Unthinkable: Is philosophy having an existential crisis?

Irish governments have been slow to draw on philosophers, argues Joseph Mahon

Many unkind things are said about philosophers. Their discipline is accused of lacking a clear trajectory of progress. Their concerns are sometimes esoteric. Their methods can clash with scientific norms.

Some of the harshest criticism of philosophy comes from scientists. And as Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of the highly entertaining Plato at the Googleplex, points out, philosophers don't necessarily help their cause. Lack of agreement among practitioners as to what philosophy is meant to do "bolsters a philosophy-jeerer's charge that philosophy never can establish anything", she writes.

Joseph Mahon, who taught philosophy at NUI Galway from 1968 to 2013, is well used to the jibes. There are two rival views on the subject of philosophers and public affairs, he says. "One is that philosophers are, if not uniquely equipped, then at least exceptionally well-equipped to analyse and pronounce on such matters; the opposing view is that philosophers are uniquely ill-equipped, and unsuited, to expatiate on what were called 'the big questions of life'."

Mahon has contributed an article to a book on this very question, firmly rejecting the latter of the two positions above. The book, Philosophy and Political Engagement: Reflection in the Public Sphere, edited by Allyn Fives and Keith Breen, is dedicated to Mahon on his retirement. Contributors include Philip Pettit, Alasdair MacIntyre and Mahon's son, James Edwin Mahon, who is a philosophy professor in New York.


Joseph Mahon here makes two recommendations for the benefit of philosophy and society: “(i) Professional philosophers should devote more time to questions of public policy (‘What should the law do about it?’) than they have done for the past four decades; (ii) Philosophers should give more attention to popular culture.”

Is philosophy undergoing an existential crisis?

“There are crises, tensions, and conflicts within every discipline, including philosophy. These crises are generated internally within each discipline by its own intellectual history and dynamic, and externally by institutional, social and economic factors. At its broadest, there is a tension within philosophy between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ philosophy.

“Since the 1960s, there has been an ongoing battle within philosophy between those who say that you are not really doing philosophy unless you are working on Kant or Hegel, and those who want to steer the discipline towards practical ethics and public-policy issues. I belong to this latter camp.”

What do you regard as the single biggest philosophical breakthrough in your lifetime?

“According to Sartre, there were but three philosophies, or periods of philosophical creation, between the 17th and the 20th centuries: ‘There is the “moment” of Descartes and Locke, that of Kant and Hegel, finally that of Marx.’

“According to Simone de Beauvoir, there were only two philosophers worthy of the name in the 20th century: Heidegger and Sartre. I would give Beauvoir herself a place in the pantheon. She wrote what were, arguably, the two most important sentences of the 20th century, namely, ‘The female is the victim of the species’, and ‘One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.’

“In other words, one is socially constructed into becoming a woman, and for that matter, a man. Together, these two sentences provided the intellectual foundation for all progressive thought and public-policy initiatives relating to reproductive freedom, women’s rights and equality law.”

Are philosophers particularly well-qualified to influence public policy? One school of thought implies that “genuine” philosophy should be impractical, or blind to political niceties.

“Philosophers whose specialism, or one of whose specialisms, is public-policy issues, are indeed particularly well-qualified to influence public policy. Whether they are called upon to do so is another matter.

"A particularly good example of the kind of contribution that philosophers can make is provided by the document Assisted Suicide: The Philosophers' Brief , thesubmission to the US supreme court made by the formidable team of Dworkin, Nagel, Nozick, Rawls, Scanlon and Thomson.

"The Great Ape Project, founded in 1993 by the philosophers Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri, with the aim of granting some basic rights to the nonhuman great apes, also belongs to this category. Their work has been extremely influential, with several jurisdictions – such as New Zealand, Holland, and the UK – having placed a ban on experimentation with great apes, though not with macaques."

You have highlighted that professional philosophers are not traditionally called upon to advise governments on policy matters. Is public life in Ireland especially lacking in philosophical depth?

"There are big differences between jurisdictions when it comes to calling on the services of professional philosophers. The British government, for instance, has shown no reluctance to do so. It appointed the moral philosopher Bernard Williams, in 1977, to chair the committee appointed 'to review the laws concerning obscenity, indecency and violence in publications . . . and to make recommendations'.

"It issued its report in 1979 under the title Report of the Committee of Inquiry on Obscenity and Film Censorship (better known as the Williams report), and some of its recommendations were quickly incorporated into British law, in the Indecent Displays Act 1981.

"Similarly, Mary Warnock was appointed chairwoman of the committee of inquiry into 'the social, ethical and legal implications of recent and potential developments in the field of human assisted reproduction'. It issued its report in 1984. In August 1991, the British government brought in the Human Fertility and Embryology Act 1991, which gave legal effect to many of the Warnock recommendations.

“Irish governments have been much more reluctant to commission professional philosophers to do this kind of work, though some professionals with degrees in philosophy have managed to slip under the radar.

"Dr Aonghus Nolan, chief embryologist at the Galway Fertility Clinic, and a member of the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction, had studied philosophy at UCG. And my wife, Dr Evelyn Mahon, chief author of the government-commissioned report Women and Crisis Pregnancy – the first and only comprehensive piece of research on Irish women and abortion – had two degrees in philosophy among her qualifications. The Crisis Pregnancy Agency was set up on foot of this report."

Question: It has been said that "philosophy is to science what pigeons are to statues", and "philosophy is to science as pornography is to sex". Is either true?
Daniel Dennett replies: "The middle ground, roughly halfway between poetry and mathematics, is where philosophers can make their best contributions, I believe, yielding genuine clarifications of deeply puzzling problems."