Philosophy

Peter Unger, Raymond Geuss, and internal criticism of academic philosophy

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In an earlier post criticizing the decadent state of academic philosophy today, and in particular the kind of mindless linguistic puzzle-playing that is celebrated each year in The Philosopher’s Annual, I mentioned that there are a few lonely voices within the academic philosophy community who have recently spoken out against the forms of intellectual blindness that I described. As two examples, I mentioned Peter Unger and Raymond Geuss. More on their recent books below.

But first, I should also note that there are several professional philosophers who have, over the years, published exegeses of the later Wittgenstein that could and should have been understood as devastating critiques of the way most academic philosophy is done today. Robert Fogelin and the great G.P. Baker (in his later writings) are two names that come to mind. There have also been a number of professional philosophers who offered deeply critical views of various aspects of academic philosophy — without attacking contemporary problem-solving methodologies as globally and resolutely as a “therapeutic” Wittgensteinian might do. Richard Rorty, for example, began his career as a mildly optimistic observer of “the linguistic turn” in philosophy, became disillusioned with more or less the entire project of modern epistemology in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, and eventually criticized the truth-discovering pretensions of most philosophy since Plato by emphasizing the relativity of all philosophical problems to the contingent vocabularies in which the problems are stated. Appropriately, Rorty ended his career in a comparative literature department, leaving the puzzle-playing philosophers to themselves.

For the most part, however, I suspect that young people today who are interested in philosophy, skeptical, and might become internal critics of misguided philosophical methods are dissuaded from becoming philosophy professors in the first place. A friend who was considering applying to graduate school in philosophy once told me that a professor described what the graduate programs are looking for as follows: they want someone who will be able to “push the ball forward.” The professors want to know that their graduate students will engage with the professors’ problems in a productive way, participating in the same problem-solving methods that the professors use — for example, clarifying puzzles by drawing creative new distinctions involving obscure and highly technical philosophical concepts.

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Philosophy

What is wrong with academic philosophy today?

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The title of this post is actually sort of a joke, because it is so obvious what is wrong with academic philosophy today — and indeed what has been wrong for the last several decades — obvious to everyone but some academic philosophers. Unfortunately, those academic philosophers are largely the ones in charge.

When I say “academic philosophy,” I have in mind the sort of mindless linguistic puzzle-playing celebrated each year in the Philosopher’s Annual. The most acclaimed and ostensibly serious work being undertaken by professional philosophers in most English-speaking philosophy departments today.

Of course, there is a great deal of very important and valuable work being done by relatively professionally marginal figures who happen to remain employed by departments of philosophy, and by philosophers who work in professionally second-class fields such as the history of philosophy and political philosophy. Countless academics working on philosophy outside of philosophy departments continue to do real intellectual work. And who knows, maybe the latest generation of young philosophers is already rejecting the kind of virtuosic non-thinking on display in the Philosopher’s Annual. Maybe they’ll remake the face of professional philosophy — if any of them succeed in getting jobs.

Then, one day, we may refer to “the Philosopher’s Annual style of philosophy” in the same way that we now refer to “the fireside poets” — the once-dominant, now unread tradition of late-19th century genteel poetry that preceded and was overthrown by American modernism.

But for the time being, the professional core of academic philosophy remains, as it has been for my entire lifetime, occupied by work that is characterized by a very unphilosophical lack of questioning toward its own pervasive methodological weaknesses. Nearly every non-historical paper collected in each year’s Philosopher’s Annual, for example, whatever its subject area or narrowly defined school of thought, consists of attempts to solve linguistic puzzles that are designed so as to be unsolvable. The ways in which these problems are unsolvable are clear and have been clear for nearly a century. Even before so-called “analytic” philosophy came to dominate Anglophone philosophy departments, Ludwig Wittgenstein described in simple, uncontroversial terms how philosophical problems of the kind addressed in the Philosopher’s Annual arise, why so many philosophers feel compelled to solve them, and why such solutions do not exist. Nearly before the philosophical puzzle-solving conversation began, the later Wittgenstein had definitively ended it.

Yet the philosophers at the center of the profession apparently remain oblivious to this fact. The general idea seems to be that Wittgenstein’s critique of their methods can’t be correct — because then they would all be wasting their time — and that can’t possibly the case… By showing that the kind of philosophical problem-solving that fills the top academic journals is a hopeless endeavor, Wittgenstein “proves too much,” therefore must be wrong, and can be safely ignored.

