Why Do Philosophers Not Make The News?

Why do philosophers not make the news?

Maybe it’s because Empedocles was so misunderstood by his contemporaries that he jumped into a volcano, Socrates was sentenced to death by the good citizens of Athens, Seneca was driven to suicide by the mad emperor Nero and in more modern times Heidegger became a Nazi.

But let’s rewind…

Derek Parfit, the most influential moral philosopher of our time, died on 1 January 2017. It wasn’t reported in the news. This  caused some consternation and sadness among professional philosophers. If “fake news” weren’t enough to worry about, an absurd selection and prioritisation towards the hysterical (“ISIS bomb plots!”) and the trivial (“Is this the year Prince Harry will marry Meghan Markle?”) rather than the actually important (I know, according to whom?) would still be a problem.

The New Statesman recently published an article by David Herman lamenting the passing of the days when Isaiah Berlin’s death made front page news, Mary Warnock and Bernard Williams were on Royal Commissions and government committees for this, that and the other, radio and television took an interest in A. J. Ayer and publishers spent serious money on academic philosophers.

(Don’t say: “but what about Alain de Botton? He’s still on telly? He still sells lots of books?” Yes, but he’s not an academic philosopher. Many of them would say that if doing philosophy is like drinking double espressos, his stuff is what you get when you spoon off the top of a cappuccino. You know, the bit that has all the chocolate powder on it. It may taste milky, frothy and sweet but it has never been in touch with a molecule of caffeine.)

In the New Statesman article a number of philosophers and commentators are quoted as blaming any number of things for the demise of the philosopher as public intellectual among which:

  • The Research Assessment Exercise, a quality assurance process the Government imposes on universities, which drives philosophers to publish articles in journals rather than talk to the public;
  • the end of deference and distrust of experts meaning that people don’t want someone out of a cosy college in Oxford telling them what to think
  • The media, dumbed down and driven to sensationalism and by the need to make money from advertising
  • Politicians who are not as interested as their predecessors (“Margaret Thatcher was interested in Popper, Friedrich Hayek and Michael Oakeshott…” When Tony Blair was asked in the weekly Parliamentary Questions to the Prime Minister to briefly outline his political philosophy, he was completely stumped. None of this is meant to be evidence that an interest in philosophy is good for a Prime Minister.)

You’ll have noticed, a lot of the blame goes to things other than philosophers or the academic discipline of philosophy.

Don’t get me wrong: I think an update on the latest developments in philosophy should be reported in every news bulletin. I think leading philosophers should be consulted on every bit of government policy. I think there should be reality TV shows in which a group of philosophers are sent to a five star beach resort to debate the meaning of life and no one should ever be voted off by the public. I think every new Doctor of Philosophy should be able to publish his or her doctoral thesis to the commercial success of de Botton’s greatest hits, or even J. K. Rowling’s. I think television networks should use the kind of budgets they use for Game of Thrones to make a television drama series of Plato’s Republic.

But I also think that philosophy needs to acknowledge its own role in raising its public profile and should have to work a bit harder. I’d like to acknowledge here the work that lots of philosophers do in international governance committees, in human rights advocacy, teaching, lecturing, giving seminars, making podcasts, tweeting or writing articles for popular consumption. But clearly that isn’t quite enough yet to get philosophers into the news, even when they die.

So here are some alternative reasons why philosophy may not have a higher public profile that look more to the role of philosophers in all of this:

  • Philosophy attracts for the most part introverts (I assume) who would rather study on their own with some books  for company, rather than be out there among people explaining what they’re doing. They are also maybe keener to spend time thinking, than broadcasting.
  • Philosophers are too modest to  talk publicly about the progress being made within the discipline. They are humbled everyday by the really big questions they deal with and the limits of the human mind to comprehend things. Humility is fine. The dirty flip side of that coin is that some philosophers jealously denounce anything that has commercial success or aspirations as “not the real thing.” That makes it more difficult for good communicators and non-academics to make a contribution on behalf of the discipline.
  • There is also a stance of “well, if it takes this to be read, heard and seen by wider sections of the public, I don’t want to be influential or popular. I just want to be seen as brilliant and wonderful by my peers in academic philosophy.” That retreat back to your own clique smacks a bit of a lack of confidence. It could be compared to re-living a traumatic “nerdy vs. cool and popular kids” trauma.
  • Philosophers are careful about the language they use and the way they make their arguments. They spend time defining their terms. They have learned to put three concessive clauses after every positive statement and to anticipate a few arguments that could be made against what they’re saying. They give the views of the people they disagree with the most charitable interpretation before they take them apart. That doesn’t make for the most impactful communications.
  • There is no premium on people working together to find common ground and reach consensus on a question in philosophy. Working alone to demolish everything that has been thought before is just as valuable, if not more so, than putting forward a positive proposal, than showing where there is a high level consensus. (Thanks, Socrates!) But what if people were genuinely interested in where philosophy has progressed towards insights, rather than where it has gone back to the drawing board?
  • Philosophers are perhaps genuinely traumatised by the history of unsuccessful to catastrophic interactions between philosophers and the public realm. Socrates got killed. Plato got too close to the tyrant of Syracuse which ended badly for him. Seneca got too close to Nero which harmed his reputation and ended badly for him. Heidegger got too close to Hitler. Sartre too close to Stalinism. (And Michael Ignatieff – Isaiah Berlin’s biographer – led his party to its worst electoral defeat in Canada. There are lessons there!
  • And in return, philosophers who want to be politicians have to disavow any knowledge of philosophy. Julian Baggini writes the following about two British politicians:

