You might sort out two different kinds of important change. The first kind is the sort of change that happens all the time – perennial change. You are born. You grow. You get sick. You get better. Empires rise. Empires fall. Friends come. Friends go. These are the sorts of changes, along with a few thousand others, that characterize human life. Philosophy, in its oldest sense, responds to and explores perennial change. Originally, in ancient times, it was meant as a kind of therapy for dealing with life’s perennial changes.
But then there are the changes that are more specific to our times – local change. Carbon emissions are changing the climate. Worldwide information transfer is immediate. New forms of life and artificial intelligence are being created. Economic and political events around the world are sensitively dependent on one another. Many different kinds of intellectuals are thinking about these local changes, but so far philosophy has largely ignored them and has stuck to the more perennial changes.
Perennial changes are important, of course; being able to navigate through them is what it is to be wise. But philosophy, I believe, also has to start responding to local change, since the local changes we are experiencing have deep and significant consequences. Indeed, our local changes might well change our perennial changes. We need to think about the future of “empires,” and whether nation states will have anything to do with that. We need to think about new life forms, and the ways biotechnology will challenge our understanding of “human being.” Same goes for artificial intelligence – we need to think about moral obligations we will have to the conscious beings we will manufacture. As world cultures meld together into politico-economic units, we need to think about the kinds of new obligations we will have to one another. And throughout all these local changes, new pressures will be brought to bear upon our perennial existential questions: Who am I? What is my life about? What is important?
I call these new challenges for philosophy “Philosophy 2.0.” Of course, the “2.0” bit is a reference to Web 2.0, which is what the web became when it started getting truly interactive. Web 1.0 was basically like television with a million channels: click, watch, click, watch, click, etc. But now, in Web 2.0, you can put your own stuff on the web, or take stuff off and mix it up in your own way and throw it back out there, or use applications and programs that are on the web instead of loaded onto your own computer. It is a profound change in the way we are entertaining ourselves; a transition from a “read only” culture to a “read/write culture.” That’s another local change that may have perennial consequences.
Philosophy 2.0 is about getting interactive with local change. Philosophy 1.0, as we might call it, is occupied with perennial change, and it needs to keep chugging along, for as long as human beings are around. But its “product” is about to get tweaked by Philosophy 2.0. Our philosophical thought about local change will impact our thought about perennial change. This is a genuinely new situation for philosophy, since we do not have a luxury we have had in the past: time. Normally, philosophers can wait until the dust has settled before looking back and making sense of where we have been. But we are going to have to get used to looking through the dust, and making the best guesses we can, since ain’t nothing gonna settle anytime soon. We need direction and big-picture planning like never before, and it is the obligation of philosophers to join into that debate. Besides, philosophers have unique knowledge and skills to contribute. They are most in touch with the big pictures of the past (from Plato to Heidegger), and so are in the best position to assess how the big picture is changing. They are used to thinking in terms of systems, and local change is all about systematic change (whether economic, environmental, or technological). And they are more sensitive than most to all the complexities of moral, epistemological, and social issues.
Part of philosophy’s romantic attraction to me has been its inherent Luddism. Philosophy professors don’t need overheads or PowerPoint or WebCT or any other gizmo; they only need a piece of chalk and an empty afternoon. But this image has to change. Philosophers need to be up on the details of local change, and need to start thinking through them and responding to them. That might not affect the pensive ambience of the philosophy classroom, but it will affect the lesson plans. Many people have been working hard to distill the results of local change to the generally educated public; philosophers need to make use of those efforts and get acquainted with the local world. Things need to get messy. We can not afford cleaving only to the relatively stable regions of perennial change.
What philosophers will bring to the table is a deep familiarity with perennial changes, and keen insight as to how local changes will change them and possibly be informed by them. This is a dimension that is now either being neglected, or carried out by those who don’t really know what they are saying. We need Philosophy 2.0 now more than ever.