autonomy, acknowledgment of different cultural values and ways of life – can be measured in strictly utilitarian terms, or have a specific dollar value attached to them. Philosophy can play an important role here in questioning the unthinking elevation of economic benefit as the “highest good”, and to argue for exploring alternative moral, ethical, and cultural values of benefit to society.  

The second is the devaluing of the role of philosophical inquiry as “futile” or “wasteful,” as though we have no need for fundamental questioning of our basic principles, values, or prejudices. The suspicion towards intellectuals that this episode conveys is harmful to the very idea of democracy, as though curbing free inquiry by society’s thinkers and critics were somehow compatible with the democratic ethos. We should ask why some democratic leaders today seem so suspicious of philosophical inquiry and the critical questioning of values of importance to us all.

The third is the need to articulate the value of philosophical questioning and critical reflection for the flourishing of democracy. As renowned American philosophy Stanley Cavell put it, philosophy is “education for grownups”, which also means an education for democracy, for self-governing citizens versed in the art of thinking for oneself. Such an education should begin already in high school to give students an opportunity to discover the power of exercising reason and social importance of questioning one’s world. Philosophy more generally can help us cultivate critical inquiry, questioning norms, and challenging opinion in ways that will enable citizens to acknowledge their differences, resolve their disputes, and argue for the best aspects of their cultural and political community. In this way, philosophy makes a vital pedagogical and intellectual contribution to the cultivation of a democratic ethos in society.

Relating to existentialism

These three features are all related one way or another to existentialism. This is not only one of the major traditions in European philosophy that has profoundly influenced our thinking on the nature of the self, but it has also deeply informed our social and political role as individuals responsible for our actions in the world. This is why contemporary philosophers who draw heavily on existentialism and related traditions tend to focus on everyone’s rights to choose freely their political (Richard Rorty), religious (Charles Taylor), or even sexual (Judith Butler) preferences independently of external forces. This kind of right and freedom requires citizens to develop their capacity for critical reflection and debate.

Also, if existentialists are often historical in their approach drawing upon previous traditions of inquiry and bringing them to bear on contemporary concerns. This is not simply a matter of using past examples to make an argument, but rather it’s because we are historical beings in our very core. As historical beings, we can choose what, how, and who to be as long as our existence is free from artificial impositions which frame and often hinder our possibilities.

If many philosophers in different cultures have drawn upon and developed existentialist ideas for their own investigations in a variety of cultural and intellectual contexts, it is because of its potential to help us understand our situation and to fight the  imposition of alienating restrictions on our freedoms and responsibilities. This is why questions such as what critical role the philosopher should play in society, and how our cultural context affects this value, are philosophical questions of the first order.

As we suggest, Abbott and Rajoy are targeting a discipline that belongs to this vigorous tradition of inquiry and which promises to make valuable contributions to our philosophical understanding of selfhood and religion – two key areas of intense cultural and political concern today across the globe. And this capacity for reasonable freedom and critical debate are needed more than ever if we are to confront the ethical and political challenges posed by globalisation.

This is why it is a good day to remind our democratic elected politicians, whether in Australia, Spain, or anywhere in the world that it would be wise to recognise, rather than marginalise, philosophy’s contribution to democracy.

Robert Sinnerbrink is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Macquarie University, Sydney. He is the author of New Philosophies of Film: Thinking Images (Continuum, 2011), Understanding Hegelianism (Acumen, 2007), and co-editor of Critique Today (Brill, 2006). He is also a member of the Executive Committee of the Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy.

Santiago Zabala is ICREA Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Barcelona. His books include The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy (2008), The Remains of Being (2009), and, most recently, Hermeneutic Communism (2011, co-authored with G. Vattimo), all published by Columbia University Press.