Opinion Philosophy Society

What Happened to Philosophy in America?

Philosophy Socrates Antisthenes Chrysippos Epicurus
By Harley Austin | United States

In modern times, philosophy has been lacking in both academia and the general populace. People have blamed the drying up of philosophical innovation and interest on numerous things, but no explanation has been sufficient. To analyze what created our current situation, we must discuss changes in culture, values, and society.

A Cultural Shift

A major reason for the decline of philosophy is simply how modern culture views it. Typically, the general public did not favor philosophy as much as the academic class did, but nonetheless, a decline is still evident. Part of the reason for this comes down to technology and the growing consumerist culture, which shifted popular interest to pop culture rather than the finer meanings of life. As the how behind life became easier, the why grew less important.

From there, philosophy became increasingly out of touch with the average person. Instead of seeing it as the important subject behind life itself, many people just see philosophy as old men from centuries ago arguing about semantics and other pointless drivel. It is the purpose of philosophy that is slipping away from the public but is so important for us to know. Many, however, see philosophy as a thing of the past. Therefore, its methods of education and outreach must adapt to fit a more modern culture.

Nihilism: The Anti-Philosophy

The absence of philosophy has led to the extreme adoption of nihilism, the rejection of moral values and meaning, among a growing mass of people. It is especially common among younger people: so much, frankly, that teenage nihilism is practically a common adolescent trait. Keep in mind that nihilism in the general sense is much different than the actual philosophy of nihilism.

The reason for this is simple. Since many people lack interest in philosophy, they’re more disposed to believe it is pointless. Without an understanding of the meanings of life and morals, many people will simply reject morality and adopt nihilism and meaninglessness. The emergence of nihilism amongst the youth is not because of teenage apathy; it’s the default replacement for philosophy and discussion when society is lacking both. Without a discussion of the meaning of life, a descent into despair and depression is not unsurprising.

Utilitarianism: the Anti-Ethic

This brings to the more intellectual side of philosophical rejection: utilitarianism. Utilitarianism, the belief in doing the “most good for the highest number of people” (without any clue of what that “good” is), has been the anti-ethics of the modern age. Many scientists and economists favor this system. However, they merely use it to argue numbers instead of principles, squabble instead of debate and encourage conformity instead of change.

Utilitarianism simply focuses on how things happen instead of why they happen. They sacrifice ethics and philosophical discussion in favor of treating people as numbers, with complete disregard for life itself. Admittedly, the basis of utilitarianism is necessary. But without ethics and philosophy backing it, the concept becomes a pretext for stripping discussion of morals and principles.

Utilitarianism has also emerged due to the lack of philosophical interest. With no consideration for meaning and purpose, utilitarianism becomes the only rational alternative left. It is a simplistic ethic for a simplistic culture and must be replaced by the ethics that only philosophy can bring.

Politics and Populism

With the absence of philosophy, the intellectual focus has shifted from the complexities of life to the squabbling of politics. This originally wasn’t as huge of a problem, as politics used to have at least a little bit more philosophy and principle. But as philosophy left modern interest, principles, debate, and disagreement slowly faded until the only thing left was the polarized and unintelligent slap matches of modern politics.

When principles eroded away, a vacuum formed in the modern political debate. Without the intellectual discussion of philosophy, something had to fill the void. Soon enough, that empty space was full once more, this time with the blind emotions of the mob: populism and identity politics. Populism replaced civil discourse with the blind rage, fear mongering, identity politics, and cults of personality that we know today. Of course, this is not the first populist movement to ever occur; the late 19th century saw a strong wave of populism. However, today’s age sees an even greater dissolution of civil discourse and ethical discussion. This is extremely evident, based on the blind loyalty to party and politicians that exists in modern America.

Despite the absence of philosophy, it is clear that there is a desperate desire for its revival. Many members of the youth show a desire to crave intellectual discussion to fill the gap of philosophy. The mass following behind academics like Jordan Petersen and YouTube political personalities demonstrates how people are beginning to desire academic discussion again. New and unique ideas are becoming popular again: philosophy must return to fulfill these wishes.

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