If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. - Desmond Tutu
Claiming Philosophy For The People
Who is philosophy serving, and can we gain more from it as a society? Is focusing on philosophy ethical in today's world?
Reading Time: 6-9 minutes
December 27th, 2020

I have always loved philosophy, but have struggled to justify my interest as worthwhile. Specifically, what’s bothered me most is philosophy’s consistent detachment from practicality. With so much injustice in the world, how can it be right to spend your time thinking instead of acting? At first, I thought the tension stemmed from the nature of the subject itself, but over time it’s become clear to me that the issue revolves around the society and community philosophy exists within. A single question encapsulates the issue: when you engage in philosophy, are you ever engaging with the people it should affect and help?

1. Practical Constraints

It’s neither reasonable nor fair to ask the average person to approach as a that they must engage with in a purely logical way. Historically, the world isn’t changed by writing philosophy. Few things seem to truly move the general public in opinion, action, or policy:

  1. strong, loud, emotional pleas
  2. violence
  3. “Tipping point” events that often encompass both (1) and (2)
  4. Long, persistent activist campaigns requiring large amounts of resources, either financial or human.

These “tools” are blunt, messy, and sometimes roundabout, but they’ve proven to be effective. It’s the reason we study revolutions in our history classes more often than we spend hours digging into the nuances of Rousseau. Politicians have used these tools. have used these tools. Media has used these tools. Art has used these tools. While it’d be disingenuous to say these people neither use nor engage with philosophy themselves, they must be pragmatic and package up tidbits of digestible ideas into short slogans that lose any form of nuance. As much as we can wish there are better ways, these elements are the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down. Progress is imperfect, but if one cares to improve the world, these practicalities cannot be ignored.

However, as time has progressed in my life, my idealism still yearns for a better way; a more engaging cultural conversation with substance; an approach to systemic change that everyone participates in. I know that philosophy has value it could lend. I hope that philosophy can build ideas that can be reused, last, and empower meaningful marches towards progress.

I suspect many of us can imagine where this could be helpful in our daily lives, particularly when you mix social media and politics, but even in daily conversations. Generally speaking, when most people discuss ethics or politics, we tend to end up talking past each other and defaulting back to identities or core opinions we’ve built into our personality. On occasion, people are able to change a mind through appeals to empathy and the barest human rights of others, but this doesn’t really tend to “scale” given our limited time and patience as individuals. We need better tools. Something that somehow avoids the human flaws that allow all of this injustice to exist in the first place. Philosophy, at its surface, appears to offer this idealistic answer, but the contemporary philosophy community seems to lack interest in engaging with the public when it comes to politics, economics, or activism.

2. A Disconnected Practice

Of course, once you look past the surface of philosophy, the countless flaws become clear. Both historical and contemporary philosophy are much more of a reflection of where society is at than something that acts on it. There’s a weird symbiotic cycle between philosophy and the power structures humans have created. Not only has it managed to get lost within itself and inconsequential arguments decipherable to few, but it's also managed to inherit the same injustice of the practical world. Being primarily led by those in power , it’s become a practice for the wealthy, elite, and privileged. And for the majority of history, that was men. White men, typically hailing from Europe. Today, we have books that make at it at least, but little real change. In my search for answers to combat injustice, I dug deeper only to find more of the same.

Beyond the makeup of its participants, what specifically surprised me was how much of philosophy didn’t even remotely look at the practical world. People devote their entire lives to concepts like metaphysics and aesthetics. There are many people who study philosophy as if it is an art for the sake of itself. For some questions and subfields, that is inevitable. However, it seems so bizarre to me that such a large portion of the field focuses on these detached areas. Once I saw what was occurring in the social and political philosophy sphere, it began to at least make a bit more sense. Much like today's political social media debates, a reflection of people talking past each other was taking place there as well. People would make gruesomely detailed arguments only to be undermined by a simple “Well I don’t believe in basic premise X!”. The debate would rage on about X, the original argument never to be returned to by any audience. Those debating seemed to have no interest in the effects of their ideas, but only .

At first, I thought there was a way to try and convince those same people by playing their game. If people are disagreeing on basic premises, let’s get to the source and start with a blank slate! I quickly learned philosophy is littered with these attempts, and I began to see why much of philosophy valued small, sound arguments as building blocks: the chances of full agreement were so small. However, no one was trying to piece together these building blocks into meaningful ideas, rendering them useless.

In order to make headway in the sphere, it is necessary to start at the most rudimentary level. At the core of social and political philosophy is ethics. Ethical priorities can drastically shape the resulting practicalities to the point that the argument ends up being incredibly unproductive. So to truly make progress, we must dive into ethics.

Here again, I found the “great” and known thinkers in ethics talking past each other in the same way. Take the idea of virtue ethics, conceived back with Aristotle and the Greeks. The idea’s “validity” and “relevance” has no more agreement than when it was first conceived. Introductory courses in ethics still teach the very same basic ideas from centuries ago without any distinctions or notes on modern agreement. And realistically, how could they do better? These ideas are underpinned by an entirely different set of important ideas. Even to answer this question that barely holds onto an aura of practicality, we must go deeper. At this point, to me, it began to feel like turtles all the way down.

Now let’s pause and step back for a second. Imagine the “average” person today. They haven’t studied the depths of philosophy, but they probably have some beliefs about what’s good to do and what’s bad. They’ve likely figured out that murder is bad, and maybe a few other things along the way. If you were to tell that person the “experts” in the field of ethics don’t even have the basics of right and wrong agreed upon, you quite obviously see how useless the field will appear to them.

This is a fatal flaw that detaches most progress of the philosophical community from reality. I intend to make a case that has been commonly made, but with a slight twist. Philosophy can be an incredibly useful subject in helping humanity improve the world, but the field has failed to focus itself on this pursuit.

