New York is lousy with philosophers. Every serious college and university in the city—of which there are many—has its compliment of ethicists, logicians, epistemologists, and metaphysicians; its share of political philosophers and those concentrating on the vagaries of language, of mind, of mathematics, and of science. There are philosophers who have studied the debates and developments of various historical periods, and others who have become especially attuned to the stylistic variations within the philosophical traditions emanating from Asia, Africa, and Europe. There are philosophers versed in the contributions of Christian and Jewish and Islamic thinkers, and those of Buddhists and Daoists as well. There are idealists and nominalists, personalists and existentialists, feminists and phenomenologists, and many more besides. New York City, the intellectual birthplace of pragmatism, America’s native philosophical movement, now stands as arguably the capital of the professional philosophical world.
And yet despite New York’s bounty of philosophers, New York is not a philosophical city. In the parlance of Plato’s Republic, Western philosophy’s foundational investigation into the nature of a just city, New York is and has always been firmly in the grasp of its money-makers. Despite its well-deserved reputation as a center of cultural innovation and its indisputable role as a lure and inspiration to artists, musicians, writers, and creators of all kinds, it has been the quest for a good deal rather than a good life that has stirred the city’s soul and set its course.
Someone persuaded by the argument of the Republic might readily conclude from this that New York is an unjust city. To use the analogy that Plato employs, our city is essentially a feverish soul whose reason has been usurped by its greedily acquisitive appetites that are unwittingly bent on self-destruction. In the healthy, well-ordered soul, reason rules supreme and keeps appetites in check, permitting them only to satisfy their needs rather than their wants. Only through such self-control can the soul hope to pursue its more noble destiny. Plato’s analogous claim for the city is well-known: “Unless philosophers rule as kings…there is no rest from ills for the cities.”
No one serious would claim that New York is a just city. Amidst the enormous wealth and prosperity of New York’s super successful, almost 20% of the city’s residents live in poverty by the city’s own measure, and more than 40% are count as ‘near poor.’ A recent study reveals that 40% of ‘working-age’ New Yorkers–2.5 million people–“are struggling to provide food, housing, and other basic necessities for their families.” Homelessness in the city is at its highest levels since the Great Depression, with almost 64 thousand people currently homeless. Recent figures indicate that the number of people sleeping in shelters has increased 75% in the last ten years alone. Thousands more sleep on the streets or in the subway system. Twenty-three thousand children sleep in shelters, and when temporary housing, such as staying with relatives, is included, the city estimates that one out of every ten students in the public school system—roughly 115 thousand—do not sleep in a home of their own.
Perhaps nothing tells us more about a community and its values than how it approaches the education of its young. From this perspective, New York’s public schools are ideal incubators for reproducing for future generations the very same burdens just mentioned. More racially and economically segregated than any system in the country, our city’s schools are reliably at their most deficient precisely where they are most needed. The dismal reality is that the higher the percentage of disadvantaged students a school serves the fewer the resources it will have to address them. One is hard-pressed to resist the conclusion that the New York public school system is designed and operated so that the children who most need the transformative power of a quality education are the least likely to get it.
We could go on, but let these observations suffice to show that our city suffers its share of ills. So, was Plato right and is the solution to have philosophers installed as Kings and Queens in City Hall? While it would be tempting to say that it would depend on the philosopher, we believe the wiser course is to reject this picture altogether. Philosophers as such cannot save us; they (we) are not experts on how to live nor are they in exclusive possession of normative truths. The ideals that guide us are not discovered by an individual thinker’s unfettered use of her reason, but rather, as the 20th century philosopher Iris Marion Young insisted, constructed from the robust consideration of the “possibilities suggested by actual experience.” Constructing such ideals is what the activity of philosophy is for, an activity that is in principle open to all and most effective when pursued collaboratively. Philosophy is the critical reflection on inherently human practices, undertaken in the hope of understanding how they have come to be and how, if possible, they might be improved or superseded. Only by engaging in this too often neglected but essential effort are we likely to find better ways of being human. Our more modest (though no less profound) suggestion, therefore, is that philosophers begin to figure in and facilitate our city’s discourse and deliberations. Let them be midwives to the birth of a better New York.
We have created Phi on New York to help bring this new situation about. We intend it to be a forum where the city’s philosophers can initiate and contribute to the sort of rethinking we need on matters that effect the well-being of all us. The better answers we seek to outstanding questions on issues such as education, housing, sustainable development, climate change, criminal justice, food security, rapid technological innovations and the ensuing transformation of our economy often turn on how we frame their underlying ethical, epistemological, aesthetic, and metaphysical dimensions. In some cases we will find that getting better answers will require asking better questions, and in every case our commitment to justice will demand that we address these problems from every possible perspective, not merely from the point of view of those who stand to profit. The choices we make and the policies we pursue determine who in this city flourishes and who does not. We envision a New York where everyone is justified in believing a good life is possible. At Phi on New York, we are committed to finding our way there.