"Is philosophy out of touch with everyday life?"
This question is sometimes posed to academic philosophers. It is not always clear in what way the question is intended. But somewhere behind it seems to lie an accusation of some kind. Or, at any rate, a worry about a possible accusation.
Here is one way to interpret the question: "Is academic philosophy failing in its responsibility to everyday people?" On this interpretation, one imagines that academic philosophers have been given a great task--of enlightening the population--and that perhaps they have been delinquent with regard to this task. That whereas philosophy is a grand, mighty subject, the academics have turned it into a trivial, silly game centered on getting tenure and academic recognition. That academic philosophers, with their tenure and their summers off and their conferences in exotic (as well as non-exotic) locations, are selling the public a false bill of goods while living the high life. Call this the accusation interpretation, since on this interpretation the very question amounts to an accusation.
In September of 2011 I went to a meta-philosophy conference at Harvard. By that time I had been out of academic philosophy for a few months. I was trying to make sense of my decision. Attempting to understand why I felt alienated from my education and from my job as a philosophy professor. A meta-philosophy conference at Harvard seemed just the ticket: an opportunity to hear others on the nature of philosophy, and to walk around campus and process the nine years I had spent there.
For me, as I imagine it was for many people, the main event of the conference was on Friday Night: a discussion between Jason Stanley and Carlin Romano. Stanley is a well reputed philosopher who teaches at a highly ranked philosophy program. He was one of my teachers at Cornell. I hadn't heard of Romano before, though a little web search suggested that he seemed to have a penchant for creating controversy and for speaking his mind about what he perceived to be the failings of academic philosophy. Given that he had been one of my teachers, I felt my loyalties were with Stanley, but, given my move out of the profession, it seemed as if Romano might speak for my frustrations. As much as anything, I wanted to go to the conference to see how I would balance these opposing sides within me.
A video of the discussion (debate? confrontation?) can be found here.
As anticipated, there was much disagreement between Stanley and Romano. Stanley defended academic philosophy and its necessity in society. He highlighted the good things professional philosophy does, and bemoaned a world without the advances made possible by a Frege or a Quine. Romano, for his part, called most professional ("analytic") philosophy a sham and criticized the manner in which academic philosophers write for each other without even attempting to be intelligible to non-academics. Stanley suggested that is part of the natural process for a specialized discipline. Romano retorted that it is an evasion of the true spirit of philosophy. Romano said Stanley should learn to write better. Stanley said that Romano might benefit from an introductory philosophy class. It seemed as if Stanley and Romano do not agree on much.
Yet, as I was sitting there listening, as if Stanley and Romano were externalizing a tension I felt within myself, it seemed to me that there was a crucial assumption they both shared. They both assumed the accusation interpretation of the question of philosophy's relation to the broader culture. Hence Stanley vehement affirmation that professional philosophy matters and is good. Stanley concedes that most people will not read his works, but he is quick to affirm (understandably) that it doesn't mean that his work is bad--or that he is derelict in his duties as a professional philosopher. The accusation assumption is even clearer with Romano, since his main thrust is to make the accusation that the kind of work which most of the people in the room do is trivial and insular--disconnected from broader inter-subjective discourse, and assuming that broad inter-subjective discourse is the method of grasping reality, disconnected from reality itself.