Spare a thought for Jim. Who’s Jim, you ask? Jim is a man with dreams, dreams which we of all people should be able to relate to. After losing his job in the public sector, Jim now has to decide what to do with his future. As a student he took his degree in Philosophy and English, and has since then continued to pursue philosophy in his spare time. Now he has the opportunity to make philosophy his career, by going back to university and with time, effort and money, one day become a philosopher by trade. But, Jim worries, is chasing after his dream worth it in this most cynically materialistic of ages? Is combining the best of both worlds – the fabled “job satisfaction” – really tenable for Jim? With the help of the Guardian, Jim called upon the nation for advice about his dilemma – who in turn seem to have encouraged him to follow his heart.
Of the many elements of Jim’s quandary, one is this: How does philosophy – perhaps the arts and humanities in general – find a place in a world that values production and material things? Where the engine room is economic and technological, is the contemplative life a self-indulgent, even foolish, pursuit of old? University cuts in humanities and the arts have prompted defences from public intellectuals, such as Alain de Botton and Martha Nussbaum, hoping to situate the tired and flagging Philosophy back into a position of cultural and public value. The problem they face is that it’s hard to see how philosophy can pay its way in society, what use it can serve, and this is not a wholly unfair point to make. The scientific research coming out of universities is palpably changing the face of modern medicine and technology, and even in the arts (who have also been forced to justify themselves) the public can see something they stand to gain in the galleries and theatres and, if needs must, the huge revenue art institutions bring in. What possible way does philosophy contribute?
There are two general ways to go here; 1.) show that Philosophy does in fact have material benefits, or 2.) show that not all worthwhile benefits are material, and that this other kind of benefit is the one which Philosophy comes under. The second line is Nussbaum’s, as Julian Baggini explains in his review linked above:
Nussbaum’s argument is a simple one. The good life is a full life, one which is engaged with more than just generating profit and achieving practical goals.
And de Botton, quoting Mill, says:
The object of universities is not to make skillful lawyers, physicians or engineers. It is to make capable and cultivated human beings.
This seems sensible. A hard job lies ahead of anyone who sets him or herself the task of convincing the world that philosophy is a highly lucrative pursuit. Instead it is rewarding in a different, perhaps higher way; giving us the wisdom of the good life, enlightening us into sophisticated, thoughtful human beings.
But is even this enough? So far we have argued only for the benefits that the student of philosophy can expect to gain – this is all well and good, and perhaps enough to persuade Jim to return to schooling, but the outstretched arms of society still loom. What is Philosophy to give? That is, in lieu of the universal material benefits that the sciences can boast, how are Philosophy’s non-material benefits – spiritual, edifying, enriching, we might call them – distributed and enjoyed beyond its immediate practitioners, the philosophers and philosophy students?
If it is true that only those who commit themselves to the practice of philosophy can benefit from it, is the next step (the only step?) for Philosophy in paying its debt to society to finally help the public to make philosophers of themselves?
Volume 3, Issue 1, January 2008
Volume 4, Issue 5, September 2009