Philosophy is above all a constant exercise of redefinition; an ongoing attempt to “fine tune” concepts like truth, freedom, knowledge, good, and just to our changing conditions in order to better cope with them. Our understanding and use of these concepts –which by their nature cannot be settled by scientific investigation—has drastic practical consequences and can alter the way in which we live and organize as a society. These concepts are tools we use in our constant struggle to live a better and fuller life and philosophy is the intellectual activity that enhances them.
I view the philosopher’s journey as a constant Socratic activity of dialogue that enables us to better understand what each one of those concepts mean for us today, why they acquired that meaning, their legacy, their footprint and changing history and how can we change them today to better serve our current existential conditions.
The philosopher’s task is not to understand what truth, or knowledge, or justice really are –such and attempt is hopeless anyway—but instead to understand what they mean today, how did they get to mean what they mean and to constantly question if a redefinition wouldn’t produce a better alignment of those concepts to our present historical conditions.
For a long time has philosophy been trapped by the idea of a “privileged access” to a metaphysical reality through the exercise of reason. Since Plato, contingency has been seen as the enemy and philosophy has aimed for the universal, for a type of truth that defies time and space. This old idea of philosophy as metaphysics –as an exercise of reason grasping what reality really is— has nothing to offer to us postmoderns. On the contrary, philosophy is still absolutely relevant when understood in its original Socratic dialogical nature; when viewed as a constant inquiry into how we understand certain concepts that impact our practical reality. And it is not an inquiry to establish the true definition of those concepts but instead to redefine them constantly to better serve our ever-changing human purposes.
Philosophy is not science, it doesn’t deal with “things” so its goal is not to uncover what things really are and how they work; it deals with concepts and vocabularies and these are ever changing, they are flexible, they depend on their history but also depend on their future.
To give a concrete example, it is philosophy’s business to understand what do we mean by “justice”, what is the concept’s footprint, its genealogy, but more importantly, it is philosophy’s business to ask if our current understanding of this concept is actually the right one given our current existential conditions. Is our concept of justice appropriate for a globalized and pluralistic world? What would happen if we where to change or adjust our concept? Would our human condition improve as a result? These are the questions that philosophy asks and seeks to answer. The philosopher proposes new ways of understanding concepts, he un-dusts the origins of these concepts not only as an academic activity but also mainly with the idea of providing new flexibility to our vocabularies and hence to our life.
So philosophy –understood in the way I just described— matters a great deal these days and here is why. We are experiencing an era where changes in our existential conditions are happening at probably the fastest pace in the history of mankind. The sweeping change in technologies, global communication and interconnection, the raise of the internet, cell phones, intercontinental travel, the ever-expanding abilities to mobilize across the planet and the ability to participate “live” in events that are happening in different corners of the globe –but also our destructive power towards the environment— are constantly changing our vital conditions. In this environment, concepts need to be constantly reshaped and redefined and the philosopher has to stay alert to warn when a concept becomes obsolete or can be harmful to society or when a new definition can improve our ability to cope with new or changing existential conditions.
Erratic or anachronic definitions of concepts – for example freedom as tolerance, truth as accurate representation or morality as objective good— that are “out of tune” with our current existential conditions have devastating practical consequences (the raise of fundamentalism for instance). The task of the philosopher – and the task I have personally embarked in—is to shed new light into these concepts and constantly revise them and propose new definitions that might improve our ever-changing human condition. This is why I insist in adopting a “postmodern perspective”, in being conscious of the interpretative and ever-changing nature of our beliefs; this perspective equips us with the flexibility we need in an ever-changing world and allows us to redefine our beliefs and our concepts accordingly.