Gin and Platonic;Cutting Edge

13th August 1999 at 01:00
Academic philosophy is under threat from a popular, realist, variety practised in pubs and cafes. In the fifth of our series on today's hot topics, Julian Baggini seeks a meeting of minds.

Sometime in the early 1930s, A J Ayer was walking in Oxford with his friend Isaiah Berlin when he announced, "There is philosophy, which is about conceptual analysis - about the meaning of what we say - and there is all of this - all of life." The anecdote is told in Ben Rogers' new biography,

A J Ayer: a life (Chatto).

Ayer's sharp distinction between the business of philosophy and the business of life surprises many outside the profession. Philosophy is popularly seen as a subject whose main job is to tell us how to live and give meaning to what we do. However, Ayer's pronouncement more accurately reflects professional opinion throughout this century. As we enter the next, philosophy is in the midst of a dispute between those who believe this trend has been an aberration and those who wish to maintain philosophy's detachment from real life.

The former appear to be in the ascendancy, and they can call on some high-profile support. In an encyclical published last year, none other than the Pope called for philosophy to "recover and develop its full dignity" by returning to the "big questions" of "being and purpose".

Within the profession, the new concern with practical living was most evident at last year's World Congress of Philosophy in Boston. Alan Olsen, dean of Boston University and director of the organising committee, claimed that, after years of obsession with dry, analytic debates, philosophy had "found its soul". Speakers such as Martha Nussbaum, whose work involves field visits to Third World countries, were hailed as the new heroes and heroines of practical philosophy.

This new mood has borne some unusual fruit. The past few years have seen an explosion in "philosophical practice". In the UK, the locus of such activity is the Society for Consultant Philosophers, which hosted an international conference in Oxford at the end of July. This included philosophical counselling, philosophy for business and philosophy for children. What all these diverse practices have in common is the application of philosophical techniques - such as logical and conceptual analysis - to traditionally non-philosophical spheres. So children learn to develop their critical thinking skills, business people to consider the fundamental assumptions of their work or ordinary people to see the philosophical dimension in their life choices.

Meanwhile, particularly in London, a number of philosophical cafes and pubs have sprung up. Though the issues discussed may be as abstract as those in the universities, their rationale is that philosophy is as much about developing the thinking skills of the many as it is the arguments of the academics.

It would therefore seem that the Ayers of the philosophical world are a dying breed, and that philosophy in the 21st century is going to be much more concerned with addressing the needs of the person in the street. That, however, would be a premature conclusion. The majority of professional philosophers greet the explosion of practical philosophy with suspicion. If this year you had gone, for example, to the "Joint Session" - the only major UK conference where philosophers from all specialities get together - expecting to have had your existential needs fulfilled, then you would have been sorely disappointed. The papers there addressed questions such as: "Is the subject matter of mathematics logic, experience, thought or the world?" and "What work does the word 'really' do in the sentence 'Hamlet didn't really exist'?" Analytic philosophy is alive, well and proud of it.

The truth is that, in Britain at least, the driving forces behind the practical philosophy movement tend not to be working within the academic community although plenty of PhDs and MAs are involved.

Academics have good reason to be worried. Increasingly, fringe philosophy is becoming the public face of philosophy. Pub chat and Alain de Botton's philosophy-as-self-help are inevitably more media-friendly and digestible than the arcane machinations of the Joint Session. Until now, many academics have responded with indifference or disdain. But the only way to alter this perception is to make the effort to give academic philosophy a public face. Some very good philosophers, such as John Searle, Daniel Dennett and Ted Honderich, have shown it is possible for academic philosophers to write for a wider audience, but few have followed their lead.

Meanwhile, what are we to make of the fringe philosophers? Ironically, their strength is just what makes them so objectionable to the academics. As philosophy has advanced, it has become more technical and specialised. But this means that if philosophy is to connect with non-professionals, it must do so at a lower level of abstraction and complexity than the cutting edge of research.

The most optimistic way of seeing the two sides is in terms of a division of labour. Both parties can fulfil different roles. However, if the two sides do not talk, we could see academics failing to pass on the insights of their work and the fringe failing to maintain high standards of rigour.

Julian Baggini is editor of The Philosophers' Magazine. Website: www.


Analytic philosophy

In its broadest sense, this is the whole tradition of predominantly Anglo-American philosophy which traces its roots back to Plato and Aristotle. It came into being in its own right at the end of the 19th century, cementing a drift from the continental tradition which began after Kant. Analytic philosophy is characterised (or caricatured) as being analytic, detached, rigorous and modelled on science and mathematics.

Continental philosophy

The continental tradition is seen as being more literary and centred on subjective experience. Critics claim it is obscurantist; defenders that it is merely difficult. The continentalanalytic divide is increasingly being seen as cultural rather than intellectual: it is not clear that the philosophical content of either camp is that different from the other.

'World' philosophy

Analytic and continental philosophy are European and American in origin. But what of the vast mass of philosophy produced in Asia and Africa? It is generally agreed that most of such philosophy bears only a passing resemblance to philosophy as understood in the West. So it isn't mere chauvinism that prevents quasi-religious teachings such as those of the Hindu Vedanta being studied in western philosophical circles - it's simply a different subject.

Fringe philosophy

This is a phrase I have coined to cover the increasing range of

philosophical activities which are going on outside of the traditional academic circle, but which cannot be dismissed as mere quackery.


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