Philosophy Is Not In Charge of Itself (and other points worth remembering when writing about the state of philosophy)


Are you thinking about writing about the state of philosophy today?

If so, please keep in mind the following facts:

Philosophy Is Not In Charge of Itself
Philosophy at its most influential is still just one of many possible things that influence anything happening in the world, and the world includes philosophy. Thus, philosophy is just one of many possible influences on philosophy. (Other influences include: economics, technology, business, science, culture, geopolitics, human psychology, entertainment, literacy, biology, etc.) This means that not everything that is happening in philosophy is the result of the actions of philosophers and philosophy’s institutions, or is owed to the content of philosophical works. Explanations of what is happening in philosophy that refer only to philosophy or philosophers are going to be incomplete at best, possibly completely mistaken.

Philosophy Is Growing
There are more types of philosophy, on a greater number of topics, in a wider variety of media and formats, created by more kinds of people, for a much broader audience, than ever before in the history of humankind.

“Noticeable” Is Not The Same As “Representative”
What one notices is a function of a variety of factors, and commonality is usually not among them. Rather, we’re inclined to notice things on the basis of difference (contrast with the usual), direction (what we’re told to attend to by existing influences on us), interest (what we already care about), and noisiness (the efforts made by someone to get us to notice them or something they care about). So one should be very careful about making generalizations about something based on what one notices about that thing. (See availability heuristic.)

Readers, do you have other facts to add to this list?

 

 

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Animal Symbolicum
6 months ago

This could fall somewhere in your second fact or your third fact, so forgive me if I’m introducing a redundancy:

Doing Philosophy Is Not Exhausted by Publishing Philosophy: A lot of philosophy happens whose point, whatever it is, is not to be (or become) something published, or to be (or become) part of a “research program,” or to be (or become) a “contribution to the literature.”

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
6 months ago

It’s not entirely clear what philosophy is or isn’t, and not only is that fine but we shouldn’t spend too much time trying to draw a line much less policing any line they or anyone else has drawn. Obsessive boundary policing does nothing but leave leave us poorer. For example, we’ve lost a lot by say leaving people like Smith and Keynes entirely to the economists and Dostoevsky to the folks in literature. Plus at the end of the day isn’t it more important whether it’s true and useful than whether it’s “pure” philosophy?

Caligula's Goat
Reply to  Sam Duncan
6 months ago

Absolutely! Now if only more of us with power to reshape tenure and promotion standards can incorporate this truth into the academic incentive system, we might start to really get more engagement with philosophy outside of philosophy departments

!If a colleague writes a philosophically loaded play or novella, it should count as research. If they curate a popular blog or run a successful youtube channel, it should count toward promotion! Granted, someone probably shouldn’t be able to get tenure purely on the basis of this sort of work but it should count for something if we want more of it done.

Charles Pigden
Reply to  Sam Duncan
6 months ago

Well it may be that the profession in general is unduly narrow and has collectively given up on Dostoevsky, Smith and Keynes, but there are plenty of exceptions to this generalisation. I, for one, regularly lecture on Dostoevsky (and have a published paper on Stavrogin from Dostoevsky’s Demons/Devils/the Possessed). I also lecture on Mandeville and Smith with the occasional side-glance at Keynes. This is partly because I teach into an interdisciplinary team-taught paper on political economy, a keystone course for our PPE programme, but in fact both Smith and Mandeville have been on my teaching agenda for decades, long before the before the political economy course was devised. And it’s not just me.  I have at least two books on my Dostoevsky shelves by professional philosophers (Boyce Gibson’s ‘The Religion of Dostoevsky’ and Scanlan’s ‘Dostoevsky the Thinker’). As for Adam Smith, D.D. Raphael, a long-time Smith Scholar who published his last book on Smith when he was about ninety, was a professional philosopher, and specifically a Professor Philosophy, throughout his extremely lengthy career. Professional philosophers who have written about Smith include (and I am just checking on the books in my study) J.L Mackie, Jerome Schneewind, Alexander Broadie, James Otteson, Roger Crisp, and Terence Irwin (most of of them big-name professors). The Cambridge Companion to Adam Smith lists fifteen contributors, of whom six are explicitly professors of philosophy, though some of them are also professors of something else. So it is not only NOT true that professional philosophers (that is people working philosophy departments) do not discuss Smith but it is not true either that discussing him has been a bar to professional success. 

