Last week, I posted about an exchange between historians Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Aaron Snyder (both of Carleton College), and philosopher Michael Veber (East Carolina), using Veber’s contribution to highlight some things philosophers sometimes do that might contribute to a negative impression about them.
In the following guest post*, Professor Veber returns the favor.
The Problems with Philosophers: A Reply to Weinberg
by Michael Veber
Justin Weinberg says my little Chronicle article contributes to the negative image of academic philosophers. I had the same reaction to his blog post. I offer the following common traits of the academic philosopher as an alternative explanation for the alleged phenomenon in question.
- Image Obsession. “But why don’t more people like me?” Our anxiety over the question provides a big part of the answer. If we weren’t so desperate for other people’s approval, maybe they’d start respecting us. Also, calling people on their bullshit is essential to philosophy. It’s one of the things philosophy does that has real social value. Do it right and some will hate you for it. So what?
- Backhanded Epistemic Pseudo-Charity. Academic philosophers often ascribe a simple confusion to someone and then pretend this is an act of empathetic kindness and understanding. Nobody likes that. Justin hypothesizes that I was thrown by the title of Khalid and Snyder’s Chronicle essay and offers this as an excuse on my behalf for what I said. But the same essay, with all the same arguments, was presented under a different title at the FIRE Faculty Network Conference last October and I was an assigned commentator. I disagreed just as much and for exactly the same reasons back then as now. And there was nothing in my Chronicle article that I didn’t tell them in person months ago—including the stuff about what makes for a good philosophy paper and how the idea that historians change the past by writing about it is insane.
- Epistemic Doormatting. Rather than stand up and defend what’s rightfully theirs, academic philosophers constantly let amateurs walk all over their discipline right out in public. Khalid and Snyder’s piece used history as the main example. But it wasn’t really about history. It was about metaphysics and epistemology and, according to me anyway, it showed a fundamental misunderstanding of very elementary ideas and distinctions. Plenty of people on campus think philosophy is not worth keeping around. If we continue to let the barbarians ride in and do it for us—and do it so very badly—who can blame them?
- Neologistical Misfiring. When you use a fancy word, people think that’s pretentious especially if it’s one you just made up. But sometimes it’s gotta be done. If you’re gonna do it, however, do it right. Justin says I’m “philososplaining”. He defines that as the practice of philosophers explaining things they’re not expert in to others who are. But again, my beef with Khalid and Snyder was over the fundamental nature of knowledge, truth, and inquiry. Those are philosophical not historical matters. Justin also accuses me of “canon calling” which is his term for referring to the work of some great philosopher as proxy for an argument. But I didn’t quote Mill to prove he was right. I brought it up to challenge Khalid and Snyder to come up with some other non-truthy defense of free speech. And they gave that a shot in their rejoinder. Good for them. Isn’t it nice how criticism advances a discussion?
- Irony Escapism. Accusing me of canon calling in this dustup is rich. Khalid and Snyder quote John Dewey (out of context and without really understanding him), Susan Haack (who can certainly speak for herself but, if you just read the title and abstract of the thing they quote from, you’ll see she opposes their position) and some historians (who, assuming they too are not being misunderstood, are just as wrong about truth, knowledge, and inquiry as Khalid and Snyder).
- Misplaced Piety. I reacted to Khalid and Snyder’s essay, not by making excuses for them, but by saying the things I would’ve said to any colleague in philosophy if that colleague had said the kinds of things Khalid and Snyder said. I didn’t let up or baby them because I know those two can handle it. That’s not condescension. That’s respect. I also had some fun with it. Nothing wrong with that either.
- Whatyoushouldhavesaidaboutitism. Occasionally, when someone outside academic philosophy floats a philosophical theory, a benevolent insider will grab the wheel and do the other person’s thinking for them. You can make the case that teaching and research in know-how-based areas is not truth-directed (and good luck with that) or that scientific theories are not meant to be true propositions but useful instruments or that numbers do not exist or that universities must recognize a difference between academic freedom and artistic freedom and truthiness is appropriate only to the former. And of course, it’s terrific if academic philosophers do that on their own or as a friendly amendment to something someone else said. But none of those were Khalid and Snyder’s central argument or what I was objecting to.