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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