The Philosophy of Inquiry and Global Problems: The Intellectual Revolution Needed to Create a Better World

London: Palgrave-Macmillan (2024)
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Abstract

Bad philosophy is responsible for the climate and nature crises, and other global problems too that threaten our future. That sounds mad, but it is true. A philosophy of science, or of theatre or life is a view about what are, or ought to be, the aims and methods of science, theatre or life. It is in this entirely legitimate sense of “philosophy” that bad philosophy is responsible for the crises we face. First, and in a blatantly obvious way, those institutions, organizations, corporations, businesses, endeavours, and activities of humanity that cause the crises and global problems we face, do so because of the aims they pursue (profit perhaps, or power, or heat and light for homes), and the methods adopted in pursuit of those aims – the philosophy in other words, built into the institution, organization, business, human activities, or whatever it may be. It is the philosophy of these institutions, organizations and activities that we need to change to put a stop to, or at least lessen the severity of, the crises we face, the global problems that confront us, above all the climate and nature crises. One institution has an especially crucial role in this respect: our universities. They are dominated in a multitude of ways by a particularly disastrous philosophy, a philosophy of inquiry which may be called knowledge-inquiry. This holds that the basic aim of the university is to acquire and apply knowledge. First, knowledge is to be acquired; once acquired, it can be applied to help solve social problems. But this philosophy of knowledge-inquiry is an intellectual disaster. As a result, universities are, in devastating and almost entirely unrecognized ways, humanitarian disasters too. Judged from the standpoint of helping to promote human welfare, the university shaped by the philosophy of knowledge-inquiry violates THREE of the four most elementary rules of rational problem solving conceivable in a wholesale, structural fashion, and it is this gross, wholesale, structural irrationality of the university, unnoticed by all but a few scientists and scholars, that is in part responsible for the creation of our grave global problems, and our current incapacity to learn how to solve them. The pursuit of knowledge, conducted in universities, within the framework of knowledge-inquiry over the decades and centuries, has produced much of great benefit to humanity. It has made the modern world possible. It has led to modern power production, modern industry and armaments, modern agriculture, modern hygiene and medicine, modern travel and communications, and the internet. But these very successes have also created many of our most serious current global problems: the climate crisis; the destruction of natural habitats, the catastrophic loss of wild life, and impending mass extinction of species (the nature crisis); the lethal character of modern war; the impact on the natural world of the rapid growth of the human population; the menace posed by nuclear weapons; pollution of earth, sea and air; threats to democracy caused in part by the internet and social media. All these grave global problems have been made possible by modern science and technology, pursued largely in universities within the framework of knowledge-inquiry. Nevertheless, it is not science and technology as such that are the problem, but science pursued in a way that is dissociated from a more fundamental task of the university to help humanity resolve conflicts and problems of living in increasingly cooperatively rational ways, so that progress may be made to a better world. Science and technology, pursued within the framework of knowledge-inquiry, create for some of us the power to act, but not the power to act wisely – not the power to learn how to resolve conflicts and problems of living in increasingly cooperatively rational ways. For that, we need our institutions of learning, above all our universities, to take as their primary task to help humanity learn how to do it. In order to do that, the philosophy of inquiry put into practice by universities needs to be dramatically transformed. We urgently need to bring about a revolution in the overall aims and methods of academic inquiry – a revolution in the philosophy of the university, all around the world, wherever possible, so that the basic aim becomes to seek and promote wisdom, construed to be the capacity, active endeavour, and perhaps desire, to realize what is of value in life, for oneself and others, wisdom in this sense including knowledge, understanding and technological know-how, but much else besides, methods being dramatically modified too so as to help achieve the new academic aim. The basic task of the university would be, not to solve problems of knowledge, but rather to help people in the social world beyond the university to resolve conflicts and problems of living so that what is of value in life may be realized by everyone, insofar as that is possible. The pursuit of knowledge would be vital, but not intellectually fundamental. The intellectual and institutional revolution we so urgently need in our universities would affect every discipline and aspect of the university; it would dramatically affect both research and education, and the whole way the university is related to the rest of the social world. The revolution, from knowledge-inquiry to wisdom-inquiry would dramatically enhance the intellectual integrity