Philosophy vs. The Real World

I’ve been reading Josef Pieper’s Leisure, the Basis of Culture, and it has prompted a question that I’m sure Pieper did not intend.

What, if anything, have movements in philosophy to do with the day-to-day life of people in general?

Some background: in this book, Pieper argues that we have lost the notion of leisure. We have entered the “total world of work”, where everything must be related in some way to useful, productive work. Even vacations are not an end in themselves, but are intended to refresh us so that we can get back to work with renewed vigor. And in this, he finds the term “intellectual worker”, that is, one who works with his intellect, to be particularly significant. At one time, he says, the realm of the intellect was seen as the realm of the Muses, of the Liberal Arts, of all that was essentially human without being strictly necessary for the preservation of human life. But now, the notion of work has invaded even this space, with the notion of the “intellectual worker”.

Now, here’s the kicker. Pieper traces the notions of “intellectual work” and the “intellectual worker” back to Immanuel Kant, who said that all knowing is discursive, i.e., involves active labor. The implication seems to be that without Kant’s work, this idea would not have arisen. This strikes me as simply absurd.

I cannot deny that intellectual work is a prominent feature of the 20th and 21st centuries. I’m a software engineer by profession; almost all of my work is mental in one way or another. And certainly many people are classified as “knowledge workers” or “mind workers” or what have you. And yet, it seems to me extremely unlikely that the cause of this has anything to do with Immanuel Kant, or with any abstract notion that every human activity must involve effort, or practical use, to be worth doing. We don’t have a vast number of intellectual workers these days because of something a philosopher said, but because certain forms of intellectual work have been made to pay.

In short, Pieper writes as though developments in society follow developments in philosophy. I’ve run into this fairly often in my historical reading; I first recall noticing it while reading Will Durant’s Story of Civilization many years ago now.

So here, at least, is my question: to what extent is this true? To what extent does society change due to new trends in philosophy? And to what extent do fashions in philosophy simply reflect the thinking of the masses: that is, the spirit of the age?

I’ve been toying with the notions of “explicit” vs. “implicit” philosophy. An explicit philosophy is simply a philosophy as such: the philosophy of Kant, or Descartes, or Aquinas, or Aristotle. There are as many explicit philosophies as there are philosophers, though they tend to be grouped into schools. An implicit philosophy is the philosophy implied by a man’s actions and values, whether he has reflected on them or not. This is not necessarily the philosophy he would arrive at if he did reflect on his actions and values; I suspect many of us would be greatly ashamed if our implicit philosophies were made plain to us.

Given these definitions, it makes sense to talk about the implicit philosophy (or philosophies) of a culture, a society, or a nation. And then my question becomes, to what extent can a nation’s implicit philosophy really be caused by or traced back to an explicit philosophy?

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