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Can Philosophy Still Produce Public Intellectuals?

John Lachs criticizes the philosopher’s lack of public initiative.

Plato accepted an invitation to serve as advisor to the ruler of Syracuse. John Stuart Mill ran for Parliament, and served a term. Bertrand Russell got involved in nearly every public policy debate of his time, championing trial marriage and coining the infamous phrase “rather Red than dead.” Why is it that today, when rational discourse is in terribly short supply, and ethics is known mainly for its absence, philosophers have disappeared as influential factors on the public scene?

To be sure, a few philosophers make halting efforts to become voices in the cultural conversation. Here in America, William Bennett took time out between bouts of excessive gambling to wage war on drug abuse and to edit a popular book on virtue. In the process, however, he became a politician rather than a public intellectual. On the other side of the political spectrum, Cornel West has endorsed candidates for election and attempted to use the art of rap to get a hearing for philosophical ideas. But the predictability of his themes and the repetitiveness of his public performances have made it difficult for him to retain credibility.

Why has philosophy retreated to the ivory tower and abandoned its traditional role as the critic of our beliefs and practices? And why has it moved in the opposite direction from other professions, when economists, historians and even physicians are taking an ever more visible role in public life?

Doubts and Self-Assurance

The explanation lies in a peculiar ambivalence at the heart of philosophy today. The field is infected with the quiet fear that it has nothing useful to offer the community sustaining it. Its methods beyond the common rules of logic are not reliable guides to truth, and hence it contributes no settled results to inquiry. Much as they love the exhilaration of conceptual play, in the depths of their souls many philosophers suspect that there is something unserious about what they do: after all is said and done, it makes little or no difference to the world.

As is often the case, insecurity breeds excessive claims of excellence. Some of our colleagues aggressively declare that philosophy is the queen of the sciences, that psychologists and the like suffer from conceptual confusions, and that our field of study can make genuine headway without a thorough examination of its limits and foundations. The arrogance of these deep thinkers can be seen in the knowing glances they exchange when colleagues from other fields present their theories. The hidden message appears to be that only philosophers know what they are talking about.

This ambivalence pulls philosophers in opposite directions, yet in relation to taking a role in public affairs, the two incompatible beliefs issue in the same result. Insecurity leads to the conviction that philosophers have nothing to say about the urgent problems of the day; commitment to the transcendent virtue of philosophy begets the idea that it is futile to engage an ignorant public. So either philosophers have nothing to offer, or what they offer is so arcane that only professionals can grasp it. Both beliefs present a convenient excuse for staying out of the struggles for the soul of our society, and for being satisfied with a comfortable life within the university.

I am not suggesting that philosophers shirk the duties of citizenship. They pay taxes, vote and do their best to obey the law. Some of them join movements working for social justice, others opt to be vegans. These, however, are personal choices, often largely unconnected to explicit philosophical reasoning. They may even fly in the face of good sense and critical acumen, as when during the 1960s Hilary Putnam, a leading epistemologist, started spouting mindless Leninism. Such sharp divorces between personal conviction and philosophical critique remain strikingly common, and we find distressingly many philosophers whose everyday lives are radically out of sync with their official opinions. As I’ve argued elsewhere, inner divisions are relatively harmless in the case of, for example, chemists, whose professional views may have little bearing on their lives – but lawyers who violate the law, atheist priests, bankrupt financial advisors and obese physicians, along with irrational philosophers, rightly arouse suspicion.

Stay Pure

The desire to steer clear of public affairs receives reinforcement from three features of professional philosophy as it exists today. With the exception of some who write on science, philosophers tend to be averse to facts. In their graduate education, young professionals are taught that argument is king, and for that knowledge of facts is superfluous. Even some phenomenologists, who have no love for argument, maintain that pure experience suffices for philosophy, leaving out of their account vital and complex sociopolitical realities. Engagement in public affairs requires significant familiarity with current events and social and economic processes, so it is not surprising that philosophers feel overwhelmed. Ignorance of such matters is justified by many on the basis of pursuing grander truths than such transitory realities can offer. When I was much younger, I refused to spend time reading newspapers because I believed they held little relevance for the timeless truths I was seeking.

