Why Philosophy gets no Respect in Society

There was a time when Philosophy was one of the most respected intellectual disciplines in humanity. Philosophical greats such as Aristotle, Plato & Kant are world renowned today, even centuries after their death. Others like Pythagoras & Newton considered themselves to be natural philosophers, and their contributions to mathematics have made them scientific idols even today. Go to any society around the world, and you will hear of philosophers such as Buddha, Confucius, Adi Shankara & Ibn al-Haytham, who changed the course of entire societies. Even today, every single PhD candidate in any field at all, is awarded the title of Doctor of Philosophy, in recognition of the deep role Philosophy has always played in cultivating new knowledge.

Hence why it’s deeply jarring to see the derision & condescension heaped upon philosophy today, not only by laymen, but even by fellow intellectuals. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the most public face of science, has actively denounced Philosophy, called it a useless field that detracts from real progress, and advised bright students not to major in Philosophy. Stephen Hawking, usually never a controversial or sensational figure, candidly declared that Philosophy is dead. Talk to the average Joe on the street, and you hear even more jibes.

“What did the Philosophy graduate say to the Business graduate?

Would you like fries with that?”

Looking at how Philosophy has fallen so far, it’s time we had a soul searching discussion about why Philosophy is given so little respect by society, and what we can do to remedy this.

Many philosophers seem to take it as self-evident that their field is worthy of respect, and their status as philosophers entitles them to this respect. But before we can assume this, we need to first understand why. In order for any field to have value and be respected by society, it needs to accomplish a few things:

  1. Fulfill a need that society requires
  2. Build up a great deal of expertise, in fulfilling this need
  3. Demonstrate convincingly to a layperson, their superior expertise in fulfilling this need

Let’s take a look at certain professions that have achieved this well.

Doctors

  1. They cure sick people, and save lives
  2. They spend a decade of their life training to be a doctor. They also conduct research clinical trials, studying the efficacy of various medical treatments.
  3. They publish studies, showing the efficacy of medical treatments, and how they are able to improve people’s health. They also conduct studies showing that non-recommended treatments are ineffective in healing diseases. At an anecdotal level, a philosopher trying to perform surgery will result in self-evident disaster. Hence why people trust doctors with all medical decisions.

Computer Engineers

  1. They design computer chips, which people need for all sorts of things
  2. They go to college & learn all the technical aspects of how to design a computer chip. They also do experiments & manufacture real chips to verify that their models are correct.
  3. They build computers that work. The proof is in the pudding. If a philosopher tried to design the next laptop processor, it would not even boot up. Hence why people trust computer engineers to design their Intel chips.

Business Managers

  1. They operate businesses effectively, which is vital in a capitalist society run by businesses
  2. They go to college & earn MBA degrees, learning technical details & case studies of how to run a business effectively
  3. They build up their reputations over time, as effective business leaders & managers. With time, businesses start trusting MBA grads as being effective leaders, and are thus willing to hire and delegate to them to responsibilities of running the business. If a philosopher with poor people skills & no understanding of company financials tried to run a company, profits would start dropping quickly, hence why companies don’t hire non-business-savvy philosophers to run their business.

Philosophers

  1. They ask & answer important questions about how we should live our lives and pursue knowledge
  2. They go to college & earn philosophy degrees
  3. ???

And that right there is the problem.

Bullet 1 is itself questionable to a layperson. Many philosophers do indeed wrestle with vitally important questions that do affect our lives. But many others engage in intellectual masturbation that society doesn’t care about, and is not affected by in any way.

But put that aside for a moment, and focus on bullet 3. Because this is where Philosophers lose all respect. How do Philosophers today demonstrate convincingly to society, their expertise in their subject matter? In an ideal world, people will recognize the expertise that philosophers have when it comes to answering moral, ethical and intellectual questions. Hence, they will delegate to philosophers the making of moral decisions & methodologies for the pursuit of knowledge.

In practice, no one ever asks a philosopher for advice. At an individual level, they go to their priests, teachers or parents… and for the most part, they do just fine. At a scientific level, philosophers are hardly ever involved in major scientific research labs, and yet, these labs are making amazing progress. At a societal level, we elect lawyers, business leaders & career politicians into office, and they are the ones making all moral & ethical decisions in public policy… and they too are getting by without any problems. Why do we need philosophers when lawyers like Bill Clinton or actors like Ronald Reagan are doing just fine?

“But wait”, you say. “These guys aren’t doing ‘just fine.’ They would be much better off if they had philosophy training. Our teachers, priests & scientists would also be much better off if they had philosophy training. In fact, everyone would be better off if they had philosophy training, and listened to the advice of us sagely philosophers.”

