Philistinism and Philosophy

by Daniel A. Kaufman

Art is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress towards well-being of individuals and of humanity.

If men lacked this capacity of being infected by art, people might be more savage still, and above all, more separated from, and more hostile to, one another.

–Leo Tolstoy

Philistinism isn’t given any attention in philosophy today.  These are morally heady times in the profession, and many of our best and brightest are too busy manning the barricades of social justice to concern themselves with beauty, good taste, aesthetic refinement and the significance of culture more generally.  Of course, it’s not entirely clear that they would, even if they were somehow relieved of their great moral burdens – an overly excitable moral sense is one of philistinism’s sources – but I get ahead of myself.

The philistine is one who either refuses to engage with and appreciate the value of the arts, cuisine, and other exercises in human culture or is incapable of it.  His is a vice that knows no boundaries of education or class.  The rural, high-school educated, meat-and-potatoes type, who will never eat sfiha or sweetbreads or sushi may be a philistine, but so is the urban, higher educated, health-and-exercise-obsessed professional, who treats food as nothing more than fuel and whose kitchen resembles a medicine cabinet more than a place in which anything gastronomical occurs.  The shallow, money-focused investment banker who has no use for literature or essays is certainly a philistine, but so is the logic-and-science-fixated analytic philosopher who dismisses Confucius, Pico or Montaigne, because they aren’t “real philosophy.”

It’s all too easy today to dismiss philistinism as a serious concern, because it’s all too easy to dismiss the importance of the aesthetic to human life.  The reasons that people do this are many and complex, but it seems safe to say that philistinism thrives under a number of conditions, including: an undue focus on certain kinds of material well-being; an overactive moral sense; a failure to understand the role of arts and culture, beyond providing entertainment; an excessive and distorted regard for ratiocination and ratiocinative values, of which an excessive and distorted regard for science and scientific methods is perhaps the most common example.  Undoubtedly, there are more, but these are the ones that immediately come to mind.

Our engagement with the visual and performing arts, music, literature, and cuisine deepen our lived experience, while also expanding our capacity for it.  The sensibility and palate, like the intellect, are developed, expanded, and refined through use and by “stretching” them.  The man who in childhood would eat only processed, American cheese and refuses to try any other kind as an adult will have a narrower, less developed palate than someone who not only tries new cheeses, but more “difficult” ones – soft; pungent; ripened – that challenge and stretch his capacity to taste and to appreciate.  The woman who has had little to no engagement with music and the visual arts – for whom Bach and Brahms and Botticelli and Beckmann and Braque mean nothing – will have a more limited experience of and appreciation for beauty and pathos than one whose life has been infused with and enriched by the works of these and other great masters.  And the person who has developed no interest in or appreciation for literature or humane letters – who has never engaged with Augustine’s Confessions, Montaigne’s Essays, Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, or Joyce’s, Kafka’s or Faulkner’s novels – will have a more contracted, impoverished view of the human condition than the person who has.

To limit one’s own experience in this way, consequently, is also to close oneself to other people, as the arts and cuisine and other forms of human culture are the chief means by which people around the world have expressed themselves and shared their experiences for the entire course of recorded history.  It’s always lamentable when such closing occurs unwittingly, because of unfortunate circumstances of family or birthplace or material circumstances, but it’s much worse when it is done on purpose, and even more so, when done purportedly for the sake of one’s own well-being and virtue.  The latter, of course, is little more than a cruel joke, as if virtue could be obtained from contracting one’s sensibility, rather than expanding it, or well-being could be achieved by neglecting oneself, as a person, in the service of a compulsive, morbid attention to one’s material condition.

Among professional academics, analytic philosophers – of which I am one – are among the most susceptible to the more intellectual, rarefied forms of philistinism.  It is analytic philosophers, after all, who are among the most likely to forget that ethical concern is an expression of our humanity, not some neutral, abstractly conceived system hanging above it, which is why some of our most prominent ethicists – Peter Singer comes immediately to mind – are proud advocates for philistinism, with regard to arts and cuisine.  (Beyond the culinary philistinism born of his ethical outlook, Singer has publicly advocated against supporting museums, and his brand of utilitarianism will always entail the elevation of material concerns over all others. (1))  It is analytic philosophers who are inclined to dismiss the significance of the historical and literary dimension of their own discipline, in favor of entirely logically and scientifically-oriented investigations, the smallness and barrenness of which are largely to blame for analytic philosophy’s increasingly marginal character in the academy and the larger world.  And it is analytic philosophers who, in their embrace of reductive and eliminative materialisms, demonstrate that they do not understand that we are not simply organic machines, operating under mechanistic principles, but people – members of families; friends; neighbors; bearers of ethnic and religious identities; and citizens of nations – who live and act within the irreducible, ineliminable space of representations and reasons that Wilfrid Sellars called the “Manifest Image.” (2)

