On Philosophy’s Uselessness to Society


In “Publishing in Philosophy,” Michael Huemer, professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado, provides an abundance of detailed and helpful advice about writing and publishing philosophical work. He also includes several criticisms of the refereeing system and some suggestions for fixing it. Along the way is an interesting discussion of philosophy’s uselessness to society

He draws attention to three aspects of this uselessness [emphasis added]:

1. Unwanted Writings

The philosophy publication system is also pretty much useless to society, where it seems to me that one might reasonably have hoped for something useful. Quite a bit of intellectual talent and energy is being channeled into producing thousands upon thousands of papers and books that hardly anyone will ever read or want to read. These articles and books are written almost entirely for other academics working in the same sub-sub-sub-specialization that the author works in. The main reason they are written is so that the author can get tenure or otherwise get credit for publishing. The main reason they are read even by the tiny number of people who read them is so that the readers can cite those articles in their own articles.

Some years ago, I looked up statistics on how much philosophy was being published. At the time, the Philosopher’s Index (which indexed most articles and books in the English-speaking world) was getting 14,000 new records per year. The number has probably expanded greatly since then. PhilPapers presently lists 646 new records this week. What proportion of those books and articles could the average philosopher possibly read?

In my years in the profession, I have read many papers. Almost none of them were read for the purpose of my learning anything interesting from them. Most were read solely so that I could give an evaluation to them – as in the case of student papers, which are written solely to be graded and then are generally thrown away; or journal submissions, which one reads solely so that one can say whether they should be published. My guess is that I’ve read more journal submissions as a referee than I’ve read published papers as a scholar.

When the main reason why people do x is so that someone else can evaluate their ability to do x, it seems to me that something has gone wrong.

2. Narrow Scholars

Most academics have very narrow intellectual horizons. Becoming an academic greatly narrows one’s intellectual field of view, actually preventing one from learning, thinking about, or discussing many interesting things that one might otherwise have learned and discussed.

How so? In order to get published, one must stay current with the literature in one’s field. In most cases, that literature is enormous and constantly growing. So, to phrase matters in economic terms, there is a very large fixed cost to publishing in a given area. That fixed cost discourages one from doing work in new areas and encourages one to remain in the area one is already familiar with. The narrower the area, the easier it is to learn enough to publish there. So the system creates a collection of extremely narrow scholars, who know next to nothing about, and have almost nothing to say about, anything outside their tiny areas of specialization.

Furthermore, the time demands of staying current in one’s own field are significant enough to crowd out general interest reading. It’s not that one literally has no time to read other books for general interest. It’s just that most people have a limited appetite for nonfiction reading, and it is more than filled doing the reading necessary to stay current in one’s field. So philosophers in one field typically know very little even about other branches of philosophy—to say nothing of natural science, psychology, economics, etc.

The same problem affects scholars in other fields. But the situation is especially unfortunate for philosophers, because philosophy is, of all disciplines, the one that ought most to take in the big picture.

3. Why are we ignored?

Sometimes, philosophers lament our low profile in society. For instance, let’s say someone decides to have a discussion on TV of the ethics of cloning. They invite a couple of doctors, a politician, and a priest. No philosopher.

Not always, of course; sometimes, philosophers are invited to things like this. But fairly often, when obviously philosophical issues are being discussed, people don’t even think to consult philosophers. (What if there was a public discussion of global warming, and they forgot to invite any climate scientists?)

There are probably a variety of reasons for this. One reason is that we have an irrational educational system, in which people can complete sixteen years of study without ever being exposed to some of the most central questions in the history of human thought and what the great thinkers have said about those questions.

But at least some of the blame has to fall on the philosophical profession itself. For the reasons discussed above, most philosophical writing is incredibly boring to most people. You can’t blame a television producer for not inviting someone from a profession that produces such fare.

The whole document is here.

I don’t think that philosophy’s “uselessness,” at least in the way “useful” is typically construed, is that much of a problem, but of course that is something over which reasonable people might disagree. However, one needn’t think that uselessness is a problem to share Professor Huemer’s view that unwanted writings, narrow scholars, and the absence of philosophers from much public discussion are problems for philosophy. Discussion welcome.

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PeterJ
PeterJ
4 years ago

First to the party again. Oh well. At least I like the article.

