Has philosophy lost its way?

philosophyOne of the characteristics of philosophy as a field of inquiry is that — unique among human endeavors — it also inquiries upon itself. This was true since the times of Socrates and Epictetus, of course. Here is how the latter puts it in his Discourses:

“Now if you are writing to a friend, grammar will tell you that you need particular letters; but it will not tell you whether or not you should write to your friend. The same holds in the case of music’s relation to song. It will not say whether at this moment you should sing or play the lyre, or whether you should not do so. Which faculty, then, will do so? The one that studies both itself and everything else. And what is that? The faculty of reason. Yes; for this is the only faculty we have inherited that can perceive itself — what it is, what it is capable of, and how valuable it is — and also perceive all the rest.” (1.1.1-4)

This was in the context of a discussion with his students of the nature of philosophy, the practice of which is of course entirely based on “the faculty of reason.” (Nowadays we would include the cognitive sciences under the same umbrella, of course.)

Such tendency to self-examination, and even a good dose of self-criticism, is one of the first things I noticed moving (academically speaking) from science to philosophy, and it is a very refreshingly welcome one. A good example is a series of essays ran by the New York Times’ Stone blog focusing on whether the profession has an issue with gender diversity (it does, though I hardly think it is unique among academic fields, not to mention in society at large). In part as a response, the American Philosophical Association has stepped up its efforts to address the problem at an institutional level (a response that is still mostly in other fields).

Then again, self-criticism can become a fashionable attitude in and of itself, or can lead to shooting oneself in the (metaphorical) foot. That thought crossed my mind while reading an essay (also in the Stone) by Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle, entitled “When philosophy lost its way” (it didn’t help that the link to the essay was immediately and thoughtlessly tweeted around by well known philosophy “critics,” such as author and expert-on-everything Sam Harris and “the world came from nothing as long as I get to define nothing in my own way” physicist Lawrence Krauss).

Frodeman and Briggle do make good points, but I think they go a bit too far, potentially undermining not just their own message, but the credibility of philosophy in general. Let us take a look.

They begin by observing that philosophy has become an academic field toward the end of the 19th century, and argue that “this institutionalization of philosophy made it into a discipline that could be seriously pursued only in an academic setting. This fact represents one of the enduring failures of contemporary philosophy.”

Why did this happen? According to Frodeman and Briggle philosophy simply reacted to the surge of importance of the natural sciences, which led to “the placing of philosophy as one more discipline alongside these sciences within the modern research university … If philosophy was going to have a secure place in the academy, it needed its own discrete domain, its own arcane language, its own standards of success and its own specialized concerns … Philosophy adopted the scientific modus operandi of knowledge production, but failed to match the sciences in terms of making progress in describing the world.”

You can see why Harris and Krauss just couldn’t wait to hit the “tweet” button on their keyboards!

Frodeman and Briggle continue: “We, too, produce research articles. We, too, are judged by the same coin of the realm: peer-reviewed products. We, too, develop sub-specializations far from the comprehension of the person on the street. In all of these ways we are so very ‘scientific.’”

This, apparently, is really bad, because philosophy ought to be understood as Socrates did: as “a vocation, like the priesthood … [because] the point of philosophy [is] to become good rather than simply to collect or produce knowledge.”

They conclude: “Like the sciences, philosophy has largely become a technical enterprise, the only difference being that we manipulate words rather than genes or chemicals … The point of philosophy now is to be smart, not good. It has been the heart of our undoing.”

Well, not exactly.

Let me first say where I agree with Frodeman and Briggle: yes, philosophy ought to be relevant outside of the academy; yes, philosophers ought to talk about things that matter; and yes, philosophical dialogue ought to take place in society at large.

