In which I ponder an unanswerable question

I had intended to write a different post for today (which I still may). But the topic gave me so much trouble, I fled to an easier one:

Is philosophy dead?

My as-yet-unfinished post talked about epistemology—the study of knowing—which is a philosophical concept. Then I began to think maybe I was disappearing down a rabbit hole having trouble because the entire framework in which I was trying to express my ideas is crumbling.

Hence: Is philosophy dead?

As usual, I find myself able to argue both sides.

Golden Gate National Cemetery (c) 2015 Audrey Kalman

RIP, philosophy? Golden Gate National Cemetery (c) 2015 Audrey Kalman

YES, philosophy is dead BECAUSE:

Or not: What about Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, a neurologist, psychologist, and author of Man’s Search for Meaning? Far from being a frivolous pursuit, his search for meaning during the darkest hours of his imprisonment is what saved him. If we accept this, now is exactly the time we need to ask the very biggest and seemingly most unanswerable questions.

  • Stephen Hawking says so! In a 2010 lecture, the famous physicist declared that philosophy is passé, its function largely usurped by scientific inquiry.

But many disagree. Almost five years later, Times Higher Education covered a number of dissenting voices, many of which arose from a 2015 seminar organized by the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation called “What is the Point of Philosophy?”

In fact, some argue that science depends on philosophy.

NO, philosophy is not dead BECAUSE:

  • Only certain types of philosophy are dead. In a 2013 opinion piece for Aljazeera, Santiago Zabala and Creston Davis argue that analytic philosophy may be dead, while “‘democratic’ philosophy is not dead but very much alive and well.”
  • Rumors of philosophy’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Philosophy has been declared dead for years. Quora has 23 answers to the question of how philosophers are reacting to Hawking’s declaration. Many point to previous declarations of philosophy’s demise and to the irony that physics itself was declared dead in 1900 by one of its leading practitioners of that day.
  • It depends on how you define death. In western culture, we tend to think of death as an ending, a finality. In fact, death is transformation from one state to another. In that sense, yes, the philosophies of Aristotle and Socrates and even Leibniz and Wittgenstein may be dead. In their place, we have something new that serves our time and our concerns. (Is that an argument for or against? I don’t know… my brain is starting to hurt.)

Which side are you on? Are you with the 34 percent who say yes, philosophy is dead, or the 66 percent who say no on Debate.org? Or do you think all of this is just so much hot air beside the point?

If you wish not to take all of this so damned seriously, check out Existential Comics.

13 thoughts on “In which I ponder an unanswerable question

  1. Candidly, I have always thought of philosophy as the serpent eating its own tail. I have enough introspection in my life without having to think how I think. There are crusts to be made, dinners to cook, and if I dream a little while I am performing my ‘painting the wall’ functions, I really don’t take myself that seriously. Do I have an answer to the meaning of the universe? No. Do I want one? No – I indulge myself with the mystery. It is much more intriguing.

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    • It is frightfully easy to start taking oneself (and everything else) much too seriously. Indulge the mystery, yes! Because what would happen if we actually discovered the meaning of the universe?

      Thanks for commenting.

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  2. I don’t think philosophy will ever die as long as there are humans in the world or other similarly intelligent beings in the universe. Where there are brains that think, there will always be minds that wonder. If you doubt it, try reading some speculative fiction…

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  3. Philosophy is alive and well.

    Know of a recently retired professor who combined philosophy and artificial intelligence, for a very cool thirty years of teaching and study.

    Aristotle out of date? In a way, yes, because he, and Plato, and Descartes, were all guessing when it came to how we work — but they are front line when it comes to the nature of consciousness, which we still don’t understand. Plato believed that body and mind are separate, and that within the body, which is withering, decaying matter, burns a spark of pure reason, given to us by, whatever. Aristotle understood that body and brain are one. He appreciated our warped fiber, and recommended that political institutions be set up to accommodate actual humans, rather than ideal humans. Another blogger and I debate the essence of this argument all the time.

    Good questions!

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  4. haha, as a philosophy professor I’ll argue that it’s not dead, of course. Ethics and critical thinking play a key role in delineating the boundaries of our society and the flexibility of those boundaries. And as Descartes famously stated “I think, therefore I am” 😉

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    • Thanks for the reminder of that most elemental of existential statements! I’ll put you squarely in the “not dead” column.

      I’m glad I didn’t know there was a philosophy professor among my blog followers, or I probably would have been too intimidated to put this out there :-).

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  5. I don’t know about there, but the chilling fog and drizzle here make one wonder.
    I saw/read about this recently. if philosophy is “dead”, it could be because so many are taught by repeating, chants, and multiple choice in windowless rooms for years and years (which pretty well deadens actually thinking…bores thought to death?)
    As long as there are those who defy modern life and go outside – who are dwarfed by the sight of big skies and waters, feel the wind across wide open plains, and gaze at the dark skies with endless stars, some will ponder, wonder, and think – whether starving or not.
    Great post

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