Does Philosophy Betray Both Reason and Humanity?

We need a revolution in the academy, argues Nicholas Maxwell. This article appears in Issue 62 of The Philosophers’ Magazine. Please support TPM by subscribing.

Our world suffers from bad philosophy. Universities around the world have, built into their intellectual/institutional structure, a seriously defective philosophy of inquiry we have inherited from the past. This holds that, in order to help promote human welfare, academia must devote itself to the pursuit of knowledge. First, knowledge is to be acquired; then, once acquired, it can be applied to help solve social problems. It is this ‘knowledge-inquiry’ philosophy that betrays both reason and humanity.

The extraordinarily successful pursuit of knowledge and technological know-how has been of immense benefit, and has made the modern world possible. It has also made possible all our current global problems. Modern science and technology have made possible modern industry, agriculture, medicine and hygiene, which in turn have made possible global warming, lethal modern warfare, explosive population growth, the destruction of natural habitats and rapid extinction of species, pollution of earth, sea and air, vast inequalities of wealth and power around the globe.

The problem is the gross and very damaging irrationality of knowledge-inquiry. What we need is a kind of academic inquiry that puts problems of living at the heart of the enterprise, and is rationally designed and devoted to helping humanity learn how to make progress towards as good and wise a world as possible. The basic intellectual aim should be to seek and promote wisdom, understood to be the capacity to realise what is of value in life, for oneself and others, thus including knowledge and technological know-how, but much else besides. ‘Wisdom-inquiry’ along these lines would differ dramatically from what we have at present, academia organised in accordance with the edicts of the false philosophy of knowledge-inquiry.

Wisdom-inquiry gives intellectual priority to the problems that primarily need to be solved if we are to create a better world, namely problems of living – personal, social, global. The central intellectual tasks of wisdom-inquiry are (1) to articulate, and improve the articulating of, our problems of living, and (2) to propose and critically assess possible solutions – possible actions, policies, political programmes, philosophies of life. The pursuit of knowledge and technological know-how emerges out of, and feeds back into, these fundamental intellectual activities. A transformed social science, devoted to helping humanity tackle problems of living in increasingly cooperatively rational ways, is intellectually more fundamental than natural science. Wisdom-inquiry seeks to help humanity learn what our global problems are, and what we need to do about them. A basic task of the university is to help people discover what is genuinely of value in life, and how it is to be realised.

None of this can be done as long as our universities are dominated by knowledge-inquiry. Giving priority to tackling problems of knowledge excludes tackling problems of living from the intellectual domain of inquiry – or pushes the task to the periphery and marginalises its importance. What universities most need to do to help humanity make progress towards a wiser world cannot be done at all – or can only be done very ineffectually. The fundamental endeavour to help humanity learn how to resolve conflicts and problems of living in increasingly cooperatively rational and wise ways cannot be undertaken by the university because to commit the university to such a political programme would, according to the edicts of knowledge-inquiry, sabotage the objectivity of academic inquiry and subvert the pursuit of knowledge.

The charge is very, very serious. Bad philosophy lies at the heart of our current global problems. It is at the root of our current incapacity to tackle them effectively and wisely. One might think that philosophers would be eager either to show what is wrong with the argument, if that is what it deserves, or – if the argument is valid – to proclaim to fellow academics, politicians and the public that our future is threatened by a bad philosophy built into universities around the world, and we urgently need to bring about an academic revolution.

Not a bit of it. The case for the urgent need for an academic revolution, from knowledge to wisdom, has not been taken up, criticised, proclaimed, attacked, fought over. It has been ignored. The silence is deafening.

Do we have the kind of academic inquiry we really need? Is knowledge-inquiry really damagingly irrational, and at the root of many of our current crises, or is it, on the contrary, the best that we can have? What grounds are there for holding that wisdom-inquiry serves the interests of reason and humanity better than knowledge-inquiry? What kind of academic inquiry do we really need? What kind of inquiry could best help us make progress towards as good a world as possible?

These questions ought to lie at the heart of philosophy. At present they are all but ignored. I suggest that philosophers should start to take very seriously the possibility that a bad philosophy of inquiry, inherited from the past, and built into the intellectual/institutional structure of universities round the world, is at the root of many of the troubles of our world today. What philosophers do should take account of this possibility – if philosophy is not to be the intellectual equivalent of Nero fiddling while Rome burns.

