Showing Richard Price, a Welsh philosopher, supporter of principles of French Revolution watching crowd destroy Marie Antoinette's bed in search of her. Engraving. (Photo by: Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

What does philosophy matter?

Philosophy is essential to our modern times, but it can also be dangerous

Our lives continue to be largely mysterious to us. We may exist in an era of unparalleled technological advancement, but the fundamental questions of our existence remain unanswered.

For many of us, philosophy and politics move beyond the merely academic. They become a part of us — almost akin to a permanent pair of clothes. We show our politics to others, and it wounds us deeply if someone criticises us or even changes sides. Our principles matter to us, and so they should. Philosophy cannot be sidelined as a mere academic exercise; it is something deeper and more intrinsic to the self. The questions must be asked: to what extent should it matter, how dangerous is it that it matters so much, and can we ever be consistent in our exercise of philosophy and politics?

First, is life really about philosophy? For those who are struggling to survive, it is hard to press that claim. Their needs for food, water and shelter come first. Maslow’s hierarchy of need dictates that those struggling at the most fundamental level don’t possess the ability to act out “self-actualisation”. This is a fancy way of saying that our western worries about our relationships, our identity and our egos are first world problems.

I do not share in the sentiment of some, that questioning who we are and what we want necessarily entails a softness or overdeveloped sense of ego. Asking such questions is a fundamental part of our existence.

Even in the depths of the DPRK, people bravely question their masters and try to escape across dangerous borders in the search for a better life. This act necessarily involves a philosophical dimension. People try to make sense of what they want, who they are and what world they would like to live in. The very human demand to act out our beliefs in public is one of the key drivers of democracy. If philosophy were irrelevant to our condition or a mere technical exercise, we could perhaps be content with it simmering in the background. However, this has never truly been the case.

Philosophy, even from a young age, drives our sense of self. Questions that we ask ourselves about our lives, what they mean and where we place ourselves are rarely far away. In popular culture, the deep, dark journey of teenagerdom makes the philosophies of nihilism and existentialism inherent to escaping the bonds of our childhood.

Today it is not only teens who are struggling to decide who they are and what they want. The crisis facing western societies, as depression and anxiety seep through our lives, is the result of an excess of choices — an extended teenhood. Supposedly freedom offers up new challenges that not everyone is adapted to take. Erich Fromm in The Fear of Freedom notes the difficulty of being offered the chance to devise your own wants and needs. It is far from simple, but rather amongst the most complex of things.

Modern man lives under the illusion that he knows “what he wants,” whilst he actually wants what he is supposed to want. In order to accept this it is necessary to realize that to know what one really wants is not comparatively easy, as most people think, but one of the most difficult problems any human being has to solve. It is a task we frantically try to avoid by accepting ready-made goals as though they were our own.

Asking or even demanding that we take such leaps into asking who and what we are, without sufficient boundaries, is asking for trouble. Unmooring people from communal and familial bonds is hardly preparing people to be strong, resilient individuals.

The growth of therapy and “doing the work” to seek personal redress and reassurance is not the sign of a healthy society coming to terms with its repressed feelings. It is a symptom of detachment from place, space and close relationships. Granted, thinking there are or should be permanent answers to such questions is also misguided. When societies don’t grant their citizens sufficient space to philosophically experiment, they stagnate. We do need enduring and substantive answers, though.

The search for them is a dangerous adventure. It can veer into very unpleasant territory. As much as the intensity of differing opinions in modern culture should not be underestimated or ignored, in comparison to past times our cancellation for offence seems a small price to pay. Jonathan Israel’s majestic Revolutionary Ideas guides the reader through the French revolution, where people were living philosophy as an act of existence itself. Riots in the streets of Paris were not an uncommon appearance, animated by radical politics.

The French revolution did not reflect the bishop’s wise words

Philosophy became a field not of inquiry and connection, but of absolutism and intolerance. Lamourette, the Bishop of Lyon, interceded in factional strife to deliver a speech demanding reconciliation and proclaiming no conflict unresolvable except between the malicious and well-intentioned. The revolution did not reflect the bishop’s wise words. Instead, its end was the ultimate betrayal of the principles that began it in the first place. It became a victim of the personalised, bastardised, anti-philosophical egotistical minority that swept through Paris, liquidating scores of citizens and revolutionaries in the name of “the people”.

Today, at least in much of Western Europe, we may tell ourselves that the “basics” have been settled amongst the citizenry. The guillotine, the rope and burning torches have been retired. Nonetheless, in few places are people less grounded, less secure and less satisfied with who, what and where they are. We may live in an “end of history” as Fukuyama predicted, but this did not empty us of fundamental philosophical questions relating to how we view ourselves. If anything, it helped put them into overdrive. The stakes for the questions of personalised philosophical identity are high. Baked into this claim is the belief that what you do on such a small level matters almost metaphysically as it relates to the self — thus allowing for ugly actions in response to disagreement. The tired phrase “the personal is political” can be inverted to register as “the political is personal”.

The importance of questions about who we are, and how we should behave, has been amplified even as our ability to answer them has been diminished. Separated from one another, and from our cultural and intellectual history, we simply do not have the stuff of personal and collective meaning. No wonder we’re so angry — like an animal whose hunger is increasing as his food becomes more scarce. Philosophy can provide assistance, but it can also be dangerous. It must be grounded in human connections so as not to be appropriated and misused.

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