“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”
When Thoreau wrote this over 150 years ago, he was, in part, criticizing our lack of thoughtfulness prior to the development, much less the unfettered implementation of new technologies. This is not to say the telegraph wasn’t an important and very useful invention, nor is it a ramping up to a technophobic rant. It is more about seeing some value in thoughtfulness and all of its kin: deliberation, meditation, tarrying with a thing just one damn moment before jamming it roughly into whatever or wherever you think it’s supposed to go.
Anyway, the exception Thoreau took with the telegraph is readily adaptable to be relevant to much in our current cultural and political situation. In fact, it already often is, usually in meme and video-clip form and demanding more thoughtfulness and accountability, no matter too little or late, when it comes to whom we celebrate, what we consume, and how we spend our time. For example, Bill Nye, the television edutainer from the 1990s who was ushered back into the big tent of celebrity in the past few years for his sardonic and delightfully exasperated diatribes about how Intelligent Design is inappropriate for children or how climate-change deniers have a shamefully uninformed take on how Earth works, often begs his viewers to spend a little more time thinking about what they’re doing and what our ideas, especially when they are carelessly rendered, can do when they are put into practice.
Which makes it surprising Nye exhibits so little thoughtfulness when dismissing philosophy, a thing he’s done on the internet recently. I’m referring to a video posted to the YouTube channel Big Think (whose tagline is “Smarter Faster”), in which Nye responds to a philosophy major’s question about whether or not philosophy is a worthwhile pursuit.
To be fair, Nye makes some perfectly defensible points. He notes that a philosophy degree “might not lead you on a career path” and that humans “made up philosophy” just like we made up science to help describe and understand the world around us. That is, philosophy isn’t always easily or recognizably translated into marketable skills, and philosophy, like any chosen path to knowledge, is territory lousy with dogma and delusion.
I make no apology and mount no defense for philosophy. Philosophy can take care of itself and will be around at least as long as there are humans. I would, however, like to make a quick comment about Nye’s answer to that inquisitive college kid. Following that, I want to digress for a (lengthy) moment about tactics used by writers who have, in recent days, criticized Nye for being an “idiot.” Finally, I’ll discuss what I think is troubling about this lack of thoughtfulness underpinning the philosophy-bashing being done by Nye and others like him (Neil deGrasse Tyson comes to mind).
Full disclosure: the writer of this piece has a degree in philosophy. It is safe, therefore, for the reader to assume that this essay’s impetus is pathetic bitterness. Also, what follows likely passes over some of the positive things Nye and others might have said about philosophy on other occasions; this essay focuses on the comments that have been trending this and last week.
So, ok. Allow me to begin.
Bill Nye is more intelligent than I am. I write that not just in the interests of rhetorical humility but because when he says that philosophy “doesn’t always give an answer that’s surprising…doesn’t lead you to some place that’s inconsistent with common sense,” I take him at face value. I think it’s condescending of him to deploy a concept like “common sense,” but that doesn’t make it any less probable that he found shruggingly obvious texts that I found befuddling, revelatory, or both. But then, I’m not sure he and I have read a lot of the same books.
Not that I’m saying he should read the books I had to read in college (nor, given my own passions, do I feel that I should read Nye’s). I am also not saying that Nye was completely wrong or out of line in what he said about philosophy. Nye is an engineer and a physics teacher who was asked, as a respected member of (or at least recognizable figure in) his academic field, a question about an academic field outside of his expertise. Nye answered the question in his typical conversational style, seemingly without notes, and appeared to give his honest opinion on the matter. Given the context, it was a totally acceptable response to the question.
However, as someone familiar with the academic field out of which that poor college kid is probably now with all due haste hitching a ride, I took issue with the flippancy Nye treated a topic that, given the content of his answer, he appears to have little understanding of. Put differently, Nye’s answer struck me as uninformed and lacking in thoughtfulness. It’s a short clip, and maybe if Big Think’s tagline was something more like, “Smarter In a Reasonable Amount of Time (Further Reading or Study Not Included),” his answers would have been more nuanced or indicative Nye’d done a little answer prep. As they stand, he seems to reduce philosophy to the questioning as to whether or not “reality” is “real.” Such questioning Nye says, “might be important for awhile” but eventually you end up “arguing in a circle.” He concludes his assessment by stating, “When you go to seek an absolute truth, you’re a human seeking the truth…there’s gonna be limits…there’s also gonna be things beyond which it doesn’t matter.” (Somewhere, the hemorrhoids of Kant’s ghost suddenly flare up.)
