Has philosophy responded adequately to big events?

For our tenth anniversary issue of tpm we put ten 10 questions to ten leading thinkers. Here is how they answered just one of them: Has philosophy responded adequately to the big events and debates of the last decade, such as climate change and the post-9/11 world? (The issue is still available to order here.)

Simon Blackburn:
Probably not, but then it is not very clear what kind of response we are professionally able to make. On climate change, I suppose we might start teaching stoicism again. On 9/11 we might try revisiting Clifford’s famous essay on the ethics of belief.

Jerry Fodor:
I suppose so; though I don’t think that responding to such issues is plausibly a philosophical responsibility. Has Art History responded adequately to the post-9/11 world? Why should philosophy be different?

AC Grayling:
No, there has not been enough response from philosophy; these are quintessentially matters that require exploration and debate, clarification, vigorous challenges to our too-ready reactions and our fears, and constantly renewed perspectives on how to think about them and how our world might best be managed in response to them.

Jaakko Hintikka:
No. Philosophers have failed to come up with constructive suggestions either on the practical or on the ideological level. For an important instance, philosophers could and should have combated much more determinedly the fundamentalist forces within different religions – Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim – that are the greatest divisive force in the world today. Constructive responses that could come to grips with the realities have here and elsewhere been hampered by the anti-scientist and relativistic biases of postmodernist philosophies.

Alasdair MacIntyre:
Academic philosophers are by and large no more competent at making political choices than other relatively well to do, comfortable, professionalised, middle class people. That is to say, not very competent. The question is: Who is paying the costs of climate change, post-9/11 conflicts, and globalisation? The answer is, as usual: those least able to pay them. Philosophers, including myself, have not focussed sufficiently on this issue, one that brings out the continuing relevance of Marx.

Colin McGinn:
No, but it hasn’t responded inadequately either – which would be worse. What would an adequate response look like? Philosophers should respond, but it’s not clear to me that philosophy should. (Compare responding to the Holocaust.) On the other hand, if someone came up with something genuinely useful philosophically, I’d be all ears.

Martha Nussbaum:
I think that there is a lot more work to be done! On issues connected to the entitlements of animals there has been some good work, and it is exciting to see the menu of theoretical options being expanded (especially by Christine Korsgaard’s recent Tanner Lectures). On the environment more generally, there is certainly a need for more good work. Issues of global justice have begun to receive the attention they deserve, and the nation-based paradigms with which we have all been operating have begun to be challenged, but there is a long way to go. I think that doing good work in the areas you name requires extensive empirical knowledge, and therefore partnerships with other disciplines such as economics, law, and history. Philosophers have not always formed such partnerships. However, I believe that the profession is now much more receptive to such empirically-informed work than it was in the recent past. I would like to see more first-rate philosophers turning to the topic of global justice, so that we would simply have more strong alternatives on our menu. Philosophy advances by argument and contestation, and we need more powerful worked-out theories of different types.

John Searle:
Problems like climate change or the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 are not really specifically philosophical problems. However, the capacity to reason philosophically has an important bearing on these problems, as it does on any serious intellectual problem, and I will illustrate that by discussing some of the points about “the war on terrorism”. There are two important philosophical mistakes made in current American and Coalition policy, and one of these may actually have some practical importance. The first point is that the expression “the war on terrorism” embodies a category mistake. If it is meant to be taken literally, “terrorism” names a method, and in the sense that one can have a war against Germany or Japan, it makes no sense to say we are having a war against terrorism. It would be like having a war against transportation. Now one might say, “Well, we are having a war against all terrorists.” But that, of course, is not true. There are many sorts of terrorists, such as the Basque terrorists in Spain or Irish terrorists in Northern Ireland, that we have not attempted to fight a war against. And this leads to the second point. In order to make sense of the war on terrorism, we have to interpret the concept of war metaphorically. Is it an apt metaphor for our current situation? I think the use of this term embodies a second mistake, which is the result of a very common fallacy, both in philosophy and among people in general. It is the fallacy of assuming that big events must have big causes. Because the attacks of September 11 were big events, we assume they must have big causes. But in fact, as far as we can tell, they did not. Here is the situation. Some years before September 11, there was an attempt made by similarly motivated Muslim terrorists to destroy the World Trade Center. They failed. Because they failed, no one took the attempt very seriously. They should have. Some years later, a group with the same inspiration – a group of fanatics – once again mounted an attack on the World Trade Center and other targets. This time they were both better organised and luckier. But the group (or groups) that mounted the first attack and the second never had more than a few thousand members, and is simply not a massive military force. Because the second attack was a big event, it was treated as if it merited a major international military response. In fact, the people we were fighting against were as confused and as fanatical as those we had dealt with before, or rather, failed to deal with before. However, once we announced that we were at “war”, we accorded them a status and a dignity that they had not previously had, and provided them with an ideal recruiting platform. As far as I can tell, al Qaeda has far more members now than it did before September 11, 2001.
Also, philosophically speaking, it is important to have a sense of scale. On September 11, about 3,000 people died. A terrible tragedy. Each day about 1,000 die in the US from smoking, and since the terrorist attacks about 100,000 Americans have been murdered. There are appropriate responses, but neither “war on smoking” or “war on murder” names them.
What should we have done instead? Instead of announcing a war on terrorism we should have announced a systematic and deliberate campaign to eliminate certain forms of terrorism. Attacking Afghanistan as part of this campaign seems to me perfectly legitimate. Attacking Iraq was a mistake, if only because Iraq had nothing to do with the events of September 11.

