The big questions and the professionalization of philosophy

Most people are unaware that philosophy has become highly professionalized. Professionalization leads to specialization and technicalization, and most philosophers nowadays work on very specific problems in a particular area of philosophy and write in technical terms, both of which ¾ the problems and the language ¾ require abundant academic training to understand.

It may not be true that philosophers are no longer interested in big questions like ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’, ‘Where did the universe come from?’, ‘What is our place in the world?’, and ‘What makes a life meaningful?’, but even if some of them are still tackling these problems, they are likely to be doing so in such a way that it is not easy for lay people to see that it is these big questions that they are trying to answer.

For one thing, it is likely that these philosophers have analyzed the big questions into manageable smaller problems and are working on these smaller problems without making clear how they are related to the big questions (probably because they themselves are not yet clear about how the relation between these problems should be understood). For another, they are so used to writing for the readership of fellow philosophers (assuming background knowledge, using jargon, etc.) that the way they write may not be accessible to lay people.

Professionalization is good for philosophers at least to the extent that it allows them to have extensive intellectual interactions and, relatedly, intellectual division of labor.* If not being accessible to lay people is the price for enjoying these benefits of professionalization, philosophers may be willing to pay it. On the other hand, it is not unreasonable to ask what philosophers have to offer to those lay people who care to think about, or are even troubled by, the big questions, for philosophers are in the best position to tackle these problems. After all, they have got the training and, thanks to the professionalization of philosophy, the time needed to tackle these problems.

For people who want to have answers to the big questions, many of these questions are ultimately about how we should live our lives. It would be expecting too much if we expect philosophers to be wise people in the sense that they are able to see through all the vanities, illusions, and foolishness that are common among human beings, and live accordingly. In other words, it would be expecting too much if we expect philosophers to set examples of how we should live our lives. It is reasonable, however, to expect philosophers to be able to analyze problems clearly, avoid confusions and mistakes in thinking, and draw conceptual connections when necessary, so as to obtain whatever knowledge and understanding that can be obtained by human beings concerning some important general aspects of the world and human life ¾ to give good answers to some of the big questions. And people may find these answers helpful in determining how they should live their lives.

So, the question is: How many professional philosophers would feel obliged to meet such a reasonable expectation?

* Of course, the professionalization of philosophy has its dark side. As Barry Stroud points out, the professionalization of philosophy was made possible by the connection between philosophy and the university; and since “what universities, even the best universities, now demand from individual professors, on the whole, is quantity of publications, frequency of citation in the professional literature, widely certified distinction in the profession, and other quantifiable measures of an impressive resume”, this “ has rendered much more of philosophy sterile, empty, and boring” (Stroud, “What is Philosophy?”).