“The same problem affects scholars in other fields. But the situation is especially unfortunate for philosophers, because philosophy is, of all disciplines, the one that ought most to take in the big picture.”

Not just unfortunate but disastrous. To me also this would be the explanation for all the pot-boiler articles, no global vision derived from metaphysics and a study of the whole and so no big picture. The parallel might be the ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ pats of the problem of consciousness. Philosophers seem too often content to work on the easy problems.and rely on assumptions about how the hard problems are solved. The consequences are as the article describes.

Or so it seems to me. I wonder if lack of ambition is a factor. I would like to ask how many of the class of philosophers which the article discusses believe that philosophy can be understood. My guess would be none. There is an intrinsic pessimism that seems to work against progress and more relevantly to discourage work of real substance,Report

Raf
Raf
4 years ago

I agree with Huemer, and I’m reminded of similar complaints (recently) made by Dennett, Frankfurt and Scruton.Report

Tom
Tom
4 years ago

I’ve learned early that to get recognized one needs to do little more than use a few buzz terms (“worry”), cite about 15-20 words, and reach about 14ish single spaced pages. If it’s an analytic journal or conference, throw in a Greek letter or two and a table. Done.

One issue is the solitary nature of philosophical work. Sure, we cite each other, but outside of a few off-seen philosophical pairs, the vast majority of our works are from single authors. Contract that with many other fields — and especially the hard sciences — where you’ll have several, if not many, contributors. If philosophy were more collaborative, the seemingly incessant need to publish uninteresting, unimportant drivel might lessen. A collaborative article might see them work together on a single position that each holds, and each gets credit for the position. But being fairly literary in nature, I’m not sure philosophy can or will ever get to that point. I worry (ha) we’re so far down the rabbit hole that there’s no way out now.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

I think that a lot of the problem is that we model the way we evaluate philosophers’ scholarship contributions on the way scientific contributions are evaluated. But scientific contributions can often help people who do not understand the scientific work. This is not true of philosophy. Generally, philosophical work can only help someone who learns about and understands it. Hence, we generate a lot of work for other academics to read, while largely being irrelevant to the rest of humanity.Report

Melanie
Melanie
4 years ago

I wonder what “unwanted” means: If a professional philosopher is interested in philosophical sub-sub-sub disciplines, why shouldn’t she be? Because she won’t be able to print her work in a daily newspaper? I don’t think all professional philosophers should be interested in “solving world problems”, especially when there is so much uncertainty about the concepts we use to render these problems intelligible in the first place. Also, the overflow of publications is a symptom of the economization of the academic profession in general, not philosophy as such. Of course it is a pity that we do not value philosophical ideas for what they are, but also, philosophers need to get funding and positions, and having publications simply helps. Concerning the third point, I think that philosophy is, or philosophers are just not what come to the minds of most people when thinking about science, or academic experts (just as they usually think of men when thinking about any kind of “experts”). Not only is the majority of people ignorant of what philosophy actually is and what philosophers do, but there is also a prevalent prejudice against philosophy itself which is not even considered as a legitimate profession. In other words: The lack of philosophers engaged in the public domain is not due to their being boring, but because they are not considered in the first place. There is enough “entertaining” writing out there that could be consulted, if people would be interested in reading philosophy. One could now claim that the reason for this prejudice is exactly because not many philosophers are engaged with the public. But I would say the responsibility lies on both sides. Nobody would dare to claim that it is the sole responsibility of women to be more present in public offices or expert rounds. To leave it to those who are being ignored and neglected would just support a system in which implicit biases are perpetuated.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Melanie
4 years ago

Who do we work for the benefit for? Certainly not one another in the profession. But if we work for people outside the profession, we’d better keep a close eye on how our work benefits them. The idea that we can say there is “enough” work for the public already seems akin to saying that there is “enough” work for other academic philosophers already. The more that we can engage the public in philosophical thinking, the better.Report

Melanie
Melanie
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

No, but certain “other work” is necessary to learn to do the work in a professional and responsible way. And not all our efforts can or should directly translate into benefits to the “people outside”. But I think it is very difficult to discuss these things on such a general level. How do we define “benefit”? Who should benefit and how? I think it is also to the benefit of society if citizens e.g. get a philosophoical education even if they, then, do not maximize the utility of getting that education by launching a start-up or social movement. Also, I think my statement came out wrong: I did not mean “enough” in the sense that there is enough work for academic philosophers. I meant that there is enough interesting work out there to prove that philosophy is not boring. But of course I agree with your last remark.Report