Fine. Sure. I think this comes off as kind of trite and straw-man-y, like when your aunt says she hates Sons of Anarchy because motorcycles are dangerous or when your dad says Bernie Sanders is a threat to democracy because look what the communists did to Russia, but my issues in this regard are mostly academic. Put another way, the dork in me bristles when Nye cheekily equates philosophy to some confused conceptual amalgam of Descartes, Hume, and Bishop Berkeley and then counters that imaginary position with, “I think therefore I am…but what if you don’t think about it? Do you not exist anymore?” Or when he states matter-of-factly “humans invented language.” Oh well. He’s an engineer. I’m sure Nye’s dander would be up if he ever heard me describe mechanical engineering as that thing that turns my bread into toast.
But back to thoughtfulness. Listening to Nye’s answer and his appraisal that philosophy can be kind of interesting and maybe important but is mostly pretentious idleness or puerile skepticism and, ultimately, fruitless, made me laugh. It was funny because even the first time through the clip it was embarrassingly apparent how much of Nye’s dismissal of philosophy as something substantively or sustainably worth doing depended on philosophy and philosophical concepts. Even beyond the fact that when Nye uses the word ‘philosophy’ he seems to be referencing a book-jacket grasp of 17th– and 18th-century Empiricism’s reaction to Cartesian Rationalism and that his critique of ‘philosophy’ hinges on why that brand of Empiricism, as a method for attaining something like what Nye refers to as “absolute truth,” collapsed into its own asshole just before Kant grumbled “Eine Minute zu hängen” and ordered Lampe to fetch him a pen and some paper, the essence of his exception, even if this exception is as common as a red maple, has roots running down into groundwater fed exclusively by the Hows of epistemology and logic, if not the Whys and Wherefores of metaphysics, ontology, and ethics. Nye is doing philosophy when he says philosophy is laughable.
(And all this ignores the fact that philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to Hegel and Nietzsche to Heidegger and Benjamin have meaningful and thoughtful things to say about “common sense” and, if not specifically, at least the general motivating factors behind why someone might seek or not seek an education that leads to something resembling a “career path.”)
Here is where I would like to digress to the topic of misdirected and counterpurposive “pro-philosophy” articles protesting philosophy’s getting stuck at the kid’s table. The ones calling Nye and other scientists who come off as ambivalent or disdainful about philosophy “idiots.”
I’ll say again that I don’t think philosophy needs defenders, though most people who study philosophy in some academically structured fashion tend to, at some point, take on the role of apologist (one of my own instructors had a catchphrase that bemoaned philosophy’s place as “handmaiden to science”). I will say, though, that I heartily acknowledge that philosophers are very frequently deserving of ridicule. And certainly, plenty of those practicing “serious” or “academic” philosophy exhibit the same sort of stuffiness Nye does trashing philosophy (a stuffiness I won’t deny I’m susceptible to). Anyway, it doesn’t bode well for uniform interpretations of difficult or groundbreaking texts when the best philosophy, or at least the philosophy I identify with, is very often playful and aporetic, sometimes even when it is trying to be deadly serious. (Except for Kant; Kant is playful in the same way assembling a working microwave from parts you have to fish out of your own anus is playful.) But this is all moot because, in spite of its perceived ridiculousness, philosophy is everywhere; it is unavoidable and incessantly provocative, demanding from curious yet honest minds thoughtful and compelling explanations to help prop up our recursively destabilized notions of truth and fact (whether those notions be personal, professional, communal or what). It lurks around the places where sober folks ply their trade in fields like astrophysics, politics, medicine, childrearing, education, art, athletics, and war. For philosophy is nothing other than “the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline.” If you’re looking into ways to more clearly and accurately describe the world around you, congratulations: you’re doing philosophy. You might also be doing other things, but you are also doing philosophy.
Now wait, you say: to broaden the definition of ‘philosophy’ in this way is rank equivocation, is mere semantics. (Philosophy!) Ok. Sure. That’s one way of looking at it, but there are others that are equally compelling, or at least interesting. (Oh, and if the quotes didn’t give it away, that definition is not my own but rather the initial entry for ‘philosophy’ in the OED.)
In his introduction to a collection of Adorno’s writings on the culture industry, J.M. Bernstein writes,
“the division of labour between disciplines such as sociology, philosophy, history and psychology is not contained in or dictated by their material, but has been forced on them from the outside. There is no discrete or unique object, for example, the mind or psyche, whose objective characteristics entail or directly correspond to the concepts and categories of psychology or psychoanalysis; nor is there a discrete object whose objective characteristics entail or correspond to the concepts and categories of sociology, history or philosophy.”
