21st century philosophy. What challenges does it currently face?

30 November 2021

This month saw the celebration of World Philosophy Day, which was set up in 2005 by UNESCO to remind us of the need to connect nature and humanity, what we can know and what we should and want to do. 

In 2021, when the limits between the possible and the ethical are being questioned on a regular basis, the focus was on people and their interactions with their environment, and how we collectively take on present-day challenges. 

Faced with these shifting terrains, which are both hugely interesting and decisive for our future, we set up a conversation with three ”la Caixa” Foundation fellows: Aida Roigé, Saray Ayala and Pau Guinart. 

Philosophical balances 

When is euthanasia acceptable? What moral risks are involved in genetically modifying embryos and in not offering this option when it is legal in other countries? When it comes to prioritising patients for surgery, should we take the severity of the condition or the possibility of recovery as our criteria?

Aida Roigé, a philosopher who specialises in cognitive science, pointed to some matters such as these where philosophy can bring a lot to the table. “If we assume that some actions are morally wrong and others aren’t, this should clearly be reflected in our legal system,” she said.
Born in Reus, Aida completed an MA in Philosophy at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, with the support of a fellowship from the ”la Caixa” Foundation. She is currently lecturing on the philosophy of mind and applied ethics at the University of Maryland, USA, where she is finishing up her PhD. At the same time, she is part of the ethical committee at the Capital Area Medical Center, where they debate and make decisions on ethical matters involved in patient care.

Aida Roigé teaches philosophy of mind and applied ethics at the University of Maryland (USA).Aida Roigé teaches philosophy of mind and applied ethics at the University of Maryland (USA).

Aida argues that it is necessary to raise awareness of the philosophical conclusions of cognitive science beyond the expert community. In fact, for some years now, organisations, businesses and legislative bodies have been taking heed of the findings in this field and incorporating them into how they operate. For example: What difference could it make to fill in a “Do you agree with...” form, rather than a more open questions, such as “What do you think of...”? 

The way these surveys are drawn up could skew the results, she said. Changing the price of a product that’s deemed to be a luxury influence how we think of it: “the dearer the wine or the clothes, the more we like them,” she said. She also mentioned more controversial cases. “Turning the work of delivering parcels or transporting passengers into a game which is itself gratifying, rather that providing gratification economically. Only by knowing how the mind/brain works can we make the decisions that work best for us, rather than the ones that we lean towards due to the mere fact of our evolution,” she said. 

Sometimes, we can even question philosophy itself as a system, Saray Ayala told us: “Can we read the ‘forefathers’ of philosophy without taking into account the fact that they are always fathers? And without taking into account that they took the time to study these topics and not others? We used to assume, and many people still do, that philosophy could be done from an abstract armchair, without getting our hands dirty in daily life, in what is going on out on the streets.”

Saray is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns. They are a lecturer at California State University, Sacramento, and they say that the fellowship that they received from the ”la Caixa” Foundation in 2006 was a radical change in their life and their relationship with philosophy. During their two-year stay, when they were writing their PhD thesis on the way in which the body and the environment shape out cognitive processes, they took back philosophy as “something practical that can help us to improve the world and our lives,” they said. They found their faith in philosophy again, and they are now working on strategies for resisting sex- and race- based injustices, and the relationship between individuals and their environment in morally controversial situations.

Saray Ayala is a lecturer at California State University, Sacramento.Saray Ayala is a lecturer at California State University, Sacramento.

During their time at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Carlos III University of Madrid was when Saray started tackling moral issues that, they say, kept them awake at night. That which “helps us to think about the world and understand it.” Quoting a new sub-discipline within philosophy dedicated to conceptual engineering —What concepts, what meanings are better for understanding the world around us?—, they said: “Concepts are tools that humans have made to find a way to understand the complexity of the world. Much like a screwdriver helps using to get a screw out, a good concept can help us to think about the world and understand it. If these tools have always been designed by the same type of people with the same interests and the same position in society, it’s reasonable to think that many of these tools are biased towards showing us just one part of the world.” 

For Pau Guinart, we can find the answer to these questions and many more in storytelling. In other words, rather than focussing on one theory, telling a story that captivates people and also get a clear message across. After 10 years living in the USA, this was a way for him to bring together all of his interests. 

Pau Guinart is a tireless philosopher. His obsession with Greek tragedies and the idea of adapting them for cinema have changed his perspective on life.Pau Guinart is a tireless philosopher. His obsession with Greek tragedies and the idea of adapting them for cinema have changed his perspective on life.

Perhaps this was always the way it was for the Empordà-born philosopher who, at the age of 22, got on a donkey-drawn carriage to travel around Catalonia with a friend. That adventure gave him visibility. “It opened doors for me,” he said looking back in hindsight. One of them the chance to do an MA in Greek Tragedy at the University of Exeter, UK. Interestingly, this was what got him started in cinema first —he studied in LA and worked for Sundance Festival and the Palo Alto Film Festival—, and then, in the world of documentaries, such as one that he made about L’Empordà, interviewing people such as Pasqual Maragall, Ferran Adrià and the philosopher Xavier Rubert de Ventós. The fellowship he received from the ”la Caixa” Foundation allowed him to do an MA in Cinema at the New York Film Academy.

Pau is a tireless philosopher, and his obsession with Greek tragedies and the idea of adapting them for cinema —the combination of all the arts— to keep on discussing the great dilemmas of humanity have changed his perspective on life. “From then on, life was far more positive. Even though it might seem like tragedy is the opposite, it’s not. Nietzsche’s reading of tragedy, which I follow, is the idea of reaffirming life even in the most difficult and extreme situations.”

The futures of philosophy

In the future, Aida would like to put their knowledge to use at a business, company or regulatory body. Referring to so-called ‘empirically informed policy-making’, they mentioned cases of witnesses who have seen a crime for just a few seconds. “We know that they are not reliable when it comes to picking out a criminal’s face, (especially if they are of another race), so we should reduce the weight given to this kind of witness evidence,” they said. Or the time we spend in a medical visit. How does it affect us? “It has been shown that patients feel better when they feel that someone is taking care of them. This small gesture could reduce the use of painkillers and their secondary effects,” said Aida. 

Returning to forms of resistance, Saray mentioned the book Como vaya yo y lo encuentre by Mar Gallego, which speaks about the overlooked forms of resistance of many women in Andalusia, where they were born, in the schoolyard, out on the street and in discussions around the coffee table. “It’s not easy to listen to them. We have to be able to imagine the world in a very different way to how we believe it is. We have to be brave to accept that we might be wrong,” they said in conclusion. 

When it comes to Pau, his interests keep breaking down boundaries. He’s also interested in landscape and how it affects artists' personality. Dalí was there to help him, in his PhD thesis, which will come out as a book in September. But thanks to his capacity for storytelling, he's also lecturing at the ESADE Business School. There he studies the ways in which narratives are at the base of any company or organization, and how it is often necessary to “deconstruct” them to be aware  of how important they are for raising awareness.” What's more, he’s turned back to the classic, in Aristotle’s Poetics, which he says is “one of the best treaties that remain on literature and on how to tell stories, which is still completely relevant. Some things are eternal, others aren’t. And I think storytelling is.”

The immediacy and rush that invades our lives through our screens, constant consumption, has given rise to new forms of understanding ourselves as individuals and as a society. Philosophy can and must keep contributing towards solving the problems that we face.

“Let’s stop, think and ask questions from different perspectives... In management, everyday people are talking more about degrowth. Growth for the sake of growth, valuing countries by their gross domestic product, no longer makes sense. Today we need a philosophy of balance, of sustainability, of recovery and conservation..." concludes Pau. 

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