The following opinion piece is one of a series of five being released this week and next to celebrate World Philosophy Day and to publicise the upcoming workshop entitled Editor’s Cut – A view of philosophical research from journal editors. the workshop will take place at the University of London on Friday 13th of January 2012.
The story goes that when the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai was asked in the early 1970s about the effects of the French Revolution, he replied with sage-like wisdom that it is ‘Too early to tell’. Likewise, in being asked ‘what currents in contemporary philosophy will shape the future of the discipline?’, it is tempting to hide behind Zhou Enlai’s caution, and respond similarly. Moreover, even if one feels he was being unduly pessimistic about the question when applied to the French Revolution, he may still seem wise if instead he thought he was being asked about the student revolts of 1968 a mere three years before – as is now claimed. Futurology is a notoriously dangerous pursuit, likely to make its proponents look foolish.
Nonetheless, it perhaps seems likely that certain trends and issues in recent philosophy will remain significant. One is that the wall of incomprehension between ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ philosophy will continue to be eroded. Of course, the intellectual traditions of the two camps remain distinct, and those educated in the one will require effort to become familiar with the other; but younger philosophers (in particular) on both sides seem to be increasingly convinced that this is an effort that is well worth making, so that (for example) it no longer sounds like an oxymoron to speak of ‘analytic Hegelianism’ or ‘analytic Nietzscheanism’. A second (and related) trend is the interest in the history of philosophy. This, I take it, is no mere antiquarianism, but part of a desire to both understand the roots of our current thinking, and at the same time to see what others roads we might have travelled, and to explore these as options instead – where, for example, the revival of interest in virtue ethics may be seen as an important fruit of this approach, which relied a good deal on recovering a different outlook that had seemingly been forgotten. And of course there is a clear connection between these two points, where a focus on the history of philosophy has always been a feature of ‘continental’ philosophy, which is partly what has led some analytic philosophers to take it seriously. Thirdly, the increasingly inter-disciplinary nature of philosophical research will doubtless remain important, where (as ever) philosophy remains open to developments in science, social science, religious thought, the arts, ethical and political practice, and beyond.
Such trends suggest that philosophy as a discipline has become increasingly open-ended and porous, with fewer clear disciplinary divisions and camps. To some, this may suggest a weakness in the subject, with no dominant research programme to guide all others, which would give us clear dividing lines between what is ‘in’ and what is ‘out’. For myself, I take this situation to be healthy, as the rejection of such pluralism has invariably been artificially constraining and limiting – though admittedly the current picture may seem more confusing than when some sort of ‘-ism’ or part of the subject clearly ruled the field.
Finally, coming back to Zhou Enlai: it will surely be the case that if this openness continues, along with the growing political and intellectual self-confidence of countries such as China, that ‘western’ philosophy will find itself in growing contact with approaches beyond its usual geographical boarders: but as to where this encounter will take us, here we should surely take the Chinese premier’s advice to heart, and recognize that we cannot yet tell.