What is American “philosophy” nowadays? Does our culture end at commercialism, video games, Netflix and the NFL? In a recent article – “What Happened to Philosophy in America?” – Michael Sutherland seems to think so. He claims philosophical thinking is in short supply in the land of the free (land of the distracted is more like it).
Compared to countries like the U.K. where Alain de Botton’s The School of Life has done pretty well, Italy where philosophers hold public office, and France and Germany where public intellectuals are regular fixtures on TV (Richard David Precht, Bernard-Henri Lévy and Luc Ferry come to mind), the U.S. appears downright unphilosophical or even anti-wisdom.
Yet this wasn’t always the case. Take, for example, the Founding Fathers of the late 18th century who were steeped in Enlightenment rationalist thought; or 19th-century Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau who adhered to a philosophical ethos of self-reliance; or the Pragmatists of the late 19th century and John Dewey in the 20th who upheld the practical application of ideas.
Against the skyline of these towering American intellects of yore, who stands tall today?
Curiously, if you google “philosophy” under “news” frequently you’ll find the term used in discussions about sports. Here is a headline that appeared in my search not long ago: “Seahawks two-minute drill philosophy costs them in Chargers loss.” The love of wisdom, so it seems, has been “culturally appropriated” by NFL die-hards.
Sutherland argues that four elements have conspired to end the era of philosophical thinking in America: one) a growing consumerist culture that is more interested in pop culture “than the finer meanings of life”; two) nihilistic attitudes among the youth; three) an anti-ethical strain of Utilitarianism; and four) our squabbling political life.
Against the skyline of these towering American intellects of yore, who stands tall today?
Let’s examine each point individually.
First, a growing consumerist culture along with the inexorable march of technology have rendered philosophy out of date, Sutherland claims. Though much of this can undoubtedly be pegged to the near death of long-form, concentrated reading in American culture (and granted, just about everywhere else).
Many Americans could be interested in reading Plato’s Republic, but that task has been made infinitely more difficult when we feel an itch to tweet or check Facebook every five minutes.
This cultural shift has spawned a view of philosophy as “increasingly out of touch with the average person. Instead of seeing it as the important subject behind life itself, many people just see philosophy as old men from centuries ago arguing about semantics and other pointless drivel,” Sutherland writes.
Second, when it comes to nihilism among the youth, he says such attitudes have arisen “not because of teenage apathy.” Instead, meaninglessness is the “default replacement for philosophy and discussion when society is lacking both.”
There are very few philosophical outlets for the youth, this is true, but even if there were, one wonders if teens would engage when their attention spans are being pulled in multiple directions – texting, social media and video games. They may be embracing nihilism and atheism as social life migrates more and more to the screen.
Third, on Utilitarianism, Sutherland argues that scientists and economists are fond of treating people as numbers. They seek the “most good for the highest number of people,” but don’t have a “clue of what that ‘good’ is.”
That seems right. In ancient times, philosophers saw “The Good Life” largely as an intellectual pursuit with a bodily footnote (“Mens sana in corpore sano” – Latin for “A healthy mind in a healthy body”). Socrates advocated physical exercise, but was much more concerned about sharpening the mind or pursuing “the examined life” via constant dialogue and self-doubt.
“Mens sana in corpore sano” – Latin for “A healthy mind in a healthy body”
Nowadays the “good life” floats around all kinds of fuzzy notions about the body and diet: “holistic living,” “the body is a temple” and “superfoods,” to name a few. “Wellness” gurus and their marketers forget what the ancients knew well – that the body also needs a healthy mind. In other words, we could use a lot more mens sana.
And here it is worth quoting Sutherland at length:
With the absence of philosophy, the intellectual focus has shifted from the complexities of life to the squabbling of politics. This originally wasn’t as huge of a problem, as politics used to have at least a little bit more philosophy and principle. But as philosophy left modern interest, principles, debate, and disagreement slowly faded until the only thing left was the polarized and unintelligent slap matches of modern politics.
Fo sho. Amen. Anyone who says “political polarization” or anything related – “populism,” “identity politics,” “party loyalty,” “blind rage” and “fear mongering” – is basically uttering a cliché. We are so far down the rabbit hole of politics that such characterizations are beginning to feel as natural as the sun.
It all reminds me of a New York Times article I encountered early this year titled “The Man Who Knew Too Little.” I highly recommend it.
It is about a gentleman from Ohio (Erik Hagerman) who was deeply upset about the election of Donald Trump. So, he embarked on an experiment: He “decided he’d take a break from reading about the hoopla of politics.”
The trial was to last only a few days, but then Hagerman extended it. “He is now more than a year into knowing almost nothing about American politics” and has managed to become “shockingly uninformed during one of the most eventful chapters in modern American history.”
Taking up residence on a pig farm in rural Ohio after working for years in Brooklyn, San Francisco “tech bubbles” and Portland, he spends his days often in solitude, observing the weather, being bored (which he doesn’t mind), working on art sculptures and exploring nature. Sometimes he visits his mother who lives nearby and relaxes his rules to talk about the Cavs.
He also frequents a local café to sketch, using white-noise tapes to drown out “stray conversation.”
To enforce his political-free regiment, he “trained” friends not to “bring news from the outside world,” scolding them if they stray into current events. His ban on social media also helps block out unwanted prattle.
Long story short: Hagerman’s unique undertaking reminds us how awash in politics America is – from his neighbor who “decorated his lawn with an effigy of Hillary Clinton behind bars” to friends who desperately want to turn him back into a political junkie.
In the end, as his sister remarks, he “has the privilege of constructing a world in which very little of what he doesn’t have to deal with gets through.” Hagerman has managed to forge a lifestyle of his own choosing instead of getting passively caught up in the swirling, chaotic tangle of politics (as well as of social media chatter).
An exemplary story, indeed.
[H]e has the privilege of constructing a world in which very little of what he doesn’t have to deal with gets through.
Back to Sutherland. He sees a glimmer of hope in people like Jordan Peterson and other YouTube personalities who have created large followings.
Young people, he writes, “crave intellectual discussion to fill the gap of philosophy” and “people are beginning to desire academic discussion again. New and unique ideas are becoming popular again: philosophy must return to fulfill these wishes.”
Though Peterson is a member of the academy, his YouTube lectures focus on real-life dilemmas, earning him wide public admiration. His approach is certainly not the usual death-by-boredom academic one that is specialized beyond repair.
The same is true of online luminaries like Joe Rogan and Sam Harris, who, like Peterson, try to understand and grapple with ideas no matter their origin, whether they come from the right, center, left, or from a man or a woman. People are instantly drawn to these discussions that favor ideas over ideological concerns like identity.
Yet it is interesting (and disheartening) to see how Peterson has gotten slammed by numerous interviewers for allegedly representing the so-called “alt-right.” They often try to put his international bestseller, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, through the political wringer even though the book is essentially a high-brow self-help manual with an emphasis on individual striving towards a more meaningful life (it also contains a good dollop of philosophy by the way, especially Nietzsche).
The point is that many in our current culture can only see Peterson as a political actor, even though the thrust of his life’s work is quite different.
I suppose it depends on how you define “political” and how pervasive you see it. Those who want to file everything under this convenient rubric, it seems to me, just want easy explanations for complex phenomena.
It all adds urgency to the moment: Americans, if it is wisdom you desire, you must first and foremost detox from politics!
Americans, if it is wisdom you desire, you must first and foremost detox from politics!