Well, that’s all well & good, but can you prove it? Can you demonstrate this in a clear & convincing way? Because that’s how the world works. It’s not what you know… it’s not what you may think you know… it’s what you can prove. It’s what you can demonstrate.

I don’t know what form this proof or demonstration will take; perhaps philosophers should be expected to write mainstream books & articles, and engage in current-events debates such as income inequality & immigration reform. Perhaps the standard for excellence in Philosophy should not be publication in academic journals, but rather, thought leadership in mainstream discussions over everyday societal issues. Perhaps philosophers should aim to establish their dominance in newspapers’ opinion & analysis sections, the same way MBAs have established their dominance in corporate governance. This is an entirely different discussion worthy of extensive deliberation by itself.

But if we really think that the study of philosophy can add value to society, it’s time philosophy left its ivory towers, walked away from its silos, and started demonstrating its value to society. To every intellectual from other disciplines. To every layman. Because that’s what separates a profession from a hobby. Because that’s what separates a scientific discipline from intellectual masturbation. If we want philosophy to be taken seriously by society, it’s time to start proving its worth.


Related Links:

One of the most famous living philosophers says much of philosophy today is “self-indulgent”

About OutlookZen

Ex-Journalist & Columnist. Loves exploring the world.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

36 Responses to Why Philosophy gets no Respect in Society

  1. Linux Geek says:

    Due to “Intelligence” & “Mindset”

    Philosophers are way ahead in terms of accessing the knowledge of the universe when compared to normal-of-us. Think of playing “age of empires”, remember we advance through generations right (by clicking a button & progress is made, everybody is upgraded to new weaponaries, new buildings, new tech, etc, etc. Philosophers are the ones who have access to tech which is advanced, oh i can teleport, etc). Since its available only to people who have sent their thoughts deep into higher levels of energy spectrum, they are able to access it.

    Now a days,
    – its like “if its there on facebook /youtube/yahoo. i’ll just go there, click on it, read it, go to next item” there is little effort spent by normal folks. so it gets rejected
    – scientists, they realize that they are in a virtualized environment and believe only what they see/feel/sense. which is like staying in current generation (or, using the tech given by the progress of a generation in A.O.E world, which is true, coz we are in that mode)

    .. hard to understand stuf .. ah… yea, it takes time.. not everyobdy needs to understand philosophy

    btw, am linux geek, know lilbit of philosophy

  2. John says:

    Philosophy is floundering because it is fundamentally wrong-footed as astronomy was when the Earth was thought to be the centre of the universe.

    Consequently, philosophical explanations which should serve to simplify and clarify actually complicate, confuse and give rise to more problems than they solve.

    The outcome is that in modern society philosophy has as much relevance as astrology.

    • OutlookZen says:

      Interesting comment John. What exactly about philosophy do you believe is fundamentally wrong footed?

      • Eli says:

        Consider the term “truth-tracking”, which is commonly used in analytic philosophy.

        Now consider how many branches of philosophy can actually achieve truth-tracking, or even have a standard for what constitutes truth-tracking. Notice how low that proportion actually is, and how weak the standards are.

      • John says:

        1. Philosophy is an activity not a body of thoughts and theories. It is similar to walking or swimming and one does not learn to walk or swim by reading books or listening to someone else talk about it. There is, in fact, no such thing as philosophy as there is no such thing a ‘walk’ or a ‘swim’. There are only philosophers as there are only walkers and swimmers. One can only learn philosophy by doing it.

        2. The essential tool of philosophy is language in its conceptual form as thought (as opposed to its perceptual form as sounds or symbols). Thought acts as a torch that reveals truth but is not the truth that is revealed. To use another metaphor, thought is a ladder which enables one to climb to higher levels of consciousness, that being the purpose of philosophy. One does not achieve this by studying someone else’s ladder.

        3. The activity of philosophising is analogous to that of digging a hole. Consciousness is the hole, truth is that which encloses it and the larger the hole the more truth is revealed. The sides of the hole are the limits of our consciousness and world. It follows from this that there is no such thing as truth or consciousness only degrees of both, each defining the other.

        I apologise for the extravagant use of metaphors but hope that this goes some way towards explained why I believe philosophy, as conventionally understood, to be fundamentally wrong-footed.

  3. Sam Webb says:

    Enjoyed the article, makes a good point, just wanted to point out one minor oversight. Yes, Bill Clinton is an attorney and politician, he also studied philosophy. He didn’t complete a philosophy degree, but he did study philosophy at Oxford before transferring to Yale Law School. Other that that one minor point, excellent job. As an undergraduate working on his degree in philosophy, I will try to avoid the very aptly-named practice of “intellectual masturbation” in the future.

