Global population continues to increase, even as the environment is increasingly trashed by climate change, genetically modified food, fracking and other problems. The entire world appears to be caught up in a global arms race, and corruption is rampant in virtually every major institution in the U.S.

How would you account for this in philosophical terms? Below are some possibilities that give you a better idea of what I'm asking.

  1. Things are going to Hell because philosophy has made insufficient progress, or it isn't making progress fast enough.

  2. The problem is that there's too much disagreement between philosophers or philosophical disciplines, which only creates confusion.

  3. Things are going downhill simply because too few people are knowledgeable about philosophy; in other words, the lessons of philosophy are largely ignored.

  4. Philosophy really isn't part of the equation. Philosophy's essential goal is to interpret or explain the world. Using that knowledge to effect change is the province of something else (e.g. political activism).

  • I question the premise that things are going to hell. – John Wu Aug 2 '17 at 3:43
  • @JohnWu Your first link only goes back to the 1800's, deliberately picking one of the worst periods in history for living conditions, your second link erroneously presumes that average life expectancy is a reasonable measure of the experience of the population, ignoring the huge disparity, and your third link uses a heavily criticised index which focusses primarily on income and is almost certainly not sustainable (see the chart on the same page). All your sources presume that life expectancy and income are measures of well-being, where suicide rates clearly demonstrate that they are not. – Isaacson Aug 2 '17 at 8:52
  • @Isaacson Not trying to prove life is heaven; merely trying to cast doubt that it is hell in all respects. OP could improve his post with a citation. – John Wu Aug 2 '17 at 9:37
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    @John Wu -- Overpopulation, climate change, GMO, rampant socio-political corruption...in some respects, this is the lowest point in history, partly because we've never been closer to exterminating ourselves. – David Blomstrom Aug 2 '17 at 12:27
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    see philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/29886/… – user18079 Aug 2 '17 at 13:22

You appear to be implying that these effects are due to a philosophical failing. I would conjecture the exact opposite. They are, to a great extent, due to the overwhelming success, for the last 30 years or so, of the political philosophy of global capitalism. Note, I mean success in the sense of beating the competition rather than in some measure of absolute improvement.

This philosophical success has led to significant prosperity in certain areas but has come at a cost. Clearly you aren't alone in thinking that this cost is too high.

It's also worth pointing out that this philosophy is by no means universal. It does appear, for example, that the Scandinavian socialist model is reasonably stable in the long term. Many would argue that it has better overall outcomes than the US form of capitalism.

I'd also argue that the state of the world does have something to say about academic philosophy. Unfortunately, it appears to me to say that it's mostly impotent. As a layman with an interest in philosophy, most public interaction I see tends to be on such subjects as the philosophy of consciousness, religion or quantum physics. Fascinating to be sure but of negligible impact on the world at large.

Where I think philosophy does have contemporary impact is in medical ethics. What would be great is if we could take the approach there e.g. ethics departments and ethics committees, and apply those to business or government, say. Then maybe philosophy would have more potency.

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  • Wow, intriguing answer. I think of philosophy as a "good" thing, but I guess philosophical doctrines can be all over the map. I also think of philosophy as something that must ordinarily be studied, while capitalism is primarily the product of mind control (I think). Lots to think about. – David Blomstrom Aug 3 '17 at 0:45
  • @David capitalism is very heavily studied. It's just so pervasive that it has its own disciplines e.g. academic Finance. Also, it's worth remembering some of the historical context; capitalism was seen as a force for good during the Cold War, for example. As I see it, there is a big problem with the emotional baggage attached to naming e.g. capitalism, socialism, fascism. It may make more sense to look at capabilities or outcomes. Unfortunately, philosophy is very big on -isming stuff so I don't hold out much hope. – Alex Aug 3 '17 at 10:05

This is inevitably going to involve my personal opinion - but ultimately my feeling is that the philosophical project has sort of crushed itself. The great philosophical successes of the Renaissance and Enlightenment led to the formalization of the scientific process. In turn, this led to rapid development in engineering and technology.

However, now we stand at a point where the amount of data collected and the inherent complexities of fields that have been developed over centuries are very obviously beyond the capacity of a single person to understand. I think that there was a hope that there would be simplistic answers at the heart of philosophy, answers which could easily be explained to others and which would lead to some ideal state for humanity. Religious structures often provide models of the universe that rest on (relatively) easily understood principles, and those religions which were excessively esoteric had faithful adherents, but often died out.

Unfortunately, it seems that no simple answers are in sight. The complexity of our understanding of the world seems to increase rapidly with no signs of slowing, and one an easily spend a lifetime becoming an expert in a once valued field that is suddenly irrelevant.

I see little that philosophy can do about this situation - a rational strategy for a person to improve the world around them is to learn as much as they can about the world, and then use whatever knowledge is obtained to rectify some problem or invent some new solution. Yet if one is to be a true authority on any subject, they must dedicate a significant portion of their life to it - and even then, they will still have a limited understanding of their chosen field of study, and at best a cursory understanding of the world outside of that field.

