The Wilson Quarterly

It's a common charge that philosophers do little of practical value and fail to make their work relevant and accessible to the general public. University of Bristol philosophy professor James Ladyman has had quite enough of this sort of rubbish. “I do not see why all philosophers, or even most, should be interested in communicating their thoughts . . . to the world,” he writes.

The masses generally want answers to big questions: What is the meaning of life? Does a respect for animal life require me to be a vegetarian? But any answer philosophy could provide has long since been offered by generations of wise men past. Today’s philosophers immerse themselves in fields such as physics and computer science that push the outer limits of human knowledge. There they can do the work of the gadflies Socrates exalted, applying their philosophical tools to expose flaws in scientists’ epistemology and methodology. But in order to do so, philosophers must master these obscure, technical fields, and it is this specialization that makes their work so unintelligible to the layperson.

Philosophy should not be held to a different standard than other fields of academic inquiry, Ladyman argues: “Who understands the terms in which mathematicians and theoretical physicists communicate, other than those with sufficient training in the relevant technical areas?” The public is simply not equipped to understand the intricacies of these disciplines. “To these people, much of the dictionary will be impenetrable jargon,” he asserts, “so philosophical journals pose no unique problems.”

And with so many popular books on philosophy by writers who specialize in mediating between academia and the general population, why should academics have to translate their work themselves?

Perhaps, Ladyman suggests, the charge that philosophy does nothing of value stems from the fact that the unschooled find it easier to believe that they aren’t missing out on anything important than to do the hard work that is needed to understand modern philosophy.

THE SOURCE: “Philosophy That’s Not for the Masses” by James Ladyman, in The Philosopher’s Magazine, Second Quarter 2011.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Elliott Brown

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