  4. pickle123 says:

    When you remove Teleology, you remove Philosophy…

    …it’s no surprise that the emergence of Karl Popper coincides with death of philosophy itself…

    …and that the origins of Philosophy are specific to the discovery of Teleology itself in the Hellenistic world.

  5. Sean says:

    Your next-to-last paragraph is striking for how closely it describes the actual situation in many continental European countries. There, a class of “public intellectuals”, who are nearly always philosophically educated, are celebrities of sorts, and do not seem to need to “mainstream” or dumb down their messages all that much to be relevant. They write books which are widely read, appear in the media, sometimes to debate one another on various topics, including current events, and are able to exert a real influence over their societies. I think a great deal of the current problem of Anglo-American philosophical “relevance” , to borrow an unfortunate term from the 1960’s, goes back to the early 20th Cen. schism between the English speaking world and the rest of continental Europe in the matter of the scope and hierarchical position of philosophy as an intellectual practice. Europe, as a whole, tended to retain the traditional high evaluation of the relevance of philosophy and philosophers, while a revolution of sorts proceeded among Anglophones, systematically reducing the scope of philosophy to a tightly constrained logico-mathematical system (and the means for testing the viability of other such systems) and placed in the service of Science, but especially Mathematics. It cannot be entirely coincidental that this is reflected in the dismissive attitude with which philosophy continues to be seen in the English speaking world today.

    • OutlookZen says:

      Interesting point Sean. I currently live in America, so that’s certainly where my observations are coming from. If philosophers in Europe are actively involved in public policy and mainstream discussions, that’s wonderful. Let’s hope this starts spreading here as well.

  6. juan cherry says:

    You want to prove how lay thinking is inferior compared to philosophy? Go ask a layperson to defend why they eat meat. Really engage them on their reasoning and the logical conclusions of what they say. Then watch them walk away in anger; that’s why society can’t have nice things.

    • OutlookZen says:

      As a vegetarian myself, I completely agree Juan! Intelligent arguments in favor of eating meat certainly do exist, but it always frustrates me when I hear otherwise smart people provide such shallow and faulty arguments to defend it.

      Now if only I had some way of proving this to them 😉

  7. A Duck says:

    There’s a gaping problem: philosophy is “unsuitable.” Think about it this way: what historical problem was solved by philosophy? Alternatively, if we knew the rules by which words could be combined to form arguments that hold water, would we need philosophers and not computer scientists?

    Philosophy is structured thought where the causative structures are not known and cannot be tested. Ie. Plato’s “aether.” When the underlying structure becomes known or a test becomes available, that structured thoughts becomes “science” instead of philosophy.

    What’s also sort of interesting is that you guys have no apparent interesting in proof from first principles. Ie. Why aren’t you searching out from Noether’s theorem and…say…converse Lyapunov…in order to figure out the deep structure of human thought? With said structure in hand and grounded in things that can be proven (and that’s exactly what I do in my research), couldn’t you discover the implications and limitations of that thought structure? Couldn’t you in turn impose a structure on the “philosophical” questions of morality and meaning?

    • Eli says:

      People who have very strong answers to epistemological questions usually tend to do exactly as you’ve described: go on to apply their epistemologies to other philosophical questions. If their epistemology allows them to obtain actual answers, they do.

  8. Thomas says:

    Though i agree with you on some level, it seems to me that many of the professions you named Do in fact utilize philosophy all the time, especially lawyers and politicians. Perhaps they didn’t major in philosophy, but i feel as though that’s missing the point.

    To be an effective lawyer you must know a great deal of philosophy and how to formulate arguments and demonstrations. All kinds of political theorists are immersed in philosophy, and most importantly, neuro-scientists and quantum physicists have no choice but to be wrapped up in some sort of philosophical questioning. Their respective fields are still so new that many philosophical questions arise all the time. In fact, philosophy dealt with a lot of those issues before those respective fields of science emerged.

    Finally, there are moral implications in all kinds of research in a vast number of different disciplines. In short, philosophy can’t be avoided in any intellectual endeavor and to say philosophy is dead is to not see the big picture.

    • OutlookZen says:

      Indeed Thomas, so much in the world around us is derived from philosophy, and so many people have philosophy to thank for the wisdom they apply in their lives and careers.

