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The Decline & Rebirth of Philosophy

Daniel Kaufman sees philosophy ailing as a guide for Western culture, and considers how it might be revived.

Among the humanities, philosophy is particularly dependent on its place in the Academy. Literature has existed for as long as human beings have been reading and writing, and would continue to be enjoyed by millions even if it were no longer part of any academic endeavor. Novelists, even difficult, esoteric ones such as Joyce and Faulkner, write for readers, not for literature professors. Similarily, theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Mordecai Kaplan wrote for the public, not just for other theologians. If theology ceased to be a university subject, work such as theirs would continue unabated. Original research in philosophy, however, like that in physics or biology, is now carried out almost entirely in university departments and in academic journals and monographs. On the few occasions that philosophers venture into the public square, they rarely do more than report on what has been happening in the Academy. Some of them can do this extraordinarily well, as the late Jerry Fodor demonstrated with his witty, erudite essays and reviews. But by-and-large, philosophy is written by professional philosophers for professional philosophers, which makes it more vulnerable to academic displacement than literature or religion or fine arts. If philosophers were driven from the university tomorrow, philosophy as it is currently practiced would cease to exist.

And philosophy’s decline within the Academy is already well underway. I will use the United States as an illustration, but the situation is similar for philosophy across the English-speaking world. The situation is not the same in Continental Europe, as philosophy’s professionalization there took a different course, and philosophers did not suffer quite the decline in prestige and influence that they have endured in the Anglophone world.

Across the USA, philosophy departments are being merged with religious studies and political science departments, downsized, downgraded or eliminated entirely. The majority of students, if they ever encounter philosophy at all, do so by way of one introductory-level course, as a part of their mandatory general education. Full-time, tenured philosophy faculty are being replaced with poorly paid adjunct or ‘per-course’ instructors, drawn from the surplus of professional philosophers and from the ranks of philosophy grad students. Given the wild oversaturation of the discipline in light of its diminishing employment prospects, these students appear to exist solely to relieve senior faculty of low-level teaching duties. That the luminaries of our profession seem largely unmoved by all of this is because they tend to be clustered in programs housed at the top universities and liberal arts colleges. Here, for now at least, they are sheltered from the culling to which the rest of us are being subjected.

Some may argue that philosophy’s crumbling place in the Academy has more to do with larger forces affecting all of the humanities and liberal arts than with any of philosophy’s internal problems. This is likely true. But these forces are beyond the capacity of philosophers to control, while the ways in which we pursue our subject and conduct ourselves are not. And those who are paying attention (and who care) have expressed alarm at what the academics are actually doing. Daniel Dennett recently said that “a great deal of philosophy doesn’t really deserve much of a place in the world” and has become “self-indulgent, clever play in a vacuum that’s not dealing with problems of any intrinsic interest.” Jerry Fodor wondered why “no one reads philosophy” and could not “shake the sense that something has gone awfully wrong.” Just last year, Susan Haack went so far as to publish an essay entitled ‘The Real Question: Can Philosophy be Saved?’ She is not hopeful. Of course, those who are concerned about our discipline may not entirely agree on what they think is wrong – Fodor and Dennett approve of some of the things that Haack worries about – but there are more than enough things rotten in the state of philosophy to sustain every philosopher’s worries.

The Strange Lure of the Academy

Things were not ever thus. Philosophy in the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and early Industrial eras was not solely an academic discipline. Philosophers were not usually professional academics, and the major philosophical works were not written entirely, or even primarily, for academic audiences. Montaigne was a counselor to the Parlement in Bordeaux; John Locke was personal physician to the Earl of Shaftsbury (who himself was a philosopher of note); and John Stuart Mill was a colonial administrator for the British East India Company. Yet, despite its non-disciplinary, non-professional character – indeed, partly because of it – philosophy was an integral part of the intellectual, cultural, and political life of these eras, and had a significance of which contemporary disciplinary philosophy can only dream. Some will point to the influence of Gottlob Frege’s work on computer science, Bertrand Russell’s anti-war activism, or Peter Singer’s impact on the ethical eating movement, as evidence that philosophy still had as significant an impact in the Twentieth Century as it did earlier. But Russell’s involvement in politics had little to do with his philosophical work, and Singer has admitted that lurid accounts and videos of factory farming have had a far greater effect on the ethical eating movement than his philosophy. Opinions as to influence vary, but an honest examination of history makes it difficult to deny that the sort of influence that Locke had on the US Constitution, Rousseau had on the French Revolution, and Mill had on the entire tradition of political liberalism, outstrips the cultural impact of any philosopher of the last hundred years by orders of magnitude.

In his essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch (1939), art critic Clement Greenberg observed that with the rise of the middle class and the emergence of universal literacy in the Industrial Age, a vulgarized form of popular arts – ‘kitsch’ – emerged. This aroused the contempt of serious artists. So in the Twentieth Century these artists retreated into bohemia and began to produce a rarefied form of art for one another – the avant-garde. One might identify comparable forces contributing to philosophy’s retreat into the Academy (which retreat, after all, occurred during the same period).

