New Hope for Philosophy

--- Everything under the sun ...

When I look at books on philosophy nowadays, I just shake my head. Does anybody, other than the authors and specialists, have any idea of what they are talking about? Would it make any difference in our lives? Is there anything worthwhile to hear?

I offer this hope to philosophers to examine the institutions, customs and personalities of our society to report their underlying premises, goals, flaws and results. Sometimes outsiders to a culture see traits that escape those who are in it. The fish is hardly aware that he is in water. Alexis de Toqueville’s observations about American life became a classic. Alan Riding’s Distant Neighbors about Mexico’s history, culture, economics and politics may do the same for Mexico.

This is a topic list that I offered to the philosophy department at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas where I was a freshman in the early 1960s:

The Corporation
Kansas Department of Corrections
Benedictine College
Kansas City Star
Environmental Movement
United Nations
National Football League
New York Stock Exchange
Television Networks
Andrew Greeley
Kansas State Government (Agencies or Departments)
War on Drugs
Science (Biology, Physics, Astronomy…)
Green Party
Republican Party
Democratic Party
Drug Legalization
World Trade Organization

The study list is limited only by the human imagination.

Philosophers can examine these institutions from the views of both advocates and critics. Some authors, who do not consider themselves philosophers, have written extensive tracts on organizations. Examine When Corporations Rule The World by David C. Korten and The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power by Joel Bakan. These are withering critiques of the major corporations’ drive for short-term profit, heedless of environmental, social and economic sufferings of anyone else. Close scrutiny by outsiders can reveal surprises, pleasant and unpleasant, that are invisible to participants.

Discovery of each institution’s stated or unstated premises and goals is a research step. How do they see themselves? How do they see the world? How does the world see them?

Philosophers of ancient Greece, such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, were mostly understandable. Over the centuries, philosophers have sometimes been clear and sometimes unintelligible. Two philosophers, Karl Marx and St. Thomas Aquinas, still have followers, not just people who study them for course requirements or for their historical influence. When I visit Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas and the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, I encounter professors who think that St. Thomas had a lot to offer. When I attempt to read the English translations, I give up after about three pages. A major task for the philosophy departments is to write a popularized version of their favorite philosophers that the general public can understand and be willing to buy at the local bookstore.

The world of the famous philosophers was different than ours. Their world was one where there were fewer than one billion people, slavery was allowed, judicial torture was an accepted practice, women had few rights, wife beating was accepted. Aristotle ridiculed the idea of social equality.

Philosophers have to write something that someone else other than insiders can understand or hire people who can. They must address issues of the population explosion, poverty, global warming, the power of the transnational corporations and the abolition of war. David C. Korten’s The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community is a step in this direction.

I recommend scraping metaphysics as a required course for the general student population. I had the course at the University of Saint Thomas and can not remember a thing about it. Metaphysics will probably help someone specializing in philosophy or theology. Requiring the course for anyone else is a mistake.

Authors of self help books do not consider themselves as philosophers. They do help people make sense of life and cope with circumstances, which is what philosophy is supposed to do. A major blind spot is that almost all deal with the individual and only tangentially to a wider world, notably her city or country. There is no reference beyond the immediate circle of impact. An exception is Deepak Chopra’s Peace Is the Way, which deals with peace among nation states as well as individuals.

In a management course offered in business school, I learned that a closed system was one that had no influence on the outside environment and was not influenced by the outside environment. This definition reminds me of today’s philosophy.

We must look at philosophy to see how our thoughts evolved. Beyond that, any philosophical system must address itself to our crises: Endless war, environmental degradation, global warming and poverty. Then the philosophical system must seek solutions.

Ed O’Rourke attended Benedictine College (Atchison, Kansas) and the University of Saint Thomas (Houston, Texas) in the 1960s. He is an environmental accountant in Houston.

This article can be found on the “National Catholic Reporter” dated June 20, 2008