Mark Steel: Playing philosophical with the truth

Maybe you can't blame New Labour for having a dislike of philosophers
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The Independent Online

On the face of it, the minister who said he was pleased that fewer students were doing philosophy because it wasn't "useful" has a good point. If the philosophy industry was shut down, would we miss it? Would there be "panic thinking", with people queuing for hours outside universities complaining, "I've got three concepts to last until the weekend, then I don't know what to do", or stickers everywhere saying "Immortality of the soul not dole"?

But this is New Labour, so by "useful", he meant something you could make money out of, rather than useless stuff like ideas or art. An ideal visit to an art gallery for the current Cabinet would involve admiring framed shares on a wall, with Tony Blair whispering: "But you have to stand back to appreciate it fully - look at it now, up 9p overnight on the Dow Jones - sheer beauty."

So the courses they would prefer students to enrol in are "useful" subjects. Soon a typical university prospectus will ask: "Why not enrol in our two-year course on how to sell missile parts to countries you can't pronounce, or an evening class in renting out unhealthy flats to immigrants?"

The problem for philosophy is its case isn't always presented well by philosophers. Some of them defended their subject by arguing philosophy helps to create a flexible mind, ideal for business, which misses the point. In any case, it would be no good getting a job in the City, and telling your firm you'd had a marvellous day at the stock exchange because you'd bought 10,000 Glaxo shares at £2.46, then spent the afternoon considering them.

Other supporters of philosophy have suggested its study can provide knowledge of how to lead a "fruitful life" and "solve daily dilemmas". As if a philosophy degree could get you a page in a magazine called "Uncle Plato answers your problems", where you give advice such as: "Be honest with your husband about how you feel, and read my enclosed leaflet on the unity of opposites and their effect on threesomes."

Modern philosophers often seem to praise their subject as if it proceeds on its own, apart from the rest of the world, but I would have thought the most fascinating, and pertinent side of philosophy, is that it's an integral part of everything that happens in the real world. Aristotle, for example, was a champion of the small citizen, and opposed the greed of the aristocracy but also sought a justification for slavery. Descartes began his quest for what we can know as certain, in response to the scientific breakthroughs that disproved the simplistic model of the solar system favoured by the Catholic Church.

Similarly, most well-known philosophers wrote their works as critiques of the government they were living under, and many were extremely down-to-earth. Aristotle compiled the first known comprehensive list of all winners of the Olympic Games. Which means that quite probably he was sat in a bar with Plato, muttering: "Go on then, give me any year and I'll tell you who won the four-man bobsleigh." So philosophy isn't a separate subject but an essential part of every other subject. Descartes' theories on the planets helped Newton on his way to gravity, just as Rousseau's incisive rant against monarchy helped prepare the French Revolution.

You could say a similar reasoning helps to decide what should be done with David Irving. Because, when he claimed the Holocaust didn't happen, that wasn't an abstract idea with no impact in the real world. He wanted to "show" the Holocaust didn't happen, as part of the intellectual justification for excusing the Nazi party, which has been his lifetime's work.

From the way he tries to appear the victim, you wonder whether he's about to announce: "Ah, what happened was, I was writing about the Second World War and couldn't find any references to the Holocaust. Then just after it was published they all turned up wedged behind a recipe book in the kitchen. Isn't it always the way?"

And just as all philosophy relates to the real world, all ideas in the real world are philosophical. New Labour may have no time for the subject, but when Aristotle wrote, "Some people believe that the whole idea of their lives is to increase their money without limit. They turn every quality or art into a means of getting wealth. As such they are intent upon living only and not upon living well", who can he have been thinking about?

But maybe you can't blame them for having a dislike of philosophers. If you want to take a country to war by shouting "Look, they've got weapons of mass destruction", it doesn't help if you have people whose job is to go: "But hang on, how can we be certain they're really there?"

The new series of "Mark Steel Lectures" begins on BBC4 on Thursday at 11pm, repeated Saturday at 9pm

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