Aside from the socially isolating effects of becoming a purely academic activity, as Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle suggested not long ago in an essay for The New York Times, ‘When Philosophy Lost its Way’ (2016), the decline of philosophy’s social, cultural, and political significance has been due to its efforts to emulate the natural sciences. In order to imitate science, academic philosophers have broken philosophy into dozens of sub-disciplines. This has engendered a hyper-specialization that begins in graduate school and defines most philosophers’ careers. It has also rendered much academic philosophical prose impenetrably technical and stylistically barren. Deadpan prose and specialization make perfect sense in natural science, the purpose of it being to provide as perspectiveless – and therefore objective – a view of things as possible. Science has also had to cope with a dramatic expansion of knowledge that demands the constant labors of enormous numbers of people. But none of that is true of philosophy, and far from advancing our subject, over-specialization has simply turned those who work on it into pedants and bad writers, and the things they write into stuff that no one but people like them would want to read.

It’s easy to see why this happened. Philosophy’s professionalization commenced when technology, a second revolution in physics, a revolution in biology, and the rise of modern medicine, began to completely transform Western society. Science quickly came to be held in higher esteem than any other intellectual activity; and in a remarkably short time, the university – until then dominated by classicists and men of letters in the old tradition – was remade in the image of scientific inquiry. The culturally jarring effects of this transformation can be seen in F.R. Leavis’s desperate, splenetic response to C.P. Snow’s 1959 Rede Lecture, The Two Cultures, which was widely perceived as a manifesto for the institutional ascendency of the sciences at the expense of the humanities and liberal arts.

In light of these developments, it would have been surprising had philosophy not been affected in the way it was. Indeed, disciplines at a much greater distance from the sciences than philosophy found themselves under pressure to emulate science in some fashion. In her essay, ‘Against Interpretation’ (1966), Susan Sontag attributed the dominance of literary and art criticism by theories of interpretation to a misplaced admiration for science – one that has resulted in a ‘hypertrophy [an abnormal growth] of the intellect’ at the expense of artistic sensibility. This mutation turns our engagement with the arts into just one more exercise in the accumulation of knowledge.

Philosophy: Façades & Truths

In philosophy, we find ourselves confronted with the weird spectacle of the bearers of the Socratic tradition fancying themselves as experts on subjects on which there can be no expertise. What could it mean, after all, to be an expert on goodness, or justification, or reality? One can familiarize oneself with the relevant literature, of course, and even contribute to it oneself, but there will remain profound, even categorical disagreements on every topic, and not just at the fringes of the discipline. Metaphysical realists will continue to have a different view of the ultimate nature of things than the anti-realists. Deontologists will persist in promoting different views from utilitarians on the nature of moral obligation. Internalists will go on developing theories contrary to those held by externalists on what it is for a belief to be warranted. The point is not that scientists never disagree, sometimes on fundamental matters, but that philosophical disagreements are by nature ultimately unresolvable. For there to be correct positions on their subjects would require that there be some accessible fact of the matter as to what reality, obligation, or warrant really consist of; but no such facts can be established. There is nothing in philosophy that corresponds to confirmation and disconfirmation in the sciences. Instead, to deem something obligatory, or warranted, or real, is to take a certain point of view towards it; and there are many such points of view that one can recommend, or not, for many different reasons. Yet there is nothing beyond the views themselves and our reasons for holding them. It’s no accident, therefore, that deontology works better than utilitarianism with respect to certain kinds of cases, and vice versa; or that internalism provides a better insight into justification given one way of thinking about knowledge, while externalism gives a better account given another. Beyond formal questions of logical validity and consistency, the aptness of a philosophical account of some issue is a matter of whether it illuminates the subject in question in a way that deepens our understanding of it, and in the case of practical subjects such as ethics, assists us in improving our conduct. (And of course, what one means by ‘deepening one’s understanding’ and ‘improving one’s conduct’ on any particular occasion are themselves matters for philosophical examination.) It is for these reasons that one doesn’t find the sort of convergence in philosophy that routinely occurs in science, and why the attribution of ‘expertise’ to philosophers, where this is supposed to mean anything more than a command of the relevant literature, is fundamentally mistaken.

In fact, philosophy is at its best when asking questions and at its worst when purporting to answer them. This is why philosophical inquiry that continues much after the initial foray into a subject actually tends to become less relevant rather than more so the farther it goes. In 1963 Edmund Gettier published a short paper called ‘Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?’ The examples in Gettier’s paper seemed to many to disprove the longstanding Socratic view that knowledge is justified true belief, and the early replies to this paper were enlightening too. But as the academic reflection continued, the discussion became less and less worthwhile: Haack disparagingly refers to “recurrent outbreaks of galloping Gettieritis.” The early articulations of utilitarian and deontological moral philosophy were important, insofar as they sought to explore our fundamental intuitions regarding moral significance – as were subsequent efforts to show how each position might be developed in different ways. But the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth rounds of refinements of these moral outlooks are of no interest to anyone other than those whose jobs in some way depend on their publication.

