The death of a distinguished scientist or a leading novelist usually attracts public attention. But the recent death of perhaps the most celebrated figure in academic philosophy — Harvard’s Willard Van Orman Quine — attracted virtually none. This lack of reflection on his passing is itself worth reflecting on.
There was a time when philosophy was known as the queen of the sciences and when the death of one of its prominent figures would have been news. But that time has long gone. Why?
Today, people are disdainful of philosophy. They see it as a frivolous discipline. They think it has no practical advice to offer them. And this assessment is perfectly understandable — because, in regard to contemporary academic philosophy, it is perfectly true.
Modern philosophers themselves view their subject as an abstruse parlor game, detached from everyday life. Indeed, the tenet at the heart of contemporary philosophy (placed there primarily by the 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant) is that the human mind is incapable of grasping reality. The public has thus taken philosophers at their word and dismissed the entire field as irrelevant to real life.
Quine’s ideas are representative. He held that knowledge of objective reality is impossible and that whatever you happen to believe determines your “reality.” “To be” — as he put it, with characteristic academic obfuscation — “is to be the value of a variable.” Thus Quine claimed that real, physical objects are “comparable, epistemologically, to the gods of Homer,” because both are simply different “values” (i.e., arbitrary nametags) given to what “exists.”
We can be aware of “reality” — the contemporary refrain goes — only as distorted by our impotent minds. If this is what modern philosophy teaches, is it any wonder that it is widely dismissed? Who will seek advice from a science whose own practitioners claim that no one — including, in logic, themselves — is capable of knowing the truth?
But the dismissal, not just of today’s philosophers, but of philosophy as such, is an ominous development for our culture.
Philosophy as it should be (and once was), rather than what it has now become, is an indispensable practical necessity. Philosophy is the queen of the sciences: its crucial task is to provide man with a comprehensive view of the world. In order to guide our lives, we need answers to such fundamental questions as:
Is the world we perceive real, governed by the law of causality, or is it the mere reflection of some supernatural dimension that transcends and controls it? For what purpose should man live his life — to achieve his own happiness or to sacrifice himself to others? By what principles should individuals organize themselves into society? And by what means can one answer all these questions — by awaiting visions from some mystical realm, by following one’s emotions, by accepting the dictates of some authority, or by relying solely on one’s own observations and reasoning?
It is the role of philosophy — a philosophy that takes seriously its task of guiding human life — to provide rational answers to such questions.
But if we brush aside the very subject of philosophy, we will not consciously seek the answers to such questions. Instead, since our choices in life require some answer to these basic questions, we will subconsciously absorb the dominant philosophical ideas taught in our culture. Today, this means absorbing some form of the anti-mind doctrine that Quine advocated and that rules contemporary philosophy.
This is the reason, for instance, behind the ascendance of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism rests on the anti-mind idea that no individual can objectively know reality; he can know only “reality” as filtered by the particular collective he happens to belong to. So males and females, whites and blacks, Westerners and Africans, each inhabit their own “realities” and have their own “truths.”
This is also the reason behind the revival of mysticism: the spread of creationism in the curriculum, the popularity of psychics on television, the reading of tarot cards at corporate functions. If people absorb the idea that the rational mind is incapable of knowing reality, they will turn for guidance to some irrational substitute, such as faith.
Ignoring the death of a leading academic philosopher is not significant. But ignoring philosophy itself is — because it means we will remain in the grip of our culture’s anti-mind philosophy.
As the 21st century begins, we need to revive an active, eager interest in philosophy. We need to seek out those thinkers who, defying the contemporary trend, can show us that reality is real and knowable, that reason is efficacious — and that a proper philosophy can arm us for living successfully on earth.