On the Uselessness of (Much) Academic Philosophy

Much scholarship in philosophy is useless, but so what?

“Philosophy is garbage, but the history of garbage is scholarship,” said Harvard philosopher Burton Dreben, as quoted by Dennett in chapter 76 of his often delightful and sometimes irritating Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. One could reasonably wonder why a famous philosopher approvingly quotes another famous philosopher who is trashing the very field that made them both famous and to which they dedicated their lives. But my anthropological observations as a relative newcomer (from science) into philosophy confirm that my colleagues have an uncanny tendency to constantly shoot themselves in the foot, and often even enjoy it.

Be that as it may, Dreben’s comment does ring true, though it should be (slightly) modified to read: a lot of philosophy is garbage, but the history of garbage is scholarship. The problem is that the very same thing can (and should) be said of scholarship in any field. Perhaps the case will not be controversial for certain particular areas of academic inquiry (which shall go duly unspecified), but I think the “a lot of garbage” summary judgment applies also to science itself, the current queen of the academy. Indeed, this was said as early as 1964 by John Platt, in a famous and controversial article published in Science magazine. Here is how he put it: “We speak piously of taking measurements and making small studies that will ‘add another brick to the temple of science.’ Most such bricks just lie around in the brickyard.”

I’ve done and read a significant amount of scholarship in both the natural sciences (biology) and philosophy (of science and related fields), and I can attest that what Platt, Dreben and Dennett say is pretty much uncontroversially true. And moreover, that many people working in those fields recognize it as such, except of course when it comes to their own little bricks in the temple. How is this possible? Dennett explains it in terms of the difference between chess and chmess. I will assume that we are all familiar with the first game. The second one is Dennett’s own invention, and works exactly like chess, the only difference being that the King can move two, rather than one, squares in every direction. Needless to say, many people play (and care about) chess. Not so many are into chmess.

Dennett further explains that a lot of scholarship in philosophy is like trying to solve chess problems: philosophical inquiry is a search for logical truths that hold within a defined conceptual space of possibilities. As far as it goes, it’s not a bad analogy, except for the fact that quite a bit of philosophy is actually concerned with the sort of conceptual problems that matter in real life (think epistemology, ethics, political philosophy, and even philosophy of science, at its best), which means it also needs to be informed by the findings of both the natural and social sciences. Still, Dennett’s point is that trying to solve logical problems posed by chmess is just as difficult as trying to solve the very similar problems posed by chess, with the crucial difference that almost nobody gives a damn about the former. A lot of philosophers, he maintains, devote their careers to studying chmess, they are quite good at it, and they manage to convince a small number of like minded people that the pursuit is actually worth a lifetime of efforts. But they are mistaken, and they would realize it if they bothered to try two tests, also of Dennett’s own devising: 

1) Can anyone outside of academic philosophy be bothered to care about what you think is important scholarship?

2) Can you manage to explain what you are doing to a bunch of bright (but, crucially, uninitiated — i.e., not yet indoctrinated) undergraduates? (For obvious reasons, your own colleagues and graduate students don’t count for the purposes of the test.)

I think Dennett is exactly right, but — again — I don’t think the tests in question should be carried out only by philosophers. Every academic ought to do it, as a matter of routine. I cannot begin to tell you about the countless number of research seminars in biology I have attended over decades, and about which the recurrent commentary in my own head (and, occasionally, with colleagues and students, after a glass of wine) was: “clever, but who cares?” Another quip quoted by Dennett, this one by Donald Hebb, comes to mind: “If it isn’t worth doing, it isn’t worth doing well.”

So, what, if anything, should be done with this state of affairs? This is a crucial question, which can be reformulated as: why should the public keep supporting universities (and, in the sciences, provide large research grants) to people who mostly, and perversely, insist in wasting (or at the least, underutilizing) their lives while figuring out the intricacies of chmess? Similarly, shouldn’t Deans, Provosts and university Presidents tell their faculty to stop squandering their brain power and get on with some project more germane to the public’s interest, or else? Francis Bacon might have agreed. He famously thought that the very point of human inquiry is not just knowledge broadly construed, but specifically knowledge that helps in human affairs. His famous motto was Ipsa scientia potestas est, knowledge is power. Power to control nature and to improve our lives, that is. In fact, even the famous Victorian debate on the nature of induction between John Stuart Mill and William Whewell, which pretty much began the modern field of philosophy of science, was actually a debate about the best way to gain knowledge that could be deployed for socially progressive change, to which both Mill and Whewell were passionately committed.

One answer to what to do about the problem is provided by Dennett himself in his essay referenced above: “let a thousand flowers bloom … but just remember … count on 995 of them to wilt.” Which essentially — and a bit more poetically — echoes Platt’s sentiment from half a century before. That seems right, and it is particularly easy to see in the case of basic (as opposed to applied, or targeted) scientific research, although it goes also for scholarship in philosophy, history, literary criticism or what have you. The whole thing is predicated on what amounts to a shotgun approach to knowledge: you let people metaphorically fire wherever they wish, and statistically speaking they’ll occasionally hit a worthy target. Crucially, there doesn’t seem to be a way, certainly not a centralized or hierarchically determinable way, to improve the efficacy of the target shooting. If we want knowledge about the world (or anything else), our best bet is to give smart and dedicated people pretty much free rein and a modest salary, then sit back and wait for the possible societal returns — which will fail to materialize more than 99% of the times.

So, yes, much of philosophical (and other) scholarship is indeed more like chmess than chess, and we may justifiably roll our eyes when we hear about it. But the difference between chmess and chess is not at all clear, and it’s probably best left to the practitioners themselves and their communities to sort it out. The important point is that we do make progress in our understanding of whatever game we are playing as long as we allow smart and dedicated people to keep playing it.