Tuesday, May 15, 2007

There’s now a huge public interest in popular philosophy

Another think coming By Mark Vernon
FT Home > Arts & weekend > Magazine Published: May 11 2007
The last great British philosopher who linked experience and thought - and wrote about it in an accessible way - was Bertrand Russell. But by the 1950s the connection had broken. A new mood about philosophy took hold: it should be more rigorous. These philosophers called their philosophy ”analytic philosophy” - to underline the belief that philosophy’s proper subject material is not the personal but, rather, logic and propositions. Many students entering universities in the English-speaking world between the 1950s and 1970s would have felt the disconnection between the personal and the philosophical was obvious, right and permanent.
Now the mood seems to be shifting, slowly, mainly because high-profile academics working in the strongholds of English analytic philosophy want their discipline to become engaged again. ”Philosophy has become far too professionalised,” says Sir Anthony Kenny, a former Master of Balliol College, Oxford, and one of Britain’s most distinguished living philosophers.
He laments that much of the work done in philosophy departments today is inaccessible to other philosophers, let alone the public at large. In some subjects, such as physics, such complexity is unavoidable since the ”raw material” of the subject takes years to master. ”But philosophers don’t have information that is unavailable to others. In philosophy the best of it should be available to all. It is for this reason that I admire Russell, even if I don’t always agree with him, because of the way he could write serious philosophy that was readable to a wide public,” Kenny says.
The author and philosopher A.C. Grayling believes philosophy itself risks becoming impoverished when it doesn’t care about its wider application. ”Spending time contributing to the public conversation is a kind of duty. And philosophical ideas and perspectives become impoverished when there is a lack of it,” Professor Grayling observes. ”Ten years ago when I started writing for a popular audience, it was looked down upon. Now this does not happen. We are recovering a sense of philosophy as taking part in a popular debate.”
There’s now a huge public interest in popular philosophy, with Alain de Botton the best-known author in this genre. He covers issues such as friendship, desire, death and children, but has a profound ambivalence towards contemporary philosophy. ”Around 2000, when I wrote a book on philosophy [The Consolations of Philosophy], the academics became hysterical that I was an interloper on their hallowed ground,” he says. ”Philosophy is largely owned by the academy and defined by its interests. These interests tend to be narrow and the way one is allowed to write in academia almost guarantees that no more than a handful of people will bother to investigate subjects. That’s why philosophy is largely irrelevant in this country. However, there is clearly a great appetite among people to know what philosophy is. My own feeling is that this curiosity is generally abused.”
Havi Carel, senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of the West of England, goes beyond the war of words to show how great thinkers can make a real improvement to modern lives. She has LAM disease, an incurable lung condition. When she was diagnosed, it was a brutal shock. However, reading the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus and the German thinker Martin Heidegger - who sought to address the ancient questions afresh - she found new strength.
”Philosophy gave me the capacity to reflect not just emotionally but rationally on my illness,” Dr Carel says. It enabled her to take a broader perspective on her feelings of anger and envy, lessening their destructiveness. Epicurus taught his followers not to be afraid of death, since death is non-existence, that is, absolutely nothing. He also pursued things that produce happiness, such as friendship and small pleasures.
Carel says: ”The good news is that although we are shackled by some objective features of life, such as our health, we can choose to focus on these other good things. It is not only me who has realised that much of what worries us is, in fact, trivial and meaningless. Both philosophy and being ill enable you to apply this insight to your own life.” Mark Vernon is an honorary research fellow at Birkbeck College, London and author of ”Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life” (Palgrave Macmillan).

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