When one speaks about the knowledge-morals relation, it is usually scientific knowledge that is implied. Philosophy, however, is a kind of knowledge as well, and a very special one. The moral aspect of philosophy is even more crucial for human existence, and more complicated, than is scientific knowledge.

The morals of science became a problem when science became sufficiently powerful to threaten human life. As philosophy has to do with the universal dimensions of being, if it becomes powerful enough to inflict danger, this danger may be as universal and as deep as is philosophic intent.

What is the classic moral dilemma in science? Science reveals to man the structure of the world; it discloses hidden mechanisms of real events. The process of this discovery, scientific research, satisfies the natural curiosity of man and is a pleasure in itself. Moreover, it expresses of man's openness to the Universe, as a mode of one's self-realization as oriented to all being; it is part of one's ontological vocation. On the other hand, having understood how natural processes work, man can influence their course and thereby derive benefit. Though scientific investigation is a pleasure, its result can be a weapon, even in the military sense. But after the weapon is created, the scientist loses control over its use; should it fall into immoral and/or unreasonable hands, it may become harmful to humans.

Till the twentieth century, however, the results of science were not sufficiently dangerous to destroy humanity or to uproot the foundations of human life. The benefits of science seemed far greater than its possible harm, and a scientist would not feel himself responsible for a casual misuse of his achievements by other men. But in the twentieth century the situation has changed. Some scientific discoveries, especially in physics and biology, have supplied man with means sufficiently powerful to endanger both his physical existence and spiritual identity. The danger has now become so universal that scientists can no longer avoid their responsibility for it. A conflict has emerged between freedom of scientific research and moral responsibility for its results, and the question has been posed: in some cases should a scientist go against his nature and forgo the pure pleasure of research in order to evade possible dangers to humanity? This is a conflict between the divine and universal nature of man, as expressed in pure scientific curiosity, and his finiteness and fallibility as expressed in his social behavior.


The moral dilemma of the philosopher was exposed by Plato in his Republic. Philosophy is the contemplation of pure essences, of perennial and perfect ideas. This contemplation frees a person from the power of the imperfect, finite world. Spiritual involvement in the world of perennial ideas brings the human spirit to the state of bliss. Thus, it is only natural that a philosopher must strive to alienate himself from any kind of earthly affairs and dedicate himself to man's highest ontological vocationto the contemplation of ideas. But alongside this ontological vocation there exists moral obligation to the State which enabled the person to reach the spiritual summit. Having had the privilege of contemplating the perfect truth, the philosopher is the only person who can construct reality, namely, human life, society and State, in accordance with that truth. The philosopher is the only person who can organize and rule the State in full conformity with the absolute models. As there is nobody else to do that job, he must do it. Moral obligation compels him to give up the happiness of pure contemplation and to become a servant of society. Only in old age is he permitted to retire, to move to some distant island and lead the life to which he is called from within.

Plato's doctrine implies a clear notion of the philosopher's social role and moral obligation. The image he has in mind may be called the "Philosopher Constructor" or the "Philosopher King". It is the philosopher who knows the Ultimate Truth, and society must be constructed and ruled by the person who knows it.

ln modern times this tradition took a new turn in Marx' philosophy, as formulated in his famous proposition, "The Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it." The moral dilemma of Plato's philosopher disappears. According to Plato, philosophy was by its intrinsic nature a contemplation of what already is, but the moral obligation induced the philosopher to be active. In Marx' doctrine, the inner sense of philosophy consists in being an element of the social praxis. It does not just contemplate the object, but constructs it; it has the form of praxis from the very beginning. Knowledge is construction, not only in an ideal sense, as Kant and German idealism have put it, but also in a material sense: philosophizing has its meaning only if it is a beginning point of social praxis. Social praxis, in turn, is philosophical, that is universal. When Marx speaks about changing the world, he means really changing the world and not merely correcting it through a set of particular interferences in the course of events. For him social praxis is the embodiment of Philosophy, making philosophy real; it fuses together the ethical and the ontological, the earthly and the divine.