What *may* be true (and this is only a ‘may be’) is that SOME high prestige programs are rather narrow and given to boundary policing, and that these are the programs of which Sam Duncan has been personally aware. If so, (and it’s a big ‘if’) then this illustrates one of Justin’s original points that it is risky generalising about philosophy as a profession from one’s (necessarily) limited personal experience. 

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
6 months ago

1. ‘Philosophy’ ≠ ‘Academic Philosophy’

The academy is only a contingent institutional home for philosophers and for philosophical activity. There are reasons colleges and universities have been the dominant locus for philosophical communities in our culture, especially for those of us who received much of our philosophical education there. But there is – and can be – more to philosophy than what takes place in the academy, and there is more to being a philosopher than being employed by a college or university.

Failing to attend to this distinction can lead to distorted views of the present state of philosophy, and it can lead us to over-invest ourselves in those institutions.

Although I have not updated the site in several years, my interviews at https://freerangephilosophers.com/ were part of my own effort to break the default identification of ‘philosophy’ with ‘academic philosophy.’

2. Philosophy has always been ambivalent about its place in the world and its connection to practical affairs. I have briefly elaborated on this point here: https://social-epistemology.com/2016/03/28/philosophy-hitherto-a-reply-to-frodeman-and-briggle-w-derek-bowman/

Last edited 6 months ago by Derek Bowman
Kenny Easwaran
6 months ago

Philosophy is not magically different from other fields. There may be some features that are unique to philosophy, but they are likely fewer than you believe. If you think that some trend is occurring in philosophy, there is a good chance that a similar trend is occurring in other fields. If you think some situation in philosophy is bad, you should check other fields to see if the same situation is worse or less bad there – if we are doing worse than all the other fields, then attempts at reform may well do good, but if we are doing less badly than all the others, your well-intentioned attempts at reform may end up reverting us to the worse state of the other fields.

(Over the years I’ve seen people make claims that philosophy is the worst at citation practices, sexual harassment, creating a friendly environment for students, reinventing the wheel, blind refereeing, relying on pernicious departmental rankings, etc., all of which seem false to me, from having talked to people in other disciplines.)

Barbara Celarent
Barbara Celarent
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
6 months ago

“Philosophy is not magically different from other fields”: straw man. “Your well-intentioned attempts at reform may end up reverting us to the worse state of the other fields”: appeal to fear. “Having talked to people in other disciplines”: anecdotal evidence.

Kate Norlock
Reply to  Barbara Celarent
6 months ago

Fallacies are only fallacies when they’re fallacies. (Let me save you the trouble: TAUTOLOGY! But the point remains that you can wave the names of fallacies at sentences without being correct about whether they distract from or contribute to an account.)

Barbara Celarent
Barbara Celarent
Reply to  Kate Norlock
6 months ago

Let me elaborate, then. 1) Is Shelley Tremain contending that philosophy is “magically different” from other disciplines when she argues, giving as an example the case of the PhilPapers database marginalizing feminist philosophy of disability, that the institutional structure of the discipline of philosophy, despite its pretenses to rationality and objectivity, continues to engage in much of the discrimination which characterizes its history? (“Feminist Philosophy of Disability: A Genealogical Intervention”, Tremain) Is Bryan van Norden contending that philosophy is “magically different” from other disciplines when he examines the post-Kantian history of derisive attitudes towards Africana, Asian, Indian, and other world philosophies to shed light on the continued marginalization of these traditions? I could give other examples. However, for the time being, these suffice to show that one cannot simply reduce any calls for the reform of academic philosophy to the claim that philosophy is “magically different from other fields.” I have never known anyone to make this claim. Have you? If not, I think I am justified in characterizing it as a straw man fallacy.

Barbara Celarent
Barbara Celarent
Reply to  Kate Norlock
6 months ago

The remaining points are that much simpler to defend. 2) The author of the comment to which I was initially replying did not indicate how he thought well-intentioned attempts at social reform would end up reverting philosophy to the speculative “worse state” of other fields, nor did he show that other fields were in fact in a worse state. Comparative Literature, History, and Religious Studies are all in demonstrably better shape than philosophy when it comes to the diversity of both the classroom and the curriculum. But why acknowledge that when you can bury your head in the sand and lump anyone who disagrees into an imaginary category of naively idealistic, magical thinkers? 3) I honestly don’t believe this needs further explanation — there is no reference to literature reviews, standardized databased, the history of said disciplines, or anything of the sort. Just a vague gesture to “people in other disciplines.” This is anecdotal “evidence”, whether you’re willing to grant that point or not.

