What is philosophy these days?
Maybe philosophy has always been the same? In the same way that mathematics or architecture has always been the same. What has changed are: what people philosophise about and how they do philosophy.
Today, we have more opportunities to do philosophy. We still have the traditional venues such as journals, conferences, books, maybe an article or two in a newspaper and of course universities. Other venues for philosophy have been from the Paris salons to the coffee shops of central Europe. Today, the participants might not be as exclusive as in the past, but they, or should that be 'we,' are still full of vision and passion. Today, we also meet in cafés and pubs, and then there is the internet. The internet is probably the single most important thing that has happened to philosophy and which is also different from what took place in the past. Today we can reach more people in more exotic locations, at the same time, to share our philosophy with. We can meet with people who have varied interests and of course we have close to limitless access to information. And this is where the state of philosophy today takes it's cue.
Could it be that all these new opportunities to do philosophy change the state of philosophy and what is philosophy? We have first to distinguish between what is labelled as philosophy and what people are philosophising about. However, what's in and what's out might still at the end be a matter of fashion and needs of the day. Identifying fashion from philosophy might itself be a challenge for philosophy today. Furthermore, there is no reason to suppose that information overload does not apply to philosophy. This means that the task of identifying real philosophy is that much more difficult.
Of course, one must point out that what is labelled as philosophy by professional philosophers, what is regarded as science by those who prefer other name tags and what actually is philosophy will always remain a challenge is the quest for knowledge. However, I would identify the following areas as being some of the prime interests to philosophy today.
> Issues concerning consciousness especially the brain and how it works. An interesting debate concerns the role quantum mechanical phenomena play in the brain and their implications to consciousness. Linked to these issues are the implications of DNA research including cloning, genetic engineering and evolution.
> Issues in medical ethics and bioethics, especially isssues relating to the development of new treatments, caring for terminally ill people, globalisation of health and models of health services. An issue that needs debating is who sets the ethical standards in medicine. Can we assume that the practitioners of medicine are the best people to set the ethical standards? The problem here is that real life cannot usually wait for people to come up, in real time, with a philosophical conclusion. Another issue is, how much do we need to know about medicine to contribute intelligently to a philosophical debate about medical ethics?
> Philosophy of language especially the development of concepts, theories of meaning and science, philosophy of mind and language are still issues that need looking at. As with many other discipline, what is philosophy of language, what is linguistics and what is psychology is a blurred territory. Applied philosophy can look at language and political philosophy. Politicians use concepts today that need a modern definition. Another practical issue is making science accessible to non scientists. The argument is something like this: since part of science depend on public money then the public ought to have access to that body of knowledge. The philosophical question then arises, how can a body of knowledge based on mathematic be translated into a body of language based on a mix of emotions and culture?
> A new branch of applied philosophy is philosophy of business. Here we are concerned with issues such as ethical policies and practices of companies, globalisation, state-company relationship and issues arising from company/stake holders interests. Is the profit motive a valid proposition today as it were a hundred years ago or, lets face it, a thousand years ago? And if competition is the best guiding force in modern business, who or what are its competitors today? It seems a bit incongruous that competition needs to be the only option in the market place for it to succeed.
> Philosophy of science is always an exciting source for philosophical investigation. The subjects are wide and varied, for example: the scientific methods, especially issues relating to confirmation, statistics and probability. Quantum mechanics still provides fertile ground for philosophical research and when linked with astronomy, we are looking at questions relating to the creation of the universe itself. And questions relating to the universe take us straight into questions about God and creation. Artificial intelligence and information theory are also good candidates for philosophy today.
Maybe issues that are closer to our times would come under the banners of theory of the state, theory of justice and philosophy of economics.
Starting with economics, there are new developments in economics and psychology especially consumer behaviour, economic issues in sociology and social responsibility. The ethics of labour, the use of rare resources and pollution also affect the models of economics we are used to.
A theory of justice today will take us back in a theory of rights. Maybe more needs to be said about duties of individuals and also collective duties. But equally a valid argument is whether a theory of justice ought to tell us something about how individual rights are guaranteed. What powers do individuals have to pursue their rights? Is there a conflict between the state and individual rights? And on the business front, how does a theory of justice cope with globalisation, multinational companies, and organisations such as the European Union, the WTO and the IMF?
This is perhaps the point where we clearly depart from tradition and move into our times: 21st century philosophy. High on the list of issues is the theory of the state. And for us we have to look again at what is democracy? Except now we have the added question of whether democracy should and ought to be exported to other nation states? Another issue is the theory of war. What is the philosophical and political debate on the principle of the pre-emptive strike? And what do we mean by defence of the realm, today? But it is difficult to forget old questions and a really old question is the relationship between state and religion. For example, Is there a place for a religion with political power today?
I would be the last one to argue that the above list is a representation of the state of philosophy today. It's probably more a subconscious list of what I'm interested in; but there again subjectivism was never killed nor buried by the old philosophy.
Modern philosophy was started with a rather good catch phrase which survived the test of time: cogito ergo sum or I think therefore I am. The philosophy behind this catch phrase was equally challenging at the time: What guarantees the existence of the thinker? Today, this question is as valid as ever. At the time Descartes did not have the benefit of psychology, neuroscience, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, quantum mechanics, information theory and the rest of the knowledge we take for granted. Maybe today we ought to go back to basics: what is a thinker? What am I?
Jan 7, 2005