Philosophy and the Modern World – Introduction

Modern Society: the Context of Philosophical Counselling

One of the most important factors we need to keep uppermost in our minds when we engage in philosophical counselling – as counsellor or as client – is the larger social context which we inhabit but which to a great extent has also shaped us. We often hear about the nature/nurture debate in child development or discussions about cultural differences and multiculturalism. To what extent are we shaped by nature; our biological inheritance and our physical dependency, and, to what extent are we shaped by nurture; our upbringing within the family, the place of our family within the immediate community, and our community’s place within the wider society in which it is situated? This debate is not a new one, it has been going on in western society since at least the fifth century BC when Greek intellectuals hotly debated this very question. Indeed this question arose in large part because of  encounters with new peoples when the Greeks started to travel beyond their familiar environment, and, as they came to adopt a more scientific attitude towards the natural world, and, in particular, biology.

In these debates and inquiries, be they those of the ancient Greeks, or our own current discussion, no one has ever argued along either/or lines; no one has claimed that it is either nature or nurture, rather, the difficulty in all this lies in determining to what degree each of these elements constitutes our formation, to what degree they constitute the human condition, and how they relate to each other. The difficulty seems to lie in disentangling these two factors for purposes of analysis and explanation. I certainly do not propose to resolve these questions of long-standing interest and difficulty; however, I would argue that when we take up these questions in our time and social milieu, we cannot hope to make any progress without becoming engaged with the factors that mark off and define our society from any other.

We would need to identify those things that all human beings share in common simply in virtue of being human, for example, birth and death, the need for nutrition, the possession of language and culture, and a need to make sense of the world and so on. Once we have done this, we would need to then look towards those aspects of our society which mark it off from other societies and indeed marks it off from earlier stages of our own society in its history. Our inquiry would have to be both anchored in present phenomena, but would also need to have a firm sense of our history.

There are three aspects of the modern world about which we will post on regularly here at Phronesis. Together, these three form the context of the society we live in and, consequently, the forces that have partly shaped us, the other part being the biological.

In no particular order, these are modern technology, popular culture, and mass consumerism. It should be obvious that these three categories are not unrelated to the biological determinations and natural dependencies that partly shape and define the human condition. However, it is necessary for explanatory purposes to carve up these various domains into apparently neat categories, while fully cognisant of the fact that all of these factors are intertwined with each other in actuality in complex ways.