More Welders and Fewer Philosophers?

Mr. Marco Rubio’s recent comment that we need “more welders and fewer philosophers,” struck me, since I have taught philosophy in universities since 1976.  As a memorable line, it was brilliant. But there could be danger lurking behind its obvious appeal.

Along with many disciplines in a lot of colleges and universities, philosophy has become marginalized and silly. One need only consider the outcries coming from the University of Missouri and other bastions of the totalitarian left, where immature students are simply echoing the propaganda of their equally immature teachers. It is one thing to want a “safe space” in the privacy of your own home or with your own friends, it is quite another to demand it as your right in what has been called “the naked public square,” where clash the conflicting ideas required for a vibrant society.

Let’s consider two other current examples, more directly related to philosophy: “transgender” and tattoos. Why have they become so prominent now, never before? Because of the existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, among others. In his popular essay “Existentialism is a Humanism,” delivered to a group of librarians shortly after World War II, Sartre rejected the traditional idea that humans come into the world with a determinate nature or essence, which includes having a definite kind of sexed body and a soul, and make possible all we do with our lives. Instead, Sartre said we are “thrust into existence, but without a determined essence,” so we must create for ourselves the essence we want. Half a century later, this idea of Sartre (and others) has “trickled down” to the celebrities, journalists, and activists so influential in contemporary American society. The result: If you are born with a male sexual body, you can create your own gender, because “gender” has been “deconstructed” and made into a psychological construct you can choose, rather than a physical sex present in the body you were born with. And that body is no longer thought to be an intrinsically beautiful thing you should take care to preserve and develop as you received it (think of Greek sculpture), but a morally neutral blank canvas upon which you can create whatever you want, through changes ranging from so called “sex-change” operations to tattoos that express the “real you,” part of the essence you create for yourself. “Self-expression” and “freedom” understood negatively as the absence of external restraint, rather than the positive ability to pursue the good, have become the highest values; and not for the first time in human history. One can consult Plato’s Republic, Bk. 8, on this point.

What is the answer to these deep problems? And they are deep; real philosophers don’t commit minor errors but huge ones. First, we need to separate the good philosophers from the bad ones. The teachers and administrators in charge of too many universities have drawn their principles, directly or in most cases indirectly, from philosophers like Marx and Nietzsche, Dewey and Sartre. But philosophy itself, as originated by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and forwarded by Augustine and Avicenna, Aquinas and Locke, Kant and, yes, even Hegel, is not the problem. It is the long-term solution. Second, we must eschew the “honey trap” of advocating a purely technical and vocational training. These areas of knowledge, as valuable as they are, cannot solve the deeper problems that afflict us and our society. Plato knew this truth about Athens, and we need to learn this lesson about America. Only real philosophy, true and traditional philosophy, can do so. So if we abandon philosophy, and send all our “best and brightest” for an education at what Nietzsche (no friend of mine, but insightful) called “training at the technische Hochscule,” then we are doomed.

Technical and scientific education is absolutely essential for our culture. But it has never solved and never will solve the great and fundamental problems facing any individual or any culture. Cultures die when they turn matters over to science and technology, as Churchill understood about the two world wars in the twentieth century. The German scientists and engineers who developed rockets and jet aircraft first worked for the Nazis, then for the Soviets or the Americans, because who used their knowledge, and what they used it to build, was “outside my technical area of expertise.” And we should remember that the Third Reich and the Soviet Union are no more. The same applies to American generals and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Planned Parenthood mavens, and the “progressives” who run the IRS.

While much of what goes for “philosophy” at present will fall into “the dustbin of history,” to be sure, to abandon Plato’s insight that the health and flourishing of a culture, to say nothing of an individual, requires what only true philosophy (and, I would add, true religion) can teach, must inevitably lead to America jumping headfirst into that “dustbin,” something all the Republican candidates seem to want to avoid, and rightly so.

And I hope Mr. Rubio will not tumble into that dustbin, in spite of all his good intentions.

R. E. Houser, who teaches philosophy at a university in Houston, Texas, and sometimes contributes to the American Thinker.