David Hilbert
4 years ago

We are all so cynical and pessimistic. If narrowness is a problem then I’m as clear an example of what is wrong as you can find. I’m about 30 years into my career and almost all of my publications, from start to finish, are focused on color. Not only that but most of those have been concerned with elaborating a single theory of color that has remained fairly stable over that time. (Not to mention a resolute and inflexible policy of completely avoiding “the hard problem.”) And that is the part of my work that has had some uptake in philosophy. The other stuff concerns even more arcane issues regarding conceptual issues in color science. I’m not much motivated by the usual markers of professional success and I can pretty honestly say that I work in this area because it seems to me endlessly fascinating, not because I feel the need to crank out papers and see the narrow focus as a means to that end. I’m not indifferent to the big issues in philosophy and a lot of my work is intended to illuminate some of those by focusing on a particular example. I don’t have much aptitude for approaching the big questions more directly but think that I can add some value by showing how the issues play out in a narrow area. I also just find color interesting. I’m not much of a public philosopher but there is a pretty steady low level of demand for someone to talk about color to various community groups, especially high school philosophy clubs. I admire those who can do more (and read their work) but don’t see why there can’t be space for the kind of work that I do as well.Report

Matt
Reply to  David Hilbert
4 years ago

“I’m about 30 years into my career and almost all of my publications, from start to finish, are focused on color. Not only that but most of those have been concerned with…

I’ll admit that I really wanted this sentence to conclude with a _particular_ color that professor Hilbert had been particularly interested in! Now that is some narrowness I could get behind! That said, I think the theme of the comment is exactly right, even if it didn’t make me as happy as it could have.Report

Alexa
Alexa
4 years ago

Isn’t part of the problem that philosophers lack a good PR team? Contrast scientific disciplines, which have good, talented journalists acting as mediators between research teams and the public. It seems philosophers are slowly coming around to the notion that we need to encourage and support ‘middle people’ to digest, distill, and repackage cutting edge research for consumption in popular venues.

As a side note, this is already happening, but cultural shifts take time. Philosophy podcasts are on the rise, online venues like Nautilus and Slate feature philosophical work, etc. Philosophers don’t need to figure out how to engage the public (just like scientists rarely engage the public); rather, we need to figure out how to get people that engage with the public to pay attention to our work (which is what scientists do).Report

Brandon
Brandon
Reply to  Alexa
4 years ago

I think this is exactly right. Very few people would expect that papers in the social or natural sciences would be widely read outside of those working in the subfields in which the work lies, let alone the public. There is a difference between academic work purely for academic purposes and academic debates, and then carrying that work into the public sphere. The latter is something that philosophers have quite often failed to do over the past 50 years or so, although, as you suggest, things are getting a bit better. But we do need better PR, and we need to get better at communicating to the educated public why they should be interested in what we have to say.

Now, one might think this is a separate issue from one of Huemer’s concerns: that academic books and articles in philosophy are not widely read *by other philosophers* outside of that philosopher’s subfield, or even within the subfield but working in a different area of it. I think that there is something to this, and I think that there are issues with increasing specialization and focus on small puzzles, and drilling down so deep into these puzzles that we forget the bigger reason why we even cared about the issue in the first place.

I have no idea how to fix this, but I do know this: as a graduate student and early career scholar, there’s nothing you can really do about it, and it helps not at all to worry about it or lament it. You have to play by the rules of the game as they exist, and then if you are lucky enough to get a job and get tenure, then hopefully you can start to make changes from the inside. It’s not the way it ought to be, but it’s the way it is. A depressing thought, but at least it provides a template for the sorts of things one can do in order to be more likely to be published…Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

Why should the public pay us to undertake philosophical research? Surely the entire justification is the public good we do with our philosophical research.Report

dmf
dmf
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

this seems key, when the land-grant schools shifted from largely being about resource management/innovation (Ag, Mining, Engineering, etc) to liberal arts there was little to no public engagement to see if this was what taxpayers wanted or not and now these tensions are coming to a head under the collapse of the economy and the disaster capitalists (ALECS and co) who are able to translate these energies into political programs.
Academics better wise up about what business they are in and who foots the bills or things are just going to get worse for them.Report

