The Greek word “philosophy” (philosophia) is a compound word, composed of two parts: “Philos” meaning love and “Sophia” meaning wisdom—thus translating to love of wisdom. As a subject, it has been central to life both in the east and the west for thousands of years, since the time of the famous ancient Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and many others. Philosophy has had a vital role in the pursuit of knowledge in all the other fields and how civilisation itself has progressed through time. However, in the last few decades at least, the subject of philosophy seems to have lost some of its shine.
According to Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, listed by Foreign Policy in its list of Top 100 Global Thinkers in 2012, in the last three to four decades, something unique has happened. “All the big naïve metaphysical questions were left to natural sciences or cognitive sciences.” When people wanted to “ask the question, our universe, does it have a limit or is it endless,” they would turn to quantum cosmology. If we wanted “to know do we have free will or not,” we would ask “an evolutionary biologist or cognitive scientist.” And in the meanwhile, “Philosophy got caught in the deconstructionist-historicist mode.”
Thus the role of philosophy from being a discipline that explores the nature of knowledge, values, existence, mind, logic, reason, ethics and nature itself, was either replaced by other disciplines, or as in many cases, fell out of fashion.
Despite the fact that the first university in the west was arguably established by the Greek philosopher Plato, modern western education today, which has been adopted by most of the world, has detached itself quite substantially from philosophy and the larger philosophical questions. Questions such as: “what is the meaning of life?” Partly because, “The entire [modern] contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power,” writes Israeli historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari in his best-selling book Homo Deus. Further arguing that, “On the practical level modern life consists of a constant pursuit of power within a universe devoid of meaning.” As a result, although “Modern culture is the most powerful in history,” we see it is at the same time, “plagued by more existential angst than any previous culture.”
In a similar note, others have argued that, if philosophy is the search for wisdom, then five things that stand out about modernity are: i) We don’t ask big questions; ii) We are vulnerable to errors of common sense; iii) We are mentally confused; iv) We have muddled ideas about what makes us happy; and v) We panic and lose perspective. This idea could be supported by the fact that depression, feeling of irrelevance towards one’s own life and life in general, as well the tendency towards conformity, are now at an all time high, despite the unprecedented amount of materialistic goods and free time we have at our disposal and the high living standards that we enjoy today.
Everywhere we look and nearly every life that we examine, we find the same feeling of there being something missing. One explanation for this could be that, besides not asking the big questions about the universe and the meaning of life, we no longer ask the big questions about our own individual lives. Questions such as: “What sort of a person am I?” “Who do I want to become?” “Is the path I am currently on, making me happy?” “Does mimicking the life portrayed on television and Hollywood films satisfy all my wishes and dreams as a unique human being?”
These are the questions that we must ask if we are to find our true calling. Otherwise, no matter how hard we look and no matter in how many places, we will undoubtedly go through life without ever discovering ourselves.
And that is not something any of us can afford to do, according to Russian-American writer and philosopher Ayn Rand, who argued that, “As a human being, you have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy”—which in other words “is an integrated view of existence.” Given the nature of human beings and of universal and human reality, Rand believed that our only choice is either to define our “philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation,” or let our “subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions, false generalisations, undefined contradictions, undigested slogans, unidentified wishes, doubts and fears, thrown together by chance, but integrated” by our “subconscious into a kind of mongrel philosophy and fused into a single, solid weight: self-doubt, like a ball and chain in the place where” our “mind’s wings should have grown.”
In an age where science has revealed so much about the human subconscious, how it functions and how it can be manipulated, leaving the levers of our mind’s conscious and subconscious to chance, or whoever is willing to pull it but us, is a dangerous thing to do.
Similarly, according to philosopher and the father of modern linguistics, Noam Chomsky, having grown so powerful as a civilisation because of our technological advances, “It should trouble us that we are not thinking about what we are up to.” Particularly because with the tools that we have discovered—such as nuclear bombs—not only do we now have the capacity to destroy our own individual lives, but life on a planetary scale. And if we believe, without asking, that life has no meaning, then pushing that button that ends all life becomes that much easier. “And those questions happen to be in the domain of what philosophers pay attention to,” says Chomsky.
Returning to whether other scientific disciplines have made philosophy irrelevant or not, according to professor of psychology Jordan Peterson, science has produced a kind of “cutting rationality” which people use as an excuse to overlook some of the broader metaphysical questions that were often asked by philosophers. However, Dr Peterson believes it to be no more than a bad excuse, because what science has also done, besides making our lives increasingly more comfortable in the materialistic sense, is make it more burdensome.
Because, given the power humans now wield, they are now burdened with more responsibility—to steal a quote from Spider Man: “with great power comes great responsibility.” And no one wants that.
However, if we look at it from a truly rationalistic perspective, we cannot avoid the fact that for human civilisation to survive now that we have attained the ability to completely destroy ourselves, we must be willing to voluntarily lift our share of the great responsibility at hand, and not shy away from it. And it is that great responsibility that can provide the modern man and woman with their collective share of meaning, besides the individual meaning that they may discover on their own separate paths.
So, is the need for philosophy now extinct? No. Philosophy, that is the love of wisdom, can never go extinct, at least for as long as human beings and human civilisation are still around. For one of the true characteristics of human nature is the pursuit of wisdom. Partly because it is on wisdom that human life and civilisation has depended on to survive—and must resume to depend on, if it is to continue to endure.
Eresh Omar Jamal is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star. His Twitter handle is: @EreshOmarJamal