The next 10 years: why philosophy matters now more than ever

Sunday 19 October, 17.30 until 18.45, Milton Court Festival Attractions

You will need an additional ticket to gain entry to Milton Court. Please ask at the Registration Desk on arrival on Sunday.

’The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man, the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected…Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom.’ Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy

As the tenth Battle of Ideas festival draws to a close, how should we confront the problems of the next decade? Our era often seems to be characterised by an explosion of knowledge. It is not just that the internet offers seemingly infinite amounts of information and data; more profoundly, the sciences, physical and social, claim to have more answers to the fundamental questions of being human than ever before. What is love? An evolutionary strategy. Free will? A story we tell ourselves. If, as some claim, even morality is an evolutionary adaptation and neuroscience can explain its workings, can scientists determine what is right and wrong, making ethics redundant? Neuroscientist Sam Harris believes scientific facts trump value judgements, while the revered physicist Stephen Hawking has proclaimed ‘philosophy is dead’ and ‘scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge’.

Can the subjective, the uncertain, and intuition now be dispensed with? Some critics see philosophy as more like a spiritual quest for transcendence than a serious academic discipline. Even in academic institutions, a philosophical approach can be written off as pointlessly self-indulgent. And philosophy can be its own worst enemy: academic philosophy can seem to wallow in wilful obscurantism, while pop-philosophers market their insights as therapeutic self-help manuals, more navel-gazing than profound. Overall, philosophers can seem stuck, still asking the same questions Plato asked 2,400 years ago. So has philosophy indeed passed its sell-by date?

What of deeper truth beyond scientific accounts that can tell us what is, but never why it is? It is one thing to know the empirical facts; but dare we dispense with a deeper spirit of enquiry, a commitment to making sense of human experience to help us judge what truly matters for human flourishing? Over a hundred years ago, Max Weber wrote of the disenchantment of a rationalised, bureaucratic world. Might philosophy find new purpose in offering an antidote to sterile utilitarianism? Of course, philosophical thinking can be risky, upsetting established ideas and norms; as Hannah Arendt noted, ‘thinking itself is dangerous’. But perhaps philosophy is required more than ever today: the challenges of the next 10 years will surely not be overcome without a belief in the human capacity to interpret as well as describe the world. And without that, what hope can we have to change it?

Professor Tim Crane
Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy, University of Cambridge; author The Meaning of Belief (Harvard UP 2017)

Professor Frank Furedi
sociologist and social commentator; author, What's Happened to the University?, Power of Reading: from Socrates to Twitter, On Tolerance and Authority: a sociological history

Dr Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
philosopher and novelist; author, Plato at the Googleplex: why philosophy won’t go away; visiting professor of philosophy, New College of the Humanities

Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive

Produced by
Claire Fox director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive
Recommended readings
Why Philosophy Is Still Relevant - And Has Useful Applications

To a great number of people, philosophy has become obsolete; to others it's mind-numbingly boring; to others it's incredibly confusing and too hard a subject to get around, but it is more necessary now than ever

Alexander Leivesley, Huffington Post, 5 May 2014

Philosophy is not a 'ridiculous' pursuit. It is worth funding

We should be funding philosophical research, although ‘pure’ researches that may look like inactivity he insists that the process of sitting with your thoughts can be just as valuable as lab work.

Paul Redding, Guardian, 17 September 2013

The Unexpected Uselessness of Philosophy

Physics and other walks of science do not gain from Philosophy in the slightest, the presumptions are more often than not wrong and the modern world is moving away from philosophy to science and the subject will soon become obsolete globally.

Steven Weinberg, LibCom, 6 June 2010

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