Does philosophy matter?

Stanley Fish questions the usefulness of philosophy outside the academy:

Now it could be said (and some philosophers will say it) that the person who deliberates without self-conscious recourse to deep philosophical views is nevertheless relying on or resting in such views even though he is not aware of doing so. To say this is to assert that doing philosophy is an activity that underlies our thinking at every point, and to imply that if we want to think clearly about anything we should either become philosophers or sit at the feet of philosophers. But  philosophy is not the name of, or the site of, thought  generally; it is a special, insular form of thought and  its propositions have weight and value only in the precincts of its game. Points are awarded in that game to the player who has the best argument going (“best” is a disciplinary judgment) for moral relativism or its opposite or some other position considered “major.” When it’s not the game of philosophy that is being played, but some other — energy policy, trade policy, debt reduction, military strategy, domestic life — grand philosophical theses like “there are no moral absolutes” or “yes there are” will at best be rhetorical flourishes; they will not be genuine currency  or do any decisive work.  Believing or disbelieving in moral absolutes is a philosophical position, not a recipe for living.

In short, the conclusions reached in philosophical disquisitions do not travel. They do not travel into contexts that are not explicitly philosophical (as seminars, academic journals, and conferences are), and they do not even make their way into the non-philosophical lives of those who hold them. The fact that you might give one set of answers rather than another to standard philosophical questions will say nothing about how you will behave when something other than a point of philosophy is in dispute.

In a follow-up, Fish approvingly observes the irrelevance of philosophy to the Supreme Court’s ruling on assisted suicide:

The editors of a leading jurisprudence casebook observe that “The Philosophers’ Brief arguments about autonomy seem not to have influenced the Supreme Court at all” (Jurisprudence Classic and Contemporary, 2002). Why should it have? The Court isn’t doing philosophy, it is doing law. Grand philosophical statements may turn up in a Supreme Court opinion, but they are not doing the real work.

Fish may have overstated his case, and the chosen title (his, not mine) is at least partially designed to inflame. Nevertheless, this account deserves greater consideration from us intellectuals. Outside of the academy, grand philosophies matter only to the extent they help us reason through individual circumstances. I suspect that once we immerse ourselves in the details of a particular question, and equip ourselves with the relevant history and facts, we can debate and reason without considering deeper philosophical issues. As with demarcation, philosophical appeals may simply be a lazy substitute for hard work.


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