Why is Philosophy Important? Part I

In 1947, German philosopher Max Horkheimer wrote,

“Today there is almost general agreement that society has lost nothing by the decline of philosophical thinking, for a much more powerful instrument of knowledge has taken its place, namely, modern scientific thought.” [1]

This general agreement appears equally prevalent in 2013, if not even more deeply entrenched. I was recently scoffed at, not for the first time, by a scientist claiming that philosophy is useless. Sure, philosophy might have been useful back before we had the scientific method: indeed, for centuries, what we would now call science was under the heading of “natural philosophy,” and philosophers such as Democritus, Aristotle, and Descartes developed a  number of scientific theories under the heading of philosophy. But–these contemporary scientists seem all to often to think–now that we have science, we don’t need philosophy anymore. We have better modes of accessing truth than philosophy does: namely, we have the experimental method of empirical science.

The worst aspect of this view is not the fact that it overlooks the fact that there are a myriad of sources of meaning in life, which cannot be encapsulated by the scientific attitute (artistic meaning instantly springs to mind for me). In fact, our scientifically-minded society often retains a kind of veneration for the worth of art, although this veneration is nearly always coupled with an implicit marginalization and subordination of artistic meaning to scientific truth. This is certainly an issue. But it’s not the primary one for me.

The primary problem is the way that this veneration of science as the best–and, for some, only–mode of attaining truth fails to recognize that this veneration itself is a philosophical attitude. I am often shocked by the continued need to remind people that science is not neutral. That the very people undertaking scientific inquiry are, after all, people. That the hypotheses that scientists establish do not come out of the ether, but rather are always already inscribed within cultural and ideological matrices.

And that the rejection of philosophy as a “useless” discipline is in fact based in a philosophical standpoint, and a bad one at that: the standpoint that “use,” efficiency, productivity, are the highest goals. In other words, the standpoint of modern capitalism.

Philosophy is the discipline that encourages reflection on the very assumptions and foundations of values, attitudes, and discourses. As John Dewey aptly put it, philosophy is “criticism of criticisms.” [2] In this sense, philosophy is the most abstract discipline, because it requires a movement of reflection and abstraction from concrete conditions. In order to perceive that the scientific model of use, efficiency, and productivity that our society valorizes and perpetuates is inextricably bound to capitalist ideology and to a notion of what Horkheimer calls “instrumental reason,” we need to take a step back in a sense, moving from concrete facts to an analysis of those facts and the structures that are underlying them. This is what philosophy does.

But philosophy is also the discipline that can then critique this very movement of abstraction, this ‘stepping back,’ and recognize that no abstraction is pure or removed from concrete conditions. Philosophy thus always entails a double and doubling movement, oscillating or circulating between the abstract and concrete, and finally troubling the very distinction between them. And this is, perhaps, a neverending project.

Horkheimer states that the problem with the view that scientific truth is the only kind of truth lies in its “lack of self-reflection, its incapacity to understand its own philosophical implications.” [3] Based on society’s valorization of scientific truth above all else blindly persists, philosophy (as well as all the other disciplines that do not answer to the model of use, efficiency, and productivity) certainly appears “useless.” But is “usefulness” the highest value? It is my belief that philosophy is the discipline that allows us to pose, and to problematize, this question. And to critique a society that forces disciplines to answer for themselves in hard facts and results.

[1] Max Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason, Continuum 1974, p. 40.

[2] John Dewey, Experience and Nature, Southern Illinois University Press 2008, p. 298.

[3] Horkheimer, p. 57-58.

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