Nicholas Maxwell is emeritus reader at University College London, where he taught philosophy of science for twenty-nine years, and author of From Knowledge to Wisdom (Blackwell, 1984; 2nd ed., Pentire Press, 2007).

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14 Comments.

  1. We’ve had wisdom philosophy for millennia. It evolves into theology because by itself and prioritised at the expense of knowledge it becomes speculation piled on speculation – counting angels dancing on pins.

    The knowledge of the human sciences tell us what we have to work with – or at least they are trying to, but being little more than a century old it’s early days. But empirical science, and empirical (experimental) philosophy should work well together.

    “One might think that philosophers would be eager either to show what is wrong with the argument, if that is what it deserves, or – if the argument is valid …”

    That pretty much speaks to the limit of philosophy: the problem of deduction is ignored while the problem of induction is overstated.

    Deduction cannot be guaranteed to be sound, because each argument’s premises requires an argument of its own. A priori amounts to relying on observed experience for un-argued premises: empirical observation; or it consists of making stuff up and asserting it true.

    The problem of induction is only a problem for philosophers looking for water tight proof – ironic since they cant have it though deduction either.

    Induction is not a problem for science. Rule: all swans are white! Oh, they’re not? OK, not all swans are white – new rule. Science advances by finding fault with older science. It adapts to empirical data. Science is not perfect? Well that will be because it’s done by humans.

    Perhaps the problem with knowledge philosophy is philosophy’s misconception of what knowledge is, laying down rather ridiculously strict requirements.

    Want to know what knowledge is? JTB? If we knew our knowledge was true we wouldn’t need to justify it. Does it even have to be true?

    Plenty of myths are deemed to be true by their believers – they know it; they have knowledge, their brains are full of states relating to how they think the world is. We know a lot of science, until we un-know it by having science change our minds on what we thought we knew.

    Knowledge seems nothing more than a collection of information in its very useless encoded states, static, dynamic, transient states, of neurons. They relate to the outer world only in that the brain contextualises the signals. That flash of neurons that fires when you see any of the countless shapes that look like a dog? That’s all it is – the accumulation of a brain’s patterns that are triggered by other patterns. And so we can look at clouds and see dogs; or see Jesus on toast. Or we see the shrouded head Virgin Mary in the the bark of a tree – or labia, depending on one’s own brain has contextualised its experiences. Or two faces or a vase. Or a duck rabbit.

    The greater and more consistent the internal contextualise patterns match empirical methods of investigation the more ‘true’ we think our internal representations. Of course if one is way off track with the empirical stuff, as with astrology, you can still convince yourself it’s true, that you have knowledge. And you do have knowledge of sorts, just not as compliant to investigation as it could be.

    The problem with a lot of wisdom is it makes fine use of life experiences; but without being thorough in the knowledge acquisition too it can also lead to grand theories that are supposed to explain the wisdom, but which are often bunk.

    While we may benefit from more wisdom, it can only be better wisdom if it’s based on a god foundation of empirical knowledge too.

  2. Philosophy “evolves” into theology? Hardly.

    The author is pointing out the fact that wisdom-inquiry is largely absent from university curricula, which knowledge-inquiry dominates. The author is not proposing that wisdom is better than knowledge or that gaining knowledge is somehow a bad goal; but rather, that knowledge must be applied to the world in a wise way.

    Universities that only focus on knowledge-inquiry are providing an incomplete education.

    Wisdom concerns that which is necessary, so it calls for prioritization. If it makes sense that post-grads should seek to apply knowledge in a prudent or wise way, then it makes sense that they should probably be taught something about prudence and wisdom.

  3. Brendan Funnell

    Perhaps the issue is that current philosophy is more based on Sophistry and Pyrrhonism since Hume and Kant – Man is the measure of all things – than rational thought. If everyone is entitled to their own opinion on everything, including the underlying natire of reality, there can be no rationally based communities (or knowledge or wisdom).
    Sophistry and Polytheism are pre-rational States.