Tristan Haze
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

I think it’s more like having jewellery.Report

Brian Weatherson
Brian Weatherson
4 years ago

Isn’t 2017 a very odd time to make this complaint. When I look around now I see, among other things,

* Books by philosophers with technical backgrounds like Laurie Paul and Carrie Jenkins getting huge amounts of media attention and uptake among the broader intellectual community.
* Podcasts by Peter Adamson and Nigel Warburton sitting high on various podcast ranking charts. (And I suspect Barry Lam will soon join them.)
* Big media outlets from the New York Times to the (Australian) ABC running philosophy based columns and shows.
* The effective altruism movement, which is both based on and in no small part sustained by philosophers, having a huge impact both on the media and one the world.

Things could be better, impact-wise, but it feels very different to 15 years ago. Yet these complaints about the public role (or lack thereof) of philosophy don’t seem to change.Report

Barry Lam
Reply to  Brian Weatherson
4 years ago

In fairness to Michael, if he weren’t onto something, at least statistically, people like me wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing now. And also the challenges we face as we’re doing it, they wouldn’t be so big unless what he’s saying has some truth to it. Now, in fairness to everyone else, I think its okay for most in academia to be spinning inside the publication wheelhouse because of the intrinsic fulfillment they get from that work and the satisfaction they get from the conferences, interactions, and students who engage with that work.Report

John Schwenkler
4 years ago

I am sympathetic to a lot of what Huemer says here. But as others have noted the situation is not significantly different in any other academic discipline, whether in science or the humanities. So I don’t think the boringness-to-most-people of philosophical writing can explain why philosophers in particular are ignored. And unless there is a special reason why philosophy, in contrast to these other disciplines, shouldn’t be narrow and boring (though to be clear, on most days this is just what I think), this doesn’t succeed very well as a criticism of academic philosophy rather than academic scholarship in general.Report

Greg Gauthier
Reply to  John Schwenkler
4 years ago

I don’t think academic philosophers are being ignored by the public because philosophy is boring to the public. I think the public is largely ignored by academic philosophers because the public is boring to academic philosophers.

There are a scant few prominent professionals (Alain de Boton and Nigel Warburton come to mind) out there on YouTube and a few other places, trying to fill the demand, but they’re the exception to the rule. When was the last time two philosophers did a Dawkins-Krauss style tour, to spread the public understanding of philosophy? I can’t remember one in my lifetime. But I can tell you, there is a huge pent-up demand for this kind of thing. That’s why the amateurs on YouTube (Olly Thorn and Steve Patterson come to mind) can make such a good living doing it.

It would be amazing to see a couple philosophers of the caliber of a Timothy Williamson or an AC Grayling dare to “take to the streets” and challenge this generation to think a little harder about themselves…Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
Reply to  Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

I’d like to see someone do an interview show like Bryan Magee did in the 70’s. Those interviews (now found on youtube) were fantastic and discussed deep, complicated topics in an accessible way.Report

Joshua Blanchard
4 years ago

It is astounding that people still talk about the uselessness of philosophy in the age of Philosophy Phridays at the Daily Ant.
https://dailyant.com/category/philosophy-phridays/Report

Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

“…(What if there was a public discussion of global warming, and they forgot to invite any climate scientists?)…”

Actually, this happens *all the time*. I am forever-more seeing pundits, politicians, various climate “experts” (none of whom have any scientific credentials beyond medical doctor or electrical engineer), NGO spokespeople, social activists, journalists, yammer constantly on panel shows without a single actual climate scientist present. Or, occasionally, they *will* include a scientist, but someone completely outside his speciality, willing to say whatever the prompter wants to hear. And this happens on *both* sides of the debate.

So, is it really any surprise that mainstream communications venues do the same with philosophy?Report

Skeptic R
Skeptic R
4 years ago

I disagree that philosophy is useless. I’m a paramedic and I and every other paramedic and emt uses philosophy everyday though most don’t realize it. Just think about it. We deal with the most primal aspects of life and have to make moral and ethical decisions all the time. Don’t worry philosophy is alive and well. If you don’t believe me come ride in my ambulance with meReport

Greg Gauthier
Reply to  Skeptic R
4 years ago

Actually I think the point of the original site was not that *philosophy* was useless, but that the academic philosophy peer-review system, and the publications it produced, were largely useless to anyone but other academic philosophers. On that count, I largely agree.

