It’s Possible to Live without Philosophy—but It Wouldn’t Be Wise
Can philosophy give you true understanding about life, the universe, and everything? Sometimes it Kant.
Philip Kitcher is the John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University. Previously, he taught at the University of California, San Diego, and before that at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Science in a Democratic Society, and most recently The Seasons Alter: How to Save Our Planet in Six Acts.
Philip Kitcher: That’s a really wonderful question. What is philosophy and why do we need it?
Of course many people think we don’t need it anymore. And I can sympathize with that reaction when they look at the inward-turning character if much contemporary philosophy, especially written in English.
But I think philosophy is immensely important. I think the search for the large ideas about truth, knowledge, beauty, justice that is in the classical philosophical tradition—not only in the West but also in the East—is a terribly important thing.
That said I think it was misguided.
I am, at the end of the day, a pragmatist, and I don’t think we’re ever going to find the big theories of truth, justice, et cetera that the classical philosophers have sought. But I think what they’ve given us are all sorts of wonderful tools for thinking about the deepest and largest human questions.
Those questions are how should we try to live and how should we try to live together. And the questions are connected with one another. Now I want to suggest that rather than trying to give some definitive theory that will answer those questions what we should do is try to think about our current state and the problems that arise for human beings living well, living happily, living valuable and meaningful lives.
How, at a particular moment in time—our moment in time—are they limited? And how could we get beyond those limits?
And philosophers aren’t in the business in my view of trying to sort of add some sort of knowledge to the knowledge that is given by physicists and art critics and linguists and anthropologists, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Philosophers are in the business of trying to fit all of that together so that we have a picture of where people stand at a particular moment in time and how lives are problematic so that we can be in a position to diagnose ways in which we might go forward.
I said this is a thoroughly pragmatist approach and it is because it’s not about perfection. It’s a matter of improvement. And philosophers I think are in the business of trying to give us that general picture of ourselves and our place in the world and the kinds of lives that we live that will enable us to take the next steps in improving things for ourselves. And that means that philosophy is a synthetic discipline primarily. It’s something that draws from lots and lots of different areas and draws from life as it exists at a particular moment in time. So every age will always need its philosophers and in the past we’ve had great synthesizers. We think if people like Plato and Aristotle in the ancient West. We think of people like Kant and Hegel in the more recent West. We think of people like Confucius and Mencius and so on. These are all attempts it seems to me to find a big synthesis, and that’s what philosophy is all about and that’s what it needs, and that’s what philosophers I think should be trying to accomplish.
Philosophy provides a new way of looking at the world and exploring ideas that otherwise might be too heavy, or too big, to comprehend. It's a lot better than the alternative—which is willful ignorance and throwing your hands up in the air and saying "I guess it's all part of a masterplan!". And while this incongruity between the philosophically minded and the more deity-inclined can create some major cultural hiccups, there's at least some semblance of both sides searching for the same thing. Philosophy, Kitcher argues, may not ever give us the ultimate solutions to all the big questions in life. But it does put us in the driver's seat and give us control.
Philip Kitcher is the co-author of The Seasons Alter: How to Save Our Planet in Six Acts.
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