I. Resolving the Academic Problem
I have been teaching philosophy in higher education for almost six years now and my disillusionment with academia in general—and academic philosophy in particular—has been steadily mounting. It is not just the publish or perish culture, which values quantity over quality, as bad as that is, that has made me feel like an outcast—if not an impostor—in the field. It goes deeper than that. The academics I have met speak a different language, one more concerned with the precision of philosophical argument (whatever that actually means) than with meaningful discussion of important topics.
But that was not what I came into philosophy for. My naïve self had initially imagined it to be a field that allowed people to have serious dialogues about the big questions: the nature of reality, the meaning of life and what it means to be human.
Alas, philosophy was usurped, as Bryan Magee argues in his book Confessions of a Philosopher, by 1960s UK academics, more interested in language games than in existential problems. It is easier to win an argument than to authentically contemplate death, and try to figure out practical ways to live a good life.
Contemporary academic philosophy does not adequately address the big questions anymore. I think this is because academic philosophy has confined itself to universities and classrooms, rather than addressing issues that are relevant to broader humanity. Philosophy has come a long way from being, as Pierre Hadot calls it, “a way of life,” and is now a specialized field of linguistic games, puzzles and argumentations.
In ancient times, philosophy was conceived as a practice that would help people aspire to knowledge, and the acquisition of the wisdom needed to live a good and meaningful life. Of course, this included rigorous training in natural philosophy, logic and ethics, which provided a solid foundation for the more important endeavor: figuring out how to live a good life. It is for this reason that Socrates implores us to examine ourselves. Plato, and other schools, such as the Stoics, Skeptics and Epicureans continued this method. This is a very practical philosophy and its home now is not in philosophy departments but in the global, often digital marketplace.
II. Awareness of Death, and the Search for Meaning
I grew up in Lebanon, a war-torn country, nearing the end of fifteen years of civil conflict (1975–1990). Although I was born in 1989, growing up I was exposed to battle sounds of all kinds: jet-fighter missiles demolishing residential buildings, whistling shells, bullets sprayed in all directions, RPGs shot from one balcony to another. I became aware of death at an early age. When you don’t have anywhere else to seek refuge during wartime, the only thing you have left is to live in the moment, despite the fact that you are stuck at home, unable to go anywhere beyond extremely narrow boundaries.
I can still smell the whiff of natural gas leaking from the nearby station, which had been bombed by jet missiles, and making its way through my bedroom window. I cannot recall what tipped me off that something bad had happened. Was it the concatenated explosion noises, or the smell of the gas, or the sight of our neighbors racing out of the house, jumping into their car and speeding away? It was the summer of 2006, my cousins were visiting from Egypt and, on their third day, they woke up to a completely different world, one they had only heard about from their parents, and seen in Hollywood movies. A few days later, they would be evacuated by the Egyptian embassy, while we stayed at home during the longest forty days of our lives—or rather, of my life, because my parents had seen worse.
That was the moment that planted the philosophy seed in my head. It was the summer between high school and college. I was excited and enthusiastic about finally making it to the independent league.
Although I had many encounters with death, and lived through a number of interminable clashes and offensives, starting in 1989 (though 1996 is the first incident I am actually aware of) and ending in 2006, the mark each episode imprints on an individual varies as a function of age. All these vague memories end up shaping who we are, and the way we perceive the world around us. Perhaps the majors we choose are also partly influenced by the kinds of lives we lived until it was time to submit applications for college admissions.
In the wake of war, there’s a deafening silence that evokes death amidst the rubble and the razed buildings. In such an atmosphere, the immediate coping mechanism is usually satire: the relaying of funny anecdotes about what was experienced during the horrific incidents. There is no room to create a victim narrative. There is even less room to engage in futile activism and virtue signaling. Only one thing preoccupies the minds of those who endure such traumatic experiences: to pick themselves up, and get going.
Such incidents teach you that being alive is so fragile. Under such circumstances, life is precarious, and death acquires a different meaning. It concretizes, and becomes embodied as the otherwise imaginary figure of death with a sickle, looking you in the eye with a smirking face.
I became first conscious of all this when I took a course on existentialism in literature. The reading assignments included Anton Chekhov’s Ward №6, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. I understood what motivated Sartre to tackle the issues he did. I was able to identify with post-war existential philosophy, which concerned itself with questions about being human, rationality, absurdity, anxiety and death. Many of these philosophers were not even academicians in our terms. Their political activity was motivated by a deeper metaphysical concern about the kinds of lives that we should be living, given the frailty and absurdity of existence.
None of these philosophers were interested in making clear-cut arguments. In fact, some were, like Sartre, more famous as playwrights, novelists and journalists than as philosophers. Sartre, for instance, was not as interested in mounting solid arguments as much as he was in capturing the essence of life, by articulating it in different literary forms. He was trying to make sense of his own experience, particularly, perhaps, the nine months he spent as a war prisoner. This is why, for the existentialists, actions define who we are. One can be the best ethicist or professor of ethics in terms of formulating arguments, but be the most corrupt person in the world.
The difference between academic philosophy, and practical philosophy is that the former is merely interested in regurgitating arguments, as defended by the philosophers who proposed them, and examining them through a very narrow lens, which dissociates them from their context and their actual meaning. The latter is more interested in understanding matters related to human experience.
III. The Struggle to Find Meaning in Academia
In my case, it was the awareness of death, and the struggle to find meaning that led me to opt for a PhD in philosophy. But, in academia, I found that professors and students alike were more concerned with winning arguments than with making sense of the world around them. The writings of philosophers I deeply related to were abstracted and sometimes simplified, so they could be scrutinized from a merely rational perspective. Such bastardization empties out texts ripe with human experience, and severs any connection with the real world.
