Can philosophy matter?

In the last century, it seemed philosophy might disappear from public consciousness. Much of philosophy had become so technical and so removed from the problems of daily life that most people who were not professional philosophers could not even name a living and working philosophers. Philosophers hardly have the recognition of other public figures even now, but they are addressing concerns that are public–medical ethics, corporate ethics, how to live a good life, and so on.

In Stephen Toulmin’s book, Cosmopolis, he describes various aspects of modernism, and concludes that it is no accident that philosophers are beginning to take seriously concerns that Descartes thought had no depth. After centuries of theoretical and technical exploration, philosophers are returning to discussions of how to live and how to make life better for others. Toulmin says it is no accident that “more and more philosophers are now being drawn into debates about environmental policy or medical ethics, judicial practice or nuclear politics.”[1] He says some philosophers may fear being drawn away from the technical questions of academic philosophy, but he argues, “These practical debates are, by now, not ‘applied’ philosophy but philosophy itself.”[2] The problems facing the world now are not new. Wars, pollution, and poverty have been with us for centuries. But these same problems are acute, chronic, and critical. It is easy to despair at our lack of progress, but Martha Nussbaum reminds us that progress has been made. In Frontiers of Justice, she says, “Racial hatred and disgust, and even misogynistic hatred and disgust, have certainly diminished in our public culture, through attention to the upbringing of children and their early education. The careful attention to language and imagery that some pejoratively call ‘political correctness’ has an important public purpose, enabling children to see one another as individuals and not as members of stigmatized groups.”[3] As humanists, we cannot solve the world’s problems, but we can choose to contribute to moral progress and promote a common understanding and care for one another, regardless of how many people join us along the way.

[1] <!–[if supportFields]> ADDIN ZOTERO_ITEM {"citationItems":[{"uri":[""]}]} <![endif]–>Stephen Edelston Toulmin, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity, University of Chicago Press ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 190.<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>

[2] Ibid.

[3] <!–[if supportFields]> ADDIN ZOTERO_ITEM {"citationItems":[{"uri":[""]}]} <![endif]–>Martha Craven Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 2006), 413.<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>

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