But none of that is mutually exclusive with philosophy (also) being an academic discipline, with its own technical vocabulary, and in pursuit of its own specialized problems. Consider what happens in other academic fields: I don’t see the existence of Departments of English as somehow preventing literature from being important and accessible, nor does the existence of academic literary studies mean that people without a PhD in English cannot write excellent and highly impactful books. Moreover, there are plenty of examples of academics in those departments who also engage a broader public, simultaneously working within and outside the academy. The same can be said for art, law, business, and — of course — for the natural and social sciences. Frodeman and Briggle are simply setting up a false dichotomy here.

Moreover, I think their historical analysis is wrong. Academic philosophy did not originate in reaction to the rise of science. All one has to do is to read C.P. Snow’s famous essay on “the two cultures,” published as late as 1959, to get a clear sense that the humanities were dominant within the academy until after WWII. It was only then that the sciences began to gain the upper hand, a situation that has now solidified into the current status quo. No, philosophy became academic because all fields of inquiry went that way. In part this was probably the result of the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism, as well as of demographic factors, all of which made possible a dramatic expansion of the number of people pursuing studies in arts, humanities and sciences. This in turn led to an increased professionalization of all such disciplines.

It is true that professional philosophers, by and large, work on narrower and narrower issues, in part in response to the “publish or perish” climate of the academy, and in part simply because whatever could be said of broad import about Socrates, Kant and so forth has already been said, many times over, so one needs to invent newer (and by necessity narrower) niches to claim to have done something novel, thus augmenting his odds to survive the academic rat race.

But this is true, again, in all disciplines. Before turning philosopher I was an evolutionary biologist. And I can’t tell you how many boring and irrelevant research seminars I had to sit through because so many bright people had to spend years demonstrating their credentials in order to further their career, coupled with the simple fact that there just aren’t that many Darwins around, nor that many new spectacular things to discover. As Thomas Kuhn famously put it, much science is puzzle solving, not paradigm shifting.

Should we reform the academy and push back against the tendency to put out as many LPU (Least Publishable Units) as possible? Should we encourage the next generation of academics to both aim at bigger and more salient questions and to talk to the public that, after all, largely funds their scholarship? Absolutely. But this isn’t a problem peculiar to philosophy, and to pretend otherwise is both a case of hubris (we are so cool an different from the rest of the academic lot!) and entirely counterproductive (giving more ammunitions against the relevance of philosophy to the Harrises and Krausses of the world).

Let us work together to make philosophy, literary studies, history, law, psychology, biology, physics and all the other academic disciplines both more effective at what they aim to do on the technical side and more engaged with and responsive to the general public. But let’s no pursue those noble aims by shooting ourselves in the foot and belittle the hard work of so many colleagues.


105 thoughts on “Has philosophy lost its way?

  1. Thanks, Thomas, and it did what you wanted.

    As for the term “mu,” I first found it in “The Mind’s I,” a great collection of essays and ponderings about modern philosophy, edited by Dan Dennett and Doug Hofstadter who, for the junkies for that book, of course uses it in “Gödel, Escher, Bach.” And, per my discussions, and an essay before for Massimo, about saying “mu” to free will “versus” determinism, Hofstadter uses it to say “mu” to reductionism “versus” holism.

    So, to sum my previous three concepts, I say “mu” to the idea that we need to focus such tremendous scrutiny on human morality. We evolved, on average, to generally be more good than evil.

    Of course, that’s not absolute — and we evolved to be that way only within our tribe, originally some 140 or whatever people, if modern sociology research.

    That, in turn, is why I think Rousseau, with his theory of the “noble savage,” is so overrated. At the same time, for hunter-gatherers, life wasn’t as nasty, brutish and short as Hobbes claimed, except probably in times of drought or something.


  2. That, in turn, is why I think Rousseau, with his theory of the “noble savage,” is so overrated.

    Pretty narrow basis on which to draw a conclusion like that.


  3. We can find the kind of morality we would expect to evolve in the old scriptures. For those on whom you depend for survival “Love your neighbour as yourself”, for those with whom you compete for survival “leave nothing alive that breathes”.