  4. “Bad philosophy lies at the heart of our current global problems.” …
    “…our future is threatened by a bad philosophy built into universities around the world…”
    More dangerous than bad philosophy built into universities, is the bad philosophy of competing religious beliefs; these religious beliefs are the certainly at the heart of our current global conflicts.
    Dennett, in ‘Breaking the Spell,’ and elsewhere, argues that we ought to start to seriously study religion as a natural phenomenon so that we may see how best to handle the dangers presented by many of the worlds religions.

  5. eudaimonus,

    I didn’t mean to imply that all philosophy necessarily evolves into religion, but that pure reason can and often does. The less one relies on empirical observation to test one’s ideas the greater the possibility of flying off into fantasy.

    I’m not opposed to that, as a means of investigating ideas, but it all too often leads to assertions of what is the case rather than leaving it as investigative philosophical speculation. Investigating ideas such as solipsism is well within the realm of investigative philosophical ideas. But, for example, once you switch into the realm of materialism, even as another speculative metaphysical possibility, you can’t then ignore all the material science and continue to support old philosophical ideas about the mind as if they are real.

    So too, panpsychism is an interesting philosophical concept, but it is hardly wise to build a self-help industry around it, as if it were evidence based fact. Unless one is being wise about how to con people out of their money through useless book sales. And pansychism is small fry compared to the religious mass historical con, sold here in the West as wisdom on a stick: Christ.

    In religion faith is an enabler of bad ideas being given stronger belief, often with bad consequences.

    In philosophy pure reason is an enabler of bad ideas too, in that there is no means to challenge them other than by more pure reason, which is on no better ground than the first.

    And if one is religiously inclined, or in not, yet persuaded through pure reason by someone who is, then pure reason is an enabler for philosophy to become religion. It’s not necessary that that happens, but there is no means to stop it, because even the most precise valid logical reasoning can fall on unsupported premises. And ultimately all we have left is an empirical attempt to test premises.

    I find it shocking that Plantinga, as one example, portrays himself as a philosopher and is so little challenged by philosophers. How come Plantiga is not criticised extent that, say, Sheldrake is in science?

  6. “make progress towards as good and wise a world as possible”

    As always the tricky part is who gets to decided what is “good” and “wise”? Until all philosophers can come to an agreement about what is “good” and “wise” and convince everyone else y’all will continue to be spinning your wheels.

  7. Thomas Eugene Pilcher

    It seems to me we, Philosophers, may have lost what that four syllable word means: Lover of Wisdom. We must recognize that anything Philosophical is always about wisdom or it is not philosophical but an endeavor of one of our esteemed disciplines’ children: the sciences. The past century and a half has seen to the ascendance of Platonic philosophy throughout Western academia (Platonic= idealistic= profoundly UN-realistic, totally detached from utility). When Aristotelian philosophy returns to ascendance, then we will be able to contribute to our world in a resounding and redoubtable fashion.
    The terrible and, to my mind, profoundly destructive thinking among the Platonists may well explain to great degree why our Western World has become so disfunctional politically, ethically, economically, and spiritually. As Aristotle might have opined millenia ago, “it is time to get real”….my goodness, this could become a great rant, so let me cut myself short and simply say 1: Metaphysics is still very much alive. 2: The questions of knowing and understanding are still wanting refinement and finally (and most critically) 3: What we do (Axiology/ Ethics) should be guided once again by philosophers, and most definitely NOT by religious fundamentalists or our absurdly ignorant and profoundly selfish elected officials.
    If Philosophy returns to its proper place as the beginning of learning, we CAN make a far better world for ourselves and our progeny. Until then, to paraphrase Albert Einstein, we come ever closer to catastrophe.

  8. ‘Does Philosophy Betray Reason and Humanity?’ was written, I confess, as a sort of cry of anquish at the way in which academic philosophy has, by and large, just ignored a body of work I have produced during the last 40 years spelling out the case for the urgent need for a revolution in the aims and methods of academic inquiry, so that the basic task becomes to help humanity learn how to make progress towards as good a world as possible. I would have thought that the question of whether our institutions of learning really are rationally designed and devoted to helping us make progress towards a better, wiser world was of sufficient importance to earn the attention of philosophers. Not a bit of it. The case I have made out that academia as it exists at present, devoted to the pursuit of knowledge, is damagingly irrational, has just been ignored. Articles spelling out the argument are available online at http://philpapers.org/profile/17092 and
    http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/view/people/ANMAX22.date.html

  9. Thomas Eugene Pilcher,

    I’m afraid this is what I see as useless philosophy. Our problems arise because we are rather simple apes that only a few millennia ago started figure stuff out. The world is complex, and we’re still trying to figure out how it works – wisdom comes from a lot of knowledge acquisition, despite what the OP says.

