On Sunday, the New York Times Columnist David Brooks wrote an essay from the midst of his book tour called "What is Your Purpose?" He begins the piece by reminding us that there were times in this country, and around various parts of the world, when wisdom seemed to be readily available. A theologian or philosopher could appear on the cover of a major news magazine. The top publishers put out books that helped us reflect more deeply on our lives. The morning talk shows were visited regularly by psychologists, economists, historians, astronomers, serious novelists, and, yes, an occasional philosopher. Even late night TV surprised us now and then with a real thinker. I remember as a child enjoying the Cornell University astronomer Carl Sagan on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
In my own career, I've had the opportunity, many years back, to talk philosophy with Regis Philbin, at the height of popularity for his morning show (now Kelly's show), with Matt Lauer, on the NBC Today Show, on CNN, CNBC, and NPR's Talk of the Nation and Morning Edition. But that hasn't happened in a while, for me or any other philosopher I know of. It's not what the programming people are looking for, these days. We've left the big life issues out of the public square, squeezing them to the margins of the culture. And we wonder why we're feeling adrift.
I'm old enough to remember the golden days of TV talk shows like Donahue, and the early days of Oprah, when there were always intellectually challenging guests grabbing my attention, and helping me to think about some new, or old, topic that was relevant to my life. But then other shows came around where people yelled at each other and threw chairs, and the carnival had then come to town to stay.
I've almost come to believe that a superficial entertainment culture is just a subtle form of nihilism. People despair of meaning and purpose, and so, as Pascal said in the seventeenth century, they find diversions to keep from thinking about the deeper issues of life, death, and meaning. But when we engage these things, we can make great progress. We can actually get our bearings in the world. And we can change our lives.
I've got no problem with "Keeping Up With The Kardashians." When I go into the gym, and enter the back room where the really heavy lifting happens, I often turn the channel to E! to see what my favorite celeb family is doing. But the ancients had a principle that's deep and telling. I like to call it "The Functionality Rule": The value of nearly anything in our lives is dependent on how we use it. Entertainment is fine, as long as it functions in a positive and limited role. Our work, and other recreations can be even more fun than catching up on your favorite Bravo show, or watching the finale of The Voice.
David Brooks reminds us that in a cultural vacuum of reflection on real life issues - the proper territory of philosophy at its best - we all suffer. We have no great guidance on the big issues that loom in our lives and that people have confronted forever. My role model for being a public philosopher is Ralph Waldo Emerson, 150 years ago. I have to go that far back to find someone outside the university system bringing philosophy into people's lives where they live and work. We need to turn this around. Of course, early in the twentieth century, we had William James and John Dewey, and then later the existentialists and the ever irascible Bertrand Russell came along. Even the even more irritated Mortimer J. Adler made a splash in his time. I remember when it was a big thing, in all the papers, when theologian Hans Kung would publish his latest big book on God. It was almost like a Harry Potter publication day, but for everyday intellectuals.
We need to bring back the wisdom. Where are the philosophers? Let's go find them. It can greatly help in our work and our lives.