Such divisions, which in the context of the pursuit of knowledge I believe I am not out of line extending from the “soft” sciences Bernstein mentions to and beyond the borders of science “proper,” are the products of the fragmenting and reifying forces of our culture. Well, so says Adorno by way of Bernstein. Maybe better, and to avoid confusion, I’ll state outright what I think this quote implies: there are no divisions of labor in the pursuit of knowledge; or, if there are, these divisions are fluid and overlapping. This is to say that while there are surely idiots, demagogues, and pedants toiling in every field, they are all, positively or negatively, and no matter whether guided by righteous inspiration or pie-eyed confusion, working towards the wholesale expansion of human knowledge. Job codes be damned.
A few years back, the Kansas Board of Education held a debate between advocates for Intelligent Design and advocates for the scientific theory of evolution. The winner, it was implied, would have an influential say in the science curricula of the state’s public schools. Sadly, the spectacle never really got off the ground. Scientists abstained from the debate, pointing out their participation alone would validate the belief that Intelligent Design is a theory in the same sense that evolution is a theory: an explanation of the world backed up by empirical and testable data, by confirmable and repeatable experimentation.
Too often when someone like Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson says philosophy is silly or worthless or pointless, it is a caricature of philosophy and not philosophy itself that is being lambasted. These evaluations typically demand that philosophy adhere to some or all of the standards of speculative science (demands that, when academic philosophers have self-consciously caved and tried to meet these demands on science’s terms, have admittedly led to some pretty ridiculous results; looking at you, Berkeley).
But when you read the works of scientists who are trying to answer questions that have haunted humanity from the get-go, you’re witnessing the works of philosophers. I say this (and it is in no way, shape, or form an original idea) with, in addition to deference to dictionary definitions, the bare-bones understanding of the etymology of the term (love for knowledge) and recognition of the inherent prejudices inhabiting any and all who see themselves as seekers of knowledge.
I eagerly volunteer that this interpretation of ‘philosopher’ is perhaps a pedantic convenience contrived by a biased and bitter former philosophy student in order to lend his chosen field of study some measure of credibility: a diving for and desperate clutching of science’s coattails. This critique of my interpretation (again, not an original one) is completely valid. I also anticipate the inversion of the point of my Kansas Board of Education analogy, making it read that, then, well, philosophers are akin to the Creationists: where’s the proof? Where’s the data?
On these grounds the fight is always fixed, and the losers’ repeated requests for a rematch rendered masochistic. If philosophy to people like Nye amounts to little more than intransigent skepticism about whether or not it can be proven that the sun will rise tomorrow, well, fine. Kind of a warped and uneducated reduction, speciously deployed in support an argument. But philosophy, as an academic pursuit, doesn’t readily register as time well-spent to professionals in the business of pointing at something and saying “Here! This thing is cuz this other thing, you degenerate, heathen dummy!”
So while pieces like the one Olivia Goldhill wrote in defense of philosophy and against the flippancy and lazy conflation used by edutainers like Nye are often intelligent, passionate, and well-informed, they all too frequently seem to accept a mischaracterization of philosophy’s goals, its, for lack of a better term, product, as a valid premise in the debate. This mischaracterization seems to claim philosophy fails for not being like science, that philosophy is an unnecessary indulgence because it tends to eschew quantifiable data and “common sense.” Maybe more importantly, articles like Goldhill’s veer towards making the point that philosophy is as important as science, or that science should think better about writing philosophy off. That science needs philosophy. These tactics end up granting what I believe is another wrongheaded premise: that philosophy and science are irrevocably distinct and, worse, competing fields. Many defenses of philosophy lose me when they spend time arguing philosophy can be useful to scientists rather than pointing out that philosophy and science are both parts of the same ongoing human obsession.
Nye and Tyson are intelligent and highly educated men who have, at very least and if only, made scientific endeavors sexy again. (Would we have a Cosmos reboot if Tyson hadn’t become an internet-clip and talk-show mainstay; would news anchors be featuring Nye, a TV host who admits to having no formal training in environmental science outside of the physics prerequisites for his engineering degree, as an expert commentator on climate change if he hadn’t been so entertainingly critical of the anti-science worldview, espoused by so many of our public figures and elected officials?) Let’s grant them for a moment the truth that philosophy is for the idle, for those with unfocused and lazy minds; or, let’s indulge the puritanically empirical, the positivist, the fatalistic wonks who, upon hearing the suggestion that philosophy and science are both parts of a larger intellectual toiling, would rejoin by pointing out that science is by far the more important part. Whatever. I’ll give them that.
