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Contemporary Philosophy

The Future of Philosophy

Joachim Jung (1)

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ABSTRACT: Higher education worldwide is affected by budget cuts and dwindling financial resources. Today, science and scholarship can only find broad recognition if their endeavors provide material success. If subjected to the rigours of the market, the humanities do not score favorably, and it seems that in the scale of profit-making disciplines philosophy ranks last. In order for academic philosophy to maintain itself in these times, two goals need to be pursued consistently: a) philosophy should address problems of practical concern — such as society's ethical, social, and even metaphysical needs — presenting them in a commonly accessible fashion; b) philosophers should draw material from other academic disciplines — linguistics, neurophysiology, archaeology, biology, psychology, mathematics, astronomy and other specializations — for their own speculation, taking advantage of the integrative functions of philosophy to promote the cooperation between all disciplines. The retreat of academic philosophy in our time is due in part to its faulty policy. Nevertheless, there is much evidence that philosophy as a common human activity will endure because it appeals to a fundamental need: to reconsider knowledge and to go on inquiring when empirical research has reached its limits.

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Any discussion of the 'future of philosophy' must needs be a lengthy matter. In order to gain a specific starting point, I would like to restrict my topic a little by asking: Does philosophy have a future? Is it likely that philosophical research will proceed indefinitely? And is there any well-founded likelihood that our philosophical achievements will still find an interested audience in the next century? A scholar who deals with contemporary philosophy cannot help being concerned about the present state of his discipline. The cuts in funding, the shrinking prestige and the lack of public influence are increasingly affecting the foundations of academic philosophy. A short while ago the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum (Chicago) complained: 'We are portrayed as both lazy and obscure: when we are not simply playing truant from meaningful activity, we are producing works of interest to nobody but one another, and in most cases not even to one another. Academic journals are portrayed as relatively worthless depositories for the uninspired products of the tenure struggle, the intellectual life as a mechanized life in which the grand old humanistic ideas no longer have any validity. To support such irresponsible unenlightening characters is said to be a waste of public and private funding. In our own days, the threat we all face is the termination of funding, which means the loss of a future for many of our students.' (2)

Lamentations like these are not new. As early as 1935 the German sociologist Helmuth Plessner stated that philosophy had lost its functions and was mainly concerned with 'fighting against its own superfluousness'. (3) It was some years ago that the German physicist Gerhard Vollmer expressed himself in a similar vein: 'Philosophers have failed to make clear what they can really be used for' (Die Philosophen haben versumt klarzumachen, wozu man sie eigentlich brauchen kann.) (4) Taking up this idea I would like to pose the question: what function does philosophy fulfil? What purpose does it serve in the context of scholarly investigations? And what benefit can society derive from it? A variety of answers can be given to these questions, depending on the ideological point of view of the philosopher in question. My personal view is one that conceives philosophy as a medium of interdisciplinary research. If ideal conditions are provided, philosophy will work as an intellectual catalyst among the academic disciplines, a mediator between the humanities and the sciences. Given proper organization, philosophy works as cement linking the different areas of scholarly investigation. If philosophers really collaborate with practitioners, they will continue to fulfil a meaningful function in academic life, just as they did one hundred, two hundred years ago.

It is no coincidence that I locate philosophy with reference to other intellectual spheres. Philosophy is completely dependent on material delivered by various scientific, scholarly or cultural activities. Philosophy does not have any resources of its own at its disposal. Its business confines itself to rethinking and reconsidering facts established by representatives of other disciplines. This mechanism obtains even in an area where one would not expect this to be the case, namely in metaphysics. Metaphysics undoubtedly transcends the realm of scientific research; however, if one traces it back to its origins, one will encounter theological foundations or, in a wider sense, the myths and religious concepts of prehistoric nations.

Philosophy is dependent on the empirical world and its culturally determined interpretations. It gains its raw material from other spheres and rearranges it by setting up cross connections, evolving general contexts and presenting it in a systematic form. A look at political philosophy may elucidate this procedure. If we examine the works of Hobbes and Montesquieu, we can state that they obtained the starting points their reflections are based on from the Bible, the writings of ancient historians, travel reports, descriptions of political constitutions and other sources. They themselves had not developed the material they based their works on.

