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The Life Philosophical
What Happened to Philosophy?
Alexander Jeuk says overspecialization, academic debate focusing, and simplistic argument structures, are prominent missteps in modern philosophy.
It is likely that most current academic philosophers would agree that there is not remotely a philosopher alive today who matches up to some of the classic philosophers. The last truly great analytic philosopher might have been Wittgenstein; the last great continental philosopher Heidegger. The former died in the 1950s, while the latter passed away in 1976. Probably there are more philosophers working today than ever before, and certainly some of them are very good and interesting, but are any of them great? Will some thinkers working today eventually come to be recognised by future generations as having been great? Nobody seems to have much confidence in this.
Of course, ‘greatness’ is an unclear term. Yet, it doesn’t seem controversial to say that ‘greatness’ is a laudible attribute of particularly insightful, creative, revolutionary, or impactful philosophy – usually with a breadth that transcends the narrow specialization of modern academic disciplines with their categories and subcategories.
It is not merely a pity that little philosophy today is done even with the aspiration to be great. There should be an imperative to strive for such greatness, just because this greatness means particularly insightful, creative, revolutionary, or impactful philosophy – that is, all the things that are desirable in philosophy. This applies in particular to those fields that influence the wider life of society, such as ethics, and social, economic, or political philosophy. If these fields can potentially contribute to the betterment of the human condition, then those toiling within them are under a moral obligation to strive to produce great work. Yet, while authors such as Marx or Keynes had a powerful impact on society (in many respects due to the intellectual quality of their work), contemporary research in such ‘normative’ fields has little influence on anybody except other academic philosophers.
Despite the value of doing great philosophy, there is little metaphilosophical or methodological thinking about how we can achieve such greatness. Depressingly often, it is taken for granted that such greatness is a thing of the past, and at least within academic circles, the idea of striving for the greatness of classical philosophers is met with ridicule. It’s an amateurish idea, apparently, and one not congruent with the course which philosophy has, for good reasons, taken. Yet exactly why that is the case is seldom, if ever, questioned – let alone satisfactorily answered. I would like to argue that some structural aspects of modern academic phlosophy are holding it back.
Therefore, in the following, I want to dissect some central aspects of how academic philosophy is done these days, and contrast this with how classic, and great, philosophy was conducted. This will allow us to get a hold on why contemporary philosophy is not great anymore. I also hope to convince you that there are no good reasons for doing philosophy as it is done today compared to how great, classic philosophy was done.
The three central problems I have identified here are overspecialization; a focus on prominent ‘literature’ and ‘debates’ instead of on phenomena; and the prevalence of a stylistic form that is at odds with what characterizes great philosophy.
© Sylvie Reed 2023
Anybody familiar with contemporary work in academic philosophy will know that most modern philosophical research is highly specialized. It is not uncommon to meet somebody working in, say, philosophy of mind, who does not know what is being done in epistemology or ethics, and vice versa. Seldom is this highly specialized work made accessible to the layperson, and it is often difficult to access even for academic philosophers who are not specialized in that particular sub-field.
It is not entirely clear where this overspecialization in academic philosophy came from, or more significantly, what justifies it in all areas of philosophical work. The common story is that academic overspecialization began in the natural sciences – allegedly necessarily, due to the complexity of the subject matter. Biologists specialised in microbiology or plant biology or whatever to allow them to dig deeper in one particular area. Whether the current degree of specialization is desirable even for the sciences is seldom questioned. Rather, it is taken for granted. Perhaps mere historic contingency has been confused with desirability. However, since many other academic disciplines follow trends that originate in the natural sciences – possibly due to the prestige and aura of success that the natural sciences enjoy – such specialization has increasingly found its place in philosophy too.
Importantly, within philosophical methodology or metaphilosophy – that is, in books and papers that explicitly deal with how philosophy should be done and what it should be about – we do not find much discussion of whether specialization is actually good or justified for philosophy. For instance, while plenty of philosophers today think that philosophy should be continuous with the natural sciences, this view shouldn’t commit them to defending overspecialization in the sciences, let alone in philosophy. Some scientifically-oriented philosophers, considering the rapid progress made in the natural sciences, take whatever is done in the sciences as intrinsically desirable, and project it onto philosophy. However, the high degree of specialization seen in the sciences might have happened for contingent historical-social reasons, so that does not amount to a good justification for philosophy following a similar path, if we accept the narrative that philosophy should follow the sciences in the first place.
