Once it was about a search for wisdom, not the RAE

Philosophy in the New Century
October 11, 2002

How should we live? As each generation faces its crises - personal, social and political - this question is often asked with new urgency. Philosophers might be expected to be able to offer advice.

But surveying the state of philosophy at the dawn of a new century, Anthony O'Hear judges that it has gone awry. Continental philosophy, when it is at all coherent, offers us moral and conceptual relativism, nihilism and extremist politics. On the other hand, the Anglo-American tradition is infatuated with science and a technical mode of philosophy, and has no place for those aspects of the human condition that cannot be given a scientific description. Whether because of jargon and gibberish, or too many logical symbols, the contemporary texts of both schools are unreadable by the uninitiated. Twentieth-century philosophy "from a human perspective has been uncomfortably close to sterility".

O'Hear is not the first philosopher to despair at his contemporaries and to look back to ancient Greece for inspiration. There, philosophy was about the important things in life - although, of course, nobody agreed about what they were. Then, as now, lots of people put their faith in having a good time whenever possible. But even when carousing, we may be struck by worrying questions. Should I be pursuing my own pleasure at all costs and, if not, how much regard should I be giving to the interests of others? A little experience might lead to the worrying realisation that even if all I care about is my own happiness, it might be easier to achieve if I minimise, or at least moderate, my desires and expectations.

For Socrates, to be a philosopher was to concentrate one's mind at all times on the search for wisdom. He considered natural history and science irrelevant to his quest. Plato's Phaedo tells of how Socrates became disillusioned with the proto-science of his day when he realised that naturalistic explanations tell us nothing of the reasons why things happen. Socrates is in prison and shortly to die, despite the fact that he has many times been given the means and encouragement to escape. He points out that an explanation of his predicament in terms of the motions of all the particles in his body would make no mention of the real reason for it, namely his conviction that to stay and receive his penalty was right. O'Hear charges us to remember that the life of a philosopher was once about the development of deep moral and spiritual integrity, and not about producing enough papers for the research assessment exercise.

Philosophy in the New Century includes chapters on, among other things, wisdom, the meaning of life, knowledge, science, aesthetics, religion and death. It is a good introduction to philosophical thinking about all these topics, and is a thought-provoking book. That is not to say that I agree with it. Whatever the woes of continental philosophy, I think analytic philosophy is in good shape: there is lots of interesting work that does bear on the great questions of philosophy, and I am sanguine about the degree of specialisation and technicality. That is a trend that has affected all disciplines and it is balanced by the proliferation of good accessible journals and books. As for scientism, even if it is dominant, there are certainly many articulate voices of dissent.

Neither, when it comes to politics, am I persuaded by O'Hear's conservative and Burkean philosophy. He is very critical of contemporary political theory, arguing that rights talk and utilitarianism both abstract from the concrete cultural and social circumstances of the moral dilemmas we face. In so doing, they ride roughshod over tradition and custom. O'Hear points out that if there had been a Childline in ancient Greece there would never have been Socrates and Plato. Social workers take note. Political philosophy also errs because it abstracts from nature, thinks O'Hear. He claims that philosophy can help arrive at reasoned answers to questions about social and political organisation by keeping in mind the "common experience of mankind", or what he later calls "timeless human nature". Insofar as there is such a thing, it is surely at least as good a foundation for the notion of human rights as for a custom like monogamous marriage.

Finally, while I do not have the space to assess O'Hear's views on aesthetics, I recommend this book to those who have habitually listened to popular music and consequently find themselves with the urge to indulge in drug-taking and fornication.

James Ladyman is senior lecturer in philosophy, University of Bristol.

Philosophy in the New Century

Author - Anthony O'Hear
ISBN - 0 8264 5154 3
Publisher - Continuum
Price - £16.99
Pages - 164

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