When the world is going to shit, it’s a great time for philosophy. As Brian Van Norden said, “philosophy is dialogue about important unsolvedproblems,” and gods know we’ve got plenty of those. Today’s dung heap of history is, to philosophers, a treasure trove.
Forget the answers, we don’t even know the questions anymore. And that’s precisely what philosophy is for. To expand Van Norden:
Today we can all feel the need for philosophy because—unlike unsolved problems in astronomy or chemistry—unsolved problems in philosophy fuck up your life. What do we owe each other during a pandemic? What is democracy? Where does life begin? These are not abstract problems to us. They are very immediate and real, and painfully unresolved.
Today I think we all get the sense that our global society is messed up on a very deep, philosophical level. Beneath the wallpaper of economics and politics, the very plumbing of philosophy is bursting through the walls and literally flooding the world. None of us thinks about plumbing much until the toilet explodes, and that’s precisely where we are now, as a globe.
People of course take very different approaches to reality breaking down. Some people take refuge in QAnon and conspiracy theories. They’re right about conspiracies, but just have the wrong ones. Some people try to go back to western liberalism, taking refuge in platitudes about ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ that have become, as Hannah Arendt said, ‘pious banalities’. Some people go back to god, or gardening, or whatever gets them through. Some numb the pain with drugs, dying slow deaths of despair.
The truth is that in front of every WhatsApp forward and TV demagogue is someone yearning for meaning. Someone desperate to know why everything is going to shit and how to get out of here. It is this great desperation that is the most fertile ground for philosophy. Sadly, however, it’s a bitter harvest. The fruits of philosophy can only be harvested by history, sometimes only centuries later. A historical age of sages is—for the people living through it—an agony of fools.
You can get this feeling when you read philosophy. These people didn’t speak or write for lols, they felt like they had to. Confucius didn’t want to teach how the world should be ordered, he wanted to live in an orderly world. As the sage said, “Would that I did not have to speak!”
As Van Norden said, “Plato explained that he was motivated to pursue philosophy because he was horrified by the corruption and vice that he saw in the government of Athens, regardless of whether those in power happened to represent the aristocratic or democratic faction.”
The Buddha, also, was not meditating to boost his workplace productivity. He was so traumatized by the sight of human suffering—sickness, old age, and death—that he was willing to leave his wife and baby boy to find a way out.
None of these people wanted to figure out how to live. They wanted to live. If they had lived in less traumatic eras, we likely would not have had those sages at all. Kongzi would have been a happy minister to a wise king, Plato would have been a proud wrestler, Siddhartha would have ruled peacefully.
It’s because life was shit that these great lotuses of philosophy could grow. That’s why it’s a great time for philosophy right now. To paraphrase Charles Dickens, ‘it was the best of times [for philosophers], it was the worst of times [for everybody else].’ Life is shit, so the philosophy should be good.