Over the course of modern history, it has seemed the case that philosophers seek to find answers for both the current and universal questions asked since ancient Greece and probably before. Such questions explore the nature of the universe and humankind’s place in it, the existence of a Supreme Being, the possibility of free will versus fate, the definitions and limitations of morality, the nature of happiness, and so on. An important philosophical question of similarly expansive application and implication is that of the relationship between the individual and the state, which has been of particular important in my Modern Political Thought class this fall at the Graduate Center at City University of New York; reading the works of Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, and Mill requires one to explore such challenging territory through the lens of each thinker and to absorb his particular (and peculiar, at times) ways of establishing what is generally “true” within his social and historical context vis-à-vis political life within the nation where he lived as well the geopolitically complicated context within which his nation was situated. So it is no doubt true today with modern “public intellectuals,” as they tend to be called.
While reading these texts and attempting a thorough response to several guiding questions provided in the course syllabus by my professor, including “What do the various philosophers take to be the original motivation underlying the formation of political society?” and “How do these motivations conform to the normative prescriptions and institutional arrangements that are proposed?”, as well as questions regarding the limitations and potential for suspension of political power within those arrangements as suggested by the four philosophers above, I kept coming back to the notion that each writer, in his own time, wrote as much of the Truth as he could based both on what he saw around him and what he established within himself as a view of what society could be were it to become its best version of itself.
It is important to ask this question: What is the role of philosophers in society? Are they meant to be descriptive of the times, or prescriptive of how they could change for the better?
With another spin: do philosophers and other academics occupy a different tenet of control in human society, apart from that of political leaders? Are they colonizers of the mind through a superior sense of awareness, intellectual achievement, access to academic and/or dominant discourse and influence, perhaps even racial, gender, linguistic, or class-based (or religiously based, or geopolitical) authority?