Professor Angie Hobbs

Philosophy and Flourishing in an Age of Uncertainty

Modern technology has in many cases given us the illusion that life is far more predictable and controllable than is in fact the case, and the pandemic, climate change and the invasion of Ukraine have collectively provided a sharp reality check in this respect.  However, philosophy – both inside and outside the academy – can still assist us in many ways.  It can help us cut through the confusion, half-truths, falsehoods and lies to work out what (perhaps rather few) things are certain and what things are not.  In dealing with the uncertainties, it can help us work out which of them are at least partly under our control, and in addition it can help us not simply to analyse the situation but foster the creative imagination and mental suppleness needed to work out ways forward. In situations where you really do not have the power to shape events, philosophy can provide techniques and therapies for helping us respond to them in the most positive – or at any rate least destructive – way.  It can particularly achieve this by offering us a secure framework for what it might mean for an individual or community to flourish (Greek eudaimonia), even in those situations where feeling happy is neither possible nor appropriate.

Philosophy can also help us appreciate that uncertainty is not always bad: the stage of aporia (perplexity), for instance, plays a crucial role in the Socratic elenchus, a technique also embraced by Plato.  We cannot make intellectual or moral progress unless we come to realise what we do not yet know or understand, and feel a painful confusion which drives us to move forward in our enquiries and moral growth.

I shall conclude by considering the implications of all this for how – and where – we should engage in philosophy, how we should speak, discuss and write it.  Precise and nuanced clarity will be needed to describe the areas of certainty, uncertainty and different kinds of uncertainty outlined above – uncertainty is no excuse for sloppy and lazy generalizations.  Humility and listening to different voices and points of view – again, from outside the academy as well as within – will also be vital.  As that philosophical troubadour Leonard Cohen wrote in ‘Towers of Song’, And there’s a mighty judgment coming, but I may be wrong.

Prof. Angie Hobbs is Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield, the first of its kind. Her chief interests are in ancient philosophy and literature, and in ethics and political theory from classical thought to the present, and she has published widely in these areas. She contributes regularly to radio and TV programmes and other media. She has spoken at the World Economic Forum at Davos, the Houses of Parliament, the Scottish Parliament, Westminster Abbey and the United States Air Force Training Academy.