Has Philosophy Lost its Way?

Philosophers have a tendency to shoot themselves in the foot, they ought to stop.

One 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.