Philosophy, I hope to have already convinced, is an essential component of the human project. It’s fruits (and its failings) represent the kernel of our collective operating system. And yet it’s become, at least outside of certain niche philosophy-loving circles, a somewhat dirty word. Today, philosophy is almost synonymous with pretentious, navel-gazing speculation — an activity performed by stuffy old professors or simply the lost and confused, something entirely detached from the everyday reality of human life. Accordingly, an interest in philosophy is today just as likely to be regarded as a reflection of pathology than it is any kind of noble virtue. While much of this has to do with a general spirit of anti-intellectualism that seems to have developed throughout the Western world (itself a philosophical failing), it also has much to do with the fact that philosophy has simply failed to meet people where they are. Indeed it’s not all that surprising that one should, after having been put onto the “good books”, develop something like an aversion towards all things philosophical. People head to philosophy in search of answers, you see, answers — for the most part — to the questions of their lives. Given that modern philosophy is partially characterised by its disinterest in the human condition and instead preoccupied with questions of the world, very few are likely to come away from an engagement with popular philosophy having felt they’ve resolved any great internal tension or otherwise put their lives into clearer focus. Although this kind of disinterested investigation of the world and its phenomena is necessary, an endeavour that’s valuable in itself, that this is what philosophy has come to mean is, for the health of the broader philosophical enterprise (and thus the world), an unfortunate thing. Philosophy, having lost touch with the questions that most concern our lives, has lost its touch.
Obviously this is an undesirable thing, should one buy the idea that philosophy is central to the human project and what not. It’s worse than that, though, I argue. For philosophy has lost its relevancy, precisely when it needs it most. Let me explain. For the majority of human history, human life was instinctual. It didn’t require our philosophising, our contemplation, our self-examination. We were born for it. Our very meat and bones were enough to successfully instruct our lives, to ensure our survival — if not our thriving. Life, in other words, was simple. Forage some berries, hunt some game, make some babies, fight-to-the-death neighbouring tribes — that kind of thing. While the lives of our ancient ancestors may have been nasty, brutish and short, it was cognitively easy. You did whatever your circumstances forced upon you, and whatever your circumstances forced upon you, you were biologically/psychologically equipped to deal with. You fucked, you fought, and you fed. And then you were out.
Times have changed, for better and for worse. While the material conditions of our lives have improved practically out of sight, the development of modern civilisation has not — at least it seems — led to proportionate improvements in the quality of our inner lives. Though our lives are almost defined by their creature comforts, modern life is surprisingly uncomfortable. Physically, things are alright, for we barely need to lift a finger. Psychologically, however, it’s a far more precarious situation. Modern existence is thus characterised by its comfort and convenience, on one hand, while ridden with anxiety and depression on the other. We are swimming in what seems, on the surface, to be the calmest waters in history, and yet we are drowning. For all our “progress”, both intellectual and moral, the experience of being human appears none the better for it. So, what gives?
Whether or not we have, on balance, made progress along the vector of human subjectivity — that is, in how it really feels to be human — the fact remains that modern life is less than a bucket of rainbows and butterflies. In spite of all our material riches, we’re still doing it tough. For while we’ve solved many of the problems of our past, we’ve also created a plethora of new ones to replace them. If we’re indeed having a harder go of it than ever, it’s because the new class of problems our success has given rise to are new problems. The kinds of things that gave us trouble in the past we had evolved, over a vast stretch of time, to deal with. Though to us having to hunt and forage our own food or continuously find shelter or stave off wild predators or neighbouring tribes might sound like hell, it was a hell we were used — a hell we had become highly adept at dealing with. In contrast to the problems of our time, the problems of our past we were biologically adapted to; our responses to the challenges of nomadic life were literally programmed into our DNA.
Not only are we not adapted to our modern environments, in many respects, the structure of our present world is fundamentally at odds with our best interests. Whether it be the fact that we’ve largely divorced ourselves from the natural world, the quality of the “food” we can’t help but eat, the fluorescent-lit, suit-and-tie existences that many of us have exchanged a living for, or the veritable supercomputers in our pockets that are continuously hijacking our awareness, modern life is — on many levels — at war with our well-being. To be sure, this isn’t a contrarian opinion — rather it’s a fact acknowledged by evolutionary biologists the world over. They even have a name for it: “evolutionary mismatch”. The mismatch, of course, is that between our evolved biology and the cultures we’ve constructed. And yet, on the flip-side of all this, never has there been so much scope for flourishing. The technologies we’ve created and the freedoms we’ve fought for, have enormously expanded the space of possible experiences, the scope of human Being. There is now so much more to do, so much more to Be. Opportunities are there for the taking — contrary to the popular pessimism. But to really take them, to genuinely carpe the diem, it requires navigating the gauntlet that is modernity. While a great life has never been more on offer, never has the surrounding terrain been so treacherous.
That’s why we need philosophy, now more than ever. For human flourishing is, at bottom, simply a navigation problem — and philosophy (done right) amounts to the closest thing we have to a GPS system. Now that our intuitions no longer reliably direct us to the desired destinations of our lives, now that the journey between A and B is infinitely more complex and circuitous than before, we need help. We need GPS. We need philosophy.
At some level of abstraction, modernity is characterised — somewhat paradoxically — by both its abundance of information and its overwhelming uncertainty. If we are indeed drowning, and evidently many of us are, it’s because we are drowning in uncertainty. If we are to swim, it will not be through the strength of our wills alone (though that helps), but rather with the buoyant support of information. Information (in the technical sense) is what we must augment our intuitions with in order to thrive amidst the complexity of our present circumstances. And unless things somehow become less complex into the future — a situation we should certainly not wish upon our descendents — information will only become more essential to human flourishing as the arrow of time proceeds along its path.
