The truth is we need as many as we can get.
It was fascinating to watch philosophy become a kind of scapegoat at the Republican debate Tuesday night, especially in light of the recent passing of René Girard. With mimetic rivalries at full tilt on the debate stage, no fewer than three candidates banded together to trample the study of philosophy underfoot, painting it as a foggy-headed waste of time, money and energy.
First up to bat was Senator Marco Rubio. “Welders make more money than philosophers,” the Senator said while praising vocational education. “We need more welders and less philosophers.” (This prompted the Philosophy Matters Facebook group to post a picture of “Jean-Jacques Rubio,” lamenting: “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains—made by welders.”)
Next up was Senator Ted Cruz, who railed against the Federal Reserve by referencing Plato’s Republic. “What the Fed is doing now, it is a series of philosopher kings trying to guess what’s happening to the economy.”
Then came Governor John Kasich, who countered Cruz’s hardline opposition to big bank bailouts—by stomping on the same victim. “When a bank is going under and people are going to lose their life savings, you don’t say you have to deal with philosophical concerns,” Kasich said. “Philosophy doesn’t work when you run something.” (Kasich later quoted Catholic “theologian” Michael Novak on the economy, though Novak ironically attended Harvard to study—you guessed it—philosophy.)
Think Progress wrote an angry piece demanding that Marco Rubio apologize to philosophy majors (who actually make very good money), pointing out that Carly Fiorina studied philosophy at Stanford before becoming the nation’s first woman to lead a Fortune 500 company. But does this really do anything to vindicate the discipline? Is a launching pad to economic and executive success a better tagline for philosophy than an economic and executive weakness?
What happened to the love of wisdom?
To hear physicist Stephen Hawking tell it, “philosophy is dead”—and in a sense, he’s right. After all, Rubio, Cruz and Kasich weren’t coming out guns blazing against Fear and Trembling. What they meant by “philosophy” is what people usually mean by “philosophy”: either abstract word games or abstract value markers. This isn’t Philistine name-calling; it’s more or less a reflection of what philosophy departments across the country understand themselves to be doing. After Kant, rarefied hairsplitting and dream-weaving is indeed all that seems to be left of the conversation started by Plato.
But when we look to ancient and medieval philosophy—and more recently, phenomenology and existentialism—a more concrete and more complete picture of philosophy comes into view, one that involves the whole person at his or her core. In this picture, philosophy is not idly thinking about theoretical puzzles or intangible feelings, but the “aletheia” (unconcealing) of the world before we do anything of the sort. It’s not an armchair reserved for academics or ideologues, but a way of life for everyday people engaged in everyday activities. It’s not about professional and financial success, and never claimed to be; a well-examined life of virtue is its crown.
Philosophy might be a four-letter word in disrepute, but the truth is that America needs as many philosophers as it can get. We need them in our schools, our streets and our c-suites, thinking incessantly about what’s true, good and beautiful. These are the type of people to never dream of seeking the power of public office—and for that, just the type of people we need to do it.
Matthew Becklo is a husband and father, amateur philosopher and cultural commentator at AleteiaandWord on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish and Real Clear Religion.