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Back From a Dead End

July 03, 1988

For most of the history of Western civilization, philosophy was, if not vital, at least relevant, and usually more than that. From the first philosopher, Thales, who lived in the 6th Century B.C., until the 19th Century, philosophers asked important questions about the nature of reality and the role of people in the world.

But in the 20th Century many academic philosophers somehow got off the track--at least in the English-speaking world. Most professional philosophers ceded many of their traditional questions to the sciences, particularly physics, and apparently became bored with many others. They turned instead to increasingly smaller and less-relevant inquiries into the nature of language and how it describes reality. By concentrating on these highly technical questions, philosophy lost its sweep and grandeur and has become something of a footnote to intellectual life. Is there a contemporary philosopher who follows in the tradition and fills the footsteps of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Descartes, Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and William James? You'd have to search long and hard to find one. Nowadays academic philosophy increasingly speaks only to its practitioners and has become moribund.

So it is a pleasure to read the lead article in the summer issue of The American Scholar in which Stephen Toulmin, a physicist turned philosopher at Northwestern University, notes with approval the revival of "practical philosophy"--public debates about environmental policy, medical ethics, judicial practice and nuclear politics.

"These practical debates are no longer 'applied philosophy,' " Toulmin writes. "They are philosophy itself." The application of ethical and moral thinking to human affairs brings philosophers back to their roots, he says. They should not be ashamed to think philosophically about the problems of nuclear war, or the geriatric ward or neonatal intensive-care unit, or the jurisprudence of capital punishment, or the philosophy of quantum mechanics. Philosophers have an important contribution to make to these "practical" questions. They should contribute "to the reflective resolution of quandaries that face us in enterprises with high stakes--even life and death," Toulmin writes. "It is time for philosophers to come out of their self-imposed isolation and reenter the collective world of practical life and shared human problems."

Not that all philosophers have turned their backs on social and ethical questions. There are social philosophers in many disciplines--law and medicine among them. But the hard core of academic philosophy remains strangely aloof from these pursuits.

Toulmin's essay is both a description of current trends in philosophy and a call to arms for the future. He points the way to bringing philosophy back from its technical dead end and restoring it to its rightful place at the center of intellectual life.

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