Western philosophy, like Western civilization, is in crisis. What Plato called “the highest music” has been reduced to a discordant echo of science. Pouring salt in the wound, Stephen Hawking has gone so far as to gleefully declare, “Philosophy is dead.”
I think it was the English poet Percy Shelley who first declared, “We are all Greeks,” meaning “our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts, have their root in Greece.” However the progression of Western civilization has become the regression of the human species. “We’re all Greeks” has devolved into we’re all geeks.
I submit that philosophy isn’t dead; Western philosophy has merely reached the logical dead-end of reason as the highest principle and knowledge as the highest good. The path to making philosophy relevant again does not lie through neuroscience.
The Western mind didn’t go the way Socrates pointed but the way Aristotle plotted. And philosophy, which has become synonymous with ‘academic and professional philosophy,’ has rendered itself irrelevant to understanding the human crisis.
A true philosopher doesn’t specialize. Precisely at a moment that calls for wholeness of response, the mentality of specialization has even infected civil society, contributing to the fragmentation of the earth and humanity.
A recent study revealed “the African elephant population is in drastic decline, having shrunk about 30 percent from 2007 to 2014. The deterioration is accelerating largely because of poaching, and the population is dropping 8 percent a year.”
The species extinction rate is now about “1,000 times faster than before the global spread of humanity,” explains biodiversity expert E. O. Wilson. That’s not a canary in the mine; it’s an elephant bellowing in our ears.
The oceanographer Sylia Earle recently said, “We are at a crossroads. What we do right now or fail to do will determine the future — not just for us, but for all life on earth.”
So just what is the crossroads? That’s a question for which only philosophy can provide transformative insight.
Yet the first question philosophers should be asking is exactly the question they scrupulously avoid: Is there a compelling explanation for man’s destruction of the earth? Not asking it, many people now misanthropically believe humans are “just another bad biological experiment.”
Every thinking individual is faced with the question of the future of humanity, whether the ‘Trumpocalypse’ occurs or not (the Donald being the last and worst climate-change denier/dinosaur).
In America, philosophy has been dominated for decades by the ‘Analytic School,’ a spinoff of mathematics and science, which has shrunken the discipline to arcane specializations in academia. Taking the safe, narrow path of building on reason and knowledge, philosophy has lost its essential place and voice in the scheme of human endeavor.
For the last two centuries Western philosophy has been attempting to pound into people the idea that reason and rationality are the foundation of a good life. So it’s intellectually dishonest to say, “neuroscience attempts to pound away at the idea of pure rationality and underscore the primacy of subliminal mental activity.”
Philosophy is distinct from and higher than science. But unable to match with insight and wisdom the incredible discoveries of science over the last century, philosophy became science’s toady. We cannot and should not go back to old hierarchies, but the primacy and priority of philosophy needs to be acknowledged if we’re going to see the way ahead, out of the madhouse the world has become.
Man’s destruction of the earth relates directly to the question of consciousness as an emergent phenomenon in the universe. Except for derided and ignored ‘mystics’ of the East and West, we only know the consciousness of thought. And thought, without deepening insight into its nature and operation, has become increasingly divisive and fragmentary.
So-called higher thought lies at the core of the human adaptive pattern. Even before the emergence of fully modern cognitive capabilities, proto-humans were able to break the bonds of niche and spread over much of the planet, albeit with very small populations.
Once modern humans evolved about 100,000 years ago, with our capabilities for sophisticated technology, diverse cultures, art and science, the human adaptive pattern became overwhelmingly dominant in an evolutionary blink of the eye.
The ancient Greeks provided the underpinnings for the science and technology of today. But man is decimating the planet with these capabilities, which means that a distinct capacity and new order of consciousness has to emerge.
The main legacy of the Greeks is not just the emphasis on reason, but the belief that ‘man is the measure of all things.’ That means thought and knowledge are taken as givens, the defining elements of human consciousness, the only means of experiencing life and the only reality human beings are capable of experiencing.
We don’t know ourselves through reason, or through knowledge or experience for that matter. We know ourselves by paying attention to what we are thinking, feeling and doing in the present, in the context of our environments.
Self-knowledge is of the past and delimiting; self-knowing is of the present and liberating.