That the public at large needs, wants, and is desperate for philosophy — now, more than ever — is something that I think ought to light a fire for change amongst these same academic philosophers, frankly. And it frustrates me to no end, that it doesn’t (http://philosophy.gmgauthier.com/the-ought-in-the-machine/).

You say you “use philosophy” everyday. How do you know you’re using *the best* philosophy available? How do you know the philosophy you’re using is getting you the best possible outcomes? What would you do if you discovered it wasn’t? How can you tell the difference? These, and dozens more, are questions left entirely open because academic philosophy has almost no public presence at all. At least the science disciplines have their “science communicators” (as bad as they can be sometimes, at least they’re trying).Report

guy
guy
4 years ago

Regarding Heumer’s point about “sub-sub-sub-specialization” papers–this has been an obstacle for me in trying to develop an inclusive syllabus. I’ve actively searched for works by females or minority authors, and I’ve found plenty. The problem is that the vast majority of papers I’ve found have topics/theses that are 3 or 4 dialectic levels deep (“I will argue that Jones misinterprets Smith’s objection to Kant’s assessment of the ontological argument; this becomes clear in light of Thompson’s formulation of Baker’s third principle of charitable interpretation” or whatever). For that reason, they’re pretty much useless for my Intro-Phil-class-material purposes.

It strikes me that one reason intro course syllabi might remain predominantly white and male is that there are a plethora of papers by such authors that deal directly with *entry level* questions: Is it ever okay to believe on insufficient evidence? Is it okay to praise/blame people who just got lucky? Is it okay not to help starving children on the other side of the world? etc.

Maybe that’s just a bad impression/representation of what’s out there (availability heuristic at work perhaps). I’m happy to be proven wrong about that. But the point is that as long as there is an incentive in the profession to write über esoteric papers, there will likely be lots of papers (and therefore, authors) to which people outside the esoterica (e.g., undergraduate students) are never exposed. That seems particularly problematic in light of issues of diversity and inclusiveness.Report

PeteJ
PeteJ
4 years ago

David – Thanks for your interesting confession. I tend to overstate the case against over-specialisation and there is obviously sometimes a need for it. But if philosophy is ‘love of wisdom’ then it surely must entail more than studying colour perception. Colour is perhaps a legitimate discrete specialist area but most areas of philosophy demand a grasp of global issues.
.
It might help the situation if its critics stopped associating philosophy exclusively with the approach seen in the endless books and articles that Huemer complains about. This is not philosophy, it is the philosophy profession as it is at present. It is almost impossible to stop people being interested in philosophy but not so many are interested in reading countless very difficult texts that do not explain it.

In the end the problem is always the same when these criticism of university philosophy crop up. It is difficult to justify a faculty which identifies problems but never solves them. .Report

Bharath Vallabha
4 years ago

The issue isn’t whether a philosopher can focus on understanding color, or if there aren’t some philosophers already engaging with the public. To bring out the main issue, let me try a different, more blunt approach.

Dear academic philosophers,

Please help us! We desperately need your help! Please pay more attention to us and our needs! There are many people like me, who are non-academics, who are trying to engage our family, friends, neighbors in philosophical reflection, so that they are not so driven by custom or habit or a sense of their own victimization or righteousness. But these family and friends for the most part scoff at philosophy, and say it is useless, and that all that is needed is religion or science or politics or business. They are convinced they are not missing anything. Even many people who are well educated scoff at attempts to talk philosophically, saying that we who got a philosophy education wasted our money and time.

And now, many of those around me, who dismiss philosophy, are breaking their relations with each other, coming to blows over politics, unable to have meaningful conversations. It is frightening. Many of us non-academics who love philosophy don’t have the resources or the societal standing to make a bigger impact. We are doing what we can, but we need the cavalry to back us up, the professional philosophers with more time, expertise and public platforms to help us.

