This article was prompted by a reading of the following eulogy of Jacques Derrida.
Noam Chomsky has also written about this, though from another angle. His article is available here.
Philosophy has become incredibly arcane and out of reach of a reasonably intelligent individual. Like modern Law and its practice, there are expert practitioners of philosophy not because they are lawful or philosophical or wise or clear, but because only they know what the terms mean, the terms whose obscurity keeps them in-demand and well-paid in their professions.
In the 20th century, and even more so in the 21st century, philosophy has become a discipline with its own highly specialized terms, theories, texts and testaments.
Academic philosophers, e.g. the French crop of post-x and post-y intellectuals and their American counterparts, have an astonishing degree of influence in the current debates on philosophy.
Philosophy is no longer a personal passion, it is just another subject, another specialization for one's arts degree. No doubt, one can find passionate academic philosophers, who become red in the face while arguing for or against a certain position. But that passion has nothing to do with their real lives. When they have won an argument, nobody has gained an insight which will enable them to be freer or happier. It probably will result in a published paper, at best.
The word Philosophy literally means "the love of wisdom". And the acid test of wisdom is how happily one can live in the world as it is. The wisdom that is inapplicable to real life is not worth the time spent upon expounding it.
Unfortunately, philosophy has become divorced from real life. It is a remarkable state of affairs that one can study philosophy and even teach it while all one does study and does teach is the history of western philosophical thought. Philosophy is now but another department in colleges and universities where dons and donnas debate whether the writings of philosopher x are convergent or divergent with the writings of philosopher y, whether one fashionable nonsense can be considered compatible with another fashionable nonsense.
The major philosophers of the day are professors in various universities around the world. They expound meaningful-sounding tomes on highly abstract positions, and nobody but qualified practitioners can make any sense out of them. I daresay I find Bailey and Love's Short Practice of Surgery a much better read than Sartre's Being and Nothingness.
In this age, examples of philosophers to practice what they preach have been conspicuous by their rarity. Is it because there is nothing to practice perchance, because it is all drivel anyway?
And when one does come across some acts of philosophers, they have been mostly symbolic events (e.g. returning a prize, making a statement, being a signatory to a petition, etc.) The question is not whether a philosopher should start fighting wars or start harvesting crops. Without a doubt, the philosopher's skill and expertise is mental and intellectual. The question is whether that skill remains engaged with the issues of one's own life and of the world at large, whether it brings clarity to a tangible problem beguiling oneself or others; or does that skill become a way to invent imaginary problems and then to solve them?
Wittgenstein was probably the last great western philosopher. His seminal works were not to create imaginary problems or to give opinionated and cross-referenced answers to abstract ones. In fact just the opposite. His whole life was a clarification of the various issues in philosophy as preventable confusions in the mind. In his very words:
"Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts. Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity. A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations. Philosophy does not result in 'philosophical propositions', but rather in the clarification of propositions. Without philosophy thoughts are, as it were, cloudy and indistinct: its task is to make them clear and to give them sharp boundaries."
In the eastern regions of the world, philosophy was always subsumed by spirituality and the pursuit of mystical salvation, since that was the only way to permanent peace and happiness (or so the sages thought). Since this pursuit was so subjective, and reason and language were condemned as limited tools (or even evil), it never became a mutual activity. It remained deeply personal and incommunicable.
This also was unfortunate. If the west has gone into the rarefied echelons of institutionalized philosophy, the east has also not bothered to rise from the mystical subjectivity or spirituality. And both have become marginalized. Today, there are as few remarkable philosophers in the west (from whom one can learn anything of value), as there are remarkable sages in the east (from whom one can learn anything of value). The sages are repeating the same adages as those prevailing 3000 years ago, and the western philosophers are not making much sense anyway.
The marginalization is not of their influence, in fact spirituality and institutional philosophy are having a field time as far as attracting people is concerned. The marginalization relates to the complete absence of a meaningful or original contribution from the experts in both of them.
The uninitiated westerners as well as the easterners are still enchanted by their promises. Someone born in the west gets tired of the rat race and starts exploring eastern spirituality. And someone born in the east gets discontented, sheds off the yoke of "society" and organized religion and starts on a study of western thought or the practice of a particular meditation. Both spend many years scouring the field, and either reach a stage of delusion and denial where the original goal has been all but lost, or a state of bitterness where no solution is deemed possible or practical.
In my opinion, philosophy departments and the academic discipline of philosophy have become a self-perpetuating silliness. The teachers teach philosophy, and the students then start teaching other students philosophy without there being any meaningful contribution to human existence or without anyone being the wiser or happier or clearer due to their work. They can be replaced by the excellent postmodern essay generator and I don't think anybody will miss them.
And again, in my opinion, spirituality and the associated claptrap has become a self-perpetuating sickness. The masters kidnap their disciples' brains, and the best disciples then proceed to leech on others (it is a Multi-level Marketing Scheme) for the rest of their lives. There is monstrous corruption and exploitation in the spiritual circles. I will not touch about organized religion because most people I have talked to do see the stupidity of that.
Nobody is willing to admit that both philosophy (as it is now practiced in academia) and spirituality, are deeply flawed responses to the human desire for peace and happiness.
The pursuit of wisdom and the pursuit of happiness are two of the deepest passions of a human being. One must never forget one's goal that one had when one started studying philosophy or started seeking happiness. It is as if one came into the kitchen to get a glass of water but forgot all about it as one became engrossed in appreciating the various dishes and recipes on show. After a while, one may oneself not remember what one had come for in the first place. It is good to remind oneself again and again that one reaches one's destination not when one can spout endless wisdom, but when one is happy, harmless, clear and content.
While serious seekers will sooner or later give up what doesn't work and what doesn't make sense, it is without a doubt that many millions will spend many years of their lives sorting through the garbage. This waste of one's time is perhaps an unfortunate necessity for people to realize the garbage-ness of garbage.