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Politics, Prosperity, and Philosophy

Samuel S. Chen   l   November, 15, 2015

Last Tuesday was a rough night for philosophers.


In addition to their usual targets—each other and Hillary Clinton—the candidates on stage for the fourth Republican presidential debate declared war on one other group: philosophers.  Consider these quotes:


“Welders make more money than philosophers.  We need more welders and less [sic] philosophers.”

- Florida Senator Marco Rubio


“What the Fed [Federal Reserve] is doing now is it is a series of philosopher-kings trying to guess what’s happening with the economy. …  That’s why I’m supporting getting back to rules-based monetary system not with a bunch of philosopher-kings deciding….”

- Texas Senator Ted Cruz


For philosophers, this is nothing new.  I began hearing the jokes the day I walked out of my first philosophy class—everything from, “Final Exam: Find a Job” to my personal favorite, “What are the two major questions every philosopher asks?  ‘Why?’ and ‘Would you like fries with that?’”


In hindsight, the GOP candidates were much nicer to philosophy than my peers were.  Nearly every list of “most worthless college majors” lists philosophy close to the top.  Nonetheless, the candidates’ little anti-philosophy pow-wow is ironic, if not dangerously wrong.



Divorcing Politics from Philosophy


Rubio kicked things off by writing off philosophers on nothing more than finances.  Besides being factually mistaken—philosophy professors make more on average than welders do—his remarks underscore a deeper problem: that our standards of success in America are based solely upon financial prosperity.  With a struggling economy, this turn toward a purely fiscal policy isn’t surprising.  Everything today from immigration policy to education to family decisions has been reduced to an economic equation.


But this strict fiscal approach to policy is dangerous.  After all, isn’t life more than money?  My colleague Kate Hardiman put it best when she wrote, “Universities…that strive for something more than mere return on investment—notably the education of the entire person—are given short shrift by examining mere financial metrics.”  Swap “universities” with “government” (or “life”) and it applies all the same here.


Cruz followed suit by dropping the most recognized Platonic term “philosopher king” before immediately demonstrating his Platonic illiteracy by contrasting Plato’s philosopher king with those who are “rules-based” in their decision making.  In an attempt to rebuff philosophy and any role it may play in governing, the candidates engaged in the very practice of philosophy, espousing philosophical thoughts of their own.



A Politic without Philosophy?


Contrary to popular belief and what the candidates espoused on Tuesday, philosophy does not solely deal with the big questions of life—what is the meaning of life?, is there a God?, how do we know what we know?, etc.  While it does address these overarching questions, philosophy, at its core, is a process of thought that permeates all of life.  All that we do is not only immersed in, but guided by philosophy, whether we acknowledge it or not.


Which means a politic without philosophy is chaotic and dangerous to the state, to society, and ultimately, to its citizens.


No presidential candidate would call on doctors to practice medicine without biology or engineers to neglect calculus and physics.  Nor should we dismiss philosophy in the name of finances, rules, or governance. It is, in fact, philosophy that gives these other aspects their purpose and direction and, in the case of the latter two, their substantive element as well.


The point the candidates attempted to make Tuesday is valid.  Rubio’s call for investing in vocational training—something Fmr. Pennsylvania Senator and fellow presidential candidate Rick Santorum touched on earlier in the night and throughout his 2012 campaign—is one that has received support from both Republicans and Democrats. 


They are not wrong—we cannot merely be a people who talk, we must be a people who act.  But that action must be rooted in a coherent philosophy.  The nightmare that would ensue otherwise wouldn’t be much different than the surgeon who operates with no understanding of biology.  Besides, don’t debates exist to contrast the differences in both method and philosophy?



Substance over Semantics


After the past several debates, especially following the CNBC debate, the GOP candidates protested “gotcha” questions and moderators pitting themselves against each other.  Cruz ended his widely praised rebuff of the moderators by asking, “How about talking about the substantive issues people care about?”


How ironic.  The candidates have mastered the semantical game—calling for more substantive conversations while railing against that very substance and any role it may play in government—all for one objective: to win.  This isn’t new to philosophers, though, as the candidates were eerily similar to a group any philosopher knows all too well: the sophists.


The reality that escaped the candidates on that stage Tuesday is that some form of philosophy will always win the day.  Sadly, in our current political discourse, that champion is sophistry.


As citizens and as voters, the onus is on us to demand better.

about the author

Samuel Chen is the principal director of The Liddell Group.


Chen has managed and directed numerous campaigns and has also served as a staffer in the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.  In 2014, he was named to PoliticsPA's "30 under 30" list for top political operatives in Pennsylvania.


He has also spoken throughout the country in various venues, including academic conferences, policy testimonties, and media interviews and holds degrees in philosophy, political science, and church-state studies, all from Baylor University.


See full bio here.

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