I believe in philosophy, both as a theoretical academic discipline and as a source of wise decisions. I am not alone in this: it has been present since the dawn of the subject. The Socratic method (“dialectic”) aims to arrive at truth and wisdom by critical dialogue—basically, Socrates pointing out other people’s mistakes. This inaugurated Western civilization. Descartes articulated the method of systematic doubt designed to root out false assumptions and lazy thinking; a side effect was modern science (I simplify somewhat). In the twentieth century, we had the method of lucid description (Husserl, Wittgenstein) as well as the method of logical analysis (Russell, Frege). Mathematical logic led to the invention of the computer (Turing). Popper’s method of conjecture and refutation influenced a whole generation of scientists. Philosophy has always been a driving force.
This is not surprising, because philosophy combines two essential ingredients of effective rational thought: pedantry (logic, analysis) and creativity (seeing alternatives, novel perspectives). The philosopher seeks a clear vision of reality—how things really are independent of dogma, prejudice, and false assumptions—and also a lively sense of what might be. Thus philosophy uniquely combines imagination with rigorous argument. It offers a kind of double vision. Received wisdom is no kind of wisdom unless it can withstand analytical scrutiny, but we are also obliged to come up with something better. Philosophy is ruthlessly negative, but it is also inspiringly positive. It destroys, but it also creates.
Accordingly, the method I favor (which incorporates earlier insights) is Dissection, Deletion, and Demonstration—the three D’s. First, we dissect the problem to grasp it clearly and completely; then we delete the possible solutions that don’t hold water on careful reflection; then we demonstrate the correctness of the best solution available. This works in everything from war to global warming, technology to education. I illustrate this method by reference to the Frankenstein story, using a fictional example to bring out the structure of the method—but of course, it applies equally to the real world. It’s actually common sense: think carefully, exhaustively, critically, and creatively—don’t just jump to conclusions or apply old ideas. Be agile, thorough, and clear-eyed. And be aware of the myriad sources of human error and shortsightedness. This is what philosophy is good at. This is what philosophers are trained to do.
I don’t doubt the utility of philosophy in practical decision-making—I see its relevance all the time (e.g., privacy, hate speech, diplomacy, philanthropy). What I am less certain of is the ability of people to see its relevance. Philosophy is underappreciated in our culture, for reasons I won’t go into here; and it is not regarded as essential to a sound education—though people who have studied it understand its importance to effective and enlightened thinking. So this new venture—a company dedicated to bringing philosophy to what is called “the real world”—might not immediately resonate with everybody. Still, I hope that some people will respond to the promise of philosophy as a tool for broad and deep reflection informed by a rich history of insight and analysis. I am excited by the prospect—making Plato’s dream a reality, in effect. I want to see philosophy assume its proper place beyond the ivory tower (in which I was imprisoned for forty years). Philosophy, for Plato, liberated people from the gloomy cave of ignorance; it offered a synoptic vision of reality more penetrating than what is commonly available. Philosophical Applications aims to create a better world by thinking more deeply about the world we have.
An internationally acclaimed philosopher and teacher, McGinn was educated at Manchester University (Psychology, BA and MA, 1972) and Oxford University (Philosophy, B Phil, 1974), and went on to teach philosophy at University College London, Oxford University, UCLA, Princeton, and Rutgers. He was a philosophical advisor to Geoge Soros from 2008-2013.