A third prominent figure, strikingly different from both Plato and Marx, thought that the highest goal of philosophy is not just to understand what is, but to build the New Being: that was Martin Heidegger. ln Adolf Hitler he saw the wise philosopher-king for whom Plato had been vainly seeking. The Nazis represented for him not a political, but an ontological movement: "National Socialist revolution is not simply the taking of power in the state by one party from another, but brings a complete revolution of our German existence".2 That is why Heidegger welcomed enthusiastically the Nazi movement, joined the National Socialist party and became, as Rector of Freiburg university, an active propagandist of Nazi ideas. After a while the Nazis disappointed him and he stopped being their ardent supporter, but this did not mean refutation of the general principle: the moral calling of the Philosopheror of Philosophyconsists in taking part in creating the New Being with the help of earthly power.

Plato's drama was that he could not find the philosopher-king ready to realize his ideas. Heidegger's drama was that his philosopher-king turned out to be the wrong one. The tragedy of Marx was that he succeeded in producing plenty of philosophizing kings who really ruled in his name. The history of the communist world was an excellent historical test not only for the credibility of the Marxist doctrine, but also for the idea of the social incarnation of philosophy. The communist countries were (and some still are) states in which the whole of life had (has) to conform to a certain philosophical doctrine. Therefore, every citizen is obliged to be a philosopher. One cannot graduate even from a high school without learning the three laws of dialectics and the six pairs of categories; after completing all stages of education a person has to renew his/her philosophical training in numerous seminars and meetings organized at his/her working place.

On the other hand, the political leader of the country is at the same time the Main Philosopher, who must determine the philosophical ideas obligatory for his citizens. Every political report of the Leader becomes the most recent philosophical classic, subject to study during political seminars and obligatorily quoted in philosophical dissertations. This is a most perfect and universal realization of the philosopher-king's idea, with just a slight difference: it is not that philosophers become kings, but that kings become philosophers; kings do not obey the advice of philosophers, but philosophers become obedient servants of kings and propagandists of their ideas. The king-philosophers, in their turn, only pretend to behave in conformity with the highest philosophical truthin reality they adapt their pidgin-philosophy to the everyday requirements of the power game. Any realization of the philosopher-king idea cannot avoid becoming a parody of itself.

Dagobert D. Runes, who translated into English Martin Heidegger's speeches and articles glorifying the Führer and the National Socialist party, said Heidegger "betrayed by doing so German philosophy in particular and philosophy in general".3 Could we say the same about Plato and Marx, had they found their Führers in their lifetime? I think the problem is not so simple. The twentieth century experience of totalitarian regimes has called into question not the personal moral position of Martin Heidegger or the political philosophy of Karl Marx, but the particular idea of the philosopher's moral calling and his social role, namely that of the philosopher knowing the Ultimate Truth and being obliged by the fact of this knowledge to be socially active, to bring the real world into conformity with this Ultimate Truth. How this Ultimate Truth is calledthe Perennial Ideas, Communism or the Authentic Beingis a minor question. Plato's and Marx's utopian constructions or Heidegger's direct collaboration with the fascist regime are just the utmost expressions and consistent results of the common philosophical faith. These cases only corroborate the general idea that a universalistic activism by the philosophical mind leads to enslavement of the human being and to blocking the way to genuine truth.


Thus, philosophy has turned out to be a field of knowledge no less dangerous than physics or biology. This has caused a change in society's attitude to the philosopher's role in it. Society not only no longer wants to listen to philosophy in order to learn an Ultimate Truth of Being, but has taken up an aversion for it and seeks ways to render it harmless. One mode for its neutralization is represented by the positivistic trend in the philosophy itself. Philosophers give up metaphysics, i.e., philosophy, and this profession of self-renunciation becomes the main point of philosophical reasoning. This corresponds to the idea of voluntary giving up of a "dangerous" field of research in the natural sciences.