Peter Singer:
We didn’t focus enough on climate change in the early days, before it hit the headlines. Some did – Dale Jamieson was writing about this way back in the 1980s. But it’s so obviously a key ethical issue of our times that it is surprising more was not written and said. The “post 9/11 world” came upon us more suddenly, of course, so that’s a different story. Philosophers have responded, by discussing the ethics of war, of torture, and of responses to terrorism. I’m not sure that this has been adequate, but it’s hard to say what would have been.

Slavoj Zizek
What can philosophy do today, what can it tell the general public haunted by the problems of ecology, of racism, of religious conflicts, etc.? Its task is not to provide answers, but to show how the way we perceive a problem can be part of the problem, mystifying it instead of enabling us to solve it. There are not only wrong answers, there are also wrong questions.
Measured with this simple standard, I think the result is mixed. It is not that philosophy did not address all the big burning issues – it did, maybe even too much and too directly, not questioning enough the very form they are perceived as problems. Does the critique of religious fundamentalism really oblige us to defend liberal democracy? Does a serious engagement with ecology really oblige us to accept new forms of obscurantism?

Leave a comment ?


  1. Simon Blackburn: ‘On climate change, I suppose we might start teaching stoicism again.’

    I’m not sure what the right reaction to that is, but i have at least stopped banging my head on my desk.

    Of course stoicism is not the right response to climate change. That’s not even a good joke (if he’s pointing to the stoic belief in a cyclic, cosmic conflagration). What’s needed is considerable change and serious action — large emissions reductions and huge efforts towards adaptation. If our governments continue to fail in this connection, then what’s needed is collective protest.

  2. Perhaps he means that we should adopt a more stoic attitude towards the things that we must give up, in order to stop climate change?

    I agree with many of the philosophers here when they say that philosophy hasn’t responded enough, but then again, exactly what is philosophy to do in its response? I think the real problem is that philosophers don’t have a real pulpit or soapbox to speak on. We’re just ignored usually, unless we say or phrase things in incendiary ways, like Singer or that fadish spell of “On Bullshit”.

    I mean, I was railing against the war literally on 9/11. I remember going to class that day, and telling my students that George Bush was going to use this event to start a war, and make him look like a patriotic american, so that he can get a second term. I was mistaken about which country we would be invading however.

    We’ve had treatises on torture before Guantanmo. So I’m not terribly sure what we else should have done been done… We could not pre-emptively to stop waterboarding… That was pure reactionary, and I think for the most part, we responded correctly… By showing how waterboarding is indeed torture, but then again, that was the strategy of most politicians opposed to it.

  3. Michael DaPore

    The Earth can take care of itself. It will reject all harm to it in due time. We must examine our motivation for protecting the human species, when we all must make a transition from the physical plane at some point. The concerns of the spirit of mankind must take precedence over the fears of the flesh

  4. Variegated « Ducks and Drakes, a Blog about Writing - pingback on June 8, 2008 at 5:24 am
  5. “…when we all must make a transition from the physical plane at some point. ”

    Well, whatever it was Simon meant, and whatever the heck a ‘transition from the physical plane’ is when it’s at home (as opposed to being on a linguistic package holiday) I’m willing to bet you every cent I have that unless he’s taken a blow to the head recently Prof. Blackburn wasn’t talking about spiritual transcendence.

    I heartily endorse what Slavoj Zizek has to say about the role of philosophy, but would distance myself from his conclusions (one reason being the use of the ‘obscurantism’ in the context he used it seems needlessly *ahem* obscure). If the skill set philosophers are supposed to have has anything to contribute to ‘world problems’, the contribution is to found in the analysis of the ‘problems’ as they are posed and the possible alternative ways of caching out both the problems themselves and the potential connections they have to other realms of human thought.

