Philosophy: delicate flower or essential tool?

Philosophical Notes

PHILOSOPHY, AS George MacDonald Ross, chairman of the National Committee on Philosophy, once said, is like manure. Pile it high in a few places and it simply rots and stinks. But spread it around a little, and it becomes surprisingly useful.

That at least was one intellectual justification for expanding access to the subject in the 1980s, at a time when traditional philosophy courses were under Thatcherite attack. Out went "single honours" in traditional abstruse philosophical mumbo-jumbo, in came new, relevant, bolt-on philosophy modules. Out went the 12 sacred problems of introductory philosophy, in came practical courses in medical ethics, critical thinking, business ethics, and applied social studies.

The new courses looked at questions such as: Is the King of France bald? (The problem is, there isn't one.) Do unicorns have one or two horns? Is snow white? Are all bachelors (really) unmarried men? and, If there was a form of water on Mars made up of three hydrogens to two oxygens (H3O2), which looked like water and tasted like water and was in all other respects water - is it still water? (Not as in "fizzy")

There was even discussion, on the more up-to-date courses, of the Millennium Problem which runs something like: if there is a colour, gruebleen, that is green up to the year 2000 and then blue for ever thereafter - what colour is it really, and what will happen to the computer screens?

Hang on, isn't that a bit like the old, traditional philosophy courses? What's changed? Nothing of course, has changed. Philosophers (with the possible exception of Heraclitus) don't like change. They like truth and certainty. They like problems they can be the sole experts on.

Because one of the many unbridgeable divides amongst philosophers is between those who believe the subject is very abstruse, very complex and only really for a few, and those who believe that is an essential tool for living, understanding and acting. And the courses are largely devised and taught by the former.

Ever since the beginning of the century, far from it being desirable to "spread philosophy around", "philosophy" has been seen as a delicate flower, to be kept in a hot-house (preferably at Harvard), nurtured a little, and allowed only to bloom once every Research Assessment Exercise.

Plato once advised that there would never be peace and justice in the world until either philosophers were all kings, or kings were all philosophers. (Which sounds like an argument for mass training in philosophy.) But in his idealised "Republic", only a few were felt suitable for full training as philosophical experts, what Plato called the "Guardians". Even so, since the Guardians, Plato's ruling class, were taking decisions on behalf of lesser citizens, today, every student aspiring to office, it follows, should be given the chance to try a little philosophy.

Nurses and doctors, for example, should be "armed" these days with a course on "ethics" to equip them to take decisions affecting the welfare of the patients. If this means in practice that, equipped with a rather naive view of utilitarianism, "the end justifies the means", they attempt to over-ride the patients' wishes, at least they will be able to argue existence is only a predicate. (Or was it the other way round?) But the philosophers who failed to introduce the essence of the subject to them may have cause to regret a lost opportunity.

Because unless philosophy can move away from its traditions of self-congratulatory solipsistic and meaningless abstraction, it will again be seen as irrelevant, and consign itself to the margins of, not just education, but society itself. (Not, of course, that that will bother its tenured exponents much.) And the real price will be paid in terms of a society which has lost its philosophical perspective.

Martin Cohen is the author of `101 Philosophy Problems', to be published by Routledge next Spring

Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003