The comparison seems risky and somewhat arbitrary since the positivistic way of thinking does not necessarily presuppose any clear consciousness of the concrete totalitarian danger philosophy brings to humanity, and is much older than experimental verifications of this danger. Positivism emerged as a reaction, whether right or wrong, to the arbitrary manipulation of ideas, devoid of satisfactory logical grounds, present in many metaphysical systems and which already contained the seed of future king-philosophers, bloody dialectics. In contrast, the submission of the particular to the whole, especially stressed in Hegel's philosophy, included a very evident threat to personal freedom. It has not been fortuitous that from the very beginning the thinking was based mostly on positivistic philosophy (John Stewart Mill having been the classic representative of both).

On the face of it, positivism was preoccupied with quite particular problems of scientific language and the credibility of scientific knowledge. But it proposes its own notion of the philosopher's morals of intellectual honesty and intellectual asceticism. It is best expressed by Ludwig Wittgenstein, the most openly moralist among the positivists: "What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent."

The meaning of this moral can be understood only as a polemic against the universalistic claim of metaphysical philosophy and as defensive methodology against it. But this safeguard is never sufficiently reliable because it runs counter to man's inborn need to find a rational expression for his ineradicable striving to transcendence. This attitude is also self-contradictory, because the aspiration for absolute intellectual honesty and absolute clarity is in itself an expression of a longing for the realization of the absolute values in empirical realitythis time, in the reality of human intellectual work. This turns the absolute claim of metaphysical philosophy inside out and raises demands no less severe and uncompromising. The same role of the philosopher is preserved: he knows the truth (this time it is the strict criteria of the intellectual clarity and credibility); and the empirical reality, that is, man's intellectual activity, must obey absolute laws. The entire order is imposed and controlled by the Philosopher. The main principles of the totalitarian structure are thus retained, but reduced to the domain of rational activity where its possible harm is neutralized because luckily it does not possess any ability to impose its will by force.

But, as I have just mentioned, the human will to transcendence is ineradicable and will find some manner for rational expression. ln order to render this metaphysical propensity harmless the modern pluralistic society confines it to special reservations, namely, universities, where it is to stew in its own juice. Here philosophers can have money, leisure, ability to travel, to organize meetings and seminars, to publish books for each other and to argue as much as they want about the ultimate truth they are seeking. Society is ready to pay them for its right not to listen. Philosophy has no choice but to accept its paradoxical position as a particular profession, incongruous as this is to its preoccupation with universal values. Philosophers have become teachers without disciples; students of philosophy are future teachers of future students. The pluralistic society does not consider a philosopher's advice to be binding; it prefers to be ruled by lawyers and economists, who are not interested in the ultimate truth and ultimate meaning, but understand well the real everyday interests of people and know ways of reconciling them.

This is the position of philosophy in modern Western societies. In the ex-communist countries the same tendency is becoming predominant. The classic communist society is, as we already have said, nothing other than an incarnation of an absolutist philosophy. Thus, it was perfectly logical that in the era of classic totalitarianism all personal philosophizing was strictly prohibited, because the word of the leader was the only possible philosophy, and the occupation of learned philosophers consisted precisely in commenting, distributing and praising that word. It goes without saying that this kind of "philosophy" could be only a "pidgin philosophy"; it did not express the human aspiration to transcendence, but was merely a tool for keeping the human soul from even ideally transcending the existing social reality.

As totalitarianism loosened gradually into a period of "stagnation", some chinks or niches were created in which a microbe of philosophy could survive, though in disguised or severely restricted form. Now the restrictions and the need to disguise oneself are lifted, but the new freedom does not bring a feast of philosophy, for philosophy has lost its credibility. Philosophers have suffered enough from the older regime alongside all others, but the regime itself had been projected by philosophers; this resulted from acknowledging the primacy of a general idea over everyday human needs. Society no longer trusts one who says that the idea of communism was wrong, but that what the people need now is some new, right and well-thought-out general idea. People feel they need mostly some common sense. Philosophy is no longer prohibited, but seems to have become useless.


The theme of this paper, however, is not "The Role of Philosophy in Contemporary Society", but "The Moral Aspect of Philosophy". Are the morals of philosophy ruined by its position as "teacher without disciples?" What seems basically wrong is the dualism between philosophical insight and the moral obligation of a philosopher, as expressed in the Platonic dualism described at the beginning of this paper. That dualism presupposes that philosophical insight is alien to morality itself, but there exists a moral obligation of the philosopher to turn to public benefit the specific achievements of the philosophic mind.

