“What began to feel frustrating instead was a growing sense of the marginal place of philosophy more generally in UK culture… it is arguable that philosophy has drifted away, partly due to its own fault and partly due to the fault of the wider culture.”
That’s philosopher Robert Stern (Sheffield) in an interview at What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher?
Interviewer Clifford Sosis asks: “What can philosophers do to become relevant to the public again?”
Here’s Professor Stern’s reply:
That is a tricky question, and I am not sure I have an answer, as it partly depends on how one thinks the irrelevance has arisen in the first place. If it is just philosophy’s fault, perhaps we can fix it. However, I suspect the issue has a wider cultural grounding that we as philosophers cannot really control.
Looking at the problem historically, it may have this structure. In the pre-modern Christian world, religion was dominant with no separate role for philosophy; nonetheless, recognizable philosophical issues were widely raised in some traditions in a broadly theological context, where Scholasticism would be a prime example. Then in the early modern period, science now emerged as working independently of religion, and philosophy instead took up the role of being ‘handmaiden’ to science, to use John Locke’s famous phrase.
However, currently, on the one hand science increasingly sees no need for this assistance (think, for example, of Stephen Hawking’s contempt for philosophy); but on the other hand, philosophy cannot return to its relation to religion, as religion feels no need for it either. Philosophy can thus only make progress while working largely on its own. But then the result is that it becomes increasingly in-turned in a way that cuts it off from wider society, and thus makes it appear less and less relevant. As a result, the chance of philosophy catching the attention of the broader community drops away.
If my hypothesis is right, then there is perhaps little that we philosophers can do, until science or religion or both feel a need for us once more. I don’t think that is impossible—in fact, I think this need is very real on both sides. But I am a philosopher, so not the audience that needs to be convinced!
The interview, wide-ranging and interesting, is here, and covers much about Professor Stern’s life, including a sadly relevant discussion of whether he is afraid of death.