      However, I do think that philosophy’s contributions should exceed simply being an implicit sub-component of other fields. Engineers may utilize math on a daily basis, but they still recognize the value in having dedicated mathematicians. Doctors may apply the principles of biology everyday, but they still recognize the value in having dedicated biologists. And so I believe it should be with dedicated philosophers too.

      I never mean to imply that philosophy is, or should be, dead. To the contrary, I believe that philosophy has so much to offer to the world. Unfortunately, this potential will forever remain untapped until it starts proving and demonstrating this to the layperson.

  9. Great elucidation of the shift in view of philosophy over the past century or so, and I completely agree with all that you wrote. The question I kept asking myself as I read the piece and that I pose to you is whether it’s all that important that philosophy is viewed in such a view from all those outside of philosophic thought? If the goals of philosophers shift from asking and seeking answers for tough ethical, moral or intellectual questions, to becoming sound political leaders or almost-hyperbolic life coaches for the masses, then I guess we should deride the way the public views philosophers. But I was and am under the impression that none of those was really what thinkers strive for. They want to think, write, be read and continue their own thinking once anything counter-their-point has been presented. The field of academic philosophy is obviously very inaccessible to the masses, as it requires a certain understanding of concepts and abilities to grapple with intellectual questions. So why should philosophers be worried about their standing in all of society if they exist within an already detached academic community?

    • OutlookZen says:

      Thanks for the interesting perspective Andreas. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound? If the field of philosophy makes great headway and achieves brilliant moral & intellectual insights, but no one outside of the field is aware of or affected by this, has anything of consequence been achieved?

      My personal view is that pursuing knowledge purely for personal satisfaction, makes for a great hobby. But any serious profession or discipline should aim not only to pursue knowledge, but also spread it and use it to make the world a better place where possible. Indeed, i’m sure many great philosophers would agree that any person in possession of valuable knowledge has a duty to do something socially meaningful with it. As someone with a great deal of respect for philosophy, I would hate to see it devolve into a hobby, when it has so much more to offer to the world.

  10. Philosophy is improving not only how we view so-called mental illness, but also treatment in mental healthcare. That’s is a pretty good practical application! Applied philosophy is the “proof in the pudding”

  11. Carl Sagan says:

    A philosophy major gets no respect because a philosophy major has no use in modern society.

    Philosophy is something that can be studied by the average person in their free time and it can be very stimulating to read. But majoring in something just because you find it fun and interesting and expecting people to take you seriously is incredibly foolish.

    Heres where your logic flies out the window:
    >Fulfill a need that society requires
    >They ask & answer important questions about how we should live our lives & pursue knowledge

    Every other example is clear. Society wants doctors, engineers and business professionals.

    asking important questions about our lives? Every person does that. Does not take a philosophy major to ask questions (even though thats all they do)

    answer important questions about how we should live our lives? Society will resort to philosophy majors right after gypsis, astrology and moon runes fail. Philosophy majors never even answer questions, they quote a variety of the great old philosophers, offer little personal insight, and respond with asking more questions. People dont like to have pompus semi-intellectuals attempt to tell them how to live their lives. People prefer to find their own answers, thats what life is all about.

    Again, no function served to society, thus no respect.

    • OutlookZen says:

      That sounds quite close minded Carl. To give one small example of what value philosophy can provide, where else would we go for moral and ethical insights? Religion? Your gut? These might be fine starting points, but only philosophy can give us more comprehensive & thorough answers on what is & isn’t moral. Progressive taxation, welfare, immigration reform, public healthcare… these are just some areas where philosophy can offer insights on the right thing to do. I suggest reading the book “Justice” by Michael Sandel, if you still believe that philosophy has no insights to contribute in these areas.

      • Eli says:

        >These might be fine starting points, but only philosophy can give us more comprehensive & thorough answers on what is & isn’t moral.

        Oh please. You can’t claim moral authority on behalf of philosophy when a solid 42% of philosophers aren’t even moral realists and the 58% who are realists can’t actually agree on a fundamental ethical code.

      • OutlookZen says:

        I never claimed that philosophy will give us a single definite answer. Rather, it gives us a bunch of frameworks on how to approach the problem. Frameworks that are better than “It’s wrong because God said so” or “It’s wrong because my parents said so”

        To give an example, economists often disagree on the right answer to various questions. But the field of economics as a whole is still very valuable despite this lack of consensus, because it gives us a better way of attacking the problem, than would be possible otherwise.

