copyright Robert M. Ellis 2009

 The state of modern philosophy

The discipline of philosophy in the modern West is dominated by two traditions: analytic and continental philosophy, which each work on different sets of narrow assumptions. Beginners taking a course on philosophy will at least still be given a broader picture, and introduced to the big problems with which philosophy is concerned. However, in my experience research and writing of academic philosophy today has not only abandoned the kind of breadth which might enable it to help people gain moral objectivity, but is also often in denial about the fact that it has done so.

This is partly due to the pressure of specialisation and the crisis of confidence which has affected Western philosophy since the rise of science. Philosophy needs a role in an academic world beset by scientific specialisation, so philosophers have either seen themselves as "handmaidens" of science, or as its critics carping from the sidelines. Only a few philosophers of science (such as Popper, Lakatos and Kuhn) have continued to pursue the central question of whether science in fact needs justification from philosophy. To see scientific achievements positively and yet also in a wider critical perspective seems beyond many contemporary philosophers.

The analytic tradition of philosophy (however much it might misleadingly proclaim its own death by defining itself too narrowly) still exists in the West. Its central defining feature, the fact-value disitinction, still dominates the philosophical landscape. For analytic philosophers, ethics has to be a peripheral pursuit, because it only consists in a clarification of what we already believe. Analytic ethics is concerned with facts about values, and it never seems to occur to anyone that facts and values are not as easily distiguishable within the complexity of human experience as abstract analysis might suggest, or that values may not always be less reliable than facts. A massive cultural prejudice seems to bind huge numbers of otherwise discriminating analytic philosophers to this assumption.

The alternative, "continental" tradition is dominated by postmodernism. Here the fact-value distinction is interpreted differently: facts have lost their privileged position, but values have not regained any basis of objectivity in their place. Instead both facts and values are irredeemably relative. The postmodernist thinkers cry that metaphysics is dead, but they are just as metaphysical as their predecessors, only negatively so. Other continental philosophers still think that metaphysics is alive, and create new forms of it like those of Heidegger. None of them (as far as I have been able to find out in a wide study) really address the need for objectivity of ethics without metaphysics.

Nevertheless, both traditions are still worth engaging with, for we learn about truth negatively, by working our way through various kinds of ignorance. Philosophers at least give clear and thorough accounts of the prejudices of their culture. Some philosophers are also working creatively at the edges of their traditions and chipping away at their limitations: some of the modern philosophers I have found most rewarding in this respect are Thomas Nagel, Derek Parfit, Alasdair MacIntyre, Bernard Williams, and Simon Blackburn. However, none of them are quite prepared to look at the assumptions of their philosophical tradition as though from without. Other creative work goes on where philosophers come into contact with the bite of conditions and try to account for the cases where people really make progress. This is why philosophers of science Thomas Kuhn and Imre Lakatos are some of the greatest moral philosophers around, although they do not see themselves as such. Practical ethics engages with practical conditions in a different way, and is often worth reading because it is forced to acknowledge the limitations of theory as it comes into contact with practice. 

So, I have not given up on philosophy, even though a quite different kind of philosophy needs to be developed, which is not so needlessly constrained by metaphysical assumptions which are only the result of different Western cultural traditions. Philosophy at root is the study of beliefs and their justification, and this task is still one of the most important ones human beings can engage in. It has a central practical importance, because it offers (at least potentially) a wider critical perspective on all other human activities. 

Links to related pages

Join discussion on the 'Middle Way and philosophy' forum on the new phpbb discussion board

How the Middle Way can solve the long-standing problems of Western philosophy

Why academic philosophy needs to be turned upside-down

Truth on the Edge: A Brief Western philosophy of the Middle Way (book)


Links to papers about Western philosophy (all from a "Buddhist" [i.e. Middle Way] point of view):

A palace built on sand (a book review which contains a critique of analytic philosophy)

Non-dualism and Hellenistic ethics

How Buddhist was Plato? (previously published in the Western Buddhist Review)

Parfit and the Buddha (previously published in Contemporary Buddhism)

Lakatos and non-dualist ethics (winning paper from Charles Wei-Hsun Fu Essay Contest)

Comment on this issue on the discussion board

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Links to discussions of philosophers in the thesis:












Frege and analytic philosophy


Peirce, James and Dewey


Kierkegaard, Husserl, Sartre and Heidegger

Philosophy of science