I’ve heard it said before that the purpose of philosophy is to solve the problems and conditions of the human mind. Philosophy seeks to find truth, understand how we get truth and the why we get it. But when those who do philosophy get so enmeshed with finding simply finding truth and lose sight of the how and why and what for, is there purpose to their philosophy?
Consider this: Compare classical philosophy, from the times of Socrates to Descartes, and today’s modern academic philosophy. There is a stark difference in what each is trying to seek and for what purpose.
Yesterday, I had a discussion with a friend who did philosophy in college. We were comparing three things: classical philosophy, academic philosophy and commercial philosophy, which comes in the form popular books for consumer’s purpose such as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
I asked him, do you think classical philosophy is superior to commercial philosophy, comparing the two? He said that both have their merits, but consumer philosophy adds nothing new to the literature; they’re simply taking what exists and people already know and packaging it in a way that people can understand. By that virtue, they are making philosophy accessible to the public, which is a good thing. Classical philosophy on the other hand sought to explore what people didn’t know and tried to explain them, even if they sometimes got them wrong. Both are still philosophy, because both still reach truths and conclusion using similar methods.
Then I asked him, what about academic philosophy these days, where they are constantly adding new things to the literature all the time, but what they do seems to be so obscure and so dense that many of them appear to have no apparent value to the society? I asked him, what good is philosophy if it serves no purpose to the society? He agreed that philosophy should have a purpose, and we both felt that many-a-times academic philosophy seeks truth and adds it to the literature simply because they’re expected to and because they can, even if the ‘truth’ discovered has little relevance to our lives.
Commercial philosophy, even if by dint of its commercial nature, has to make its material easily digestible by the reader. At least it tries to serve purpose to society. In comparison, academic philosophy doesn’t even try to make itself readable to even other academics. Bad writing and unclear direction in so many modern philosophical texts begs the question: For whom are they writing philosophy?
Some modern philosophy reveal a lot about the condition of our modern selves, but for every one good one, there exists a lot of other PhD theses that write texts akin to intellectual masturbation.
No wonder we get the sentiment of “Philosophy is a useless field of study” from the masses these days, because philosophy as made itself irrelevant.
Philosophers were well-respected in the past; no one would have dismissed the great thinkers of Nietzsche or Wittgenstein, for they were concerned about the society they live in and sought to de-construct the way society was, and hoped to allow people to understand the way they operated. Be it philosophy of religion, language, politics or science, it added an extra edge to simply practising religion, speaking language, participating in politics or conducting science. It allowed for the development of ethics, philology, and other branches of thought that make these respective fields more humane.
While I’m pretty sure a text like “Hegellian Responses to the Post-Surrealist Inclinations of Photography over Traditional Painting” (I made this up) could make for an interesting read, I’m not sure it would ever be as helpful as a book that rehashes hackneyed interpretations of Zen Buddhism as applicable to motorcycle repair.