The thing with the ivory tower

By Jesse DhurLex Kleren Switch to German for original article

It asks about the essence of things, provides formulas for a better life and sometimes gets tangled up in conceptual hair-splitting: the mother of all sciences has always struggled with an image problem, and for good reason. But its importance in an increasingly confusing world shows that philosophy is anything but old hat.

Miletus, Asia Minor, in present-day Turkey, sixth century BC Thales is born on the Ionian coast – and with him Western philosophy. He is said to have been a practical natural philosopher, an all-rounder who dealt with mathematics and astronomy as well as economics and statecraft. Although he lived neither in an ivory tower nor in a barrel, he is said to have lost his gaze all too often in the starry sky. It is said that Thales fell into a well one day while he was walking and observing the firmament and pondering his findings. A Thracian maid then mocked him and remarked that he was very passionate about knowing things in the sky, but was incapable of paying attention to the things in front of his own feet.

To this day, this anecdote from the birth of Western philosophy, which portrays Thales of Miletus as a prototype of his guild lost in deep contemplation, is representative of the alienation of philosophy from the world. But what about the love of wisdom, more than 2,500 years after it saw the light of day in the western world? Is it nothing more than a nice pastime for long-bearded old men who have leisure and a soft spot for mysticism, an unprofitable science whose interpretive sovereignty has been completely forgotten? Or is it precisely a society that is becoming ever more complex, in which meaning, morality and critical thinking seem to be disappearing, that demands more engagement with philosophy?

Meaningful, but useless?

"Why philosophy? And what for?" Yannick Kohl is quite familiar with such inquisitorial questions. Since 2013, the 28-year-old has been studying philosophy at the University of Luxembourg, where he began his doctorate almost three years ago. "The question of the subject's raison d'être accompanied me throughout my studies", he describes. "Nowadays, when people ask about the reason for a thing's existence, they usually want to know its utility. And in our thinking, which is oriented towards a capitalist rationality, this is often synonymous with practical, economic benefit."

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