The nature of philosophy and its role in modern society

Those who spend their days obsessively noting every little change in blog designs will note that I have added a big red “P” at the bottom left. This links to the Philosophy Campaign – an attempt to make philosophy more relevant to modern society. So I got to thinking… what is the relevance of philosophy today?

It certainly isn’t its ability to contribute to the commodification and managerialism of modern tertiary education. Philosophy programs are being downgraded or even closed around the world. In Queensland, where I taught, only one major philosophy department was left after the entirety of Humanities was closed at other universities. Proper philosophy programs are becoming much rarer. Even moreso if you happen to threaten an authoritarian government or lobby (the latter case a pro-Israeli lobbyist politician). Why is this?

Philosophy is generally, whether it will or no, true to its main mission statement: to corrupt the minds of the youth. Well, that’s what Socrates was convicted of. He would have said it was to make young minds think critically, and for most authoritarian governments, that amounts to the same thing. Critical reasoning skills are dangerous! Students might doubt God, or the status quo or worse, the prevailing political platform. I think one of my major mistakes was to use advertising and media as examples of bad reasoning, because that is an economic challenge to the status quo, and nobody survives that.

Philosophy is relevant in ways that do not serve the interests of those in power, on either side of politics (as if there were only two sides, another comfortable truism that serves those in power). Mostly it is a threat for the third of the three questions of philosophy. These questions are:

What is there? [Metaphysics]

How do we know? [Epistemology]

What is its value? [Aesthetics, ethics and political philosophy]

All philosophy deals with one of these three questions or more. Me, being a moral vacuum and an aesthetic sink, I tend to focus on the first two. And even this can threaten elites. Suppose we took philosophy into schools, and allowed kids to ask a metaphysical question: do states exist? If they found themselves adopting something like methodological individualism, they might infer that states have no interests or rights, and therefore governments must be constrained in their infringement of actual right-bearers’ rights in pursuing faux wars on abstract evils. Imagine that. Fortunately for the elites this will never happen, of course.

Or suppose they adopted a corporatist view of nations and held that the only true reality was the entire population. They might begin to challenge the view that oligarchies can do with state instruments whatever they wish. And so on. The thing about philosophy is that it does not block ahead of time any view so long as it is coherent. And coherent views can lead to results that people who have vested interests may not want a populace to find.

So, on with corrupting the youth! While you are at it, corrupt some elders too.

50 thoughts on “The nature of philosophy and its role in modern society

  1. No I don’t think he is telling people how to behave for the most part, I thought I had made that point.

    But in my experiance of dealing with academics I think it can lead to the sort of tension and feeling Alan expresses. Its a generilization but they do seem to be somewhat chest beating and very territorial species of being, with odd ideas with regard to the ownership of the subjects they study.

    ‘or as claiming expertise in that for which there is no evidence’

    I think he is certainly doing that.

    I can spot its not a historical account and is certainly not an attempt to give one.

    The only thing it pays to distinguish from my perspective is wither it works or not. I am not fussy with regard to what it is or where it comes from as long as it works and I can add it to the tool kit.

    Diffrent standards certainly do apply and I can understand why people percieve philosophy to be of little value (as the standards at times are very diffrent) although it is not a position I hold.


  2. There is a growing philosophy in schools movement internationally, including OZ and NZ. Buranda State School (primary) in Brisbane teaches philosophy to kids at each year level– and apparently has attracted a lot of interest. The method used in P4C (phil for children) is called “a community of inquiry”; kids debate a philosophical issue– like “If you changed your name, would you still be the same person?” — and are given the task of persuading each other into a consensus view. At Secondary level, there is quite a bit going on, but it doesn’t seem that there’s a dominant approach, unlike P4C. But whatever they’re doing, the feedback from students is very positive. In one survey I saw (at, over 95% of a volunteer group and over 85% of a forced group said they enjoyed studying philosophy. Which I think is pretty f*ing remarkable for teenagers! I’m hoping to teach some philosophy in Secondary soon myself. P.s. asking students if states exist is a great idea John– I’ll do it!


  3. How can anyone believe that philosophy is of little value. What happens when we stop asking what is, or why. Our gift of reason and logic is specifically designed to pursue such questions for the good of humanity.


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