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?

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