Historically, the goal of philosophy has been the pursuit of wisdom and thus the expulsion of ignorance. Since information, in the context above, stands for wisdom and uncertainty for ignorance, the value proposition — and indeed necessity — of philosophy amidst our current situation should be clear. To use another metaphor, philosophy is the torch with which we stumble through the existential darkness of life. Today, that light — should we elect to wield it — is brighter than ever, but so too is the darkness thicker and more pervasive.
Just when we need it most, the popularity of philosophy (explicit philosophy, that is, for philosophy is everywhere and everything) appears to be at an all-time low. It’s interesting to consider why. Sure, philosophy has become increasingly detached from the question of how to live — the question that garners the most interest — but that in itself fails to fully explain its decline. For while they may not play upon the self-interest that drives most of us to take an interest in matters philosophical, questions of the world — as in what is it? how does it work? — are inherently interesting. If such issues are framed in a manner that respects their profound wonder, people would — and readily do — find them interesting. But they’re generally not. On the contrary, “serious” philosophy, it seems, tends to prefer the pretence of profundity — marked by its pomposity and obfuscation — over the real deal. Aside from a very few highly enthusiastic seekers, most sane people cannot endure the kind of bullshit that’s so rife throughout philosophy. And yet, perversely, the kinds of pathology have infiltrated philosophy and that so deter people from engaging with it, are — at least in part — what makes some of our most widely regarded philosophers so widely regarded. The impenetrability of a work has become conflated with its profundity. Somehow, the incomprehensibility of a piece of philosophy has come to be seen as a measure of its virtue, rather than its vice.
Again, it’s interesting to consider why (WHY!?). For starters, there’s something almost inherently pretentious about philosophy. Consider, for instance, the kinds of people who decide to dedicate their minds to solving the great mysteries of the universe. Of course, on one hand it’s admirable and there’s an appeal to the notion that’s perfectly understandable. It’s simply human curiosity dialled up to a million. On the other hand, however, there’s also something extraordinarily presumptuous and perhaps even arrogant about the implicit belief that drives one to become a philosopher. That is, the belief that one can in fact solve the great mysteries of the universe — that one is somehow so uniquely gifted they could single-handedly advance human knowledge. So you see, pathology of a very deep sort is somewhere near the core of the philosophical enterprise, it’s in part what gets the project off the ground. Thus it’s not surprising that it should also infect it.
More than that, though, philosophy — over the past few hundred years — has become a principally academic endeavour. As a result, philosophy has naturally been imbued with the biases of our academic institutions, both intellectual and artistic. Academia is many things; optimised for cultural relevancy and artistic verve it is not. Philosophy has accordingly become dry, stale, boring, painful — reflecting the environment in which it’s done. More than just reflecting the character of its environment, as a function of the academification of philosophy, modern philosophy now equally reflects the institutional incentives of the philosopher than it does an earnest inquiry into the nature of things — prioritising the complexity of argument, use of jargon and unnecessarily elaborate logic, over the plain-Jane, no-shit Truth. The net result of this is an abundance of “philosophy” that simply sucks, toothaches in book form. With access to the world’s most compelling entertainment in one’s pocket, at all times, it’s no wonder people aren’t picking up philosophy instead.
Comparing the entertainment value of philosophy to Netflix is admittedly somewhat unfair. Although Netflix and philosophy are sometimes one and the same — think Black mirror — it’s an inescapable fact that philosophy does occasionally require our breaking a sweat in order to grock whatever’s there to be grocked. Nature’s secrets are there to be known, but they’re not there to be known without a bit of elbow grease. That said, there’s no reason that philosophy should absolutely suck, either. There is nothing, in principle, that requires it to be dull or verbose. Those are artistic decisions, most often decisions borne of a deep-ceded inferiority complex and resultant desire to be perceived as a “profound thinker”. The Truth isn’t always boring, after all, nor should the process of discovering it be.
Another reason for our culture’s current lack of interest in all things philosophical, is that we’ve constructed a culture that is in many ways fundamentally antithetical to the contemplative life. What an examined existence (which is what philosophy is about on the personal level) requires of us is, among other things, space and time. Space and time for contemplation, introspection, self-examination etc. That is, space and time we don’t have — space and time we’ve given away to the pursuit of everything but such activities. Without room to think, there’s no room for philosophy. But that’s precisely why we need philosophy in this moment. Without the necessary spatiotemporal padding around our lives, we are especially vulnerable to living lives that are, in the end, far less meaningful than they otherwise could/should be. Without serious engagement with philosophy, we are inclined to live under the tyranny of the majority. Worse, we’re inclined to do so without even knowing it.
Our sustained progress as a civilisation, and the quality of our individual lives, depends upon our earnest engagement with philosophy and the ideals of the contemplative life more broadly. The more firmly we can embed these ideals into the fabric of culture, simply, the better off we’ll be. So long as philosophy remains confined to the ivory tower, shrouded in pompous jargon and impenetrably dense language, it will remain at the fringes of human life. To realise the potential of philosophy, it must be made more accessible, more engaging, more — indeed — fun. Philosophers — purveyors of ideas in the widest sense — must therefore up their game, work to wrap their material in the most palatable Form possible. No less than the fait of civilisation depends on it — but no pressure.