But now let’s belly up to the bar and ask these same wonks what keeps them awake at night, ask them about the moral justifications behind various methods of population control in the face of global crisis (or, if that is deemed irrelevant due to the irrepressible march of technological innovation, ask them what it is they think we’re working so hard to save, ask them to unpack the platitudes at the heart of phrases like “beauty of humankind” or “mysteries of life” or “that’s just the way it is”). Ask them why bother funding further space exploration or research into sustainability or pills that give older men boners. Ask them what it means to love their child or their spouse or their parent and, if their answer is biochemistry or social convention, get their thoughts on the somewhat bleak implications of such answers and the troubling notions involved in how in the hell we can concretely describe the phenomenon of two discrete and unique individuals (or agents or subjects or selves or souls or summary of biochemical processes) sitting at that bar having a talk and not just, well, fuck it.
To do a piss-poor paraphrase of early Heidegger, you can prove to me that color is nothing but the behavior of light affecting the sensory apparatus incidentally concocted by my species’ ancient and complex biology, but that does nothing to give me any convincing answer as to what that might mean. This doesn’t suggest there is one right or a provable answer, or that the answer can’t be, simply, it doesn’t have to mean anything at all (that Nietzsche quote about all of human history sandwiched by opposing infinities amounting to “nothing happened” still resonates with me). However, it does raise some open-ended questions about why we get out of bed each day, why we keep stubbornly looking for answers. Intellectual integrity demands more from us than “some questions don’t have answers” and the cop-out that, because it doesn’t matter to me right now, it must not be important.
To scientists, popular or otherwise, who dig on philosophy for being a self-indulgent or unproductive pursuit, please be wary. That is, be thoughtful. We live in a world where you, and by ‘you’ I guess I am speaking to Nye and Tyson and to those who identify with their denigrating and, in my opinion, disappointingly reductive and superficial understanding as to what philosophy “is,” feel a sense of urgency about the postmodern human muddle. For Nye, it is the dumbing-down of our schools through misguided, unscientific, and inappropriate lesson plans; it is the climate-change deniers, exemplified by Senator Jim Inhofe bringing a snowball onto the Senate floor as “proof” that the climate “eggheads” were wrong; it is people who continue to acquiesce to the perspective that the concept of ‘race’ is based in biological fact rather than an institutionalized bigotry that has caused unforgivable death, destruction, violence, and marginalization. For Tyson, it is the anti-intellectual vibe that runs through so much of this country’s discourse, especially from our elected officials; it is the defunding of important, nay crucial research and innovation. These men are, I think, no matter how smugly and exasperatingly (and in their defense, I’m not sure smugness and exasperation aren’t totally reasonable responses to men like Inhofe or Ken Ham or Ted Cruz and the horde of ignoramuses that sing these paeans to sustained ignorance), fighting the good fight and have the interests of the general public and our, let’s call it the progression of our species, in mind. But to come out and say things like philosophy isn’t a viable career path (speaking for myself, I didn’t chose philosophy for the money; if that had been the case then I did it wrong; I did everything wrong and have bank statements to prove it), or, like Tyson, to say “if you are distracted by your questions so that you can’t move forward, you are not being a productive contributor to our understanding to the natural world, and so the scientist knows when the question ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’ is a pointless delay in our progress” with a straight face is, to me, ghastly and profoundly disconcerting. To take a koan to be the essence of what a philosopher does is, I think, idiotic. More kindly, it is a move that seems confused and overly simple, things Tyson is not often accused of being.
But fine. The koan thing. Bart Simpson answered the question ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’ years and years ago. Besides, I don’t think there is anyone, literally ANYONE in the supposed (un)productive “field” of philosophy working diligently to answer this question. And, of course, I mean OF COURSE there are characters in philosophy decidedly deserving of ridicule and indignation: Thales for falling in a ditch, Kant for being afraid that he’d die if he used up all of his life’s allotted sleep, Heidegger for being a Nazi; the list goes on and on. But the other side to a self-identifying scientist brushing off my expanded definition of philosopher is the question: where do we place that line? Who gets invited into the fold of “science”? Recall that science, too, has it’s share of clods and buffoons who spend valuable time and money looking into the “absolute truths” related to things that should be obvious to anyone with, what was it Bill Nye? Common sense? (A couple examples: those behind the scientific study to look into the biological mechanisms of “beer goggles”; those who were satisfied with answers arising from their study involving the failures of reattaching a penis that had been “partially eaten by a duck.”) Start kicking the clods and buffoons out, too, or admit that quantifiable and empirical aren’t the only words that can meaningfully modify ‘truth’. (These researchers can all come join the time-wasting philosophers; I would like to hear more about this penis-eating duck.)
