Is Philosophy Dead?

by Ferit Güven

Have you not heard of the foreigner who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the conference and cried incessantly: I seek philosophy! I seek philosophy! As many of those who were philosophy professors, standing around just then, he provoked indignation.  What happened to philosophy?  Did you miss your session? Were you not registered? Can you not understand English? The foreigner cried: I tell you what happened to philosophy, philosophy is dead! But how did we do this? How did we make people stop thinking, how did we stop living philosophically?  We killed philosophy, all of us, by treating it as a discipline among others, by becoming professionals who sell philosophy, by becoming experts, by building resumes, identities and marketing ourselves to be paid, be branded, by writing books, by publishing articles that are written for making us promoted, by attending “conferences” similar to other professional organizations, by making a career in philosophy.

But how, asked they, do we continue to engage in philosophy if it is dead? How do we write books? What is it that we do in conferences?

About two years ago I read a fairly typical blog entry (typical in that it consists of a list, which is a popular click-bait for some reason) about how conferences are not appropriate format and content for  humanities. I commented that I no longer even go to philosophy conferences because of the problems this article listed.  The article was not exclusively  “negative” in that it listed 10 criteria (why is it always 10?) to make the conference talks better such that the speaker does not participate in the death of humanities.  I started thinking that maybe the problem is not to make the conferences better but that the very format of a conference is a problematic forum for philosophy.  Yet conference format cannot be understood independently of all the other “professional” activities of humanities in general and philosophy in particular.  My remarks concern only philosophy, as a “discipline” because I did not necessarily think other disciplines in humanities should particularly be averse to professionalization.

My resistance to conference format is a part of a larger concern about the death of philosophy in the 21st Century.  As a result of my remarks concerning the blog entry above, a colleague made the following comments:

You’ve never met anyone who became a colleague and friend you still collaborate with? A senior scholar who liked and supported your work and mentored you afterwards? A grad student you helped work out a tough idea? A junior faculty you could mentor? Never had you mind blown? Never got feedback that helped turn your paper into a better article? 
Some conferences are better than others, some talks are better than others. No one’s forcing you to go. Maybe it’s not conferences. Maybe it’s you.

It certainly is me.  It has something to do with what philosophy meant to me, and I never thought, I still do not think, that I am alone in this intuition.  I have heard many times around the conferences that people treat it as a professional opportunity to further their careers at best and an indulgence in interpersonal relationships at worst.  What does philosophy mean to “professionals”?

Around the time I decided to study philosophy, I came across a book called Irrational Man by an American philosopher William Barrett, which was an old book even then.  It was a study of existentialism and the first chapter was called ‘the advent of existentialism,’ describing the arrival of existential philosophy to American academia.  Barrett was describing a distinction between the type of professional academic enterprise philosophy had become in the US and another kind of motive for philosophy that was still present in Plato despite the fact that already with Plato philosophy had became differentiated and specialized.  This motive is characterized as a “passionate way of life.”  Philosophy means for Plato, according to Barrett, “the soul’s search for salvation,” “deliverance from the suffering and evils of the natural world.”  I had not agreed with the phrase “the evils of the natural world.”  It sounded too “metaphysical” or even perhaps “religious” because it was based on the implicit assumption of the world of being and world of becoming in Nietzsche’s sense.  Yet I was struck by the next sentence:

Even today the motive for an Oriental’s taking up the study of philosophy is altogether different from that of a Western student: for the Oriental the only reason for bothering with philosophy is to find release and peace from torments and perplexities of life.

Despite the fact that I was vaguely aware of the Orientalist overtones of the statement, I completely identified with the “Oriental” in it.  I was a kind of “oriental” after all. In fact philosophy was the foundation of a culture that defined me as the other.  If I were to resist the way in which I was excluded from the world culture and to resist the logic of this other-ing, I had to study philosophy.  And I did it with a passion–I believed, and still do, that it is the most important activity, (intellectual or practical) and I do not believe that simply because philosophy is my profession.  Philosophy is not an interest but rather it is something that I could not do without.  It is compelling beyond my individual choice.  I always thought it was more important than me, not like a religion or God would be, but as something that made my life livable.

Yet when I read those lines now, I realize how naïve I was at so many different levels.  Having worked in American academia for over 20 years now, I realize that I had no idea how American academic philosophy was not just a professional deformation of philosophy as a passion, but it was the end of philosophy.  Unfortunately the problem goes beyond any individual in the academia.  It concerns how philosophy in academia does not problematize the conditions under which it exists.  Professionalism does not just distort philosophy; it annihilates it.

Professional philosophy makes statements, propositions; it tries to argue for a position because it has to justify itself in terms of a discourse of power where any activity is measured in terms of its usefulness.  We tell students how useful philosophy is, how it will improve their analytic (or even perhaps synthetic) skills.  I don’t think that I am lying when I say this but I am certainly expressing bad faith.  Philosophy is not a skill, it is not a set of propositions, not a theory not a “property” that one can accumulate and market.  It is a process of movement, something recalling life, the process of living in a self-conscious way, it is a reflexivity that makes life move, or makes it “lively”; a relationship to oneself that one experiences at times of writing, or when one engages in a passionate conversation or when one reads an intense text, which unfortunately also happens after the philosophy conferences end.

Ferit Güven is a professor of philosophy at Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana. He is the author of Decolonizing Democracy (Lexington: 2015) and Madness and Death in Philosophy (SUNY: 2005).  In addition to 19th and 20th Century continental philosophy, he teaches and conducts research in feminism, postcolonial studies, peace studies, and film studies.

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