  4. Robin: I guess that “frighteningly logical” can be said of anything, per the Kuhnian meme, that might force a paradigm shift inside our own braincages. Some 30-35 years ago, I might have said the same about secularism and metaphysical naturalism.

    I don’t, because I say “mu” (thanks, Thomas) to either total polarity in animal-human distinction OR total parity in that. This, too, whether on theory of mind, general intellect, or general emotional intelligence, is on a sliding scale.


  5. Hi SocraticGadfly,

    I doubt that Singer will be able to affect any paradigm shift for me if he can’t even sort out in his own mind what the point of the exercise is.

    That’s neither frightening nor logical


  6. Socratic,
    As for the term “mu,” I first found it in “The Mind’s I,” a great collection of essays and ponderings about modern philosophy, edited by Dan Dennett and Doug Hofstadter

    The concept was first developed by Edward de Bono, the advocate of lateral thinking, in his book “Po: Beyond Yes and No”, where he uses the term ‘po'(not yes, not no)

    See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Po_(lateral_thinking)

    Mu has acquired a slightly pejorative tone. It has become a faddish way to be dismissive in a slightly superior way. You tend to often dismiss other people’s thoughts with the phrase ‘I say mu to that’. For that reason I prefer to use Po, which has a more neutral tone.


  7. Massimo,

    I’m sorry for rambling on in my first two comments. (And I should note that these were written from memory and I am willing to be corrected on details.) But the point I was trying to make is really important.

    I have no problems with there being an academic field/ discipline of philosophy. Of course; for one thing there is no other way to preserve the history of philosophic thought; and for another, there’s no other way to advance it authoritatively.

    But philosophy to survive, it needs to address at least these four issues:

    1) It needs to be text-productive, and directed toward expanding the publication possibilities (as much as to say, opportunities for employment and tenure) for graduating doctorates.

    2) It must be able to address the needs of other fields of study that are theory-dependent – and I’m not talking about the sciences.

    3) It must develop tolerance for variant grammars and rhetorics of text productive discourse (yes, I’m talking about Continentalists and non-Analytic English or American philosophers.) It needs to be ‘eclectic*.

    4) And, yes, it must reach out beyond the Academy, and be willing to include the writing and thought, not only of Academics in other fields, but thinkers outside of the Academy all together.

    I’m not in the Academy, so I couldn’t begin to say how this could be accomplished.

    But during the Reagan era and it’s immediate aftermath, quite a number of colleges got rid of their philosophy departments all together. Addressing the four issues above won’t necessarily ward off the budget-choppers, but this may help in arguing against them.

    Again, I’ll emphasize this point, because I was there, and I know how important it is. When Literature studies needed theoretical renewal, The Analytics were not there – the French Post-Structuralists were. If Analytics don’t like that, they shouldn’t bother ridiculing it – Let them give professional Literaturists an alternative theory of literature. (Remember, we’re talking about people’s livelihood, not some esoteric ‘principle of truth’ or whatever – I’m a Pragmatist; I don’t have time for JTB wheel-spinning. Certainly the future employees at various non-Ivy-League colleges across the country don’t.)

    * Not “electric” as I mis-typed about the program at UNM.

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  8. Literature student: I’m having difficulty with the transition between Modernist and experimental poetry –

    Analytic philosopher: What do I care? Logic is about truth, and poetry by definition lies outside of any truth-table. Go Away.

    Continentalist: But Heidegger says that poetry is closer to the truth of Being – come, let us talk about it….

    Sociologist: I’m trying to understand how the categories of ‘race’ were constructed….

    Analytic: ‘Race’ is a specific term regarding genetics. Now, go away.

    Continentalist: ‘Race’ is a socially constructed term within a certain field of power relationships – come, let us talk about that….

    Historian: The French revolution produced certain cultural problematics we must deal with….

    Analytic: 18th century, right? Hume. Question answered. Shut up and go away.

    Continentalist: The era of Rousseau, Kant, and the early Hegel opened up possibilities of thought never previously explored – come, let us talk about this….