    As significant as Aristotle and Plato were to some of our early recorded contributions they and their differences are mostly irrelevant now. Yes, some of what both of them had to contribute is still very significant, but suggesting we should listen to one of them, raise them up on some pedestal, is no more constructive than suggesting we abandon Leibniz for Newton. Grand philosophies are not only irrelevant but dangerous. We take what works from whoever contributes and move on. I don’t have to choose between Plato and Aristotle – an totally irrelevant dichotomy.

    Though philosophy can contribute to to our understanding of ourselves, our world and our place in it, to understanding our needs and desires, it takes its place at the table with all other disciplines. Philosophy has contributed as many dead ends and as much bunk as any discipline. It’s not the saviour of mankind.

    “1: Metaphysics is still very much alive.” – Yes. Most noteably in cosmology and physics, which have left philosophy standing twiddling its thumbs.

    “2: The questions of knowing and understanding are still wanting refinement ” – Yes. Most notably advancing in the hands of the brain sciences.

    “3: What we do (Axiology/ Ethics) should be guided once again by philosophers” – Only if they take note of empirical discoveries, particularly in neuroscience, biology, evolution. Value and ethics are related to the extent that they are determined by what makes humans tick. What we value is very much determined by our personal biology and psychology, and by our social and cultural interactions. Ethics is about how we balance our conflicting values.

    “If Philosophy returns to its proper place as the beginning of learning, we CAN make a far better world for ourselves and our progeny.”

    It’s laughable the extent to which philosophers see themselves at the head of the table. I wonder if this renewed self-importance has emerged from the insecurity that comes from being dismissed and ignored following a few hundred years of being left behind to their rationalist non-empirical musings.

    Of course there are many good philosophers getting on with good philosophy, engaging in interdisciplinary co-operation with empirical scientists and participating politicians. There’s plenty for philosophers to do. And philosophy, if used wisely, ironically, is a good educational start for politicians and policy makers – so I agree it has a place in the beginning of learning. The problem in philosophy arises with its own isolation in academia – or, God help us, should there be such, in the theological pseudo-philosophy of the likes of Plantinga.

  10. Brendan Funnell

    Enter your comment here…
    The problem of Sophistry vs Philosophy and the adotion of Sophistry by Hume and German Idealism is not irrelevant or ancient, as Heidegger knew in such works as his lecture series The Sophist. The Philosopher, and logical Philosophy based on observation rather than human invention, is defined in contrast to Sophistry.

    The notion that Man is the Measure of All Things, the basis of Humanism, is itself a kind of theology, as the ancient Pyrrhonsists who inspired Kant knew. That we have forgotten the basic distinction between Sophistry and Philosophy seems to me rather prevalent.

    Yet wisdom and scientia is not techne, as Heidegger knew in his attacks upon Technicity that form the basis of so much of Academia today.The problem of Sophistry vs Philosophy and the adotion of Sophistry by Hume and German Idealism is not irrelevant or ancient, as Heidegger knew in such works as his lecture series The Sophist. The Philosopher, and logical Philosophy based on observation rather than human invention, is defined in contrast to Sophistry.

    The notion that Man is the Measure of All Things, the basis of Humanism, is itself a kind of theology, as the ancient Pyrrhonsists who inspired Kant knew. That we have forgotten the basic distinction between Sophistry and Philosophy seems to me rather prevalent.

    Yet wisdom and scientia is not techne, as Heidegger knew in his attacks upon Technicity that form the basis of so much of Academia today.