However, it is this second-hand existence that makes philosophy extraordinarily vulnerable. The function of philosophy was called into question when sociologists, ethnologists, psychologists, historians, philologists, educationalists and specialists in other social sciences no longer restricted themselves to empirical research but began reflecting about their subjects in a philosophical manner. A gradual process was depriving the tradition-oriented chief-thinkers of their intellectual domains. Philosophy ceased to be the privilege of those exercising it as a profession. The unity of philosophy-related disciplines disintegrated.

As a result philosophy lost a variety of areas that had previously formed an undisputed part of it. As an illustration you may again take up the example of political philosophy I have mentioned above. Today Samuel Huntington is considered a political scientist, whereas one of his intellectual forerunners, Oswald Spengler, is considered a philosopher by most encyclopaedias. The fact that both thinkers are attributed to different disciplines emerges neither from the structures of their system nor their scholarly methods, which have a great deal in common. This allocation results only from the fact that the borders of philosophy have shifted in the past 80 years. In Spengler's time Huntington would have passed for a philosopher, while Spengler, if he lived today, would be labelled as a sociologist or political scientist.

The secession of specific humanities from philosophy has deprived the former 'queen of sciences' much of her glamour and influence. But it is less the empirical researchers than the philosophers themselves who are to blame for this process. A short time ago I undertook to investigate the reduction of philosophy in my treatise 'The Corruption of Reason', (5) which gives special consideration to academic philosophy in the German-speaking countries. It is striking that philosophy in Central Europe has failed to meet the challenges of empirical research in an adequate way. Instead of maintaining contact with the sciences and humanities, philosophers withdrew from scientific life and indulged in cultivating allegedly eternal values and eternal truths. In post-war Germany philosophers far too often restricted their business to paraphrasing and interpreting the writings of past celebrities. The broad commitment to the history of philosophy has absorbed financial and intellectual resources, thus hampering the evolution of creative approaches. Most representatives of contemporary German philosophy conceive the classics of their discipline as patterns for endless reproduction rather than incentives for new deliberations. The German philosopher Lorenz Puntel from Munich portrayed the situation in his subject as follows: 'It would not be an exaggeration to claim that a German education in philosophy consists mostly in neither more nor less than a comprehensive education in the history of philosophy. (6) ... Many German philosophers are incapable of seeing and treating a philosophical topic as a purely systematic topic or problem. More often than not they do not address philosophical questions as systematic questions, i. e. in view of their purely philosophical content only, but discuss, reconstruct and expose for the n-th time the opinions of past philosophers concerning these questions, as well as their historical context. ... What is called contemporary German philosophy resembles for the most part an antique-shop ratherthan a workshop.' (7)

It fully suits the situation that in the circles concerned lamentations arise on the 'apostasy' of other humanities and — to use a frequent metaphor — 'the unfaithful children' who show so little gratitude to the mother of sciences, who brought up all of them. I think that complaints like these do not get us any further. What we need is an active policy which makes it clear that philosophy should be involved in scientific life. Instead of bewailing the faded glory of the past, philosophy should aim at regaining lost territory and reassembling on a common foundation all the disciplines that had previously belonged to it. Academic philosophy can revive if it serves as an interdisciplinary platform where scholars of any specialization exchange information on their approaches to their own material. By bringing together the individual sciences and humanities and enhancing the communication between them, philosophy could regain a reputable position in academic life. Philosophy should face the challenges emerging from the ever advancing flux of knowledge. At a time when neurophysiology and genetic technology are making relentless progress, philosophy no longer has the option of withdrawing to a priori-constructions and concepts of pure reason. How inspiring the preoccupation with specific scientific problems can be, has been successfully demonstrated by numerous philosophy departments in the United States. In the past decades American philosophers have developed a number of promising approaches that have preserved their subject from suffocating in its own tradition.