    To paraphrase John Searle (or perhaps misconstrue him); ‘war on terror’ seems to mean ‘combating the phenomenon of terrorism, through the medium of war’ and there seems no a priori reason to prefer this to the (hopefully, obviously absurd) activity ‘combating the phenomenon of terrorism through the medium of dance’; the question is whether state warfare is really the most effective way to employ our resources to combat terrorist activity (as opposed to say, the aggressive funding of progressive, secular cultural forces and aiding economic development in states which seem most prone to terrorism) and the obvious answer seems to be ‘no’.

  6. Le risposte della filosofia - L'estinto - pingback on June 9, 2008 at 12:04 pm
  7. The least coherent reasons for human conduct and value, are the most heedless to the common Reason of All in all -Aiya-Oba (Poet/Philosopher).

  8. Before you can start philosophizing about a big event you have to know it is a big event. You also have to reach a critical mass and a consensus, meaning that a majority of those effected has to be thinking about it before any fruitful discussion can start. There has to be a sufficiently shared concern amongst people before you can seriously begin philosophize about a big event, or that it will have any effect. In the case of climate change it took some time to reach that critical mass or consensus in order to have a meaningful and serious dialogue. Often it takes time to convince people that a big event is even occurring so as to be able to philosophize about it. Also, at the beginning a big event is usually no more than speculation and therefore a number of similar and repeated occurrences have to occur before people are convinced that a big event is occurring. Also, sometimes we need a leader, one that is recognized and sufficiently trusted, to start the philosophy ball rolling. In Al Gore we have such a person, a person who has really got people thinking about climate change and its consequences.

    In contrast, 9/11 was a big event that was known immediately, but not before. And I think there has been a lot of discussion and philosophizing about what caused it and how we might prevent a repeat of such an event in the future. That philosophizing has changed the world in more ways than one. Perhaps, though, with the bits of evidence we had before we could have philosophized about a possible 9/11 event occurring in order to prevent it. But alas, the desire or the critical mass of shared concern wasn’t sufficiently there to seriously start philosophizing about the possibility of a 9/11 event. Moreover, it is usually after the fact that we start philosophizing or try to figure things out.

  9. There is an only bad answer below: Searle. He is not a good philosopher. He thinks Philosophy in a narrow street.

  10. Hello!
    Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
    PS: Sorry for my bad english, I’v just started to learn this language 😉
    See you!
    Your, Raiul Baztepo

  11. On the idea of philosophical adequacy | ducksanddrakes - pingback on April 1, 2009 at 7:27 pm
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  13. There was a big event that occurred in 1989, the fall of the Berlin wall and the subsequent collapse of communism. There is one philosopher who made something of that event, Francis Fukuyama. He seemed to have noticed something that no one else did, which he wrote about in a 1989 essay entitled The End Of History. He went on to write more about it in his book of the same title three years later.

    Looking back on that event, most people were in daze about it, even philosophers. To this day I don’t hear philosophers discussing it. Why? Because I think this was truly a metaphysical event and philosophers today doesn’t seem to put much stoke in metaphysics.

    Perhaps philosophers someday will better know this event and begin to study its roots.

    But come to think about it, I don’t think philosophy is really about big events. It’s mostly about ‘self’ and morals.

  14. “the sceptical literature on this and to the websites I’ve been talking about, which have been produced by bodies like NASA and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration of the United States”

    Why is it that when we ask for specifics, to see the actual arguments and data we never see a coherent response? Why is it that the skeptics on climate change always blame the personal interests of scientists?

    In my experience as a scientist, this is completely false. for example pharmaceutical industries fund research to promote their products but we can consistently see independent scientific work showing their toxicity or lack of efficacy.

    In my opinion, the counter climate change movement is comitting a clear fallacy by not addressing the issue directly, and focusing in personal or groups character attacks, straw man making, etc. It is not that difficult to find these examples in any climate dicussions.

    I strongly believe the protection of our enviroment is our moral/ethical responsability not only for ourselves but for future generations.

  15. I partially agree on the specific expertise of scientists, that is why I rely on the opinion of experts in climate change. these experts expressed their opinions through articles and scientific organizations like the Academy of Sciences of different countries.
    People with a solid scientific foundation in any discipline will know their limits and respect the opinion of experts because they know the challenges in interpreting complex data.

    There is also another myth that is growing, the myth of the bad scientists, the one that sells himself to big pharma or to his own interests and so on. This myth is usually brought up when there is a lack of arguments. As an example, in spite of a lot of money involved, good science had a lot to do with exposing the tobacco industry.

  16. Evolution is the greatest revolution.-Aiya-Oba

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