Philosophy, Everyone?

Sam Litzinger

London Correspondent for CBS News
and Reporter for CNET

Some Eastern philosophical traditions tell us we're in a dark era, when people act out of ignorance and desire, with little thought for the welfare of others. Greed rules, violence abounds, stupidity is ubiquitous.

And how is YOUR day going?

But before you rush to turn on the TV and wash away your worries in re-runs of "Bewitched" or "Charlie's Angels", there's some encouraging news: the same Eastern traditions hold that the dumb days are ending, to be replaced with a new era of wisdom and compassion.

I'm withholding judgment on this prediction, but there are some hopeful signs, one of which is what I see as a growing interest in things philosophical. I don't mean more and more people are breaking out copies of Kant's "Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics" or talking with colleagues at work about the finer points of Avicenna's influence on the Renaissance, but many do seem to be thinking more about The Big Questions -- the building blocks of philosophy. They want to know what it means to lead a good life, what true success is, what commitments are proper for building a life around,whether capital punishment is morally justified, and, in general, how to make sense of the world. Philosophers, professional and otherwise, have been tussling with these problems for centuries, and now a good many of these same issues are showing up in popular culture.

Take a look at the number of philosophy-centered books appearing on bestseller lists lately. True, many fall under the sometimes mystifying label of "self-help books" -- "Who Moved My Doughnuts and How Do I Get Them Back?", "Men Are From Brooklyn, Women Are From Just West of Hoboken" -- but even these tend to deal, at least to some extent, in such philosophically rich areas as ethics and epistemology.

There are serious volumes in abundance. Tom Morris's books are a case in point. He shows that doing philosophy can and should be fun -- a concept which had seemed impossible to some! Alain de Botton's "The Consolations of Philosophy" was a New York Times bestseller. Lou Marinoff's "Plato, Not Prozac" has attracted a good deal of media attention in various parts of the world. In Britain, Melvyn Bragg hosts a radio program called "In Our Time", a discussion of the ideas that have made us who we are. It simply assumes people are interested in this sort of thing -- and they are! I've seen them here in London, sitting around, listening and thinking.

Even some of our movies are getting philosophically interesting. "The Matrix" is a favorite of philosophy student discussion groups. "A.I." poses some of the big questions about what it is to be human. While watching "The Sixth Sense", I was struck by the number of metaphysical considerations being raised about religious beliefs, the afterlife, the nature of reality. And all in a Bruce Willis movie! Die Hard With a Question! Who'd a thunk it??

There are many more examples that could be cited, but I think the bottom line is that a lot of people are trying to figure out what's going on out there and are asking questions and looking for ideas that will help them form answers.

I see it most often when I teach an introductory class in philosophy. I begin by asking the students what they think philosophy is and I always get a wonderful variety of responses, from those who suspect it involves meditating on a mountain for a few decades, to those who think the Greeks invented it, to those who really don't have a clue. But when the fundamental questions of philosophy come up, practically all the students are eager to jump right in and start throwing ideas around. They actually get excited by it all.

It seems to me people have an innate need to do philosophy. Sometimes, a particular historical period doesn't encourage that activity (the less said about the Disco Era, the better); sometimes it does. With a little luck, we may be entering one of those latter periods.

Plato was probably a bit overly enthusiastic to imagine a world in which philosophers rule. He was certainly a pretty smart guy, but I'm not sure I'd want the likes of him telling me what art I should and shouldn't enjoy - as he thought a philosophical ruler should. But I can, with considerable pleasure, imagine a world in which people find it exciting and fun to deal with philosophical issues, in their personal lives, and in their business endeavors. Maybe it's right around the corner.


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