But what can be done if the public ignores the possibility of deriving benefit from the philosopher's ideas? Two ways remain: either the highest Good must be imposed on an ignorant society by force, or every moral obligation must be abandoned and philosophy becomes just a spiritual playat best the most nobel one. The Marxist attitude that philosophy must "change, not interpret the world" did not really overcome this dualism: philosophy acquired an inner intention for future incarnation from the very beginning.

The moral aspect of philosophy must be sought in philosophy, not outside it. An act of philosophical insight must be regarded as a kind of moral deed. The choice of a philosopher's position in the world is not founded merely upon psychological propensity or practical expediency; it is the choice leading out of the psychological and the practical. The "bracketing" of reality, which is the precondition not only of Husserl's phenomenology, but of the entire philosophical attitude, demands that in philosophizing a person also "bracket" everything that binds him to reality. It is an act of intellectual courage, running counter to the natural course of events and to one's own psychological nature. One who ventures to adopt a philosophical position has to abandon the reliable ground of social conventions and predetermined practical and intellectual schemes, to give up the guaranteed minimum of truth obtained through everyday experience and book-wisdom. Philosophy is readiness to begin from nothing every time.

A spiritual effort necessary to overcome the natural attitude toward the world is the only element of the philosophical act by which it may be considered as a moral deed. The philosophical act is one in which a person constitutes him or herself as a free, spiritual beingwhich means as a human being. It is in this that the universal meaning of the philosophical act really consists. Being human implies obtaining some distance with regard to the natural course of events and determining oneself in relation to absolute being and absolute meaning. But it does not imply that a philosopher is an expert on absolute meaning and ready to teach it to anybody else. He just exposes the absolute dimension of being through the philosophical act itself, that is, makes evident the insufficiency of the natural attitude to the world. This role is not to say what the absolute meaning is, but that it is. The philosopher cannot monopolize absolute meaning: that would be to claim a monopoly over being human. What the philosopher really knows and can teach is the language in which the absolute meaning or rather the striving toward it traditionally is expressed. He can be a good guide in the complicated system of rational concepts and ideas created by humanity seeking the foundation of its extranatural and spiritual essence.

This implies that a philosopher does not necessarily need to do something in order to be a morally responsible person. Pangs of remorse on being preoccupied by abstract ideas and forgetting real life reveal lack of an understanding of what philosophy is about. The philosophical act is an act of freedom. A society which reproaches the philosopher for the abstract character of his work lacks an appreciation of freedom and of the extranatural dimension of the human existence. A philosopher may avoid direct participation in the political life, but a society which leaves a place for a philosopher differs seriously from one which does not tolerate a philosophical position: a society without philosophy is a society without freedom.

I do not want to say that a philosopher should avoid participation in politics if he wants to be true to his calling. But if he does participate, he does not do it as a philosopher. He is also a citizen, and may feel himself morally obliged to think and act politically. This problem becomes especially pressing at turning points of a society's and nation's history. ln these periods society becomes thoroughly politicized and every person has to find his/her own way of meeting the challenge of the epoch. We are now experiencing such a turning point in our country. These are difficult times for the spiritual activity of man, for philosophy, the arts, and I think also for religion where the over-politicized atmosphere obscures the perspective of Absolute meaning. But these also are the times when historical choices are being made; every person, philosophers included, has to take some part in that choice.

When I say that a philosopher does not participate in it as a philosopher, I object to the idea that, thanks to his philosophical insights, he knows better what the right choice is and can teach it to the rest of society. But that does not mean, that the philosopher's spiritual experience plays no role in his political activity. In this domain he does not begin from nothing: the spiritual experience of the philosopher is the experience of understanding, namely, of understanding things in the dimension of Ultimate Meaning. Even considering some very particular problems from an empirical, world-focused viewpoint, a philosopher still cannot but regard them from the position of Ultimate Meaning. He is, as it were, not Philosopher the Constructor, but Philosopher the Understander. He introduces a different dimension into the horizon of the political life: not only that of function, but that of meaning as well; not only the functioning of social mechanisms, but the general meaning of the process.

