Who picks up the tab for today's Platos?

How should philosophers be paid? That someone should even raise such a query is encouraging. On the world's ladder of recognized issues - preventing nuclear war, stemming environmental pollution, funding social welfare, and so forth - that question occupies a nether rung.

Doubly encouraging is the fact that the person most recently doing the asking - Robert L. Payton, president of the Exxon Education Foundation - can put some money where his mouth is. It is widely acknowledged, after all, that philosophers are largely to be found on university faculties; that university philosophy departments have experienced a steady erosion in student interest in recent years; and that such erosion has serious ramifications for both the number of philosophers and the nature of their work. So Payton's question is both surprising and refreshing. It springs from his conviction that that philanthropy must be directed at supplying ''public goods'' - one of which is the doing of philosophy.

Payton raises the issue in a readable and highly individualistic report he wrote for the annual convention of Independent Sector, a five-year-old umbrella group for philanthropic and volunteer organizations which met earlier this month in Boston. After noting that ''almost everything about the work of philosophers must be subsidized'' (since their work has little immediate market value), he asks some simple questions. How should it be subsidized? By whom?

In an age struggling to articulate relationships between individuals and institutions - to resolve the paradoxes of hunger amid surplus food, lack of education amid technological wizardry, or political paralysis amid social urgency - those are important questions. They speak to our need for new structures of thought, new ways of looking at the world. And philosophy is a discipline that, among other things, examines the ways our thinking shapes our society. For that reason, it is marvelously equipped to take the long, broad, and undistracted view of our problems. It helps us put things into perspective and avoid the demons of compartmentalization.

It is precisely here, Payton argues, that philanthropy can make a difference. By way of example, he writes, ''Philanthropic activity that thinks about health while ignoring philosophy, that thinks about science but not about religion, will lead us into the temptation of believing that only our bodies are important.''

How are we to avoid that temptation - which, to judge from the physique-related ads spilling out through the news media, is besetting us on every side? In a series of three increasingly difficult questions, Payton hints at the way forward. ''Do we have enough philosophers?'' he writes. ''Is their work as good as it ought to be? Are they working on the right problems?''

It seems to me that the answers, in ascending order, are ''No,'' ''Probably not,'' and ''That's a hard one.'' Yes, we need more philosophers. We probably also need to make philosophy more attractive among the young - so that some of our best minds will take it up. But what are the problems it should be addressing?

At the risk of oversimplifying, let me point to one that crops up in every discipline: the tendency to believe that our problems defy solution, that life is so complex that all we can expect is temporary amelioration rather than permanent resolution, that absolutes do not exist. That tendency of popular thought - perhaps growing up out of positivism and logical empiricism on the philosophical side, and out of relativity theory on the mathematical side - is fair game for philosophers. It exercises a profound shaping influence on society. But does it represent the universe as it exists? Or is it a peculiar quirk of late-20th-century thought?

Philanthropists fund all sorts of short- and long-range studies. Perhaps they can point some philosophers toward those questions. At the very least, it would seem a useful exercise. At best, it could mightily restructure the way we think about our problems.

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