Sometimes even after having been exhausted, philosophical questions may be fruitfully revived once the history of philosophy has developed to a point at which they can be examined in a new framework. Such was the case, for example, with the debate between realists and anti-realists (and those in-between), into which new life was breathed in the last century as a result of the ‘linguistic turn’ in philosophy. But now that we’ve had more than half a century to discuss the contributions of W.V.O. Quine, Donald Davidson, Nelson Goodman, Hilary Putnam, and others on the subject, we once again find ourselves at the point of diminishing intellectual returns.

When philosophical inquiry into a particular subject is pushed too far and too long, it undergoes a fundamental and disfiguring change. No longer is it about raising an important question or exploring some of the interesting ways that one might approach it so that other people may wrestle with it themselves. Instead, it has turned into an effort to find a conclusive answer to some question. And as we’ve seen, philosophical questions are not the sort that admit of conclusive answers.

This is a mistake that philosophers have tended to make whenever they’ve strayed too far from their Socratic heritage of asking big and fundamental questions, and with philosophy’s disciplinization and professionalization it has become routine. This is why to my mind the single most genuinely philosophical work of the last century (as well as the greatest) is the one least like the disciplinary fare that has come to characterize philosophy in the analytic tradition: Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1953). In that book Wittgenstein poses some 784 questions, for which he provides only about 110 answers, of which 70 or so are not intended to be taken as correct (at least according to my friend Ian Ground of the University of Hertfordshire, who knows someone who has gone through the Investigations and counted).

The Decline and Rebirth of Philosophy
The Decline & Rebirth of Philosophy by Ken Laidlaw

Philosophy As An Art

Philosophy thrives in its creative, provocative, and critical modes, and most especially when it engages with matters of public concern in a manner accessible to educated people beyond the confines of the Academy. This means that the greatest virtues a philosopher can cultivate are insightfulness, inventiveness, articulateness, breadth, and depth. One masters these in the way that an artist masters an art. This by itself distinguishes the philosopher from the scientist, who is valued almost entirely for his contribution to the body of human knowledge.

Philosophy will never regain its place in the Academy and in the English-speaking world until it reengages with what it does best. My point is not that technical, analytic work of the sort that dominates professional philosophy today has no place. Rather, that it should comprise a smaller share of what we do, making room for the kind of work that was once held in high esteem but is almost impossible to do today within the boundaries of the discipline. Philosophy once created works such as Pico’s Oration on the Dignity of Man, Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly, and Montaigne’s Essais.

Indeed, I would go further and encourage philosophers to develop their literary skills as fully as possible so that they might create gripping philosophically-significant fiction in the manner of A Clockwork Orange, The Trial, or 1984. Even within the academic context, philosophy should not pattern itself after the sciences or conceive of its activity along the lines of scientific research, but should locate itself firmly within the province of Arts and Letters. Here the faculty are evaluated on the basis of their creative output as much as for their research more narrowly and technically construed.

When philosophers do engage in technical projects, they should be free to do so on a larger, more speculative canvas, in the manner of great system-builders such as Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel. There was always something absurd about those systems – philosophy’s versions of ‘theories of everything’ – which made the mistake of conceiving of human knowledge as forming a coherent whole rather than as the fragmented set of more-or-less autonomous areas of understanding that it actually is. Yet these systems were philosophically valuable precisely because of their broad, speculative, somewhat absurd character.

Philosophy has always trafficked in big, bold claims, with even bigger, bolder implications – the Theory of Forms, Transcendental Idealism, and the like. Their value never lay in any real possibility that they might actually explain everything, but rather in the fact that their ambition, scope and boldness induced discussions and inquiries across the entire width of the intellectual landscape. This ambitious kind of intellectual activity not only sustained much of the philosophical conversation over the centuries, but injected that conversation with an inspiration and excitement that is sorely lacking today. Indeed, to the extent that philosophers today still engage with the great historical systems (even as they shun the production of new ones) they take them in entirely the wrong way. Rather than treating them as exercises of speculative, creative imagination, they are treated as analogous to large, intricate, scientific theories, every piece of which needs to be taken up by an army of researchers. This presumes that philosophical inquiry ultimately is about the acquisition of knowledge rather than about the development of apt points of view – which presumption, as we’ve seen, is fundamentally mistaken.

Reconceiving philosophy’s place in the Academy in the ways I am suggesting will not only revitalize its academic expression, but will assist it in reasserting itself as a central strand of human culture. It’s possible for philosophy to reclaim the social, cultural, and political position it enjoyed for most of history. The return of the popular essay as a central form of philosophical writing would allow philosophy to re-engage with the public conversation. Once again, philosophers might play the role of public provocateurs and critics, creators and commentators, speculators and synthesizers. Once again, philosophers might be opinion-makers and have the ears of parliaments and prime ministers, as well as of the educated citizen on the street. Once again, philosophers might help create, inform and sustain the contemporary zeitgeist. This would be a good thing, not just for philosophers, but for everyone.

© Dr Daniel A. Kaufman 2019

Daniel Kaufman is Professor of Philosophy at Missouri State University. He also edits the online magazine The Electric Agora.

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