Trump and Philosophy — or STS, Robert Frodeman

Author Information: Robert Frodeman, University of North Texas,



Image credit: nchenga, via flickr

On Disciplinary Philosophy

The relationship between the philosopher and the community has always been fraught. 20th century academic philosophy dealt with this difficulty by going disciplinary, restricting its conversations to itself.

Now, it is incorrect to say that disciplinary philosophy was not (or is not) concerned with the matters of the larger world; but the model for its having an effect has been limited to the tacit embrace of the concept of indirect effects. Impact was to be achieved through passive dissemination—teaching 20 year olds in abstract or idealized accounts of issues, the trolley problem rather than case studies or direct involvement. Similarly, research publications would slowly work themselves into the zeitgeist through a natural osmotic process rather than through practical attempts of implementation. There were of course exceptions to this; but the individuals directly and actively involved remained one-offs. Their efforts were not institutionalized in terms of undergraduate courses in philosophy or public policy or graduate programs that trained students to work with the public or private sectors.

The 2016 presidential election highlights the inadequacy of this approach. Rather, Trump announces the inevitability of public philosophy.

Questioning All Assumptions

How so? Put the point in Heidegger’s language. Heidegger caused a stir in the 1950s when he said that scientists do not think. His point, however, was reasonable if not self-evident: science—at least, normal science—begins from a set of accepted presumptions. Philosophy—at least on Heidegger’s account—is the questioning of all assumptions. This is why Heidegger put such a premium on questioning—in one work, devoting a 55 page chapter to the question of how to ask questions. (This may also be a way to define the difference between analytic and continental philosophy: the latter has an obsession with first order questions).

Similarly, with some minor exceptions (ie, the 13th and 17th amendments) American politics has not been a thinking person’s game. Like Heidegger I mean no insult, but to point out that we have been playing by a common set of rules for the last 227 years. The election of Trump represents the breaking of those rules. Don’t simply focus on his challenges to the 1st (i.e. threatening to use the power of the presidency to silence his opponents, e.g. The Washington Post) and 6th (the right to due process, ie to ‘lock her up’) Amendments. The challenge is more basic than that: Trump is a classic Platonic demagogue. His unprecedented mendacity and rhetorical bombast represents a more general destruction of democratic norms.

STS: A Successor?

Note that this implicates more than Trump himself. For all its faults this election cycle (namely, that it breathed life into the Trump phenomena from the beginning), the media did end up making Trump’s decades-long trail of lies and corruption abundantly clear. That is, the American electorate was fully warned—and elected him nonetheless. Trump, then, represents a challenge to Enlightenment assumptions of the reasonableness of man. Notably, the very cohort that went to the mat for him—white men without college degrees—is precisely the one that Trump has long dismissed as a bunch of losers, the plumbers and merchants who he serially stiffed for their services.

Trump leaves us, then, with a set of questions that are inescapably philosophic in nature: is it possible to re-establish democratic norms for an age of ubiquitous knowledge? Can democracy function in a time dominated by social media? Or should we recognize, as the Chinese have, that authoritarianism is a necessity, given the complexity of contemporary society?

These are, classically, philosophic questions. But it may be that the academic discipline of philosophy is constitutionally incapable of answering them any longer in anything more than a scholastic fashion. Moreover, these questions have a distinctive spin today, for science and technology is playing a distinctive if not determining role in the reshaping of our political landscape. STS, then, may be the successor to academic philosophy in the raising of these questions—if it can avoid philosophy’s fate of disciplinary capture.

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