Philosophy Betrays Reason & Humanity

We need a revolution in the academy, argues Nicholas Maxwell.

Our world suffers from bad philosophy. Universities around the world have, built into their intellectual/institutional structure, a seriously defective philosophy of inquiry we have inherited from the past. This holds that, in order to help promote human welfare, academia must devote itself to the pursuit of knowledge. First, knowledge is to be acquired; then, once acquired, it can be applied to help solve social problems. It is this ‘knowledge-inquiry’ philosophy that betrays both reason and humanity.

The extraordinarily successful pursuit of knowledge and technological know-how has been of immense benefit, and has made the modern world possible. It has also made possible all our current global problems. Modern science and technology have made possible modern industry, agriculture, medicine and hygiene, which in turn have made possible global warming, lethal modern warfare, explosive population growth, the destruction of natural habitats and rapid extinction of species, pollution of earth, sea and air, vast inequalities of wealth and power around the globe.

The problem is the gross and very damaging irrationality of knowledge-inquiry. What we need is a kind of academic inquiry that puts problems of living at the heart of the enterprise, and is rationally designed and devoted to helping humanity learn how to make progress towards as good and wise a world as possible. The basic intellectual aim should be to seek and promote wisdom, understood to be the capacity to realise what is of value in life, for oneself and others, thus including knowledge and technological know-how, but much else besides. ‘Wisdom-inquiry’ along these lines would differ dramatically from what we have at present, academia organised in accordance with the edicts of the false philosophy of knowledge-inquiry.

Wisdom-inquiry gives intellectual priority to the problems that primarily need to be solved if we are to create a better world, namely problems of living – personal, social, global. The central intellectual tasks of wisdom-inquiry are (1) to articulate, and improve the articulating of, our problems of living, and (2) to propose and critically assess possible solutions – possible actions, policies, political programmes, philosophies of life. The pursuit of knowledge and technological know-how emerges out of, and feeds back into, these fundamental intellectual activities. A transformed social science, devoted to helping humanity tackle problems of living in increasingly cooperatively rational ways, is intellectually more fundamental than natural science. Wisdom-inquiry seeks to help humanity learn what our global problems are, and what we need to do about them. A basic task of the university is to help people discover what is genuinely of value in life, and how it is to be realised.

None of this can be done as long as our universities are dominated by knowledge-inquiry. Giving priority to tackling problems of knowledge excludes tackling problems of living from the intellectual domain of inquiry – or pushes the task to the periphery and marginalises its importance. What universities most need to do to help humanity make progress towards a wiser world cannot be done at all – or can only be done very ineffectually. The fundamental endeavour to help humanity learn how to resolve conflicts and problems of living in increasingly cooperatively rational and wise ways cannot be undertaken by the university because to commit the university to such a political programme would, according to the edicts of knowledge-inquiry, sabotage the objectivity of academic inquiry and subvert the pursuit of knowledge.

The charge is very, very serious. Bad philosophy lies at the heart of our current global problems. It is at the root of our current incapacity to tackle them effectively and wisely. One might think that philosophers would be eager either to show what is wrong with the argument, if that is what it deserves, or – if the argument is valid – to proclaim to fellow academics, politicians and the public that our future is threatened by a bad philosophy built into universities around the world, and we urgently need to bring about an academic revolution.

Not a bit of it. The case for the urgent need for an academic revolution, from knowledge to wisdom, has not been taken up, criticised, proclaimed, attacked, fought over. It has been ignored. The silence is deafening.

Do we have the kind of academic inquiry we really need? Is knowledge-inquiry really damagingly irrational, and at the root of many of our current crises, or is it, on the contrary, the best that we can have? What grounds are there for holding that wisdom-inquiry serves the interests of reason and humanity better than knowledge-inquiry? What kind of academic inquiry do we really need? What kind of inquiry could best help us make progress towards as good a world as possible?

These questions ought to lie at the heart of philosophy. At present they are all but ignored. I suggest that philosophers should start to take very seriously the possibility that a bad philosophy of inquiry, inherited from the past, and built into the intellectual/institutional structure of universities round the world, is at the root of many of the troubles of our world today. What philosophers do should take account of this possibility – if philosophy is not to be the intellectual equivalent of Nero fiddling while Rome burns.