This is not about shaming you. It’s not a claim about what philosophy professors should do; that can be debated many ways. It is a plea for help. A plea that you might reorient your schedules to some extent, and use some of your resources to engage with us even after we have left the classroom, and engage more directly with many people who never made it to the classroom. Please just keep us mind. In the midst of your busy schedules, of conferences and administrative duties and grading papers, please don’t forget about us. For you engaging with us might just be a good deed you do in the midst of lots of other things in your career; for us, most of the public, it will be invaluable, like water to a thirsty man. Thank you.Report

Greg Gauthier
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
4 years ago

Well said. This should be put on a billboard and posted on every campus in the west…Report

Luke Maring
Luke Maring
4 years ago

There’s definitely something to Huemer’s criticism of our field. At the same time, we shouldn’t overestimate the problem.

(1) Counting up citations is not a good way to measure the impact of our research. Really important/impactful Philosophy doesn’t just spring fully-formed from a great mind. It emerges from an ‘ecosystem’ of people writing, giving talks, criticizing each other, and building on each other’s insights. Any individual contribution to that ecosystem will of course seem small–in some sense, it will *be* small. But if there weren’t a bunch of us doing our small parts, the really important/impactful stuff wouldn’t happen either.

(2) That so much good research goes basically unused might indict our teaching just as much (or more) than it does our research. There is a lot of really good Philosophy that focuses on contemporary social problems–not just applied ethics, but epistemology, phil language, phenomenology, more abstract moral philosophy… If, e.g., Guenther’s book on solitary confinement or Tirrell’s “Genocidal Language Games” or… goes unused, the fault lies not with the researcher but with the teacher who declines to use it. The same goes for recent work on the philosophy of forgiveness, on restorative justice, on immigration…Report

Luke Maring
Luke Maring
4 years ago

Also: please read “the fault lies not with the researcher with the teacher..” as “the fault lies not with the researcher but with the community of teachers…” I don’t mean to suggest that any single teacher is fully to blame here.Report

Wesley Buckwalter
Wesley Buckwalter
4 years ago

It is easy to get frustrated by publishing sometimes but these points seem like mostly exaggeration. There is nothing unique to philosophy here, we know most scientific papers are not cited: https://arxiv.org/ftp/physics/papers/0701/0701012.pdf. Simply impossible to believe one could spend a career and not learn anything interesting from papers. Philosophers probably enjoy the most freedom and incur the least costs associated with working on new areas or whatever questions that strike them then anyone else in the academy, or at least compared to the sciences. The public is obsessed with philosophical topics, and they are often the subject of public debate more so than lots of other things. And lots of philosophers have been engaging with those discussions.Report

Olefashionedprig
Olefashionedprig
4 years ago

Humans generally are interested in various kinds of “philosophy;” hence, there’s an expectation that academic philosophy would be of interest to a wide range of people. Thus, since academic philosophy is not of interest to many, that suggests there’s something wrong with academic philosophy.
But that is a non-sequitur.

The difference between an amateur and a professional (in many fields) is that the professional is willing/able to delve into the details which the amateur glosses over. And the details matter, since the professional wants to discern which are the best theories, ALL things considered…which is a task that cannot be completed lightly. The amateur simply does not have the patience (and perhaps not the training or ability) to complete that task. But this does not mean it is a task that isn’t worth completing.

In his/her frustration, however, the amateur may ask the professional WHY the task is worth completing, given that philosophy’s meager track-record of producing real results . The reply, I think, is that if philosophy is worth doing at all, then it is worth doing well. So if the amateur loses patience with academic philosophy, that may be her/his problem, not ours. It may be a lack of seriousness or commitment to what s/he agrees is worth pursuing.

Nonetheless, it is right and natural for professionals to make their work accessible to a larger audience, at least on occasion. Moreover, it is not as if all work by professionals is worth defending (yet that is true in other fields too). But I would bemoan, in particular, the kind of “pessimism” mentioned by the first commentator. Due to the poor track-record, some professional philosophers seem to have relinquished the goal of philosophical understanding, writing instead on technical minutiae mostly for careerist reasons, or because it is a good source of entertainment.