The second feature of our profession discouraging engagement with a broader public is its perverse incentive structure. From the first year of graduate school, students are taught to prize complexity presented in technical language. Approval and rewards accrue to those who invent new wrinkles in the philosophical fabric, or to those who resuscitate old, implausible positions in new raiment. The technically cleverest among them get jobs in graduate schools, where they replicate the pattern that gave them success. Department chairs and deans fall in line with the judgment of the profession, offering endowed chairs and eye-popping salaries as rewards for obscurity. No-one seems to notice that all technical innovations are soon found wanting and no philosophically significant proposition is ever established beyond controversy. Nevertheless, good teaching and engagement with the community remain inadequate for tenure, and are held in contempt by leading thinkers.

The third feature of the profession that keeps philosophers inside the university takes the form of a flawed conception of the field. The departmental structure of universities places philosophy in misleading parity with physics and anthropology. The sciences enjoy the benefits of reliable methods and bodies of confirmed conclusions, but nothing like this is available in philosophy. To expect that it will contribute to the sum of human knowledge in the way the sciences do is to misunderstand its nature and value. Yet the ideals of research and discovery dominate the field of philosophy just as they structure and define such areas as microbiology. This focuses the efforts of philosophers on reading, conversation, reflection and writing, all of which are best done within the safe precincts of the university.

And then there is courage. Academics are inherently fearful, easily intimidated by deans and presidents and rarely ready to put themselves on the line, whereas public intellectuals must be willing to formulate judgments and stand by them in the face of resistance and ridicule. When I was gathering signatures for a petition to remove an incompetent chancellor, many colleagues agreed that the man should go, but would nevertheless not sign. As tenured full professors, without the need for another raise for the rest of their lives, what made them afraid? Safe invisibility is the preferred condition of academics. They may have bold things to say in the classroom, but when it comes to putting their complaints into action they often fail to show.

The Ethics of Application

So far, I have been talking about what might be called ‘mainline’ philosophy – that is, roughly what goes on in college and university departments. However, my account would be incomplete if I left out an important positive development of the last thirty years. The growth of applied ethics has turned the attention of a portion of the profession toward sites beyond the university where people struggle with difficult personal and social problems. Medical ethics, business ethics, engineering ethics, journalistic ethics, even accounting ethics have undergone significant development both in the number of practitioners and in the quality of their contributions.

This single factor should have been enough to turn philosophy in a more productive direction than it followed in the first seven decades of the twentieth century. That it did not is the result mainly of the insecurity of applied ethicists and the ambivalence of their institutional positions. Many of them were refugees from metaethics and epistemology, who continued to believe that those fields constituted the heart of philosophy, even though they could not make them their home. They viewed applied ethics as an ersatz philosophy instead of the perfection of the field – that is, as something you do if you cannot excel at austere conceptualizing. Even worse, they saw themselves as interlopers in medicine and the other professions – people who had not earned the right to have a say. This impression was reinforced by doctors and trained members of other professions, who viewed the ethicists as fifth wheels and refused to treat them with much respect. This is beginning to change now, but progress comes slowly because it understandably requires that philosophers attain competence in the fields they critique.

The Need For Public Philosophy

Is it not odd that the US President has a Council of Economic Advisors and a separate office of National Economic Council, while he has not a single official to advise him on morality? To be sure, Presidential bioethics commissions offer special reports on issues relating to health and life, but they are heavily politicized and their purview and efficacy are limited. Yet we cannot suppose that economic life is more significant than fairness and moral decency, because those virtues are indispensable conditions of commercial exchange. Astonishingly, politicians seem to think that moral solutions can be left to good upbringing and religious feeling. If these fail, as they often do, leaders of all fields naturally turn to lawyers, who find it notoriously difficult to distinguish moral from legal obligation.

