The animating aim of my writing is to apply philosophy to help us understand complex issues in contemporary life; or, conversely, to use such issues to help us learn how to live, think, and act wisely and well.

This takes two forms:  academic and popular writing.  However, I think that this dichotomy is not only overstated and misleading, but pernicious.  On the academic side of the street, we can tend to dismiss popular writing as shallow, crass, unsophisticated, watered-down, and just plain old dumb, self-serving in the unabashed, I-just-want-to-sell-books sort of way.  And sometimes, surely, it is–business and self-help books come to mind.  Instead, we want something that elevates our mind and our discourse, that challenges our beliefs and desires rather than reinforcing and catering to them.  On the popular side of the street, we tend to dismiss academic writing as narrow, insular, abstract, self-serving in the more insidious, look-how-smart-I-am-just-give-me-tenure sort of way.  And sometimes, surely, it is.  We want something that speaks to us, not over our heads.

Ultimately, however, there should be no daylight between the power and depth of a truth and the breadth and bandwidth of its transmission.  As Einstein said:  if you can’t explain it to an eight-year-old, then you don’t understand it.  The use of technical nomenclature is fine and appropriate if it is a means for specialists to communicate more effectively about their quarry, but when it becomes a self-referential crutch, thinking has ceased and language begins to eat itself.  As Arthur Koestler joked, “Philosophy is the systematic abuse of a terminology specifically designed for that purpose.”  Or, as Nietzsche put it, “Whoever knows he is deep strives for clarity; whoever would like to appear deep to the crowd strives for obscurity.”  These suspicions are what fuels the intuition of the average person–and perhaps even the average educated person–that philosophy is a useless, frivolous, hermetic exercise divorced from the real-world.  To avoid philosophical malpractice, philosophers have to learn how to communicate the complexity of their ideas in plain, simple, direct language.  Unfortunately, the fact that talk about higher things is done with fancy language, and that fancy language is often hot air, leads many people to infer that talk about higher things is hot air, and is best left alone.  The problem is not simple language–it is that simple language is primarily used to talk about base things.

The two issues I have focused on over the last few years are nihilism and nature, and the connection between the two.

Nihilism.  Nihilism is, roughly, the view that life has no ultimate meaning, value, or purpose, as Shakespeare put it, “a tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  For the Greeks, nature was a Cosmos.  For Christians, nature was a Creation.  What these visions shared was the idea that nature is an ordered whole in which humans had a proper place.  Living well was about discovering nature–and human nature–and conforming to it; the value and purpose of life are discovered, not manufactured.  In the modern worldview, however, nature, due in large part to the scientific and industrial revolutions, came to be seen as as bereft of value, meaning, and purpose.  As Alred North Whitehead put it, “Nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colourless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly.”  The soul has been removed from the premises.  Moreover, in technology as applied science, the goal is to manipulate nature to conform to our whims–“better living through chemistry.”  Here, we move from “human nature”–fixed, universal, essential–to the “human condition”–variable, idiosyncratic, contingent.  Here, value and purpose are not discovered, but posited, created, manufactured.  However, they now lack cosmic support, and we are unable to find a reason to choose one path over another, other than what we happen to prefer.  This–what Nietzsche called the “death of God” and Kierkegaard called the “dizziness of freedom”–is roughly what we mean by nihilism.  Science and technology can help us to live longer, but cannot tell us how to live, or why we should.  Caught between a religion we can no longer believe in, and a science that cannot inspire, we are stuck, buffeted about by the chance and changing winds of our own desires or others’ standards.

In the contemporary world, we see nihilism rear its head in a number of ways.  From reality television to DIY self-help, from our addiction to technology to our empty political discourse, from our status anxiety to the fiction of the writer of the age, David Foster Wallace.  Part of this is due to cultural, technological, and historical forces; but part of it due, I think, to the fact that nihilism is not just a modern problem but a human problem.  And so one of the goals of philosophy, in my view, is to help us probe the present to sound out the pockets of nihilism surrounding us, offer us a rounder view of our condition, and bring us closer to what is real: what is good, what is true, and what is beautiful.  As Hegel put it, “philosophy is its own time comprehended in thought.”

Nature.  The emergence of environmentalism over the last several decades and the progressive greening of our culture signal a shift in our understanding of our place in nature.  Concerns over recycling, food ethics, and climate change all point to a broader theme:  that our relationship to nature has become disordered, unhealthy, and unsustainable, and that some recalibration, at the micro- and macro- levels, in our personal lives and in our public policy, is needed.  Eco-cant abounds in culture, business, and politics:  green this, green that, eco-friendly x, y, z, sustainable sustainability, and so on.  No doubt a great deal of this is empty–a lifestyle, a fad, a status symbol, a marketing strategy, the same old consumerism and lusting after “authenticity” in green drag–another form of nihilism.  But it is also, in no small part, an ongoing values shift through which we are attempting, however imperfectly, grudgingly, and at times inconsistently, to bring our way of life more in line with the limits of the natural world.  In other words, the attempt to revalue the natural world, to recover a sense of nature as valuable and meaningful, is a counterweight to the modern problem of nihilism.

Currently, I am translating my ideas and research into more popular forums such as blogging–about philosophy in public life, philosophical counseling, philosophy as a way of life, and so on–online columns and, eventually, a book on nihilism tailored to a more popular audience.