by Dominic Smith

Originally published on the University of Dundee blog, Nov 15.

Today is UNESCO ‘World Philosophy Day.’ But does philosophy deserve this celebration? According to a famous assessment from Stephen Hawking, the answer is emphatically ‘no’:

‘How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Did the universe need a creator…? Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with the modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge’ (The Grand Design).

Viewed in terms of this assessment, World Philosophy Day looks a bit like a birthday party for an increasingly irrelevant dead person. But people still talk about philosophy, and still attempt to write, study and teach it. Are we clinging to something increasingly obscure?

What is philosophy, and does it matter? I encounter these questions often, in two main contexts: at social events when people find out what I do, and at open days for prospective students. I fear not giving sufficient answers in both cases, so tend to fall back on stock responses: philosophy is ‘thinking about thinking’; it involves close attention to the structures of arguments; it teaches healthy scepticism and critical thinking.These answers are not incorrect, and good for starting conversations. There is, however, another response: philosophy is the practice of critiquing, clarifying and creating concepts. This is a way of thinking about philosophy that makes a lot of sense for me. What’s more important is why such a practice matters.Concepts are ways of making sense: they have to be criticised because they are partial and can often be misleading; they have to be clarified because they can have hidden implications; they have to be created because new entities, problems and events are constantly arising that place demands on our capacities to make sense of and for one another.

Some concepts seem settled and innocuous: the concept ‘dog’ commonly connotes ‘mammal’ and ‘four-legged.’ Other concepts seem profound or bizarre: is the concept of a triangle understood in some ‘innate’ sense, and what is the mode of existence of purely conceptual entities, like square triangles?

Consider concepts that relate to new entities, problems and events: What is ‘the Internet’? How does ‘globalisation’ relate to the concept of a ‘world’? Do new information technologies possess agency? What kind of entity is a corporation, institution, or nation? How can new forms of prejudice be identified and challenged? Can worldviews be reduced to modern developments in physics? Philosophy can help us make sense of concepts rather than merely accepting events, developments and the other ‘stuff’ that fills our lives.


Arguing for philosophy

One basic practice that philosophy teaches is attention to the structure of arguments. In turn, there are a number of points that people attentive to this might be tempted to make against Hawking’s assessment. It might be noted, for instance, that his questions relate mostly to metaphysics, a branch of philosophy the worth of which is highly contested among philosophers. It might also be noted, in contrast to his assertion that philosophy has not kept up with physics, that there are famous historical cases of physicists, including Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, who felt it necessary to keep up with developments in philosophy.

Perhaps the strangest aspect of Hawking’s assessment is the one that positions philosophers as ‘bearers of the torch of discovery.’ Facetiously, it could be argued that this view began to decline with the Presocratics, in 6th century BCE Greece, around the time that this same disparate group was founding the discipline we have come to know as ‘physics.’ Today, philosophers across all sorts of different traditions recognise that philosophy is not so much about producing new facts as making sense of the conditions under which we know what we know. Viewed like this, philosophy is not a heroic ‘quest for knowledge’; it is an ongoing attempt at understanding.

The most philosophically interesting of Hawking’s questions, in this respect, is the first: ‘How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves?’ One way we can do so is in terms of new developments in physics. Since the Presocratics first tried to understand the world in terms of competing elements and processes like water, fire, ‘strife’ and ‘atoms’, developments in physics have led us to view our world as ‘Earth’, a planet orbiting its star at 30km/second, to estimate Earth’s age at around 4 billion years, its mass at 5.97237×1024 kg, and to anticipate its participation in the future heat death of the universe; they have, moreover, made a dizzying array of practical developments possible, from electric grids and telecommunications to space travel.

In proposing ‘World Philosophy Day’, UNESCO seems to have a rather different understanding of ‘world’ in mind: ‘For UNESCO, philosophy provides the conceptual bases of principles and values on which world peace depends: democracy, human rights, justice, and equality.’ This difference is interesting; the danger, however, is that it might appear to set up a simple opposition between philosophy and Hawking’s assessment: as if philosophy was primarily a science of ‘values’ instead of ‘facts.’

When we attempt to understand the world, we find that all kinds of different things and processes are involved in it: from facts and values, through to beliefs, imaginary beings, hunches, political movements and square triangles. Philosophy deserves its day not because it is a science of facts or values, but because it is an ongoing attempt to understand how all this complexity can hold together, in all its diversity. In the face of a complex world, surely this deserves celebrating?