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Barbara Celarent
6 months ago

You’ll note that I didn’t include complaints about diversity in classroom and curriculum as ones where I think people are manifestly wrong about philosophy being distinctively below average. I think you’re reading me as reacting to a different set of criticisms than I am actually reacting to. I don’t mean to say that *every* way that philosophy is said to be distinctively bad is actually a way in which most other disciplines are worse.

Barbara Celarent
Barbara Celarent
Reply to  Kate Norlock
6 months ago

Finally, to address your comment: 4) Do me a favor and show me how pointing out the weaknesses of a comment expressly tailored to invalidate arguments it doesn’t even bother to engage with is “waving” the “names” of fallacies. The kind of sloppy, rhetorical dodges and attacks that I have enumerated in response to your comment make a mockery of a discipline ostensibly devoted to careful argumentation and critical thinking.

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
6 months ago

I’d avoid basing either criticism or defense of philosophy as a field on the basis of anecdotes. But there is data that suggests that our journal reviewing practices are particularly bad. See here for instance:

https://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2015/07/philosophys-peer-review-practices-some-comparative-data.html

For what it’s worth, my own experience talking to people in other fields has been that they are shocked how often reviews in philosophy cross the line into insulting or abusive, which is backed up by the fact that our rates of inflammatory comments are double that of psychology.

Our numbers on race and gender at both the undergraduate and graduate levels are undeniably bad when compared with most fields and there’s at least some evidence that there are some truly nasty beliefs behind that. See these for instance:

https://compass.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/phc3.12406

https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/ergo/12405314.0006.026/–philosophy-x2019s-undergraduate-gender-gaps-and-early?rgn=main;view=fulltext#:~:text=Philosophy's%20Gender%20Gaps,graduate%20students%20(Goddard%20et%20al.

I’d also challenge the premise here that there is only need for reform when we are doing worse than other fields. For one thing, it’s a depressingly low bar. (I can’t help but think of the “Well we’re doing better than Mississippi at least,” refrain that’s common in the South when you point out lackluster education, roads, or the like.) For another, it won’t be enough sometimes. To take one example, college enrollments are going to shrink over the next couple of decades and at the same time the students who choose to go to college are going to skew more female and increasingly less white. Any field doesn’t do quite a bit *better* than average on the diversity issue is going to have a very rough time of it in the coming years. “Philosophy’s doing well enough” threatens to put us in the same condition as classics departments, which are rapidly going extinct outside of the most prestigious and well-funded schools.

Matt
6 months ago

Perhaps a corollary to your second point: Philosophy is an ungainly thing and it is, perhaps, too big to know itself. (I’m borrowing from an interview I saw with Hugh Laurie, who was asked what it was like, as a Brit, to live in the US while filming House: He said that the US is too big to know itself.) Philosophy covers so many topics, traditions, questions, methods (etc.) that it is extraordinarily difficult to get a synthetic view of the whole. Also, the borders between philosophy and other disciplines, as well as much larger cultural currents, are necessarily blurry. It seems difficult for philosophy to be ‘in charge of itself’ if it is, in fact, too big to know itself.

Jon Light
6 months ago

I think philosophy not being in charge of itself is a great point for lots of things, like when there’s proposed closures, falling # of majors, and so on. We can’t “will” philosophy to power, but rather have to convince other people that it matters. Which, honestly, we’re not great at: it’s easy to say philosophy is essential for a university, which it really isn’t (i.e., at least descriptively, and not clear who we’re convincing on the normative side except ourselves).

I’m less sure whether philosophy is growing. It seems to me it’s losing market share. So, while there might be more philosophers than there were 2,000 years ago, there’s more of everything else, too. And we probably occupy a smaller % of, e.g., academia, than we have at most times since Plato. Sort of depends what “growing” means here, and whether it’s absolute or relative. Sure feels like it’s shrinking, e.g., if you look at the % of university faculty philosophers occupy, especially within philosophy departments.