Has Philosophy Gone Wrong?

Philosophers Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle believe that it has. They make their case in this essay, posted at The New York Times.

The history of Western philosophy can be presented in a number of ways. It can be told in terms of periods — ancient, medieval and modern. We can divide it into rival traditions (empiricism versus rationalism, analytic versus Continental), or into various core areas (metaphysics, epistemology, ethics). It can also, of course, be viewed through the critical lens of gender or racial exclusion, as a discipline almost entirely fashioned for and by white European men.

Yet despite the richness and variety of these accounts, all of them pass over a momentous turning point: the locating of philosophy within a modern institution (the research university) in the late 19th century. 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.

Take this simple detail: Before its migration to the university, philosophy had never had a central home. Philosophers could be found anywhere — serving as diplomats, living off pensions, grinding lenses, as well as within a university. Afterward, if they were “serious” thinkers, the expectation was that philosophers would inhabit the research university. Against the inclinations of Socrates, philosophers became experts like other disciplinary specialists. This occurred even as they taught their students the virtues of Socratic wisdom, which highlights the role of the philosopher as the non-expert, the questioner, the gadfly.

I am one of those who is sometimes ambivalent about the value of academic philosophy. I think philosophers sometimes delight in complexifying simple issues rather than simplifying complex issues. And some of their projects--like trying to define “knowledge” or coming up with the correct “account” of probability--seem quixotic to me.

But it seems to me that Frodeman and Briggle are putting a rather gloomy spin on some pretty happy developments.

The relocation of philosophy within universities has made it possible for a large number of people, including these authors, to make a living doing philosophy. Philosophers can still be found everywhere--if you define your terms loosely enough you can find them braying on cable news every night--but the philosophy they produce, then as now, is of a decidedly low quality. The effect of philosophy becoming a proper discipline has been the production of better philosophy. Why is that to be lamented?

Skipping ahead:

There is another layer to this story. The act of purification accompanying the creation of the modern research university was not just about differentiating realms of knowledge. It was also about divorcing knowledge from virtue. Though it seems foreign to us now, before purification the philosopher (and natural philosopher) was assumed to be morally superior to other sorts of people. The 18th-century thinker Joseph Priestley wrote “a Philosopher ought to be something greater and better than another man.” Philosophy, understood as the love of wisdom, was seen as a vocation, like the priesthood. It required significant moral virtues (foremost among these were integrity and selflessness), and the pursuit of wisdom in turn further inculcated those virtues. The study of philosophy elevated those who pursued it. Knowing and being good were intimately linked. It was widely understood that the point of philosophy was to become good rather than simply to collect or produce knowledge.

This also seems like a positive development. Philosophers have never been morally superior to other sorts of people, and it is for the best that such an attitude seems foreign to us today. And I don't think knowledge and virtue have ever had any particular connection to one another.

On the other hand, if I may broaden their language, there is certainly a connection between education and the strength of a culture. That is the ethos underlying the idea of a liberal education after all. Civilization is strengthened when people have some shared knowledge of art and literature, basic science and mathematics, and an awareness of other cultures. That idea is alive and kicking, though it sometimes seems it is under attack. To the extent that this idea has been weakened in recent years it is mostly because of outside economic pressures and not because of anything philosophy departments have been doing or not doing.

Throughout their essay, Frodeman and Briggle seem to be lamenting the esoteric nature of philosophical research and its divorce from broader societal concerns. That is a problem that confronts every academic subject, but I get the impression that things have changed. It wasn't that long ago that people like Carl Sagan and even Stephen Jay Gould were mocked as mere science popularizers, but I think that attitude has become much harder to find. If may use myself as an example, I spend most of my non-teaching mathematical time these days writing popular books and articles, or confronting creationist pseudoscience. I have received nothing but support from my fellow academics for this, including those hailing from more research-focused institutions than mine. No doubt there are a few snoots in the upper echelons who might look down their nose at my activities, but increasingly they are the ones who are viewed as weird.

My impression is that that is the case in philosophy as well. People like Massimo Pigliucci, Robert Pennock, and Philip Kitcher routinely write at a popular level and address concerns that go beyond the walls of the academy, but I do not have the impression they are regarded as pariahs for doing so.

At any rate, there is plenty more to the essay than I have quoted here, and apparently the whole thing is basically an excerpt from a new book of theirs, so go have a look.


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"Philosophers have never been morally superior to other sorts of people"

How do you know?

By Greg Esres (not verified) on 12 Jan 2016 #permalink

Philosophers could be found anywhere — serving as diplomats, living off pensions, grinding lenses, as well as within a university. Afterward, if they were “serious” thinkers, the expectation was that philosophers would inhabit the research university.

If true, this is still something of an own goal. Philosophers sit on the editorial boards of philosophy journals. If they want to publish submissions from Bob the philosopher and short-order cook, they can. It’s the editor’s choice - philosophy’s choice. If pancake flipping part-time philosophers don’t get much published, its either because the philosophers sitting on editorial boards are biased, or its because they are doing their job correctly and pancake flipping philosophers just don’t come up with many comparatively publication-worthy ideas.
I suspect Jason is right, and it’s mostly the latter: philosophy departments paying professors to do philosophy has resulted in a specialization and professionalism which generally can’t be matched by laypeople. Academic philosophers are just producing (on average) better work than the pancake flippers. There may also be some bias at play, as there may be in other academic fields: if an editor receives a paper they don’t understand, they may partly decide what to do with it based on the institute the submission comes from, for instance. But I don’t think, overall, that academic positions for philosophers has hurt the field, I think it’s probably helped it.

