I have Harry Frankfurt’s entertaining tome On Bullshit on my coffee table in my study. I crack it open anytime I get frustrated by the worst of the public discourse we’re subject to each day. As we enter the heat of the political season in the United States this next year, I’m sure I’ll wear the book out. It rarely occurs to me that the philosophy that is the subject of the book may be thought by many to be itself bullshit. But that’s certainly true.
I’ve written on this topic and I know philosophers wrestle with this constantly with students, humanities departments, and the general public. In a conversation I had with Peter Boghossian recently, he opined that philosophy tends to be disconnected from reality and so much of it is, well, bullshit. I haven’t found anything of the sort to be true and have found philosophy to be an intellectual redeemer of sorts. Plato’s allegory of the cave, if it rings true for anyone, certainly was a cacophony of bells for me. But the “reality” of the situation is that philosophy does run afoul for many people that dabble in it (which is why philosophers spend time telling everyone how important philosophy is).
In a short article for the Wessex Scene, Jack Maden attempts to unpack the reasons why. He appears to see the value of philosophy but says that it’s probably only possible to garner this awareness if you spend time philosophizing. He observes that culturally, the west has gotten too busy to really do philosophy well. Sure, the subject is inaccessible. But so are lots of subjects until you spend some time with them.
Perhaps the problem lies in the accessibility of the subject. Indeed, if one were to read of Berkeley’s conclusions – that minds and their ideas are the only things in existence – without having first read his preceding arguments, one may perhaps be a little more justified in throwing the term ‘bullshit’ around….To find intrigue in philosophy, as the great thinkers above found it, one must only look inward. Indeed, the only introductory handbook necessary to us is available in all places and at all times: the mind.
I think his guidance in his article is good. When we start wondering about the world and ask questions about our most basic assumptions, philosophy lights up. It becomes relevant because we find that we can’t begin to tackle those questions until we philosophize.