I want to repeat that I do not have in mind that the philosopher knows what the general meaning must be. His idea of it is just a subjective notion existing in the consciousness of a finite, fallible person. The attempt by intellectuals, based on such notions, to subject real life to their control is a sure route to totalitarianism. The Philosopher's real contribution may lie rather in a different sphere. Without a consciousness of meaning playing a role in political consciousness, the whole political choice makes no sense. What the philosopher can do is to expose the dimension of meaning and to remind society thereof.

In sum, unlike the natural sciences, the moral aspect of philosophy does not imply giving up philosophical thinking when it comes into contact with some "dangerous" domains of the human existence. That danger may be present in a certain understanding of the philosopher's social position and moral calling, in his claim to possess exclusively the ultimate truth of being and to demand that the whole society conform to his idea of the truth, and his claim to be the only representative of the Ultimate Meaning in this fallible world. The comprehension of this danger and of ways to avoid it is a task of philosophy itself.

Institute of Philosophy,

Academy of Science of Georgia

Tbilisi, Georgia


1. K. Marx, F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 5 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), p. 5.

2. M. Heidegger, German Existentialism, Dagobert D. Runes, trans. (New York: Wisdom Library, a Division of Philosophical Library, 1965), p. 32.

3. Ibid., p. 10.

4. L. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Limited, 1949), p. 27.


Three roles for philosophy were modeled in this chapter: The first sees the philosopher as constructor: because only the philosopher has access to the ideal models of Plato, he alone can appropriately understand and direct human life. This was seen as tending to generate a totalitarian outlook and to engage the philosopher in its implementation. The second role would renounce the above metaphysical claim in favor of a more tentative and empirical approach, but its search for absolute clarity through reducing all to its own empirical criteria results in a reductionist order being imposed and controlled by the philosopher. Fortunately its totalitarian implications are balanced by the lack of any real possibility to enforce this order, even in the scientific community. The third role is more existential and phenomenological in character; it opens the understanding of things to the dimensions of ultimate meaning. It is not that the philosopher possesses or controls this in a way that gives him answers to the questions mankind must ask, but that he can remind society of the dimension of ultimate meaning in terms of which mankind must make its choices.

1. The prevalence in the U.S. (and indeed in the broader Anglo-Saxon world) of the second model for the role of the philosopher was noted as contributing, or at least corresponding, to a native antipathy to totalitarian perspectives and ideologies which might be derived from the first type. Its reductionist effect upon all meaning to that which is able to be sensed, to the surface and the pragmatic, is somewhat moderated by the country's Christian roots, their reflection in the deism of America's Founding Fathers, and the predominance of theological training for the members of its black leadership. All of this has helped to keep some openness of the public horizon beyond that of the material order to the spiritual foundations of human life and meaning.

At the same time, the strong Protestant heritage of the country has set this spiritual sensibility within the context of a notion of human nature as fallen. This implies that access to the meaning of human life can be had only on the basis of faith in contrast to philosophical reflection. The philosopher may control the logic, but has no proper access to transcendent meaning; metaphysics is not considered possible. Thus reflection upon the foundations of meaning must be carried out on the basis of faith and without the benefit of the philosophic reason. Public discussion of issues concerning values in a pluralistic society becomes difficult, to say the least. There may be certain parallels here to the position of the papernot in its claim that it is the task of the philosopher to keep the mind open to the transcendent foundations of human meaning, but in its hesitancy to see any special contribution by the philosopher to reflection upon the meaning of such foundations for human life.

2. The first model for the role of the philosopher posed important questions regarding the totalizing orientation of classical philosophy's search for unity and for integrity of meaning. It canand indeed shouldbe said that Plato marked Western thought with this orientation. In his view of the role of the state in the ideal community there is a basis for real concern that he had lost sight of the concrete and personal dimensions of human life. Further it should be noted that by hubris man is moved to employ such insights for constructs of domination and control. Thus, freedom needs to be reasserted. The development of phenomenological and personalist philosophies in this century is doing much that is of great importance in this regard.

