Writing Great Philosophy for the Sake of the Future

Some of the most important written works neither profit a thinker, nor advance an academic or public career. At first, they offer only themselves. (Or, perhaps, some extraordinary adventures and experiences necessary to write them—yet the total labor required to see them through often dims this value for the author.)

Yet the expectation that compositions should soon yield profits, status, fame or advancement keeps many thinkers and writers away from achieving greater work.

This is one reason why academia is very nearly the death of philosophy, and the market for writing, little better. Most who somehow emerge from modern “education systems” and have philosophy to offer—ideas cultivated through study and appreciation of the sciences (the fields of human knowledge) and expressed as a creation of art—are obliged to bury their ideas in entertainment in order to sell their work and support themselves. This is valuable, but second-hand.

While philosophical works should not quite follow “art for art’s sake,” they must be undertaken without promise of rewards save important work of great meaning. Though it is no guarantee, great philosophy first requires appropriate ambition, and dedication of oneself.

And we all require more great philosophy. Without great works to develop new ideas for the future, there will be no future different from the consequences of the ideas inherited from the past.

There are too many old and misplaced ideas we are living with. If they were ever right, they are no longer right, for us, now. We are still counting on Plato, Aristotle, St. Paul, and so many others to write our future—implicitly. Even Darwin has yet to sink in. We are still building upon ancient notions like foundations we almost never notice. Many of the newest sources are centuries old; many of those we call “modern” thinkers are unoriginal recyclers, copycats, and poor synthesists of the grab bag. Yet people who repeat echoes of Rousseau, Paine, and poor readings of Jesus wonder why they cannot change things. Utopian faiths, demanding abstractions, and political revolutions come up empty because they have been tried before without understanding, only to be repeated now as though new.

We wonder why we’re stuck in a present that still looks like the past—degraded, plus technology that—we like to hope—has something to say, because we don’t. No, we’ll only have a different future when enough of us commit to thinking and writing for one.


2 responses to “Writing Great Philosophy for the Sake of the Future

  1. agreed. we’re probably all just waiting for nietzsche’s ‘overman’ to make an appearance.

  2. You are absolutely on target that philosophic works at their best must be prepared for feeding the cultural heritage.

    Your gladdening entry sets forth two faces of the current state of philosophical education: on one side, the nature of the ambition and dedication of the maker, and on the other, the readers/experiencers who assimilate what has been made. As to the latter, I can think offhand of three vehicles through which new philosophic sources (or vitally recast “ancient” ones) can be be transmitted. 1) in person, via face-to-face dialogue and/or elbow-to-elbow living over time; 2) by authentic reading; 3) by acquiring life experience which evolves into conscious attentive living and growing knowledge of the dynamics of memory. All three make strong demands on our faculties and our time. One thing familiar to many of the philosophers of old was that philosophy is a way of life. Even in the salad days of the Academy or the Library of Alexandria there were merchandising academic whores and shoppers of idea catalogues who sullied the clear transmission of philosophic ideas. It’s no wonder that anyone who sensed there was philosophic work to do would seek out a teacher to help turn down the noise.

    On a related note, I think we must accept that there are many non-ruminative people who have encountered one or two prime ideas, and this is all they can effectively assimilate, at least until woe, danger, crisis, fear, suffering or old age adjusts their attention. Without these spurs to psychophysiological development, the way is narrow for them to enter into the levels of philosophical discourse and pattern discovery that you are alluding to. I have met people I would not consider to be readers or friends of deep conversation—some could be characterized as easily distractible— for whom it seems that one theme or idea deeply understood could suffice as a guiding conceptual resource for living, and I believe they would think “living well.” Indeed, they often seem to be looking for that next “best thing” on the internet that will supply the missing juice.

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