The recent apparent attempt by the governor of Illinois to sell a Senate seat demonstrates the desperate need for ethicists at the highest levels of government. Detentions at Guantanamo, outrageous lying in political races and the inability to distinguish local from national interests demand serious attention and comment from people sensitive to moral issues and trained in reasoning. How can we motivate philosophers to fill this need, and how can we help the leaders of our society see that private decency and civic virtue constitute prime conditions of good lives?

We cannot expect spontaneous insight and immediately-changed behavior. If you try to pull a bird out of its cage, it will resist. On the other hand, if you open the door to the cage, it will find its own way out and try its wings. The door of the university needs to open toward the community, and there must be sufficient incentives for philosophers to embrace this freedom to practice their art. They are, after all, natural critics. At least a few of them have enough of a spirit of adventure to employ their sensitivity, dialectical skill and imagination in the service of the critical examination of lived practices.

Such birds, emerging from the cage of the university will, however, be relatively rare exceptions, and even Aristotle knew that one swallow does not make spring. In order to interest a significant number of philosophers in the problems of their communities, they must be shown that engagement beyond the classroom is valued and appropriate. This can be done only by philosophy department chairpersons and university administrators, and they will do it only once they are convinced that the research/discovery paradigm of philosophy is wrongheaded and unproductive. Who will take the first steps necessary to convince them of this?

Chairpersons view themselves as champions of their departments: they compete for support with all the other units of the university. It would be odd indeed if they visited the dean with the news that philosophers will never discover any new facts, but since they are pretty good at criticizing other people, their department needs three more positions. Deans, in turn, are in a fierce competitive struggle with other schools within the university, and with other universities. They have little interest and not much understanding of the subtly divergent things the different departments accomplish. They want new discoveries, a flood of publications, and a distinguished faculty (even if they have to heap distinctions on them themselves). To them, philosophy as a critical agent sounds vaguely corrosive, and their conversation with department chairs does not go on long before they ask, “Why can’t you be like everybody else?”

What Is To Be Done, And By Whom?

Who will educate the educators? I see only one possibility, and that, alas, is not likely to be actualized.

The American Philosophical Association is the preeminent society in our field in this country: its job is to promote the profession in all its disorganized pluralism. Therefore, instead of celebrating technical competence and name recognition in the election of its presidents, it needs to spend its energy studying the growing edges of applied philosophy. So far, it has clearly failed to do so: for decades, the official program of the APA’s annual Eastern Division meeting gave no hint of the existence of the burgeoning field of medical ethics. Even today, Kant gets far more attention than medical futility, in spite of the fact that millions of people face wrenching decisions concerning continued treatment near the end of life, while only philosophers agonize about the transcendental deduction.

The APA needs to establish a commission to study the full range and effectiveness of philosophy. The results of that examination will depend on the commission’s membership, so it should contain representatives of a broad range of constituencies within the profession, and must not have a majority of traditionalists. The report of such a commission’s deliberations is likely to be of significant general interest. At any rate, it could be disseminated to the deans and presidents of universities across the country. If it affirms the legitimacy of public engagement, it will open the door to a revision of incentives and expectations in philosophy. The point of this revision would not be to drain support from traditional fields, or to deny the value of controversies concerning long-established problems. Instead, the hope is that the profession may be expanded in the direction of what it once proudly recognized as its purpose and perfection.

Is the APA likely to undertake such a task? Not at all, if we judge by its past performance. This means that those of us interested in the public role of philosophy have nowhere to look for help; we’ll just have to convince our colleagues, one by one if necessary, of the importance of addressing real problems. In this endeavor, there is reason for cautious optimism. We are surrounded by moral problems, public and private. People search blindly for a worthy life. Few see a reason for life-giving self-control. It is simply intolerable that a profession with the potential to help in these matters should stand idly by in the academy.

© Professor John Lachs 2009

John Lachs is Centennial Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University, and was in charge of the centenary? celebrations of the APA in 2001.

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