On the other hand, it should be said that it is not the Platonic insights of the first model themselves, but the particular combination of the first model with the goal of mathematically clear reasoning that has unleashed the particular combination of power with hubris which has produced the pervasive and brutal totalitarian regimes of the modern age, as well as the corresponding ideologically oriented political science. To this the appropriate human response, rather than being the abandonment of the Platonic search to articulate the relation of things in terms of unity, truth and goodness, might be to investigate Aristotle's effort to make more room here for the concrete, the contingent and the free, while at the same time providing them with a firm metaphysical foundation and context. This led him to develop a logic and set of sciences in terms of forms and natures, but, in contrast, to develop his ethics not upon necessitarian deductions, but upon the role of prudence in human life. The result is not a political theory subject to reductivist abstractions, but an ethical view of a democratic polis and public life with full richness of the expression and exercise of human freedom.

This would make it possible to integrate the positive contributions of the empirical without the restrictions of empiricism, and to retain the value of seeing all in the whole or the total without a reductive totalism or totalitarianism. If so then the philosopher would not only keep open the dimension of the ultimate, but have a continuing role to play in the articulation of its meaning in ways for which the other sciences are not adapted. Common sense can be perfected through the human capabilities for reflection when applied with the care and control of a developed and critical metaphysics.

3. In this light it was suggested also that the paper may set too modest a goal for philosophy. Certainly, all human capabilities, scientific and other, must be integrated into the task of human life, and no thinker or dimension of thought is plenipotentiary. The exercise of freedom must be the free work of persons and peoples, and none can preempt or substitute for this. But it would seem insufficient to say that the philosopher only points out that there is an ultimate basis for meaning and then abandons all work regarding its nature and its implications for human life. For the metaphysician, to keep open that dimension of ultimate meaning should mean to play a special role in the human response to this meaning by attempting to unpack its implications for human consciousness and articulate the special significance of human life in view of this foundation.

This is done by the philosopher not merely as a person, but with the means and concern proper to philosophy. In this way it was suggested that the philosopher must do more than avoid the hubris of the position that the philosopher knows all and can decide all. It is important also that he or she contribute his or her philosophic competencies and insights to the many dimensions of the human search to develop a social life worthy of mankind.

This may have a number of dimensions. First, it can mean that part of the general educational process includes liberating persons from "the natural attitude," understood as a reduction to an interpretation of the world in terms of a mechanical model or simply through the physical sciences. Philosophy must contribute to opening the horizons of the mind to the multiple dimensions of being and its transcendent foundation, as well as to the implications of this for the moral life.

Second, philosophy may best be carried out in terms of concrete challenges. That is, rather than being quintessentially an attempt to develop a unified theory into which all is made to fitwhich could give rise to the reductive ideologies such as those which in the last century have wreaked such devastation upon mankindit may be better to begin from the points of current challenge and discovery. These might be, for example, the experience of the person in the last fifty years and the more recent liberation from Marxism in Eastern Europe. If richly appreciated and deeply reflected upon, these should constitute in our day an important enrichment of our appreciation of the meaning of being human, and indeed of being itself. Similarly, facing the dilemmas of exercising freedom in a complex society should constitute a situation of wonder (in Aristotle's sense) beyond anything to be found in the movements of the planets, and thereby to occasion philosophical reflection about that divine life in which Aristotle's metaphysics culminated (Metaph XII, 7, 1072b, 14-29) and about the nature of human existence.

Thirdly, if it is important to think of the person not as an atomic whole, but as participating in a broader reality, then it becomes important to think seriously upon the whole in which the person participates. Is the absolute in which it is founded a blind force or a wise and loving source and goal of all? The difference is central not only to Kant's distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal orders, but to our understanding of the exercise of human life. For there is a maximum gulf between life when seen as a manipulation of blind physical and perhaps social forces and when seen as the mobilization of a free and loving response to God and to one another. The explosive celebrations of freedom in Eastern Europe during the last half of 1989 and the deep aspirations for human freedom they bespoke would seem now to make it possible and necessary to reflect more adequately about the corresponding characteristics in the absolute foundation of reality.