The first crossroad is an expression of the biggest question that, at least in my opinion, is faced by the field: what is the point of doing philosophy? One can expand this doubt to cover all the humanities. Indeed, is a fast-changing world – a VUCA world – it is not perspicuous at all why we should let our kids waste both time and effort in studying philosophy, history, classics, or literature. Wouldn’t it be better for them to invest their lives in more useful disciplines, from law and economy to exact sciences and their technological applications? Moreover, some of the main issues treated by these disciplines seem to be outdated and even controversial, like the case of Ovid in the US appears to point out. And in general, when they are not considered as controversial, well, they still appear to be quite useless appendices to the kind of knowledge one may want to provide future generations with – and some colleges have already decided to shut departments down, as Howard University recently did with Classics.
Let’s not indulge more in this but rather present some common assumptions that I have myself listened to in recent years during many conversations in Europe and North America:
- Philosophy is a mere exercise of thought with no practical applications or use. Hence, studying it is a waste of time.
- The history of philosophy is neither history nor philosophy. Hence, one should avoid hiring people doing history of philosophy, since neither history students nor philosophy students will benefit from it.
- Medieval philosophy is a Catholic discussion about God and cannot provide any philosophically valuable content without explicit references to faith. Hence, it is grounded on non-philosophical stances ideologically marked by religious and political belonging.
- The humanities implicitly offer conservative patterns grounded on partialisms, localisms, and historical inheritance of cultural, ethical, and political behaviours that need to be superseded instead of perpetuated. Hence, the humanities need to be completely reshaped in form and content to have them suit the priorities of our societies.
This section engages in different ways with these assumptions which, prima facie, seem to be quite sensible. I do not intend to provide an apologetic defence of philosophy, the history of philosophy, or the humanities. I just want to collect experiences, ideas, and ways to assess whether these four assumptions are well-grounded. And if they are only misinterpretations and exaggerations, I want to learn through this section (i.e., with you, dear reader) how can we amend our practices and better our communication, embracing rather than fleeing from the tensions arising from the first crossroad.
I feel like I should start this dialogue (or solipsism, depending on your interactions) by expressing my belief in Karl Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it” (Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert, es kömmt drauf an, sie zu verändern). A good philosophy has a transformative attitude towards society. The same consideration can be made about the history of philosophy and the humanities as a whole: when their practices result in a transformation of societal processes, these disciplines are effectively doing a service to the whole of society. The four assumptions stated above are all instantiations of this requirement. Indeed, at first sight, it does not seem that any of the humanities (philosophy included) can enact a transformative process to better our societies, but either are merely theoretical exercises with a snobbish attitude or they reproduce schemes and patterns that may worsen our world rather than bettering it. Accordingly, the main question to be problematised here is the following: are the humanities able to transform our world and improve it?