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

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