Why is Philosophy Sick?

Creston Davis is Professor of Philosophy at the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences, Skopje. He is the coauthor (with John Milbank and Slavoj Zizek) of Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology; coeditor (with John Milbank and Slavoj Zizek) of Theology and the Political: The New Debate; editor of John Milbank and Slavoj Zizek The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? and author of the forthcoming novel, Ghostly Icons.  He has recently co-founded, The Global Center for Advanced Studies.

Creston Davis

Why is Philosophy Sick?

Peter Sloterdijk's new book on Philosophy

Peter Sloterdijk’s new book on Philosophy

What is wrong with philosophy today?  On the face of it, unlike other disciplines in the academy, the very nature of philosophy inherently resists a foolproof definition.  Of course that’s not to say it hasn’t been defined.  From the birth of the academy in both ancient Greece and the Middle Ages, philosophy has always been at the heart of any education worthy of its name.  For example, when I was an undergraduate at Oxford this lesson became eminently clear when I stood in the center of the Bodleian library quadrangle (1613-1619) and the Tower of the Five Orders from which four of the main exit doors were devoted to the core subjects that comprise philosophy: Schola Metaphysicae, Schola Naturalis Philosophiae, Schola Moralis Philosophiae, and Schola Logicae.

Philosophy, in other words, was irrefutably foundational to the very existence of university education.  When you compare this to the contemporary academy that purports to be devoted to the liberal arts (i.e., the arts that free us vis-à-vis the servile arts, such as pluming and business) you would be lucky to locate a department that does not reduce philosophy to little more than business ethics.  This raises the question: What’s wrong with philosophy especially if its nature is completely unrecognizable within university settings today?

One explanation is that it’s simply outdated, and like modern theology will dissolve into the dustbins of history out of sheer irrelevance.  Philosophy, so this stance believes, is antiquated because it is redundant as it only teaches students ancient techniques of logical thinking and analyses, which, so administrators argue, can easily be acquired in a single humanities course.

The problem with this explanation is that it misconstrues philosophy by reducing it to an anemic skill sets all made relevant if and only if they enhance a student’s ability to get a job.  So it is not difficult to see why philosophy is dying (along with the humanities) because it is inversely related to the dogma of corporate culture.  Moreover, this trend has the unfortunate consequence of forcing philosophers to create courses that are relevant to getting a job.  In short, philosophy becomes enslave to corporate culture.

But should philosophy fold so easily to this prosaic corporate totalitarianism that has subverted all non-corporate methods of thinking and practice?  Think of the two basic functions in which the academy has traditionally served a free democratic society: one is negative and the other positive.  The negative service provides free and independent critiques of the inevitable abuses of power (both political and economic) that threatened the security of a democratic society.  And as the corporate financial crisis in 2008 proved beyond a shadow of doubt unchecked greed threatens the founding truths of democracy: of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Seen in this way, independent journalists and filmmakers also provide this “watch-dog” service protecting us from the abuses of barbaric greed mongering.  This is why a professor’s tenure was so crucial because they were protected and could thus publish their independent and objective research recommendations without fear of being fired.

On the positive side, academia once served a free society through its independent research that can give genuinely new and creative solutions to the rudimentary problems facing our planet such as, among many other problems, ecological sustainability, imperialist power, and the waging of unjust wars.  For example, an independent professor would recommend solutions to obverting ecological catastrophes by inventing new energy, economic, and political possibilities in order to avoid totalitarian greed from taking hold like the kind that corporate capitalism has installed in the United States in the 21st Century.  And this does not even touch one the psychological tyranny that the government and employers use when they violate our basic privacy rights by monitoring our intimate conversations from our mobile phones, to our emails and other social networking communications.

This gets us back to the question:  What’s wrong with philosophy today? Why is it sick?  Pondering this it becomes clear from the above analysis that the problem with philosophy is that it has forgotten it original modus operandi namely, the freedom to arrive at solutions to our existential situation. This is why philosophy must live into its truth so that it can arrive at new possibilities and alternative worlds unencumbered by the political and economic tyrannical powers that seek to protect their own interests at the cost of enslaving the majority of the population to the servile arts (i.e., enslavement to making money).  And here I’m not even mentioning governmental and corporate surveillance on the populous.  This is why philosophy’s genius is found in its infinite procedure, and this is because the ability to think, act, and invent is infinite in nature (i.e., free) which is why philosophers from Heraclitus to Diogenes, and from Socrates, Plato and Aristotle couldn’t draw a hard and fast demarcations between the disciplines distilled in the modern academy we see today from economics to politics to ethics.  And the reason for this is because the disciplines were all grounded in living a life for freedom and justice geared toward the search for wisdom and truth, and not, as is the case today, where everyone is taught to seek out their own wealth at the cost of dissolving social unity.