I slightly share the article's dim view of philosophy as a purely academic pursuit. The son of a friend of mine took a philosophy course as a college freshman and decided he wanted to spend the rest of his education getting a degree in philosophy. Which as far as I know gave him one source of employment within the field: teaching future college freshman philosophy. That seems like a waste to me, since there are a lot of things that need doing in the world. Solving logic problems in philosophy is one way of training our brains to think, but so are finding bugs in computer programs, learning advanced calculus, and getting engineering designs to work.

It's not a huge problem that I would write an article about, but in my perfect world people would learn how to be useful first, and pursue philosophy in their spare time, or as a second course of study. The more you know about the world, the better your philosophical musings are apt to be, I think. Look at all the things Aristotle got wrong due to lack of good empirical data.

As to philosophers being found anywhere - You could say the same about scientists. Can I criticize these guys or are they going to supposedly be "17 year olds"?

By Michael Fugate (not verified) on 13 Jan 2016 #permalink

The effect of philosophy becoming a proper discipline has been the production of better philosophy.

Better in whose eyes? I think the overall point is how useless academic philosophy is. Whom does it benefit, besides the philosophers?

Massimo Pigliucci has made the point, and so have other modern popularizers, that Philosophy used to be geared towards being useful, a guide on how to live the good life, but that hasn't been true for over a millennia.

I do wonder, though, if there is anything left to be said about living the good life? Seems like that everything that can be said was said over 2,000 years ago. Typically by the Stoics.

By Greg Esres (not verified) on 13 Jan 2016 #permalink

Let's assume Frodeman and Briggle are correct, at least partly. They already give the remedy: do what Sagan and Gould did - communicate philosophy with the general public. Of course that already happened.


There is also an Italian philosopher who related the Greek philosophers from Antiquity to his beloved city Naples. I read the book some 20 years ago and have forgotten his name.

eric @2 says it well. If it weren't for positions that allow philosophers to concentrate most of their time on the subject, Otherwise they would be amateurs, who can only pursue the subject in their free time. So if effort has anything to do with quality, this should have improved the result.

I do think they have some value, to some degree, everyone should study epistemology, which is essentially the study of how we can know things, and be less likely to be led astray in our thinking.

I also note, that Philosophy profs routinely bring out stats, that show that while few philo students get jobs in the fields, they do on average get very good jobs or go on to further study in fields that our system highly values, such as law school. And if you think about what fraction of science students actually end up with research careers?

By Omega Centauri (not verified) on 13 Jan 2016 #permalink

It's difficult to make general statements about "philosophy" because that word is so vague. Philosophers discuss a hugely varied range of subjects that have relatively little in common. Some of the subjects that philosophers discuss are not very distinctively philosophical, and could be discussed under other headings. Philsophers may discuss social questions. Or biology (perhaps under the heading of "philosophy of biology".) Often philosphers don't bring to the discussion any special philosophical skills or knowledge, but just an aptitude for critical thinking and clear expression. (And sometimes they don't even bring that.) When philosophers are doing something more distinctively philosophical, that tends to be when they're at their most misguided. Metaphysics is probably the best example of that. But I'd also include much of epistemology, philosophy of mind and philosophy of language. I take a broadly Wittgensteinian view of language and philosophy, seeing philosophers as widely bewitched by language, especially on those more distinctively philosophical subjects. I question whether there are any "metaphysical" facts to be discovered (though that depends partly on what you mean by "metaphysical").

Has philosophy got worse in its modern academic form? I don't know enough of the history of philosophy to give a confident answer. There has always been a lot of very misguided philosophy. But I think the ancients and mediaevals had more excuse. They didn't have the lessons that we've had from modern science. Many scientists have moved, to varying degrees, towards a more naturalised, scientifically-informed approach approach to philosophy. (I'd mention Daniel Dennett as an example.) But many of the traditional misguided ways of thinking are still widespread.

By Richard Wein (not verified) on 15 Jan 2016 #permalink

Greg, the term "good life" seems ambiguous. Does it mean morally good? If we're talking about leading a fulfilling life, I think these days that subject is usually written about under the heading of "self help". Academic philosophers today seem much more interested in other subjects. I remember reading a philosopher describe how, when he tells a stranger that he's a philosopher, the response is often along the lines of "What's your philosophy of life?". I think that question is broadly about the kind of "good life" philosophy that you're referring to. But that particular philosopher metaphorically rolled his eyes at such questions, seeing them as having nothing to do with academic philosophy.

By Richard Wein (not verified) on 15 Jan 2016 #permalink

Richard Wein wrote:

"But that particular philosopher metaphorically rolled his eyes at such questions, seeing them as having nothing to do with academic philosophy."

I'm sure that it doesn't, but that's the problem as many see it. Of what use to society is an academic discipline that contributes nothing to the outside world?

You're right in the role that self-help has taken in society, and it's interesting to note that many of its principles are taken from Stoic philosophy.

By Greg Esres (not verified) on 15 Jan 2016 #permalink

"Huffpo addresses the practicality of philosophy:"

That was a painful read. Hopefully, a good philosophy major could tear the argument apart. If not, any scientist could.

By Greg Esres (not verified) on 16 Jan 2016 #permalink