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.

It has always seemed to me that anyone calling himself a philosopher should be able to pause, take a deep breath, step back from the puzzle he is working on, and ask: “By doing what I am doing — by drawing the kinds of inferences I am drawing from the kinds of linguistic raw materials I am using, whether intuitions or conclusions from natural science — is it possible to find the kind of answer I am looking for?” The answer, in nearly every case, would be no. But the question is rarely asked. Philosophers at the top of the field are too busy churning out new, logically arbitrary linguistic rules and jargon in response to whatever logical itch happens to be troubling them at the moment. Methodological self-examination is generally looked upon as a distracting side-show, something to occupy second-rate minds who lack the stuff for truly productive work.

(Incidentally, I use the pronoun “he” intentionally when discussing this kind of philosopher. Notoriously, philosophy departments are bastions of misogyny, and continue to be plagued by regular sexual harassment scandals. It is all of a piece with the kind of non-thinking at the center of this post. The character of a thinker — her style, the breadth of her awareness, whether she is a “real human being,” as Wittgenstein said of William James — matters. The character of contemporary academic philosophy is the character of a socially isolated schoolboy who obsessively works on puzzle-games while avoiding eye-contact with the girls across the room. How delightful it must be when this boy discovers that he can make a career of playing puzzle-games and not making eye-contact! How much power he must feel when he achieves a prestigious academic post and finds that the young women who have ignored him for so long now look up to him as a kind of genius.)

It is little wonder that when the problem-solving philosophers at the pinnacle of the profession get around to taking a glance at the later Wittgenstein, as they occasionally do, they routinely fail to understand what they have read. They have become too accustomed to assuming that all worthwhile thought must take the form of controversial, dogmatic propositions that can then be defended, critiqued, and, if necessary, formalized. They assume that Wittgenstein shares their dogmatism, and based on this, they erroneously extract from Wittgenstein’s writings one or another controversial theoretical position that they then proceed to “clarify” and debate.

This ritual continues more than 50 years after Stanley Cavell’s “The availability of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy” persuasively showed its error.

In my experience, no one who has read and understands the later Wittgenstein — let’s say, no one who is capable of imitating the kinds of discussions of philosophical problems that appear in the later Wittgenstein — persists in thinking that the kinds of puzzles tinkered with in the pages of the leading philosophy journals can be solved.

Yet academic philosophy persists in viewing itself as the home of the most rigorous forms of critical reasoning. A place where damning critiques go unanswered for over a century, and obvious errors persist for decades while the virtuoso puzzlers charge unthinkingly ahead. Many philosophers — to this day — even seem unwilling to acknowledge the pervasive and highly questionable role of intuitions throughout their arguments.

All of this used to bother me a little bit. But apart from the misogyny, I’ve gradually come to terms with the status quo in academic philosophy. In the end, why does it matter that the puzzlers have seized control of the country’s leading philosophy departments and journals? It’s not as though anyone outside of those departments reads or is affected by what they write. This is America — anyone should be free to imagine himself as an intellectual heir of Socrates and Kant, even as he remains transfixed by the shadows cast from natural language’s fire on the deep cave wall.

Moreover, philosophy has been dominated in nearly every age by scholasticism and technical fireworks. Then the age passes, the scholastics are forgotten, and their critics — Socrates, Montaigne, Nietzsche, and on and on — remain.

So, for example, while I once considered writing a popular article critiquing the current state of academic philosophy — it was going to be called “Bullshit: On On Bullshit” and take Harry Frankfurt’s book as symptomatic of academic philosophy’s problems — I no longer have that desire. It may be the case that Frankfurt ignores the subtle differences between the ways we use the word “bullshit” and related words. In fact, if I remember correctly, he assumes that these words must share an essential meaning, and then proceeds to define that meaning — bafflingly — not based on how we use the noun “bullshit,” but based on how we use the verb “bullshitting“… But life is too short to dwell on this kind of thing. Prof. Frankfurt is now 85, and by all accounts is a generous and funny teacher.

True, it’s a shame that most students who wish to pursue graduate study in philosophy will be required to play along with the professional charade — at least long enough to get accepted into a graduate program, and possibly long enough to get a job, if any exist — but anyone who is resolutely unwilling to pretend that the emperor of academic philosophy is wearing clothes can always teach philosophy in a literature department instead. At least, getting a job as a literature professor who assigns a lot of philosophy is no less implausible than getting a job as an academic philosopher today.

And it is reassuring to hear internal critics occasionally emerge. I’ll provide some quotes from two of these critics — Peter Unger and Raymond Geuss — in a future post.

These days, when I wonder how long the charade can go on, I just remind myself of some of the arguments that appear in the works of the most celebrated philosophers throughout history — from Plato through Hegel and beyond — and I remember just how insane many of these arguments are. And then I think that the charade can probably go on endlessly, because the lack of skepticism that a philosopher is capable of displaying toward his own ideas may know no bounds.


4 thoughts on “What is wrong with academic philosophy today?

  1. Pingback: Peter Unger, Raymond Geuss, and internal criticism of academic philosophy | Against the Logicians

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