and rationality of natural science, social inquiry, the humanities and technology, the character of these disciplines and the relationships they have with one another. University education throughout the university would be dramatically improved. And academic inquiry as a whole would do what, on the whole, it fails to do at present: it would help humanity resolve conflicts and problems of living in increasingly cooperatively rational and, as a result, increasingly successful ways, progress at last being made to a genuinely good, civilized world – a world in which there is peace, justice, liberal democracy, individual freedom, education, reasonable equality, sustainable prosperity and worthwhile opportunities in life, all of these for everyone, insofar as this is possible. Why, it may be asked, has academic philosophy not noticed that we urgently need to transform the current bad philosophy of inquiry of knowledge-inquiry into the far more intellectually rigorous and humanly valuable philosophy of wisdom-inquiry, so that we can begin to do what so far we have failed to do so lamentably: learn how to avoid impending disasters, and even make progress to a better world, something that seems at present almost unthinkable given the horrors of war, poverty, political enslavement of the 20th century, and the horrors of this century so far too? The answer is that academic philosophy is in a particularly pitiful state, as philosophers themselves, are just beginning to realize and lament. That is why academic philosophers are blind to the intellectual and humanitarian disaster of the bad philosophy that dominates universities today, and inconceivable to them to them that they might have, as a disciplinary task, to ensure academic inquiry implements a good philosophy of inquiry, and advocate and argue for change if it does not. Once upon a time, in Europe at least, philosophy was an intellectual power in the world. In the 17th century it created modern science which massively increased and improved our knowledge and understanding of the world, which in turn led to the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution, and the modern world. Philosophy was once so intellectually powerful and influential that it changed the course of history. But philosophy also made in the past three disastrous intellectual blunders: the post-Cartesian blunder, the post-Newtonian blunder, and the Enlightenment blunder. Never acknowledged and corrected by subsequent philosophy right down to the present, these unrecognized intellectual blunders rendered academic philosophy the esoteric, pathetic, and powerless discipline it is today, so that throughout the last century and, so far, throughout this one, academic philosophy has remained blind to the intellectual disaster of knowledge-inquiry, and thus failed entirely to take up its proper disciplinary task of warning fellow academics of the structural irrationality of the philosophy that prevails in the university, and of proposing what steps need to be taken to put things right. Instead of performing such an urgently needed philosophical task, so-called analytic philosophy was reduced to analysing the meaning of words. Since then, there has been hardly any discernible improvement, even if analysis of concepts no longer dominates the scene. Bad academic philosophy is indeed responsible for intellectual and humanitarian failures of the university. What the three past intellectual blunders of philosophy are, why their persistence so dramatically reduces academic philosophy to a triviality, and why, furthermore, this results in the failure of scientists and scholars to see what is so blatantly bad about the philosophy prevailing in universities around the world – the failure to see what so urgently needs to be done to put right what has been wrong for so long: all this is made clear in this book. A new kind of philosophy emerges during the course of the argument, critical fundamentalism, which has as its task to keep alive imaginative and critical – that is rational – thinking about our fundamental problem: How can our human world, the world we experience and live in – the world of living things, people, consciousness, free will, meaning and value – how can all of this exist and best flourish embedded as it is in the physical universe? That problem encompasses all others of life, science and thought. Critical fundamentalism tries to improve answers to aspects of this problem; but it also seeks to encourage everyone to think about the problem, from time to time, and think about how it interacts, in both directions, with more urgent particular and specialized problems of life and thought. Critical fundamentalism sets out to help improve bad philosophy wherever it is to be found: in social, political, commercial, legal, financial, and international life; and especially in academia, in institutions of learning, so that they become devoted to enhancing the capacity of people to learn how to achieve what is of genuine value in this brief life of a few decades if we are fortunate. Critical fundamentalism does everything it can to bring about the revolution in our universities we so urgently need. If taken up by mainstream philosophy, it might really have an impact, and begin to transform universities for the better, in both intellectual and humanitarian terms, and thus, enable humanity to learn how, after the grim failures and horrors of the last century and this one, to make progress to a better world.

Author's Profile

Nicholas Maxwell
University College London

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