  11. Thomas Eugene Pilcher

    Mr.Funnel, While your point ought to be compelling, dropping the ‘p’ from the word ‘adoption’ multiple times in your statement does not help clarify our cause (a future for life on planet earth). As to why philosophers and philosophy (love of wisdom) seems to have deserted the west over the past two centuries, it is not at all complicated. Platonism (the stupidity of idealism) has been ascendant. When Aristotelian thinking (realism, the kind which built the library at Alexandria, later destroyed by idealists ) returns to ascendancy, we will collectively (as philosophers ) begin to effectively address all the calamities created by left brained thought (idealistic, conservative, reactionary, republican, profoundly stupid and selfishly narcissistic) presently engulfing our world today: Religious extremism, rejection of scientific evidence whenever contrary to wishful/ greedy thought, the victory of stupidity over intelligence (our modern oh so inclusive Democracies).
    Until then the pretentious academic idiots (Platonists) that call themselves philosophers will continue to opine that Metaphysics is dead, Epistemology is beyond us, and Axiology should be left to psychologists (whose only real skill is inventing ever new and exotic Greekish or Latinesque labels for everyone).
    When realism returns to it’s rightful place of wise leadership (Marcus Aurelius comes to mind), we will rediscover that philosophy is very simple and should be the first thing our youngest children are taught. All else is A-posterior to that most critical foundation of 3 simple questions:
    1. Where am I?
    2. How do I know?
    3. What do i do?
    When Aristotle is placed over Platonic solipsism, it may occur to us that the whole point of education is (and always was!) to help our next generations find answers to those 3 little questions in the first place! It aint complicated.
    Until then, thoughtful individuals like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Neil Degrasse Tyson will be stuck trying to do OUR job of dealing with issues in Epistemology and Ethics for us.
    As I am fond of teaching my charges, Philosophy is NOT rocket science. Rocket science is complicated. Consider this a rather disjointed and angry call for the community of philosophers extant to wake the hell up and stop mentally masturbating over the challenges of communication and remember the original basis for philosophy in the first place (East or West!): COMMON SENSE. As someone far smarter than I has suggested, Wisdom acknowledges rules and more importantly, when to give them the toss.
    As Aristotle might have said to his erstwhile mentor: Dude, get real.