We must fix the field. And I believe this starts with how we frame philosophy in the first place. Sure, philosophy can be about questions like “What is beauty?” and “Is there a god?”, but we can’t ask these questions in isolation. Philosophy must be rooted in it’s practical use to society. Not all philosophical questions are of equal value. If the purpose of some questions are merely interest and fun, it’s fine as a hobby or interest but should be separated from questions with highly practical implications. Starting with practicalities we all face, it can be shown that some areas of philosophy have more value to humanity. We can show economics is shaped by social and political design, which is in turn shaped by ethics, and ethics are shaped by….?

3. Answering The Important Questions

Here, I need to take a moment to dive into this. That question of what shapes ethics is just too captivating to me. Maybe it is for you too, I hope.

The question is simple: What grounds ethics? The answer to this question lies in a field full of loaded terminology: metaethics. At its core, it addresses a singular but important question:

I first encountered this question / subject in an upper level philosophy course that was preceded by years of academic philosophy, social conversations with people in philosophy, and my own personal learning/research. To have encountered this idea so late I think highlights yet another major failing of the philosophical community.

Philosophy can be chock full of big and important ideas that have bearing on our day to day lives. It should be central to all of us. Having formalized terminology isn’t necessary, but it can be greatly helpful. I’ve hinted at it elsewhere in this writing, but let me make it clear - philosophy happens all around us in the practical world. My bone to pick isn’t with this philosophy, but with the formal community and its explicit lack of engagement with this very real, practical philosophy.

I often look at and idealize the French education system. Their history and revolutions have led to a society that places value in . You see some potential correlations, like their notably high levels of political involvement via voter turnout. The US in particular fares quite badly by this metric of a civically engaged populace. Seeing higher numbers elsewhere gives me hope, through everything. I of course realize that France isn’t perfect, but I wonder what would happen if the US (and other nations) tried to borrow some of these principles and cultural priorities.

4. Making Philosophy For The People

I’m far from the first person to become frustrated with this issue, even within the world of philosophy. I think the most effective of those people have attempted to solve this issue with various delivery systems that separated themselves from the harmful formal field. Some wrote fiction novels, as Ralph Ellison did with Invisible Man. Some wrote plays, as Jean-Paul Sartre did with No Exit. Some managed to write philosophy so bold and engaging that it pushed outside of any philosophical bubble and moved the world on a central issue, as Simone de Beauvoir did with The Second Sex. Some write books focusing on the history and people, stealthily injecting deep complex philosophy into casual and petty gossip of humans, as Sarah Bakewell did with At The Existentialist Cafe (one of my favorite books), managing to capture the ideas and lives of all of the previous examples within their historical context. Even in recent media, shows like The Good Place have brought some of these interesting questions of ethics into the cultural zeitgeist, though it hasn’t naturally extended to politics for the most part. The modern philosopher usually wears a label such as politician, author, religious figure, or artist.

At the end of the day, these creators all more or less did one thing: provide a palatable package that people would pick up and learn their selected ideas through. I applaud their work and can’t deny there is some level of effectiveness in the approach for future creators/philosophers. However, as someone who probably doesn’t have the creativity that many of these people exhibited, I can’t help but think that we as a society can make it just a bit easier to get philosophical ideas into the public zeitgeist.

At a high level, the solution is simple:

  1. Refocus the field of philosophy onto the practical world and our daily lives.
  2. Make philosophy a central part of our culture, educational system, and make sure it’s both accessible and interesting to people from all perspectives.

Implementing these solutions is far more complex of course, but my hope is that we can begin to kick off conversations around these issues.

In order to refocus the field, academic philosophy needs to begin to confront this issue as an identity crisis. They should see the lack of interest from most students as their own failure, and one they must fix. Shifting priorities, redesigning course catalogs, and rewriting syllabi will be needed. Early education outreach programs need to be developed, similar to those many have made for STEM programs today. And further, those programs need to convey this new focus and shift in material.

The second stage of the solution can actually be done with many steps in different spheres. In education, by not only offering philosophy but requiring it from day one and consistently through every schooling level. In our government, by reforming electoral and legislative systems so that they encourage nuance and engagement rather than partisan battles or politicians based on celebrity over substance. In our daily lives, by allowing all people to have their basic needs met so everyone has the ability to even choose to be involved in civic, ethical, and political discussion.

Valuing, prioritizing, and encouraging a practical and useful conception of philosophy has massive potential to unlock new ideas and perspectives. Taking steps in these areas can help us find and support people that previously haven’t been encouraged to pursue philosophy, such as women, people of color, and countless other marginalized and oppressed groups.

Maybe then, with a practical lens from many perspectives, we can start actually answering parts of these questions philosophy likes to claim are “unanswerable”. Perhaps then we can speed up progress: not in technology or business but in our humanity and the societal values we build.

5. A Hopeful Future

I still struggle to justify my time with philosophy. Even if all of these changes can be accomplished, it’ll take time. In that time, large swaths of people will continue to suffer injustice. As a person, I can’t ignore these injustices. But this argument keeps me going. Changing philosophy won’t be quick, but it can be a helpful part of the long-term march of progress that can pay a large dividend when viewed from a long horizon.

I want to help build a world where philosophers can produce real fruits from their labor in the practical world. My first hope is that the mere framing here will convince people to listen and engage with philosophy with their daily lives in mind.

I’ve thought about these ideas for a while, but it never felt right to spend time with them. Hopefully, this piece has convinced both you and me that there is practical value in these ideas. I hope to detail these for the rest of my life, with more coming in the near future. Not as a single activity, but in tandem with the blunt and messy tools of activism and practical change.


Please be empathetic to others and assume goodwill when possible.