 

[Former Minister and member of the Cabinet] Oliver Letwin, for instance, has a PhD on the subject but when I asked him if that was a disadvantage in politics he answered, “massive”, without hesitation. “I do my best to conceal it.” Another brainy MP, Tony Wright, once found himself quoting Mill in a parliamentary debate, “and I just realised how odd that was, and how embarrassing it was.”

Given these challenges, what could philosophers do? Starting from the non-reporting of Parfitt’s death, it would be sensible to adopt the principle that if you want to make the news when you die, you have to make yourself known while you’re alive. You can’t just rely on having strategically placed disciples in politics and the media who will ensure the eternal afterlife of your fame and ideas. (That worked only for Leo Strauss.)

  • Don’t do down those who communicate philosophy well as not doing the real thing. Even if they provide journalistic surveys of the history of philosophy, rather than engage in academic philosophy, their activities could be the entry-level drug for the mind that hooks people on philosophy so they can be sold your harder stuff.
  • Paint a picture of real progress in philosophy coming up with real answers to big questions around which consensus is being built. Then explain how these answers affect human life. For example, tell the story about how philosophers were in court rooms explaining the writings of Plato and Aristotle to help settle questions around gay rights (at least Martha Nussbaum was). Peter Singer’s campaign for animal liberation can be traced back to the writings of Mill and Bentham.
  • Make the communication of philosophy a greater part of academic activity. Scientists embrace the “public understanding of science” as a part of what they do. They put some of the best and brightest in charge of it. They make them professors and Fellows of the Royal Society and President of the Royal Institution. Google “Professor for the Public Understanding of Philosophy” and you get one person: Professor Angie Hobbs at the University of Sheffield. She seems very active but I’m not sure she can do it on her own.

In his New Statesman article, David Herman concludes that if you care, you should:

go to your local library or bookshop or follow debates online: be your own border guard and wear a black armband for an era that has passed.

Sadly, retreating to the local library or bookshop to mourn for previous better times may be tempting. Philosophy was always tempted to retreat to a more private place: Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Peripatos, Epicurus’ garden.

An alternative would be for it to be out in the market place (Socrates’ Agora) making its case.

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Useful Concepts – #3 – Zero Thoughts

This post starts with a discussion between philosophers. That’s not as bad as it might sound to some. One of the philosophers involved is Bernard Williams (who made a cameo appearance in my previous post about psychopaths). The other one – to whom I owe this useful concept – is Harry Frankfurt, a philosopher who thinks and writes about things not many philosophers find worthy of great thought. His bestseller is the book “On Bullshit” which has made him a sought after authority in recent political discourse. But he also has published articles and books about love, not a topic that philosophers naturally gravitate towards.

But back to the discussion… Continue reading Useful Concepts – #3 – Zero Thoughts

The Secret of Happiness

I had this canvas poster made as a present for my son though my wife says it’s more of a present to myself. It would certainly take him a very long time to read all the letters at his current pace, let alone understand it. But it’s definitely a present for him. The quote is from James Rhodes’ book Instrumental. 

“I want him to know the secret of happiness. It is so simple that it seems to have eluded many people. The trick is to do whatever you want to do that makes you happy, as long as you’re not hurting those around you. Not to do what you think you should be doing. Nor what you think other people believe you should be doing. But simply to act in a way that brings you immense joy. To be able to say a gentle and kind ‘no’ to things that don’t please you, to walk away from situations that don’t fulfil you, to move towards things that delight you. And there is nothing I will not do to help him achieve that.”

