Is Philosophy the main victim of the latest paradigm of our time, namely, the systematic undermining and denigration of the concept of truth, so central to any philosophical project? This widespread eroding of critical rational thinking is threatening the very nature of philosophy as well as its existing role in our liberal democracies. Philosophy seems to be under siege from many quarters, all eager to proclaim the demise of a so-called intellectual ‘élite’, portrayed as the dangerous guardians of obsolete values. Philosophical analysis is perceived by its fiercest critics as nothing but a fruitless, pedantic exercise. Is Philosophy seriously running the risk of slowly vanishing under the pressure of an invasive visual analog culture, requiring a minimum of intellectual effort or discerning ability.
Two recent articles address the real dangers facing the subject and its practitioners. The first one appeared in the June 2018 issue of The Atlantic’ and was written by the 95 year-old former American Secretary of State and national security adviser, Henry Kissinger. In ‘How the Enlightenment Ends’, the elder statesman turns into an unexpected whistle blower pointing out the threat to humanity posed by a technological revolution superseding the Age of Reason with its creation of a ‘brave new world’ ‘relying on machines powered by data and algorithms and ungoverned by ethical and philosophical norms’.
Kissinger has in mind the unstoppable progress of Artificial Intelligence and its inevitable manipulation of ever expanding data creating a nightmarish scenario where ‘human cognition loses its personal character. Individuals turn into data, and data become regnant.’ In such a desensitised ocean of raw data, ‘truth becomes relative. Information threatens to overwhelm wisdom.’ He further deplores the fact that, unlike the Enlightenment, whose philosophical insights into the power of Reason were ‘spread by the invention of the printing press’ and shall we add, the rise of a cultured and politically aware ‘bourgeoisie’, ‘our period has generated a potentially dominating technology in search of a guiding philosophy.’
Sharing the same concern as Henry Kissinger about the future of philosophy, Daniel Kaufman develops an engaging argument in the February / March 2019 issue of Philosophy Now. He first laments the overspecialisation of philosophical enquiry which has become the sole preserve of ivory tower academics and reduced philosophy to a closed conversation only reserved to professional insiders. The proliferation of ‘dozens of sub-disciplines’ has also proved a contributing factor to the deliberate abstruseness cultivated by some philosophical pundits. Unlike science which proceeds by leaps and bounds while shedding irrelevant and erroneous theories along the way, philosophy, from Socratic times, has been open to the criticism that ‘philosophical disagreements are by nature ultimately unresolvable’.
In order to break from its stultifying and unproductive academic environment, philosophy must turn towards the creative form and by doing so, offer new ways of apprehending the complexity of the world. Literary works like Clockwork Orange, The Trial or 1984 are, for Kaufman, prime examples of ‘gripping philosophically-significant fiction.’ Abandoning its scientific pretensions may well save philosophy from a general indifference and terminal decline. Philosophers must be prepared to ‘re-engage with the public conversation’ and ‘play the role of public provocateurs and critics, creators and commentators, speculators and synthesisers.’ Where are the contemporary heirs of Voltaire, Nietzsche and Camus?