Tuesday, 2 March 2010

How can Philosophy Think the Contemporary?

At its best, philosophy tells us what is important and significant about the times in which we live.

Marx told us that the 19th century was the age of technological progress and political 'struggles from below'; existentialism and phenomenology told us that the 20th century was the century of the heroic individual's struggle for meaning.

How are philosophers to think the significance of the times in which we live? In many ways this a profundly difficult task, because technology and globalisation have now rendered the world complex almost beyond comprehension. As such, the world today seems to be opaque to philosophy and perhaps even to thought itself.

As a result, the only philosophical show in town in recent years has a been a relativism that is itself profoundly anti-philosophical. This has led many to believe that the contemporary period amounts to the 'end of philosophy' and the triumph of opinion (public relations etc).

What we need however is a bold and synoptic philosophy that attempts to grapple with this complexity and articualte its basic dimensions and trajectories. We need to contest relativism in the name of philosophy. This will in the end almost certainly require a new philosophical language of some kind.

Neil Turnbull


  1. I agree that the contemporary world presents new and profound challenges to philosophy and philosophical thinking, and that philosophy needs to rise to this challenge.
    However, I'm not sure it is the case that globalisation and technology have rendered the world more complex than in past times. Rather, I would say that our awareness of the complexity of the world has increased as a result of these developments, and with it, the perception that such complexity needs to be grappled with by philosophy and humanity in general.
    Interestingly, the view that the forces of globalisation and tech have increased complexity runs counter to the perceived wisdom on the matter, namely that the world has become more homogenised as a result, and therefore easier to understand on some level.
    The image of the global village is meant to be somehow a comforting one according to this form of analysis, where people are able to connect and communicate via tecnology in a vast network of relations, rather than be separated by physical distance and therefore lack of understanding, as in the past.
    On this interpretation, the symbol of Macdonalds in Red Square somehow renders Moscow less "other", less threatening in some way(at least to travellers if not theorists!) I wouldn't subscribe to that view of globalisation either, but it is certainly one that is bandied around in current theoretical discourse.

  2. 'Complexity' is largely an epistemological notion. It signifies that the world today has so many variables that it seems to defy our ability to model it accurately. Take the economy for example; the recent economic crisis clearly shows that the global economy is so compplex that noone has a full grasp of how it works!

    However, I want to make a more fundamental point. Globalisation has not only 'brought us closer together', it has brought us closer together in a highly complex way. For example, we now have to face up to the fact that there was nothing really that special about the Greeks and that western philosophy is simply one tradition amongst many, many other 'wisdom traditions'. How then to avoid the conclusion that 'Greek philosophy' is quintessentially occidental and has no special relation to being etc?

    The big question here is how can we unify all these different traditions of wisdom into something that we might term 'a philosophy'?

    Also, technologies today are much more 'epistemic' than they used to be. Knowledge today increasingly exists as code; as information that be stored, distributed and ultimately marketed. Maybe this, in the end, in the fate of philosophy as well?

    My point is that trying to make sense of both these developments,both of which are radically and important and new, will require a lot of philosophical creativity and perhaps even a whole new level of abstraction.

    Neil Turnbull

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  4. Something else.

    It is this complexity that creates the demand for philosophy today. When everyday life is shaped by the distal effects of the global technosphere, this creates a radical ontolgical insecurity that at the same time spurs us on the think and to try as best we can to conceptualise the world that confronts us. Complexity, we might say, creates the need to for a defintional grasp of contemporary complexity. This means that philosophy today must constantly search for new languages to articulate this complexity.

    Complexity and philosophy are now intimately, perhaps even internally, related

    Neil Turnbull