There was a time when I read a lot about the secrets of happiness and the not so secret theories. I don’t know whether it was just the focus of my attention or whether there was an explosion of interest in happiness in the earliest years of this century. My journey at the time took me to each of the following:

  • The ancient Greek  concept of eudaemonia (happiness or flourishing)

“happiness – the human good – is activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.” Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

  • Neo-aristotelian virtue ethics

“Alternatively (…) we could stick with what we have – those facts about human nature and the way human life goes that support the claim that the virtues (…) benefit their possessor…” Rosalind Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics

  • The happiness trend in economics (e. g. Richard Layard’s Happiness)

“There is a paradox at the heart of our lives. Most people want more income and strive for it. Yet as Western societies have got richer, their people have become no happier. (…) This devastating fact should be the starting point for all discussion of how to improve our lot.”

  • Positive psychology

“If you find yourself stuck in the parking lot of life, with few and only ephemeral pleasures, with minimal gratifications, and without meaning, there is a road out. This road takes you through the countryside of pleasure and gratification, up into the high country of strength and virtue, and finally to the peaks of lasting fulfilment: meaning and purpose.” Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness

  • There was also amongst all of this also a book actually called “The Secrets of Happiness”  which discusses the history of ideas on happiness in various religions and philosophies.

“If the lives of Epicurus, Seneca and Ghazali, the stories of Buddha and Prince Arjuna, and the mystery of Job tell us anything, they tell us that the seeking of happiness flows into the finding of it, just as the rushing waters of a river pour out effortlessly into the calm ocean depth, and so cease to rush.”

But nothing I read in this “happiness literature” touched and moved me as much as the paragraph from James Rhodes’ book.

Perhaps that’s because it caught me by surprise. His book is an autobiography describing his journey from suffering sexual abuse over years as a young boy through drug addiction and recovery to becoming a professional pianist. Interwoven into this narrative of horrible experiences are snippets of – often bleak – biographies of great composers and descriptions of their work. These illustrate the idea that great art and beauty can come from the miserable, painful circumstances of human life and can help lift us out of it, even if only momentarily.

“In 1770, a child is born into difficult, violent, terrifying circumstances. His family is riddled with alcoholism, domestic violence, abuse and cruelty. (…) Totally deaf, wracked with pain, emotionally [messed up], [Beethoven] composes his thirty-second and final piano sonata in 1822, a few years before his death. (…) it manages, somehow, to transcend the level of human existence we inhabit and take us somewhere higher…”

Apart from not expecting the “Secret” in this context, I think it is also the understated way in which Rhodes launches it that makes it particularly moving. He doesn’t say, “hey, everyone, I’ve discovered the secret of happiness and this is it…” Instead he just presents it as something he wants his son to know. And ultimately, the promise – “there is nothing I will not do to help him achieve that” – is very touchingly generous.

I had to think a few things through before I had the paragraph printed for my son:

First, I wondered whether there was a problem with circularity. “The Secret of Happiness is to do what makes you happy.” Ok, but don’t we need to know the Secret of Happiness in order to know what “happy” means? On further reflection, I didn’t find it that much of a problem. Rhodes isn’t trying to define the term “happiness.” And he is actually giving us quite a lot in terms of unpacking the concept of happiness. For example, he tells us that it’s about doing things that make us happy. In other words it’s not an intellectual exercise to understand happiness and then aim for it. It’s about doing things, taking action and undertaking activities from which happiness emerge. And if it doesn’t, try something else. So his is a very pragmatic secret.

Second, I wondered whether there was a problem with vagueness or lack of definition. Would someone who wasn’t initiated into the Secret of Happiness already be able to judge what makes him or her happy? Couldn’t they just think they’re happy but be mistaken?  Particularly in the context of Rhodes’ biography of addiction, for example, couldn’t human beings fall too easily for the idea that it is a drug that makes them happy? Here we can probably trust in the idea that deep down we always know that something that fulfils an immediate desire may not make us happy in the long term. The addict knows that although he thinks he needs the drug, it doesn’t make him happy. He may also know that his behaviours connected with the drug are hurting others.

Rhodes’ Secret of Happiness is one for the long term. It suggest trial and error and a bias to action over a lifetime in pursuit of happiness.

Third, I wondered whether it was foolish of me to give this “Secret” to my four year old son? Won’t it backfire on me? Will he tell me that doing something I want him to do (homework, tidying, …) just doesn’t please him and that he’s moving to do something I don’t want him to so much (play with the iPad, …) as that fills him with delight?  This, I’m still worried about. But I will argue with him. I’ll tell him that I don’t always have to be consistent in my views regarding his happiness.

Ultimately – again in the longer term – I think it is better for him to have a Rhodes-like view of happiness – working out what you want to do and who you want to be and not doing what you think others believe you should be doing – than being too obedient or too willing to be defined by others. Even if I am one of these others. And I’d rather feel a bit of pressure to ensure that the things I want him to do are connected to his happiness, not to mine. And it will be a good discipline for me to have to convince him of that.

So maybe my wife is right. The present is a little bit for me.