What is wrong with academic philosophy today?

Free Photo: 1895 Montparnasse Station Train Wreck

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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Guest post: The sharing economy as strip mining

A reader emailed me with a connection between the Reagan Era and the New Deal, one I had never considered before. His argument leads to a critical view of “the sharing economy” associated with firms like Airbnb, Taskrabbit, and Uber:

I’ve said … that the post-deregulation American economy resembled strip mining.  Just as [Secretary of the Interior under Reagan] James Watt‘s dispensationalist/eschatological worldview led to the idea that we should be maximizing resource extraction from our lands because there would be no need for them after the Rapture, the plutocratic mind saw the Reagan administration as offering an opportunity to finally harvest the bounty that the New Deal state had been nurturing for decades.  So, for example, the public trust in fair financial markets could be exploited, just as a seam of coal, by a peddler of junk bonds; the gains would be privatized, and the only thing that would ultimately be lost was the public’s trust in the fairness of the system, which (after all) belonged to no one person.

It’s a “tragedy of the commons” story, really, except in this case the commons was the middle class and the economy that had been created through regulation–of labor relations, of financial markets, of consumer safety, of environmental protections, of food and drug safety, and so on.  And, really, that’s what 2008 marked the culmination of–the final extraction of value from the economic system by the plutocrats, at the expense of the system; our economy would shrink, or not grow, but the fortunes of a few people would rise.  A law and economics type might point to it as not so different from the worst of the leveraged buyouts of the 80s–a takeover, followed by profit-taking, followed by the deployment of golden parachutes, followed by the deluge.

Which brings me to “the sharing economy”, which promises to use technology to lower transaction costs to usher in a more liquid world in which more people can participate in voluntary transactions that should make everyone better off.

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