But this too is a problem found in other fields. And it is not an objection to specialization as such. Sometimes a large, important debate can hinge on a small, easily missed detail. But yes, a professional can get caught up in specialized work for distinctly unphilosophical reasons, and I agree that is disturbing. But it is disturbing not so much because the work yields no real results–and not so much because it is relatively inaccessible (though those facts may aggravate the problem). It is disturbing more because the reasons behind the work violate the rationale of doing philosophy in the first place.Report

Peter
Peter
4 years ago

I wouldn’t see the important difference as being between the professional and the amateur, but between the truth-seeker and job-seeker. A truth-seeker is going to end up siding with Huemer on the value of much that is published.Report

Jon
Jon
4 years ago

Ohio State’ s Center for Ethics and Human Values is engaging other disciplines to promote informed debate on public policy. Just adding to the list of philosophers engaged in public projects as philosophers.

https://www.osu.edu/features/2017/leveling-the-scales.htmlReport

Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

From the Blog of the APA today (http://blog.apaonline.org/2017/03/13/the-death-of-philosophy/):

“…Have you not heard of the foreigner who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the conference and cried incessantly: I seek philosophy! I seek philosophy! As many of those who were philosophy professors, standing around just then, he provoked indignation. What happened to philosophy? Did you miss your session? Were you not registered? Can you not understand English? The foreigner cried: I tell you what happened to philosophy, philosophy is dead! But how did we do this? How did we make people stop thinking, how did we stop living philosophically? We killed philosophy, all of us, by treating it as a discipline among others, by becoming professionals who sell philosophy, by becoming experts, by building resumes, identities and marketing ourselves to be paid, be branded, by writing books, by publishing articles that are written for making us promoted, by attending “conferences” similar to other professional organizations, by making a career in philosophy…”

and…

“…Having worked in American academia for over 20 years now, I realize that I had no idea how American academic philosophy was not just a professional deformation of philosophy as a passion, but it was the end of philosophy. Unfortunately the problem goes beyond any individual in the academia. It concerns how philosophy in academia does not problematize the conditions under which it exists. Professionalism does not just distort philosophy; it annihilates it…”Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
4 years ago

Greg – This is a fabulous article. While passionately agreeing with most of it my reservation would be that he seems to throw the baby out with the bathwater. To me this is not about some terrible problem with the tools of professional philosophy but about they way they are wielded and the motivation for their use. So I would rather argue for reform than abolition. Or just progress. Perhaps it can be brought back from its NDE.Report

Greg Gauthier
Reply to  PeterJ
4 years ago

Peter – It’s a canary article. There are dozens of them stretching back about 5 or 6 years. And now, YouTube is starting to fill up with amateurs and semi-professionals, eager to fill the need that is clearly out there.

These are strong signals to academicians. If you’re all listening, you’ll take heed and stop continuing to do what’s comfortable and what you’ve always done, and start changing. I’m not entirely sure what that should look like. I only know it needs to be different than hidden in the academy, publishing papers for each other.
If you don’t do something soon, I fear what will end up happening is that you will all go the way of the horse-and-buggy. Philosophers will go back to being gentleman hobbyists, only this time, they’ll be on YouTube.

I happen to be of two minds about the whole thing. On the one hand, I agree with you that reform (or radical rescue) – as I’ve described above – is what is needed. But on the other hand, history is replete with elderly institutions unable to recover from their own complacency, defensiveness, or just plain inability to adapt (take a look at the news media and publishing industries, for a recent example; or heavy manufacturing industry in the 1970’s, for a historical one). Academia is rapidly becoming an industry that is losing its market. And philosophy (and various other liberal arts) are the tip of that ship getting ready to sail over the edge. Whether it can right the ship or not is an open question. Whether it *should* right itself, will be a moot point in probably another 10 years…Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
Reply to  Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

I see why you’re pessimistic but I’m hoping that when the discipline hits rock bottom, which is probably about now, people will realise that the old approach is hopeless and go out to look for a better one. To be completely honest I don’t even feel that the current approach is rigorous or scholarly.

It would be more fun to stop complaining and move on since moaning is not very constructive, but this can;pt be done until the problem is fully acknowledged.Report

Edith E Esquivel
Edith E Esquivel
7 months ago

I had a philosophy professor who argued that philosophy didn’t have to be useful. He said philosophy is so up above us all, it doesn’t have to serve any purpose. Not living a better life, nothing. However, I pointed out his new RV outside indicated otherwise, since he paid for it with a philosophy professor salary. He was furious. Ha ha.Report