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The Problem of Philosophic Communication

Philosophy being so well spread about today—within reasonable limits, of course—it can be argued that no problem arises in respect to philosophic communication. The world, we said, is or is becoming "one world"; education, including philosophic education, is strongly recommended on all sides; technological progress makes for increasing production and wider distribution of books, philosophic books included. Can it then be seriously maintained that in a world where philosophy enjoys such privileges, philosophy remains at bottom uninfluential? Are not the complaints of philosophers about their intellectual isolation another manifestation of their incurable snobbishness?

I do not believe myself that philosophers ought to complain. But if they want to complain, they have sufficient reason to do so, for despite the number of philosophic chairs still being supported—and perhaps still being increased—and despite the number of philosophic books still going to the presses, the presence of philosophy in the contemporary world is barely perceptible. And, since in such a world, philosophy, and for that matter, any creative intellectual activity, cannot content itself, as it could in the past, with being a minority affair, even if it is, and in all likelihood will always be, produced only by minorities, the need to find a way out of this situation is one of the philosopher's constant worries. Philosophers have come to understand that if they want to escape the fate awaiting today all those who pretend to ignore the fact that the world is as it is, philosophic knowledge must be imparted to large groups of people not only as a body of academic information but also as a subject encompassing fundamental human attitudes. This does not necessarily mean to make philosophy, as it were, "popular." To manufacture books entitled "Philosophy for the Millions" is one thing; to think philosophically in terms that can have an impact on both the sophisticated minorities and the philosophically unenlightened majorities is another. To make philosophy a live issue for the present time, the philosopher must therefore avoid two very common risks: the risk of debasing philosophy by trying to talk down to the public; and that of stifling philosophy by keeping it confined in an ivory tower. The first risk is so conspicuous that many tend to believe that it is the only one that counts. But the second risk is so treacherous that few have thought of dodging it. Speaking of art, and specifically of the art of the novel, Dwight Macdonald, has written that "our taste may have been corrupted not only by mass culture but also by its opposite." It is my opinion that this sound warning could apply equally to philosophy.

I do not wish to imply that all philosophers should write in a popular vein, and still less that they ought to write always gracefully. I only want to say that they should write in such a way as to be "translatable" into various other levels of understanding. Furthermore, a number of philosophers (including some of the greatest) have, as Brand Blanshard has said, "actually succeeded in making [philosophy] intelligible and even exciting not only to the exceptionally gifted alone, but to a wide public. Socrates talked it, and Plato wrote it, in a way that some millions of readers have not been willing to forget." And Berkeley, for instance, who was both profound and graceful, could speak "'with the vulgar' without ceasing to think with the learned."

It will be seen that, as far as communication to the public is concerned, I am thinking of philosophy for the present time as we may think of artistic achievements for all times, namely, as something capable of being understood at very different levels. As it happens with many works of art, it would be desirable if philosophic thought were elaborated in such a way that many different kinds of people could participate in it, each one in his own way and according to his own capacities. The treasures of philosophy need not be shared and shared alike; rather they should be shared and shared differently. Philosophy must not keep aloof from the public, but it must not stoop to doing whatever the public wants it to do.

Philosophy—and, for that matter, knowledge—must be sought for its own sake. It must not be put at the service of extraneous interests. It must not be pursued only because it is deemed to be "useful." Therefore, philosophers should not boggle at difficulties. They should never attempt to shun rigor, no matter how "unpopular" their writings may become as a consequence. But they ought not to renounce the possibility of communicating to the noninitiates the nature of the problems with which they come to grips. They ought to do once in a while what an increasing number of scientists are doing, and quite successfully, in respect to their own work and their own theories—which are quite as difficult to grasp as philosophic theories and methods are.

There is little doubt that the common man of our time is not entirely beyond reproach for his lack of interest in philosophy; he has grown too much into the habit of thinking that he can dispense with thinking. For the lack of philosophic communication, however, I prefer to blame philosophers; after all, the so called "common man" is much too busy with his own affairs to have any urge, and even any time, to grapple with problems that seem to him somewhat remote. Philosophers, on the other hand, have no excuses; it is their business not only to think but also to find the best possible ways to make their thinking communicable. Now, it seems to me that they often fail in this respect because they move along one of the two following blind alleys: either they pay exclusive attention to questions of philosophic procedure and make philosophy esoteric, or they pay their respects only to the most general questions and hence often turn philosophy into something nonphilosophical. Or to put it otherwise: when philosophers get seriously into philosophic business, they tend to deal with unimportant issues, whereas when they deal with important issues they tend to become little philosophical. As a consequence, philosophy has become in some quarters a highly sophisticated exercise feeding upon itself, and in some other quarters a series of slogans for ideological warfare.

Philosophers of quite different temperaments and convictions are now beginning to realize that philosophy is not exclusively an intellectual exercise, nor is it only a vague concern with "vital problems." Gilbert Ryle, for example, does not refuse to discuss problems—or, as he prefers to say, riddles—that may offer the opportunity of sharpening the philosopher's mind. But he also likes "to discuss issues which are more than riddles, issues, namely, which interest us because they worry us; not mere intellectual exercises, but live intellectual troubles." On the other hand, Walter Kaufmann complains that both existentialists and analysts philosophize in such a manner that any intelligent layman is likely to lose sight of what is at stake.

   The existentialists [Kaufmann writes] have tried to bring philosophy down to earth again like Socrates; but the existentialist and the analytic philosopher are each one only half Socrates. The existentialist has taken up the passionate concern with questions that arise from life, the moral pathos, and the firm belief that, to be serious, a philosophy has to be lived. The analytical philosophers, on the other hand, insist—as Socrates did, too—that no moral pathos, no tradition, and no views, however elevated, justify unanalyzed ideas, murky arguments, or a touch of confusion. . . . But if the feat of Socrates is really to be repeated and philosophy is to have a future outside the academies, there will have to be philosophers who think in the tension between analysis and existentialism.

To ascertain whether and how philosophy can play a role in present-day society is still not to determine what role philosophy should play. Should it provide a rationale for human conduct? Should it lay down a framework for straight, rigorous, uncompromising thinking in all intellectual human endeavors? Should it become an intellectual meeting-place even if it is at the same time a cultural battlefield? I suspect that all of these functions would be proper for philosophy, and that some of them are, moreover, highly desirable. I do not believe, however, that we ought now to compel philosophers to meet a new series of requirements; the ones I have emphasized in the previous chapters will serve for the purpose. If he is to be faithful to the society in which he lives, it will suffice for the philosopher to give heed to the ideal of philosophizing that I have already sketched. This ideal implies that philosophers must struggle to ferret out rational truths that are accessible, in varying degrees, to all men. The time philosophers spend on this task will prove to be not only philosophically but also socially productive, more productive, indeed, than the time some philosophers devote to indicting "civilizations in decay," or than the time some other philosophers waste in figuring out, for example, what happens when a distraction makes somebody forget his headache—whether, as it has been put, this makes his head stop aching or only stops him from feeling that it aches.

(Chapter 3: Philosophy & Society)