New Hope for Philosophy
Submitted by Ed
ORourke on June 20, 2008 – 11:53am
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:
Kansas Department of Corrections
Kansas City Star
National Football League
New York Stock Exchange
Kansas State Government (Agencies or Departments)
War on Drugs
Science (Biology, Physics, Astronomy…)
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
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
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