Arts and culture are the most complex, most customizable and thus, most expressively rich frameworks through which we represent the world and thereby, develop and express the points of view that ground the Manifest Image.  Given that representation is at the root of all valuation, positive and negative, and thus of all action (in contrast with mere motor movement), it is what grounds ethics and law and social, civic and political life, which is why the question of the development of our representational capacity is an absolutely crucial one.  The philistine is one in whom this capacity is the least developed and crudest, and this can only undermine his ability to engage with others in the forms of life in which we all participate.  Of course, this does not mean that the philistine necessarily will fail in his social and civic endeavors or, for that matter, that the properly acculturated and aesthetically developed person always will succeed.  It does mean, however, that philistinism will always count against one’s best efforts to be engaged with other people and that a well- and richly-developed sensibility will always count in favor of them, and it is for this reason that the matter should be of substantial concern to academics and “lay” people alike.





  1. This is a perfect piece to read in the new year. About four or five years ago I wrote an essay called The New Philistinism, in which I argued that if in the past philistinism consisted of the old “my five year old kid could do that” being said in front of Pollack, the new philistinism consisted of dismissing, say, Norman Lear, or, for that matter Dolly Parton, on grounds that it was corrupted or corrupting and the like. What all varieties of philistinism have in common is a rejection of some kind of intrinsic quality of culture itself in favor of its utility value, say, is it ennobling or lead to a better world, or is it sufficiently entertaining or accessible and so on.


  2. it seems safe to say that philistinism thrives under a number of conditions, including: an undue focus on certain kinds of material well-being; an overactive moral sense; a failure to understand the role of arts and culture, beyond providing entertainment; an excessive and distorted regard for ratiocination and ratiocinative values, of which an excessive and distorted regard for science and scientific methods is perhaps the most common example.

    These are all good reasons for the growth of, indeed dominance of philistinism. But the list left me searching for more, some kind of underlying explanation.

    This brings me back to my earlier quote from JM Burger, quoting DeCharms:

    Man strives to be a causal agent,” he wrote. ”To be the primary locus of causation for, or the origin of, his behavior; he strives for personal causation

    In the search for personal causation we developed tools of ever increasing power and complexity. We used these tools to
    1) subdue the environment and direct it towards the satisfaction of our needs;
    2) to subdue others for the satisfaction of our needs; and
    3) we used these tools for creative purposes, in the broader sense of creative.
    In these three ways our tools multiplied our capacity for personal causation. We used this capacity for good and bad but it has also resulted in an enduring creative output that has deeply enriched our species by connecting us in new and richer ways.

    But that is changing.

    1) We have fallen in love with our tools and have become intoxicated by the easy satisfaction of our needs that the tools offer. We have drained effort out of life so that we tend rather to choose the easy path. But there is no easy path to deeper cultural appreciation and so we neglect or abandon that path, choosing instead the path of easy gratification that canned culture offers.

    2) Need, when readily and frequently, satisfied, results in habituation and diminishment of reward. To recover the reward we increasingly feed our needs. This need/reward cycle of satiety becomes a fixation. It is addictive and becomes a powerful barrier to our perceptions of the sublime because fixation on immediate need crowds out other players on the stage of the mind.

    3) We have become infatuated with the power of personal causation enabled by these tools, because these tools magnify the power of our causation. making us more like the gods. This infatuation with our own power makes us hyper-individualists, weakening our connections with others and diminishing our need for cultural connections. This god-like capacity has given us a new object for love, and that is love of the self. Our innate love of the good, the true and the beautiful is supplanted, displaced or weakened by this love of the self.

    4) Our tools have reduced people to two dimensional representations on a screen, whom we can call up or dismiss at will, heightening further our infatuation with the power of personal causation and making us even more god-like. And being more god-like we have reduced need for concern about the values and culture of others.

    We become philistines.