Let me be thoughtful on behalf of philosophy-bashers for a second. One last time: I won’t defend philosophy. I won’t try to equate it in value to everything science does (from the cure for cancer to the fossil-fuel-dependent internal combustion engine; from the Mission to Mars to disposable plastic packaging). Many of these concerns that seem to be heaped on your plates, Mr. and Mrs. Scientist, are concerns shared by philosophers. You can go ahead and try to reallocate the substantive and thoughtful ideas of, to name a few, Kurt Gödel, Gayatri Spivak, Ellen Meiksins Wood, Audre Lord, Paul Gilroy, Roberto Mangabeira Unger, or Frederick Jameson to the fields of sociology, economics, cultural criticism, or social work, or you can casually exile them to the nebula of fine art, but I believe you would have a hard time proving that these people aren’t contributing to solving or ameliorating the troubling and violent and altogether shitty ways humans often act or choose to live. These writers and activists are agents of social change, agents working to help people see themselves and others in more cooperative and loving ways. And guess what, even if the first book you ever pick up is a book by one of these influential and inspirational people, these potentially life-changing thinkers: no matter how revelatory the book might be the first time through, if you take an interest and go back and read the books that helped to form the ideas in this book you love, you’re going to find these ideas are absolutely infested with philosophy. These ideas reek of Heraclitus and Plato; are flaked with the dried carapaces of Kant and Hegel; are steaming with the blooming molds of Marx and Fanon; are bent under the weight of the egg sacks propagated by the baffling reproductive organs of Foucault and Derrida. Maybe you think philosophy is pointless. Maybe we can achieve the advancement you promote with your continual harangues through science and scientific innovation alone, absent of thoughtfulness and meditation. My take on this is, yeah, scientific endeavor is key and should be invested in fully, both with our money and our enthusiasm; but we need people to help us figure out how we want to live, how we want to be if this whole thing is going to be anything but a best-effort-while-running-out-the-clock kind of deal. That is, yes. Yes! If we have the technological, the scientific know-how to build a telegraph from Maine to Texas, let’s talk about building it. Let’s think about it. Let’s spend some time on the why. Let’s meditate on some of the potential consequences of application. We don’t defer forever, but let’s give it some thought, thought by thinkers who have been trained to think about these things (with specific reference to the philosophical subfield of ethics, Jeffrey Stout, in his book Ethics After Babel, has written most compellingly about how these heady concerns deserve to be engaged by people who have training designed to enhance their faculties of asking; that philosophical training is needed to effectively address so many human problems).
More simply and bluntly: all the science in the world won’t matter if its stuff is shat out and peddled to a shitty, thoughtless species. And that’s kind of what we are. We need some guidance, yeah? Guidance in answering for the darker manifestations of our human predicament: gun violence in a nation ostensibly not at war; famine in a nation of unprecedented plenty; uncontrollable waste and production absent of demand in a nation that balks at spending money to help its sick and needy get well; the often murderously violent and uninterrupted marginalization and objectification of large populations based on the threatened privilege of an arbitrarily distinct hegemony (that’s directed at us, white guys). With all due respect, not every problem can be solved with Borlaugean wheat.
I am grateful we have impassioned people like Nye and Tyson trying to amplify the voices of humanity’s better angels, people who remain optimistic we can all be better versions of ourselves and that the next generation can be greater than the one before.
I think, though, that Nye and Tyson and others like them are wrong, even stupid when it comes to philosophy. This contention is supported by the quotes they’ve given about what they understand philosophy’s project to be, quotes that indicate, quite clearly, that they’re not even clear on what philosophy is. But more importantly, I think the very things socially conscious scientists like Nye and Tyson are asking for — thoughtfulness and collective effort, consideration of the Hows and the Whys we ought to come together and work to get better, development of the most effective and reliable tools to confront human crises, both existential and incidental, and move the species forward: in short something like ingenuity with accountability — is, wholly or in part, the stuff that is the philosopher’s bread and butter.