So say that the people as a whole see finance as a field that must be regulated, yet the world of finance has exploded in complexity since the invention of the computer. One must study the subject for years in order to even comprehend what is going on, and every day it continues to expand (I've heard algorithms now make trades in nanoseconds - a human mind can barely comprehend such a thing). How then can an individual (or even groups of individuals) have a strong enough understanding of finance to regulate it, as well as enough skills to craft legislation that will alleviate the situation and not create even worse problems? How can such a person make a case to voters when the subject is so dull and convoluted? Why would one pursue such a path when it is looked down upon by many and significant material rewards are within reach with this knowledge?

Thus one of the most essential philosophical questions: how should we act in the world in order to improve it? is becoming more and more difficult to answer, as a natural outgrowth of the success of philosophy and science.

Ultimately, I think a good reaction to these difficulties is to think more locally - find a way to make a difference in the here and now and worry less about the disasters that are beyond our control. If you see that you are helping to manifest a positive environment around you in whatever capacity, and others around you agree, then it may be time to begin working on larger ranging issues.

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  • Wow, we're on the same wavelength. As a long-time political activist, I've pretty much reached the conclusion you expressed in the two paragraphs beginning with "Unfortunately, it seems..." For me, the challenge is to find some way to cut through all the confusion and excess knowledge. It can begin with something as simple as organization and prioritization, though it could also involve searching for "universal principles" that might help us better deal with the chaos. As Chief Sealth said, "All things are connected." – David Blomstrom Aug 2 '17 at 1:48

My approach to answering this question would be a mixed one: philosophers have not necessarily done their part to engage directly in questions of global injustice, but this does not necessarily equate with their being responsible for global injustice - rather, they may be part of the solution, since they are ordinarily engaged in defining concepts, and this may be a necessary stage in engaging directly in the problem of global injustice. I would "locate" the source of philosophers' general failure to engage directly in questions of global injustice, in their failure to implicate themselves in (ideational and material) systems which are central in perpetuating global justice ... it is perhaps one of the most difficult things, to figuratively "see" those (ideational and material) systems in which we are ourselves embedded, but I would say that unless we practise doing this, then we will never be ready, as philosophers, to help define those concepts which will enable us, collectively, to find a way through the debate about global injustice, which I think impacts everyone

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    In that respect, philosophers are similar to scientists, who are conspicuously missing in action these days. Of course, part of the problem is that the media simply snub people who do speak out. – David Blomstrom Aug 3 '17 at 0:43

I would completely endorse the first two possibilities you list, the third partly, and the fourth not at all.

Western academic philosophy is a hopeless mess and as you suggest the consequences for society are catastrophic. The rise of philosophobia (Dawkins, Tyson et al) is a clear sign that this form of philosophy is dead on its feet. The problem is simple, It is that stereotypically Western philosophers take no notice of their own results. They discover that all positive metaphysical positions are absurd and thus that all questions about the world as a whole are undecidable but do not discard them. The result is stagnation and endless unnecessary footnotes to Plato.

But things seem to be changing. Now that departments are closing and jobs are being lost there is a real incentive to do philosophy better and make some progress. Then maybe the profession might choose to catch up with the Perennial philosophy rather than devoting another twenty centuries to trying to prove it false.

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  • It seems that the university has become interested only in the "cash value" of a degree, which seems to push the hapless student into narrow, technical fields of study. The problem with these degrees is that a graduate can find himself quickly outdated by the rapid advance of undirected technical progress. The fact that philosophy "fails" in this atmosphere may be a good thing. Philosophers will have to go back to teaching out in the woods, or in the city parks. Naturally there will be some police harassment which will give a realistic flavor to the enterprise. – Gordon Aug 2 '17 at 14:17
  • And it goes without saying that the modern university administrator (who is closely aligned with the modern business executive) will consider the Perennial philosophy to be insufficiently money oriented (maybe) and they will be the first philosophers sent back out into the woods! – Gordon Aug 2 '17 at 14:47
  • @Gordon - Yes, that falls in line with point #3 in my question. As a former teacher, I'm horrified at both the low quality of education and the mainstreaming process. At the same time, people are increasingly urban dwellers, which deprives them of knowledge of the environment, which I think is ultimately the foundation of everything. The ultimate iron is that Seattle (where I live) is renowned for its intelligent, progressive citizens, but on closer inspection they're just empty skulls (in my opinion). – David Blomstrom Aug 3 '17 at 0:42
  • @Gordon - Oddly, I think that if the department started teaching the perennial form of philosophy its financial situation and prestige would improve. It seems a serious business and research opportunity. But I probably agree about philosophy being best taught in the woods - outside the walls of the Academy anyway. Agree also with David about our separation from Nature. – user20253 Aug 3 '17 at 10:52

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