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Literature

If (the novel) arrives

Well, it appears that my little experimental novel If is now available on Amazon.com.

Thanks to the great Joe Taylor at Livingston Press for giving this novel a shot, and for all his support behind the scenes. And a big thanks to JK at the The Kugelmass Episodes for invaluable comments on an earlier draft. Without the generosity of these two people, I don’t know where the novel would be today, if it existed at all. Also, thanks to our recently married friend (congratulations!) at mangolandia for the superlative blurb.

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As mentioned in earlier posts, the novel has an unusual structure — one that may be familiar to readers of Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths, or to those who read a certain series of children’s books in the 1980s in which the reader makes a choice at the end of every chapter… If the threat of being sued for trademark infringement were not lurking in the background, I might even say that this novel is the world’s first literary ______ ____ ___ _________ novel (where the missing blanks might or might not be filled by a familiar series title).

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Literature, Politics

Nicholas Kristof’s defense of the humanities

Well, the defenses of the humanities just keep on coming…  Nicholas Kristof writes in his column today about how his understanding of the world was influenced by three philosophers: Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls, and Peter Singer.

Kristof’s comments remind me that I’ve been meaning to return to something I mentioned, but never developed, in one of this blog’s earlier defenses of the humanities: could it be that there are certain subject matters that belong uniquely to the humanities? That is, even if someone were not persuaded that the humanities could be a valuable way of learning about the empirical world, might it not still be the case that the humanities are important because they alone address certain extremely important subjects — such as the meanings of things, and questions about what we should do?

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Literature

William Deresiewicz’s defense of the humanities

William Deresiewicz, who first achieved some public-intellectual prominence for delivering a great lecture on solitude and leadership to the plebe class at West Point in 2009, recently published a New Republic article arguing that parents shouldn’t send their kids to the Ivy League. Setting aside the Internet-ready provocation of the thesis, I wanted to quote Deresiewicz’s old-fashioned but well-articulated case for why college is valuable. It works as an argument for the value of the humanities as well, and is the kind of simple, effective, widely appealing argument that I wanted to promote in my earlier posts on defenses of the humanities:

What, in short, is college for?

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Literature

Yet another Op-Ed. on the crisis in the humanities

Since this blog has spent so much time discussing the crisis in the humanities, I thought it might be helpful to excerpt the latest New York Times Op-Ed. assessing the crisis. It’s adapted from David Lehman’s Foreword to “Best American Poetry 2014”:

[M]ore than ever the humanities today stand in need of defense. These are hard times for the study of ideas. . . .

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Literature

Vocabularies, blind spots, and defenses of the humanities

A few weeks ago, JK at the Kugelmass Episodes posted the latest entry in our sporadic back-and-forth on defenses of the humanities. Earlier, I had clarified that I wasn’t necessarily offering my own personal reasons for caring about the humanities, or even reasons that might appeal to a committed humanist, but rather that I was trying to think of the kind of reasons that might persuade someone with power over jobs and money that it is valuable to dedicate resources to the humanities. This seemed like a worthwhile thought experiment to the extent that the humanities are under institutional threat, as I think they are — and not only as a result of students lacking interest. JK responded:

If I did come face-to-face with a university administrator, and had to defend the humanities to him, I would say this: the humanities are, and have always been, of great interest and value to the rich. Harvard’s Department of Philosophy is not in danger, after all. At the best private high schools in the country, English has the high profile it deserves, and students may take classes in Greek and Latin. These are the facts, and up to a point, they are genuinely heartening. The significance of such regard for the humanities extends far beyond the Ivy League. Anyone who knows a prosperous, thriving family, knows that books matter around that dinner table. So do films, and plays, and music. In “The Talented Mr. Student,” I criticized using literature to “pass” as privileged. Well, that is an extreme and unrealistic goal. On the other hand, ignoring the humanities is vulgar, and perfectly conspicuous. That is my defense of the humanities, Mr. Administrator! You can’t downsize them without creating a glass ceiling for your students.

Fair enough, I thought and still think — the more defenses of the humanities, the merrier — although if the institutional foundations of the humanities crumble away enough, it might be wondered how long their aura of social prestige will persist.

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