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There is no denying it: something is amiss is our society.

We need to stop, reflect and try new things. Going on in the same old way seems pointless as it leads to the same old political quarrels, the same old arguments between theists and atheists, the same old suspicions of each other. Our public discourse is stuck in a rut. Rationally convincing the other side seems like a hopeless dream and demonizing the other side feels like the only option for making any progress.

Why do we find ourselves in this situation? What are its causes, historical and conceptual? What can be done about it? Is there any hope that things can change?

These are pressing questions. But where can one begin to answer them? What can be a good starting point for trying to get some clarity amidst all the confusion?

I suggest: by trying to understand the structures of academic philosophy.

This might seem like a bizarre suggestion. What does academic philosophy have to do with it? In America, where I live, most people might have a hard time naming a contemporary academic philosopher. When I was studying philosophy and even when I was a professor, many in my family wondered what I was doing. Given that many people might not have taken an introductory philosophy class, how can understanding the institution of academic philosophy help with the general societal impasse?

In order to understand the conceptual gridlock of our society, it is no use to look to the average unreflective citizen. A republican who never thinks much about their beliefs and a similarly unreflective democrat are not going to make much progress talking to each other; they might only become indignant that they are being asked to defend their view. Unreflective people produce conceptual gridlock; that is no surprise. What is surprising and interesting is why there is such gridlock in our society even though there are many people who spend most of their time reflecting on their beliefs (academics in general, and academic philosophers in particular).

To understand the general societal impasse we need to look to our current, best practices of rational discourse about our lives, and see if there is anything problematic about them. That means we need to look at academic philosophy and see how it is doing. Whether it is thriving, and if so, why that thriving isn't translating into productive social discourse. And if it is not thriving, in what way it is not thriving and why that is the case.

If you want to understand the public discourse in a theocratic society, you should look at that society's churches, mosques or temples. Try to understand the structures and conceptual pressures within the religious institutions guiding the society and you will understand why people in that society talk and act as they do.

Similarly, if you want to understand the public discourse in a secular society, which is based on the ideals of Enlightenment philosophers from roughly the 1600s on, you should look at that society's institutions which embody and teach those ideals. In our society a main such institution is academic philosophy.

My hope is that by understanding the structures of academic philosophy some general features of our society will come to light. We will then be able to better understand the gridlock in our society and find ways to move beyond it.

 

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