Philosophy and a Perspective on Creative Commons

21 Jan

by Nathan Blackerby

During the last century continuing through to the present day, philosophy has come to be identified increasingly with the work of the professional philosopher; its techniques and rich vocabulary needing years of study to master, its history seen as an artefactual object best suited for academic analysis, its practice relegated to classrooms and professional conferences, and its ideas monologically transmitted to a select audience of experts and eventually calcified in journals and books inaccessible or unknown to the general public. Unclear is whether this causes or is symptomatic of a focus on issues so esoteric and obscure as to appear altogether divorced from the questions and concerns that arise from reflection on everyday experience. What is clear is that philosophy’s professionalization marks the beginning of its virtual extinction outside the cloistered halls of the University.

The logic of professionalism demands that the responsibility of doing philosophy rests on the shoulders of those who receive pay for it. The reality of professionalism demands that the non-philosopher have no time for it. This leaves the general impression nowadays that philosophers make a career of dealing with philosophical issues so that the public no longer needs to. Jane Doe, Eddy Punchclock, and Joe the Plumber can rest at night knowing that their tax dollars and payments on their children’s college tuition support Steve the Scientist’s technologically fruitful research, Bob the Business Professor’s training of legions of market-redefining entrepreneurs, and Bella the Biologist’s work on fighting life-threatening diseases. The tasks of one’s own profession coupled with the hustle and bustle of day to day living are often so consuming that simultaneously taking on the task of another profession becomes practically unimaginable. Jane, Eddy, and Joe aren’t expected to perform the tasks that Steve, Bob, and Bella’s respective professions demand. So why should philosophy be any different? What makes Pete the Philosopher’s quest to tackle Life’s Big Questions—or whatever it is that philosophers do—an exception?

Often coupled with the logic and reality of professionalism is the notion that the worth of an activity or discipline should be measured by the degree to which it can maximize productivity and financial benefit. This spells bad news for philosophy: not only does it “bake no bread,” it doesn’t even help one effectively sell the bread one bakes. From this perspective, the professional non-philosopher’s engagement in philosophy reduces to recreation and even the professional philosophers’ work is regarded as marginally valuable, at best.

In the current state of the art, then, consideration about whether one should refrain from doing philosophy is virtually self-affirming, seeing as philosophical reflection appears to bear little significance to productive action with tangible, financially beneficial outcomes. Yet, the slightest reflection on the above appraisal quickly reveals that one should proceed with caution in endorsing a system that enshrines such action as a fundamental determinant of value. Though it may be that certain principles are rejected or endorsed on account of the outcomes to which they lead, it is nevertheless also the case that outcomes are treated with contempt or esteem on account of their agreement or disagreement with principles. If productive action is itself treated as the central evaluative principle, one is bound to unreflectively endorse those actions one currently engages in. The danger in this is that as actions change, one will lose the perspective to determine whether one’s actions should have changed.

What hangs in balance here outstrips individual concern. An unreflective public in the habit of making irrationally uninformed decisions would be prepared to surrender voluntarily whatever social and political power they might have for the sake of salvaging or enhancing some feature of commercially productive action. Were the loss of critical self-awareness to become commonplace (as some may argue it already has), this would spell disaster for free and democratic culture, since the latter depends on individuals taking responsibility for making rationally informed decisions in the common interest. As such, widespread philosophical reflection treated in high regard appears essential to the preservation of free, democratic culture. Yet in order for this to be realized, philosophy would need to be restored in some measure to its Socratic origins as an activity in which members of society participate in a collective, public, and sustained cross-examination of tacit assumptions about human conduct and the world. That is, philosophy must be understood to be more than mere profession.

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