  12. John says:

    I think this hits the nail on the head

  13. Antonio Martinez says:

    Great article, however a couple of his arguments or points are a bit naive or not thought out. philosophy is a field thats forward thinking and like Ive always said philosophy will prove it’s value in 10 to 15 years when our current societal rules don’t apply as efficiently as we first thought simply because society is always changing (proven fact) at which point we are forced to come up with a whole new way of thinking (the 3rd party) . Then what ? who is better fit to do the deepest thinking possible to form the best society for humanity.

    • OutlookZen says:

      Interesting perspective Antonio. What exactly do you think is going to change in 10 years that will make philosophy suddenly important & respected, compared to today?

      Instead of waiting for the problem to fix itself in ten years, I’d much rather see philosophy work on its own fix, today.

  14. I couldn’t agree more.

    As an independent who’s been developing his own philosophical ideas for fifteen years, I regard the larger field of philosophy to be typically sophomoric and often outright obscuritan (cf, Frankfurt: “bullshit”). It comprises lame-ass, unanswerable questions. Were it not for terminological ambiguities, there would be no philosophical questions to begin with.

    That’s why I no longer seek the validation of academic philosphy. They wouldnt recognize a cranial projectile if it them on the head — lol.

    I’ve come up with a unification of many areas of human endeavor, starting with a theory of consciousness. It’s based on the observer-relativity of information and on the subjectivity of mind. Mind is information; observer-relativity and subjectivity are the same thing. It’s a no-brainer (pun intended).

    So check out my website, & help me with my one-show, goodbye ruminations. Once I’ve made it, I’ll leave this with the rest of philosophy — in the ash heap of history, where it belongs.

    E

  15. sammmuel says:

    The whole problem seems to be American culture. I am not an American and some would argue its not a problem anyway. But in Québec (Canada) and in France, per example, philosophers have been involved deeply in public debates. Charles Taylor was commissioned by the Québec government to do public hearings across the province to produce a report regarding immigrants, integration and stuff like that. The Stasi commission in France was similar; a bunch of philosophers were involved. Truth is, in Europe or at least in the Francophonie, philosophers and intellectuals in general have a lot of place in the public discourse. So maybe its a matter of culture, in the end.

    • OutlookZen says:

      Great perspective Samuel. I believe this is what Sean was mentioning in his comment as well. Glad to hear that philosophy is actively involved in public policy and mainstream debates in Canada & Europe. Hopefully this will catch on more.

  16. Justarius says:

    Technically, philosophy is not useless or dead. It’s ubiquitous and taken for granted to the point of being invisible. As you and “A Duck” pointed out, science was originally called “natural philosophy.” For anyone curious, this is how the name change happened: http://www.ted.com/talks/laura_snyder_the_philosophical_breakfast_club
    As science expanded in scope, academic philosophy was left with less and less territory of its “own.” This is the natural course of things, but for scientists to say that philosophy is useless is a bit absurd. Without the father, the son wouldn’t exist.
    Could US academic philosophers be doing more in the public sphere? Yes they can, and they should, particularly in the realm of bioethics. America is in dire need of some serious conversations about end-of-life decisions, stem cell research, etc. Philosophy can also be very useful for those that check the box “spiritual but not religious.” How do you live a meaningful life? That’s a question philosophers have a lot of experience with.
    Not all philosophers are the same. Alain de Botton is one professional philosopher who is trying to make philosophy more relevant and useful to everyone. For those interested, view the first of his videos, and you will see what I mean.

  17. Johng720 says:

    Very interesting topic, appreciate it for putting up. adefkkbdgbke

  18. Mike Archbold says:

    Requirement #3 could be artificial intelligence. There isn’t any working strong AI, and one possible reason is that in general metaphysics is neglected.

  19. Chris Thomas says:

    Is it possible that philosophy does play a vital role, just not usually by itself?

    For many years writing screenplays was the primary focus of my life. Initially I would try and emulate those I admired or follow random ideas I came up with, but this never resulted in quality writing. Eventually I started asking myself questions about artistic philosophy such as “What is my job as a writer?” and “What distinguishes good writing?”. Pursuing these questions lead to many more breakthroughs than anything else, and the lessons I learned going down these paths has proven useful in every area of life, not simply screenwriting. If I had achieved the sort of success I desired, people might have called me a great screenwriter, but really I would have been more of a philosopher. In much the same way I suspect philosophy is used as a tool by people in nearly all fields, it’s just usually not philosophy in isolation.

    Even when dealing with genuine philosophers, often times their most important work pertains to a particular subject outside philosophy. Shakyamuni for example was concerned with agony and suffering. Those seeking a release from suffering could easily see him as a healer rather than a philosopher.

    Perhaps philosophy is alive and well, doing as well as it ever has, but its greatest champions are simply not identified as philosophers?

Thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s