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Philosophy Is Bigger Than You Think

Philosophy is too important to be just an academic discipline. In a world undergoing great transformations, a broader understanding is also needed. This should include interdisciplinary inquiry into basic questions of the human condition and future, public engagement with choices of possible futures, and cross-cultural explorations deepening shared knowledge and wisdom.

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Philosophy is too important to be just an academic discipline. In a world undergoing great transformations, a broader understanding is also needed. This should include interdisciplinary inquiry into basic questions of the human condition and future, public engagement with choices of possible futures, and cross-cultural explorations deepening shared knowledge and wisdom.


For all the subsequent changes in the human condition, it is remarkable how much ancient philosophy still speaks to contemporary concerns.
 
Philosophy is a much older project than modern academic disciplines. The West dates it to Greek thought, even before Socrates. China traces philosophical inquiry to Confucius. And for all the subsequent changes in the human condition, it is remarkable how much ancient philosophy still speaks to contemporary concerns. We need it now to speak to questions about how new technologies from artificial intelligence to gene-editing challenge ideas of what it means to be human.
 
CRISPR is a gene editing technique with the potential to vastly change what it means to be human. Photo Credit: National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI)


Philosophy has long had porous boundaries. It has been shaped by inquiry into history, politics, and art, by investigations into the nature of things and into mathematics. It has been profoundly influenced by religious inspirations, ideas, and values. This was true among the ancient Greeks, but is evident in enduringly significant ways in the Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist traditions among others. It has been shaped by integration into different civilizational traditions. Conversely, of course, philosophy also shaped religions and civilizations in basic ways. Today we need philosophy, the disciplined intellectual pursuit of wisdom, to support mutual understanding across cultures and religions and to help consideration of basic values keep pace with instrumental agendas. 

As profoundly, philosophy helped give rise to science and was in turn transformed. Neither the scientific method nor empirical focus on ‘nature’ was entirely new. But the combination of logical analysis and empirical inquiry into scientific method, orientation to discovery and innovation, and pursuit of knowledge within the ‘immanent frame’ of explanation by materially observable phenomena alone changed how knowledge itself was understood. Not least, improvements in technology dramatically increased the extent to which scientific propositions could be put to experimental test. Philosophy has sometimes retreated into clarifying the conditions of scientific knowledge. But we need philosophy also to provide orientation to action and moral judgment, and to help us rethink the very categories of our understanding to be adequate to new realities. 

We need philosophy to provide orientation to action and moral judgment, and to help us rethink the very categories of our understanding to be adequate to new realities. 
 
As knowledge exploded in the modern era, it was compartmentalized. Religion was separated from science, values from empirical knowledge, human from natural science. Universities were organized on a new model of academic disciplines. This helped to manage growth. It supported professionalization in which members of each field sought to maintain the quality of their shared inquiries through mechanisms such as peer review. But each discipline was increasingly understood as an end in itself rather than part of more integrated, even universal knowledge. 
 
This pattern shaped philosophy most in the English-speaking world – though it was widely exported during the 20th century hegemony of Britain and the US. Academic philosophy was narrowed to become one discipline among many. At the same time, some branches of philosophy were partially ceded to other disciplines – political philosophy to political science, social theory to sociology, and so forth. This was a bigger issue when philosophy also became insular, less problematic when it was part of active interdisciplinary engagement. In France, for example, philosophy retains more of its 18th century claim to embrace the full range of systematic intellectual inquiry by playing an important role integrating the interdisciplinary ‘human sciences’. In Germany, philosophy remains an important influence in legal thought, social science, and national public debates. 
 
Philosophers are making significant strides in opening professional academic discourse to wider publics 

The dominant Anglo-Saxon pattern has been associated with high productivity and intellectual rigor we would not want to see lost. But recognizing the costs of insularity or narrowness needn’t be a gratuitous criticism; it can be a stimulus to intellectual innovation. Indeed, some of this is already taking place. 
 
Philosophers are making significant strides in opening professional academic discourse to wider publics. Ethics, in particular, has been opened by recognition of the range of different professional fields in which ethical questions figure: law, medicine, education, artificial intelligence and bioengineering. In each case, effective reasoning requires combining more or less general approaches to ethics with knowledge of the substantive domain – and specific challenges can bring improvements to general ethical knowledge. 
 
We are hopeful that as philosophy seeks to inform wider public discourse, it will also recognize the need for philosophical attention to embrace the range of big and challenging questions on the public agenda – not only those that immediately submit to precise formulation in traditional philosophical terms. The great transformations through which we are living call out for philosophical inquiry. Basic questions of human identity are posed not only by new technologies but also by political and cultural changes. How should we understand the ebbs and flows of nationalism, the crises of political legitimacy, the frailties of public discourse? How robust will commitments to ‘truth’ prove when deprived of background consensus and institutional supports? 
 
The great transformations through which we are living call out for philosophical inquiry. 

Perhaps most basically we hope that philosophy will expand its reach and intellectual power by taking questions of cross-cultural understanding as seriously as they deserve. Non-Western philosophy is taught and studied too little. The very label reveals its residual status. Moreover, the breadth of the world’s thinking on philosophical questions exceeds the customary boundaries of ‘purely philosophical’ thinking – for it involves varying ways of relating or distinguishing philosophy and religion, social thought, law, and science. But neglect of non-Western inquiries into philosophical questions impoverishes philosophy. It deprives thinkers of insights and lines of inquiry. And it undermines critical self-awareness - encouraging philosophers to neglect the extent to which their thinking is embedded in specific, usually Western, cultural traditions. 

Confucian Statue of the Ashikaga Gakko, Japan's oldest academic institution
Non-Western philosophy is taught and studied too little. The very label reveals its residual status.
 
The world has a basic need for philosophy today because it is at once intensively globally interconnected and divided by fundamental differences of understanding and evaluation. The conceptual categories that shape understanding – and often also shape the world – need serious and systematic exploration. This is a project not only of separating truth from falsehood, but also of clarifying the implications of different ways of thinking, the processes by which they can be reconciled, and the processes by which they change. 
 
Philosophy has a key role to play in making our complex reality comprehensible and thereby allowing wise choices to be made. 

After all, ways of understanding the world do not stand still for scholarly investigation. All the world’s great philosophical traditions – and civilizations, religions, and political theories – are today challenged by great transformations. Philosophy, broadly understood, has a key role to play in making this complex reality comprehensible and thereby allowing wise choices to be made. Open to the world and not closed into itself, philosophy can be a source of needed intellectual innovation when others run dry. 
 
So far, modernity has brought dramatic expansion of knowledge, though not necessarily commensurate increase in wisdom. We must hope to do better.     

Nicolas Berggruen is the Chairman of the Berggruen Institute. 

Dr. Craig Calhoun is the President of the Berggruen Institute.