The illness of philosophy today is all too evident when viewed as a discipline that is wholly enslaved to the corporatized academy.  That is, the academy has become an extension of the corporate workforce precisely because the latter has determined not only what subjects are taught but also how those subjects are taught.  In other words, the corporate world has literally redefined the learning and discovery process thus undermining new and creative ways of thinking and living that would provide us with a healthier peaceful future.

Therefore, the days of an independent academy as the watchdog over potential totalitarian regimes are over.  This is especially evident with the recent publication of a “major report” in the New York Times in which professors argue that the humanities are worth saving basically because they teach students the skills essential to getting a job in the corporate world.  You know it’s over when humanities professors gut and sacrifice their subjects to the god of capitalism.

In light of this, it is now time to return to philosophy’s true nature devoted to freedom and justice for all.  Perhaps embodying a “Robin Hood pedagogical ethic” in educational process might be one means of stealing from the rich and giving a life back to the poor.  And what would a professor or teacher steal exactly?  It would steal back the possibility of freedom that has been hijacked from our youth preventing them from exploring alternatives futures other than the greed of capitalism, which turns our students into monsters.  It is time to free philosophy and the other subjects in the humanities from the chains of the corporate world and the administrators and lawyers who peddle them. The fact that philosophy remains indefinable to the bane of many gives us hope that this revolution is already afoot and that is taking place concretely by the opening of a independent graduate and post-graduate school, The Global Center for Advanced Studies.  

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8 thoughts on “Why is Philosophy Sick?

  1. Pingback: http://crestondavis.wordpress.com/2013/08/25/1882/ | Research Material

  2. I am wondering about this ‘reclaiming’ process, for university philosophy, as is well known, has always been a way of elite transmission, or rather a transmission of elite power. Throughout European history, ‘the humanities’ – or the trivium – its predecessor – have led to social stratification based on institutional barriers. Such institutions have always been the lackey’s of the feudal lords or the capitalists. In fact, I would argue that philosophy departments were far more elitist (especially in Britain, Germany and France) at the turn of the 20th Century than they are now. The new technocratic requirements are being ‘felt’ in all areas of work; even the technocrats themselves are complaining about the administrative malaise. So I think this is an argument you are making that needs to be re-worked, re-thought and re-done.

  3. Pingback: Philosophy’s alleged sickness | Elenkus

  4. Nicely expressed, but I think you’re way off, that is if I read you right. From what I can tell it is the university that has been swallowed up by greed–well, that’s not true, they were always one of the most clever businesses–now charging more than ever and generating mindless cogs and clods who then have to work off their slavery of their student loans with nothing but the drivel they learned as recompense. The educated jobless have little for their time and money there and especially those trying to get into the academic profession for years with Ph.D.s and even post docs and publications to their name. The university is sick, sick unto death. Philosophy is more alive than ever. Case in point the philosophers highlighted in this very article, Zizek and Sloterdijk and others too.

    I do think the bigger question now is how dare university keep swindling desperate people who want to have a decent living with a definite promise of a better life when it certainly is not able to provide it. Why should I enslave myself to a Ph.D. program and hope that by the time I get to retirement age I might actually get a tenured track position when I can work towards my own Ph.D. by taking free classes on line from the greatest teachers in the world, some at universities and most not. The only university I would consider now, and only if I could have it paid for outright, would be the European Graduate School, so that I could learn personally from folks like Zizek, Agamben, and de Landa–but till then I’m trying to eat and pay my bills and I’ll keep reading their books.

    Fundamentally, the question is whether philosophy can be tied to a school at all without killing itself. The classic example of this paradox might be Socrates questioning the existing schools of philosophy but his disciple / progenitor Plato founding one on the teachings of Socrates. I personally think the answer for true philosophers and poets is to rebel against all institutions. Like the oral tradition, once put down in stone, it is no longer a living thing. Fortunately, though, thanks largely to the oral medium of YouTube, philosophy, if not poetry, and education, if not the university, is very much alive and no longer cloistered.

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