Overspecialization within philosophy is in no way philosophically innocent either. It was the essence of great philosophy to be more systematic, more comprehensive, partly because it was clear to great philosophers that findings in different areas of philosophy are necessary to understand each area. For instance, for Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), it was clear that understanding perception required getting a hold on understanding itself. Likewise, it would have seemed odd to Kant to believe that we could grasp the nature of ethics or of metaphysical problems without understanding what kind of beings humans are, and what their relation to the world is. In general, if you look at various great philosophers, they have in common that they are in this sense systematic or comprehensive. Indeed, the modern Western idea that there are areas in philosophy that can be researched in isolation from each other is historically rather unusual.
I suggested that one source of overspecialization is a deliberate strategy to emulate physics or chemistry. However, we will be better able to fully grasp the way in which overspecialization is embedded and enforced, and what that means for philosophical thinking, through a discussion of two rules imposed on current philosophical writing. The first rule is the embedding of philosophical thinking into ‘the literature’ or ‘debates’. The second is the channelling of philosophical writing into an informal deductive argument form that’s characterized by misleading maxims of ‘structural simplicity’.
‘The Literature’ & ‘Debates’
Look at a contemporary piece of academic philosophy and you will often find the following structure. Usually, a paper starts with an abstract, then an introduction. Both frontload a single claim that the author seeks to establish – the conclusion – and usually include a brief description of discrete steps that will be taken to arrive at the conclusion; a set of premises, if you will. All in all, we can say that most contemporary philosophical papers have the form of an informal deductive argument. And contemporary academic philosophy books are often comprised of chapters that are papers in this sense.
However, many philosophy papers would be rather short if they merely followed the form of an informal deductive argument. Instead (with the stand-out exception of Edmund Gettier’s ‘Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?’ – a two-and-a-half-page paper that discusses two counterexamples to a popular conception of knowledge in analytic epistemology), most philosophy papers are bloated with discussions of what is called ‘the literature’ or ‘the debates’.
Importantly, ‘the literature’ is not constituted by all that has been written on the topic. Rather, ‘the literature’ is commonly a relatively small subset of what has been written on the topic by living authors – usually at prestigious Anglo-American universities. This is also called the ‘debate’ on said topic.
Discussion of ‘the literature’ is what really takes up most space in academic philosophical writing today. The author seeks to show that the problem they’re discussing is one that’s already recognized in ‘the literature’ – which supposedly lends the discussion of the problem importance and credibility. Furthermore, the author will seek to show that how they justify their claim is novel with regard to what is already written in ‘the literature’. This is a major stepping-stone that an author has to take if they want their paper to be accepted under peer review.
However, lengthy discussions of ‘the literature’ and ‘debates’ are problematic in two ways. First, they are frequently overly scholastic and dogmatic. By contrast, great classic texts seldom if ever focus on ‘the literature’ – with the exception of works like those of Marx or Heidegger when they want to show how their contemporary philosophical problems are contingent on past philosophical reflections. Rather, great classic texts usually focus on the systematic discussion of some given phenomenon or concept, not on how these phenomena or concepts are conceived in a particular debate by particular authors. The works of Locke or Husserl contain diligent descriptions and analyses of how things are or should be; yet you find minimal mention of other authors, the debates, or whether their own account has novelty value. And why should they? On the face of things, philosophy should be about phenomena, facts, reality, and concepts, not about how Anglo-American philosophers at elite universities conceive of them. Here we see a regression to dogmatic scholasticism.
Problems with discussions of ‘the literature’ pertain also to overspecialization. Since contemporary philosophical writing has to primarily reflect an engagement with ‘the literature’ in order to get published in an academic journal, you cannot simply describe phenomena or analyze various philosophically significant categories. Rather, you must engage in discussion of overspecialized philosophical ideas and the approaches to them that have been sanctified by your academic peers as ‘debates’. In that sense, discussions of ‘the literature’ or ‘debates’ further enforce overspecialization, because even the philosopher who would like to do more comprehensive work is usually forced to discuss highly overspecialized issues, leaving little room for systematicity, pure descriptions, or the innovative approaches that characterize great philosophy.
Simple or Simplistic?
Another unwritten rule of contemporary academic research is that a paper should not contain too many interruptions, explanations, repetitions, and complex tangents. Rather, it is expected that the reader be presented with a simple, ‘elegant’, informal deductive argument.
What’s concerning about this rule – which in many ways is nothing other than a stylistic maxim, but which has dire philosophical consequences – is that this ‘fluid’ contemporary style is supposed to deliver as little explanatory interruption and complex argument elaboration as possible; the latter would perhaps be called ‘convoluted’ today. But that’s where this mandate becomes philosophically problematic, because explanatory interruptions and complex argument structures are in many respects necessary for rich systematic arguments – in particular for those that derive not from single principles but which systematically embrace multicausality: the idea that phenomena are constituted by multiple other phenomena, or that an explanation of phenomena requires an understanding of the complex, systematic relationships in which they stand to each other.