A second device enabling philosophy to escape from stagnation consists of the permanent appeal to practical life. Philosophers should show commitment to all kinds of topical questions, political and social issues, as they are raised by the mass media. If philosophers adopted the habit of commenting on social questions publicly wherever and whenever they turn up, the quest for the usefulness of their discipline would vanish automatically. The point is only that most representatives of our subject do not think of engaging themselves in topical matters. In France and Germany academic philosophers customarily consider it below their dignity to address the average citizen. For them it has always been a mark of excellence not to meet the requirements of the common man. As a result, philosophy-ridden enthusiasts have established citzens' initiatives that aim at treating philosophy in a living, problem-oriented manner. In France philosophical cafs (cafs philo) have come into being. They consist of ordinary coffee houses where non-conformist philosophers meet once a week and give papers with subsequent discussions. As a rule, these lectures are attended by a large audience which represents all ages and all layers of society. The philosophical cafs reveal the increased demand for philosophical discussion and the complete inability of the academic establishment to meet it. In Germany philosophical practices (philosophische Praxen) have mushroomed. They are founded and conducted by professionally educated private persons who set up studios and wait for people in need of philosophical advice. Unlike their French counterparts the German practitioners charge entrance fees or membership fees. In their courses they normally cover a wide range of topics. Great popularity is enjoyed by tuition on psychological issues which approximates to conventional psychotherapy, as well as consultations in management and economic organization. What all practitioners have in common is the will to keep the concrete problems of human lif in sight. As the only place you can learn to swim is in the water, you can conduct a philosophical debate only in interaction with practical life or scientific research.

The philosophical cafs and practices arose as counter-institutions to academic philosophy, which customarily avoids topical issues, exhausting its business in reading and compiling the philosophical classics. By saying this, I do not of course mean that the preoccupation with the history of philosophy is completely worthless. No doubt the classics provide a unique source of inspiration and show how one can tackle philosophical problems methodically. What I oppose is the slavish imitation and endless repetition of dogmas which have proved to be false or at least dubious. Philosophy cannot give definite answers nor can it provide indisputable truths as promised throughout the history of thought. But it does give us incentives and stimuli for our own reflections. It may serve 'zur Erhebung and Herzerquickung' (to fill us with enthusiasm and strengthen our hearts) as Edmund Husserl once put it. (8)

There is some evidence that the number of people interested in philosophy has been continuously growing in recent years. The rise of philosophical narrative and above all the success of Jostein Gaarder's novels have shown that considerable parts of the population are far from looking on philosophy as a declining business. Academic philosophers would be well advised to make use of this boom for their own purposes. The budget cuts and the decrease in appointments as a result are not an irreversible doom to which they must submit. The crisis of institutionalized philosophy can be overcome if its representatives have the firm will and intelligence to take adequate measures. It is no use putting the blame on science, which is favoured with substantial funding and a wealth of new discoveries. If Descartes, Leibniz and Kant were able to benefit from the science of their times, their successors should be in the position to emulate them. The future of academic philosophy, the question of whether it will revive or continue to decline, solely depends on its abilty to adapt to the requirements of our time. The business of philosophy, free rational speculation, is deeply rooted in human nature, and there is no evidence that it will ever come to an end.

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(1) The author is editor of the philosophy journal "Kontroversen in der Philosophie" and assistant professor at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Modern Austrian Intellectual History in Vienna.

(2) Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association November 1995, Vol. 69, No. 2, p. 144f. Nussbaum refers to the humanities in general but the context does not leave any doubt that philosophy is meant primarily.

(3) Helmuth Plessner: Die versptete Nation. ber die politische Verfhrbarkeit brgerlichen Geistes (1935). Stuttgart 1959 (Kohlhammer), pp. 150, 176

(4) Conversation Gerhard Vollmer - Joachim Jung 24.8.1994

(5) in German as: 'Der Niedergang der Vernunft. Kritik der deutschsprachigen Universittsphilosophie', Frankfurt 1997, Campus Publ.

(6) Lorenz B. Puntel: The History of Philosophy in Contemporary Philosophy: The View from Germany, Topoi 10/1991, p. 147

(7) ibid. p. 151f.

(8) Edmund Husserl: Philosophie als strenge Wissenschaft. Frankfurt 1965 (Klostermann), p. 66 {SEITE|9}

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