“Philosophy is Dead” ?

July 6, 2011

Stephen Hawking recently pronounced: “Philosophy is dead”. He claimed that whilst science had made incredible progress in the last 50 years, philosophy had not, and as a result was no longer even relevant.

These “X is dead” pronouncements are dangerous territory. The first, loudest and most famous such pronouncement of this kind came from none other than Nietzsche: “God is dead”.

…to which some canny graffiti artist came up with:


A more recent philosopher – Francis Fukuyama – boldly pronounced “History is dead”.
That slogan too will go down in the history books, but I fear that although Francis is still living, its going to be another case of:

HISTORY: “_ _ _ _ _ _”

And now for Hawking. Don’t get me wrong – Hawking’s classic, “A Brief History of Time”, must rate as one of the most enlightening books I’ve ever read. (The new Illustrated version is high on my wishlist). One quote from that book resonated so strongly with me that I actually included it in a book that I wrote:

“Up to now, most scientists have been too occupied with the development of new theories that describe what the universe is, to ask the question WHY… if we find the answer to that… we would know the mind of God.”

Although Hawking penned those words many decades ago, even then he took a swing at how stagnant philosophy had become, but at least acknowledged that the philosophers were: “the people whose business it is to ask WHY…”

So what happened?  How did Hawking jump from there to “Philosophy is dead”. Have scientists themselves discovered the answer to WHY? No.

Has the WHY question become unimportant (“Why is dead”?). No. It might have for millions of mindless, secular consumers, but not for someone with such a gifted enquiring mind as Hawking.

That leaves only one option, which is probably what Hawking would argue: “Philosophers are no longer asking WHY“.

Or perhaps post-modern philosophy has, in its own right, become so complex that most people (including scientists) can no longer keep up with it –  in the same kind of way that the people and philosophers aren’t keeping up with science. So, they wouldn’t actually know if WHY is being asked or not.

Or maybe philosophers, having being confronted with the single most difficult question for so long, have developed a much more tenacious patience than the scientists. Has Hawking finally lost his patience?

Perhaps some philosophers have even realised that the WHY question is unanswerable (ultimately they might argue for the good of mankind). But  they also realise that even if this were true, the critical thing is that somebody keeps asking it. Because if we don’t, we’ll land up where Nietzsche predicted – Nihilism.

“What is nihilism? – When “why” finds no answer” – Nietzsche

This can only ever happen when we stop asking. And if people as brilliant as Stephen Hawking are losing patience with the WHY question, and throwing the towel in with its asking – the task of the philosopher is now more important than ever.

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