    Psychologist: I have clients worried that their sexual preferences may be transgressive –

    Analytic: Will you please go away? We have nothing to say concerning anyone’s anxiety or sexuality.

    Continentalist: Freud moved in one direction, Lacan in another; I think we can find a synthesis here – come, let us talk about it.

    Feminist: I worry that –

    Analytic: Shut up! P therefore Q, and truth-tables! What does that have to do with women or not?!

    Continentalist: You wish to find the articulation of your concerns within the context of phallocentric Western culture; come, let us talk about it…..


    All right, Analytics – you don’t want to talk about it? Then who wants to talk about you?

    (If we don’t want this to happen, let’s come up with something else.)


  9. Come on now, laying the problems with Theory at the feet of philosophy? There are obvious reasons why the world being not what it appears to be, that there is something insidious in its construction is appealing to those who have radical criticisms of the social, political, and economic order.. Of course we can in retrospect see deficits in philosophy but it’s anachronism in both cases to not try to understand what else was going on. The success of science in the 20th century had a tremendous effect on thinking in general. It’s not a surprise that philosophy has been concerned with the clarification of scientific ideas, nor is it surprising that this took the form of systematic explication as if that wasn’t an old tradition that existed long before modern analytic philosphy and its linguistic turn.

    There is truth in the criticisms expressed that we can learn from but it’s not as if analytic philosophy has remained silent. The discussions of realism vs anti-realism in philosophy from the 1970s to the late 1990s developed in parallel to postmodern thinking elsewhere and were quite productive in resolving those debates which culminated in what has been labelled “the science wars”.Philosophy was relatively moderate compared to some of the science triumphalism in the spirit of that time.

    aside: I yesterday stumbled over this relevant clip from James Burke in 1978 that somehow made its way into a recent puzzle video game, illustrating this third culture view about science replacing the humanities::

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  10. Dee Dumars,

    My last post, the mini-dialogues, was regrettable. It over-simplified matters terribly. But I was trying to emphasize that a certain space was opened up by the detachment of the Analytic tradition form interests in other fields. You’re quite right that the Analytic turn is understandable, given the rise of the natural sciences. But it entirely possible to imagine that Academic philosophy in America could have taken a more eclectic and inclusive turn than it did, which would have allowed logical-analytic research alongside other interests in philosophy.

    And the other point I was trying to indicate is that non-philosophers in many, and even outside the academy, have a real interest in what philosophy has to say to us, in terms of the basic interests motivating our understandings of the world. The logical-positivists denied the validity of such interest; the political-institutional fall-out of that has been, in part the reduction of interest – and funding – for philosophy departments.

    Concerning the Burke clip: The scientistic hope of his remarks, I heard quite a bit of in the eighties, from thinkers of his generation. It’s an expression of a hope for an always ‘better tomorrow,’ if we can all tow the scientistic line. It is predicated on the equation, which Burke almost states explicitly: “Knowledge is Power.” An aging and now archaic romantic notion of the 19th century.

    Knowledge is NOT power. Power is power – that is, power *is* whatever shape it takes in a given society. In our society, that is found in enforceable laws and the system that enforces them; money and the businesses that gather and utilize it; guns and bombs, and the government that controls these; political rhetoric or bureaucratic regulations. Elseways it may be having and manipulating servants; understanding and manipulating social codes; access to hired assassins, control over the drug-addled or the guilt-ridden – etc., etc. Power takes many forms; but the one form it never takes is “knowledge,” in the scientific sense. As purely a social phenomenon, it can not even be studied scientifically, and scientific data is merely another resource to deploy to maintain control.

    But it can be understood philosophically; and understanding (not knowledge) might still set us free. (If not collectively, then at least as individuals.)

    I recognize the problems that many in America have with the Continental tradition – and in fact share many of those concerns. But the Continentalists have this right. They may have applied it badly and ended with a paranoid political relativism – but the main point remains. Knowledge is not power; and science isn’t producing any Utopias tomorrow.

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