Take for instance the work of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). In Being & Time (1927), Heidegger develops a complex argument that is supposed to explain the structure of the experienced world and of personhood. Among other things, he argues that a world for persons has several different core features, and that these features can only be understood via each other. For instance, according to Heidegger it is impossible to comprehend human understanding without comprehending the way humans are affected by the world, and vice versa. Obviously, Heidegger has to write first on one of these two features – say, on understanding. However, he can only develop his conception of understanding later on, when he arrives at affectedness. The argument structure becomes even more complex when Heidegger, later still, seeks to comprehend these features through other human abilities, such as, for instance, language. If Heidegger had been forced to write as is expected of academic philosophers today, this project would not have been feasible, since the complexity of his argumentation cannot be broken down into simple informal deductive arguments as the maxims of ‘simplicity’ and ‘fluidity’ demand. They impose a linearity on thinking that is often at odds with the rich thought that characterizes great philosophy.
Like Heidegger, many great philosophers have written complexly (perhaps with less of a penchant for neologisms, though). This structural complexity is not surprising, because many philosophers have found the subject matter of philosophy not to be phenomena that can be understood in isolation, like atoms. Rather, they take the view that we can understand various things only in relation to others – in other words, systematically. And it indeed seems clear that only systematic, comprehensive philosophy allows for clarity about the multitude of presuppositions that go into philosophical thinking. For instance, if you write about knowledge, it seems in many cases necessary that you have particular conceptions of perception, the world, and of concepts, to name just a few involved ideas. And while classic great philosophers explicitly had such ideas, and worked hard to ensure that they coherently fitted each other, today these conceptions are part of an obscure, tacit background, and they’re usually not made explicit in writing, and perhaps not even clear to these philosophers out working in their (overspecialized) fields. Rather, being part of a ‘debate’ defines how one conceives of the issues. However, since the presuppositions of these debates are seldom made explicit, let alone brought to cohere within a system of thought, it is highly unclear whether most academic philosophical debates today have coherent or convincing foundations. This might further explain why they aren’t particularly ‘great’ in any sense.
The idea is that the art of systematic thinking, like so many other arts, has been lost, since we have given up on a complex style of argumentation that cannot be brought into the form of a basic deductive argument that is supposed to be about just one overspecialized claim, not a systematic discussion. To stress it again: the writing style we see in philosophical research today has an artificial form strikingly different from how great classic authors conducted their research. In fact, great philosophers did philosophy in a plethora of different ways, be it dialogues in the Socratic fashion, descriptions of phenomena, or systematic accounts of the world, to name just three. However, what none of them did is to write like academic philosophers today – in an overspecialized, anti-systematic fashion driven by obscure writing rules.
At this point someone could reply that I’ve overlooked the reasons that could justify the rejection of systematicity. Yet there are few to no such reasons. Rather, a lot of what is done in philosophy today is done because other philosophers do it too, and because it is necessary in order to publish. In work on philosophical method or metaphilosophy, we find little to no discussion of overspecialization or anti-systematicity, let alone of the particular writing style of academic philosophy, including the necessity of recourse to ‘debates’ and ‘the literature’. Accordingly, there is little justification for the trends underpinning the lack of greatness in contemporary philosophical thinking and writing.
If we want to see a re-emergence of great philosophy, we should strive for a rebirth of the way great philosophers thought and wrote. They thought systematically, and they wrote systematically. Their thought was systematically directed at phenomena, and they wrote systematically about phenomena.
In many respects, it would seem easy enough to go back to such a way of doing philosophy, or at least to ask that some philosophers should be able to do philosophy this way again, if only for the purpose of diversity in thinking. Yet, I am afraid that there might be deep ideological and bureaucratic barriers to such a renaissance of great thought in philosophy.
Be that as it may, an intellectually-engaged public deserves great philosophy. Therefore, the public should demand a return to great philosophy. If it does not find it in present day academia, it should look for it in the classics, and perhaps encourage a re-emergence of great philosophical thought from outside academia.
In the age of social media and the internet, various venues exist for doing great philosophy outside of the confines of academia. Indeed, many great philosophers, from Plato to Descartes to Marx, might have been great thinkers exactly because they were free from the structural constraints imposed on them by academic institutions. I also believe that many academic philosophers too are unhappy with the way they have to work today, yet it’s not always clear what the source of this dissatisfaction is. But if there is little justification for overspecialization and the modern academic writing process, a vista opens for reform within academic philosophy itself, which will benefit philosophers as much as it will benefit the public.
© Dr Alexander Jeuk 2023
Alexander Jeuk is an independent researcher writing on philosophy, economics, politics, and the institutional structure of science.