  12. Thomas Eugene Pilcher

    Ron Murphy,
    Firstly, I make no arrogant presumption about what wisdom is, only arguing that it is clearly not present in those who make choices for us. I ascribe the greater part of the ‘decline of Western philosophy’ to the Enlightenment stupidity of erstwhile claiming name ownership of his or her, this or that philosophy (as though it meant opinion or belief or creed). During our Renaissance, while most every person of thought and science began the era knowing they were a ‘philosopher’, by the end, it was almost embarrassing to have the word attached to a man or women of thought because so many where claiming their philosophy was right and all others wrong. And those that were wrong were said to be drunks, lecherous humps, and heretics to be scorned, scourged, or burned. Which leads to my favorite (and mistaken) definition of Philosophy:
    “A bunch of crazy old bastards arguing over a pile of non-sense that aint gonna put food on my table anyway.” I hope your view is more charitable.
    While you would consign those two early Greeks to the ash bin, I am quite confident they are as relevant as ever and in fact, that the main disagreements in society, religion and all politics today ultimately stems from that ‘first cause'; the disagreement between realism and idealism. Platonists (too many Philosophers in Western academia are this type) would like us to believe that the world is far too complicated and they must use all their effort in quiet (and useless) contemplation. Realists, like most scientists in every field, are too busy giving the lie to Platonic stupidity. Realistic thinkers are responsible for bringing us as a species into awareness of our fragile and self-endangered place in the universe. Whether or not they realize they are Aristotle’s children is what is irrelevant. I’ll go further. In the United States, Democrats are largely Aristotelian (right-brain thinkers) and Republicans are in great majority Platonic (left-brained)…seems pretty relevant.
    I do not argue for making a golden calf out of Aristotle. I merely point out the bankruptcy of Platonism in our society today: The insistence of economists that we are rational with our money( or yours),The cookie cutter factories that we call schools, the ascendance of religious fundamentalism world-wide, The profound stupidity of thinking that having more stuff is always better….etc…all direct thinking of the left brained Platonist. All of it is as frightening and RELEVANT as ever. And all of it is missing that critical bit of philosophical basis: Common Sense.
    The only time philosophy has ever provided ‘bunk’ is when this or that platonic moron has tried to claim it for their own like ‘Ayn Randian philosophy’.
    The most prolific Aristotelian thinker of the 20th century, Mortimer Adler, argued indeed that most of the work of philosophy was completed by those two ancient Greeks and all that came later was footnotes. I do not think that idea is inaccurate.
    As you know, Philosophy is as well equipped as any of It’s children to grapple with questions of cosmology, of being. The realistic philosopher is certainly better equipped than any Platonic thinker, many of whom will be happy to reject little things like Astrophysics, Evolution, or Climate change if it doesn’t fit in with their latest literal holy book translation, or their profit from carbon emissions.
    I am baffled as to how you can imagine that neuroscience, or the sometimes pseudo scientific thinking in psychology can even approach questions of knowing. They and we note that memory is uncertain and creative. We acknowledge the amusement we get when ‘magicians’ so easily demonstrate how fallible our senses can be. I, for one imagine myself to be a rigorous empiricist and perhaps one day we will conclude that the scientific method is the best way to know. But i will not ever be comfortable with insisting that it is the ONLY way to know. In the mean time, there is no shortage of Platonists who will kill us to ‘prove’ that essentially blind faith IS the only way to know.
    While the Platonist will respect scientific discovery when convenient (electric guitars and amplifiers on the stages of their mega-churches), they reject it out of hand if they cannot make it fit their meta physic of a 6,000 year old planet with the Flintstones as biographical fact The Aristotelian is by definition a scientific thinker (ever seeking to find disproving experiments, always seeking to build the world of knowledge on as solid a foundation as humanly possible). That you imagine otherwise suggests a gap. That you would argue the ancient Greeks are irrelevant is an error.
    For the Aristotelian, Ethics is a very simple (not easy) question: What do I do? That question lies squarely inside the domain of philosophy and not inside any empirical realm to date. It certainly does NOT lie in the realm of religion which has proven to be profoundly bankrupt if not downright evil when it comes to answering that question. Aristotle was a scientist, an observer. Plato was a thinker who KNEW how the perfect government works and KNEW we’re all just reincarnations with complete knowledge of the perfect forms imprinted in that eternal memory of ours. (I will be shocked but accepting if Neuroscience can ever show it’s all really there). A realist will ask poignantly what point in regulating what we do? At least it’s a start. John Stuart Mill, Emanuel Kant, William James, and others have offered their insights into how we might approach that fundamental question of ethics without ever insisting that theirs was the only right way. And while some argue that Kant was an idealist, I point out that he stressed that ‘always doing the right thing’ ought not subvert the idea that every human is an end and not a means.
    That you choose not to honor the very root of all scientific thought and discovery is no issue. That philosophy became a topic of scorn and disrepute is the direct action of the Platonists who rule over us today. If you are going to argue that I do not see reality, perhaps you need to wake up and realize just how powerful Platonism is today: The CIA and the NSA of the United States are gathering every letter of your missives and mine to use or misuse as they see fit in their Platonic (and diabolically EVIL) little universe. It is their very IDEALISM that is on its way to destroying our Democracy in the name of saving it. If that is not relevant, I honestly am lost as to finding anything that is.

  13. “Bad philosophy lies at the heart of our current global problems”
    Silly me, and all along I thought it was bad people.

  14. Orwell,

    Fair enough. But we are of mixed biological raw material, with various natural starting positions from which we become good or bad. Cultures have underlying philosophies at their heart. They may be abstract, artificially concocted by humans over centuries. But in any culture that we find ourselves in philosophy and science can be used to tease out what’s probably objectively true and necessary for human flourishing, and what isn’t. Bad philosophy is not only a bad result in itself, but it can also lead to an anti-science that brings its own dangers.

    Cultures that value folk stories over science, develop a science phobia, and then expose their children to diseases that where pretty much done with, is suffering from some bad philosophy. Vaccine denying mothers are not bad mothers.They are ill informed, and they are ill informed by bad philosophical appreciation of how the world works.

    Cultures that value the teaching of an ancient book that not only contradicts other ancient books, but is also self-contradicting, thereby making the claims of any of them dubious from the outset, is doomed to causing divisiveness and persecution, despite the best efforts of the predominantly good people in religious cultures.

    Cultures that value the owning of guns based on some poorly understood political tradition, and on some anticipated conspiracy scenario they think they could win should it occur, over the lives of so many children that are killed so frequently and immediately, has some pretty screwed up philosophy at work there. Many gun owners are basically good people.

    To paraphrase from another context: bad philosophy can make good people do bad things.

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