The blog Useful Concepts posted a set of interesting observations about why philosophy doesn’t have more of a cultural presence, particularly on the web. The author posted on reddit, and then summed up the more cogent replies. What he came up with is: (1) philosophy isn’t taught in schools; (2) when it is taught, it’s taught badly, focusing more on who thought what rather than the ideas themselves; (3) academic philosophy focuses on pointless distinctions rather than big pictures; (4) public debate is usually unreflective; (5) the media are profit-driven, and not idea-driven. This all seems right to me.
A question raised along the way, by a very polite commenter, is why philosophy is worth doing. I know this question is asked a lot, but it should be asked a lot, because the answers to it are rarely obvious. There is the “unexpected benefits of open-ended questions” answer, alongside “the unexamined life is not worth living” and “the discipline of critical thinking” and “integrating fields of knowledge”, as well as “helps you with law school”. All of these have something to them, and I don’t see a need to award one the trophy of best answer (though if I did, the law school one would not get it). But I do think there is a way to combine them all into a hazy, single answer.
It is this: philosophy helps you get reddit points.
Now for the explanations. If you are on the web, you probably don’t need to be told what “reddit” is, as it is in the top ten of websites visited by the entire world. It is an inconceivably huge forum for discussing anything from quantum mechanics to dadjokes to whatever. And while (as one would expect) there are acres and acres of crap, there are also acres and acres of good, substantive discussions. Perhaps my favorite subreddit – suggested to me by a student – is “r/changemyview”, on which people express their views and other people try to reason them out of them. In this subreddit, as with many others, the discussion is sharp, clear, respectful, on target, and ruthlessly defended against trolls. On such subreddits, one gets points for making comments that are deemed valuable by everyone else (“valuable” here meaning “that is very insightful!” or “that is very funny!” – or sometimes “Good for you for admitting your mistake!”).
Now obviously there are ways to amass reddit points without any inclination whatsoever toward philosophical thought. If you possess wit, or have a knack for expressing what the readers of some specific subreddit are prone to like, or can express the profane to the profane, you will get points on some subreddit or other. I don’t mean to paint reddit as some Athenian agora populated only by fair-minded savants. But if you happen to be a fair-minded savant, and you steer your browser away from the acres of crap and toward more enlightened discussions, your study of philosophy will help you to accrue reddit points.
This is because at its heart philosophy is informed fair-mindedness. The marks of a good philosopher are being able to see any complex problem from multiple points of view and being able to express those differing perspectives with clarity. Readers of reddit, at least on the sites I have in mind, dig that sort of thing, and they’ll upvote what you say.
But what, you may ask, is the point of getting reddit points? There is no point, except for the fact that you are getting them for making valuable contributions to a public discussion. You are being helpful, and building the discussion in a positive direction. If you ask me why that’s important, I’m really stuck; it just seems to me that’s a good thing to do, especially in a world where it happens pretty rarely.
You also may ask, “How many points do you have, Charlie?” and my answer is a paltry 600. That’s not a lot in the reddit universe. In my own defense, I don’t post or comment very much. I’m basing my opinions here on what I generally see as I read my way through reddit posts, including the one entitled “Philosophy is disappearing from public debate and it’s the fault of philosophers.” In this way, the reddit discussion neatly contradicts its own thesis: there are plenty of philosophically-inclined reddit commenters out there, thank goodness, enriching our public discourse and getting well-deserved points for it.