What is even more problematic is that many of those who engage in academic philosophy have transformed the field into a game of winners and losers fighting over whose arguments are stronger. This kind of philosophical sparring focuses more on the rules of the game than on what is actually being said.
At the root of this shift, perhaps, is the enrollment crisis in humanities departments. In an attempt to salvage their programs, they sugarcoated many of the problems and risks of pursuing a humanities degree and tucked them underneath their marketing rugs. Much like the subprime loans that caused the financial bubble to burst between 2007 and 2008, humanities departments have been promoting highly inflated programs under the pretense that these will set you up for life. I am afraid that’s not the case.
Philosophy is a continuous search for truth, certainty and meaning. It is about personal growth and ridding oneself of prejudice and dogmatism. One can only properly engage in it individually, while participating in constructive dialogue with others. Given its subjective underpinnings, it is very difficult to understand any particular argument—no matter how rational—without being able to relate it to one’s own experience. Philosophy, as a result, is a practical endeavor first and a rational/abstract activity second.
Philosophy programs disregard the first part, to focus on the skills that students gain and the endless opportunities with which these skills will provide them. However, in a world in which demand for technical skills is constantly increasing, there is only so much benefit philosophy departments can confer.
IV. Philosophy in the Marketplace
My experience with academic philosophy has taught me that philosophy really belongs in the broader marketplace, as Socrates suggested. Because that’s where the real dialogue is established and new ideas are born. Practical philosophy requires that we invoke our personal experiences in order to understand the world around us, and make sense of the problems that are relevant to us. Otherwise, we are prone to engage in empty, abstract arguments, which add neither depth nor meaning to our lives.
Things that might seem convincing in the abstract, theoretical realm can end up wreaking havoc when applied to real life. As Nassim Taleb asserts in one of his Yogi Berra influenced aphorisms, “in academia there is no difference between academia and the real world. In the real world, there is.” Nick Skildum demonstrates this in his article “A Veteran in College: The Problem With Identity Theories.” Skildum describes his bewilderment at the identity theories taught in the classroom to explain human conflict, which are not remotely compatible with his experience of human conflict. This is the same experience I had when attending philosophy conferences and interacting with philosophy colleagues. Very few professors seem interested in trying to understand classical texts in light of contemporary issues. They would rather invest their time in scrutinizing concepts to be used as buzzwords in the academic papers they would subsequently publish for only a handful of other academics to read.
Skildum articulately points out the problem in this approach, as he relates his own experience with identity studies: “This theoretical framework is polarizing, since it is rooted in language and not in actual life. The realities of the world are under no obligation to adhere to our linguistic restrictions.”
This also sums up the status quo of philosophy departments. The assumption that abstracting an argument will make it universally valid is false. Philosophers all too often become caught up in language games, which only appeal to students who enjoy such casuistry.
Those who are interested in having honest discussions about matters relevant to them are discarded by the academicians, as non-philosophers.
These people are not to be found in philosophy departments. Our modern day marketplace for big ideas is not limited to coffee shops, entertainment centers and non-academic events, but includes the internet, where people engage on a wide range of topics on platforms like Twitter and YouTube and personal blogs.
Moreover, it is not accidental that podcasts have recently become very popular. The Joe Rogan Experience is doing a much better job of creating a space for the discussion of important subjects than many academic philosophers. Rogan hosts people from all walks of life and fields, holds thoughtful conversations with them that can last up to four hours—and some of these interviews attract as many as six million views. This long form dialogue is evocative of the Socratic method. Socrates used to frequent the marketplace and ask people questions that would stimulate them to reconsider their initial positions, and broaden their minds by considering topics from different vantage points. This form of dialogue makes it easier for the interlocutors and third parties who might be listening to be exposed to other experiences, which might help them understand the processes that shaped each person’s view. This was the primary objective of practical philosophy: we grow by living and tinkering with our ideas, and by having real discussions, rather than formally precise, abstract, theoretical conversations about concepts.
Twitter also has huge potential, and is a good filter, which helps us connect and establish networks with people who have similar interests. In my case, not only have I been able to meet interesting people online, but I got the chance to meet some of them—Lebanese, expats and foreigners—in person, when they visited Lebanon. I now know that there are plenty of Twitter friends with whom I can have thoughtful exchanges over dinner when I visit the countries where they are based. There is also considerable value to be found in articles published on digital platforms. Despite the existence of much troll-like content online, there’s an abundance of meaningful and thoughtful content out there, which is more truly philosophical than obscure peer-reviewed journal papers.
When I decided to adopt a different approach to philosophy, and joined that broader, more open marketplace a little over a year now, my worldview completely changed. My approach to teaching has also changed: I now try to make the material more relatable—and the results have been quite stunning. Discussions in class have become more interesting, and students find it easier to talk about problems that concern them, so much so that many of them end up relating the material to their concrete life experiences, and seeking to resolve some of their personal problems through philosophy.
The search for meaning that was triggered by my encounter with death during wartime has led me on a difficult journey, as I’ve progressed from amateur to academic philosophy. However, I’ve learned the hard way that what I’m looking for is to be found outside academe. This has helped me enrich my experiences, as I slowly healed scars that my encounter with war had left. By finally joining the marketplace of ideas, I have learned about personal experiences, writing, startups, culture, history, complexity science, probability, and much more, all of which I would not have discovered from behind the closed doors of academia. After all, at critical moments, the first thing one realizes is that amassing specialized and abstract philosophical knowledge will not help, if we cannot make sense of the real world around us.
This article has benefited from comments from Helen Pluckrose and Madonna Kalousian.