Philosophical Vanities

In an article posted on Aeon and approvingly described by Brian Leiter, Nicholas Tampio argues that philosophy, as the trajectory of thought emerging from Plato (and only Plato), would lose itself (and its funding) if came to embrace thinkers such as Abu Hamid al-Ghazali and Confucius. I can’t speak to the characterization of al-Ghazali, but the remarks about Confucius are comically unsophisticated and deploy orientalist stereotypes. I make some remarks about this here. But every time some argument of this sort is trotted out to “defend” philosophy, I get embarrassed to be in philosophy. The reasons are multiple, but let me focus on the breathtaking lack of self-awareness.


Articles in this style work on a confused logic of purportedly neutral disciplinary definition. They pose as trying to define what philosophy does, as if it is but one among many academic disciplines, and express a happy pluralism about the need for many different disciplines. If that were all they do, perhaps they’d be less obnoxious. But along the way, in describing what philosophy is, they assign it exclusive rights to a host of generally desirable and admiration-worthy qualities. See, philosophy is interested in critical thinking; it is fearless; it is unbound by unexamined commitments; it uniquely challenges the status quo; it is independent in mind; and so on, ad nauseum. In the ascription of generally desirable and admiration-worthy qualities to philosophers, as their defining feature, the philosopher who wants to thereby exclude some body of texts or assemblage of people does not sound like someone articulating reasonable disciplinary definitions. He sounds like someone denying that those he would exclude have what it takes, and this makes all his softening “not that there’s anything wrong with that” gestures toward other disciplines and people especially insulting. [I’ve written a bit on the slippage from description to honorific here.]


First, in all of these articles I can recall, the purportedly defining characteristics of philosophy beggar belief as the exclusive province of philosophers. They tend to be characteristics in evidence not only in a host of academic disciplines, but in all sorts of human endeavor. So philosophers laying sole claim to them sound wildly arrogant and, far worse, incredibly ignorant, as if they’ve never encountered other human beings with anything like an open mind or curiosity about what those other human beings do.


Second, the purportedly defining characteristics of philosophy are ones actual philosophers, both historical and contemporary, regularly fail to exhibit. E.g., in the article cited above, there are so many unexamined stereotypes of Confucianism deployed that you might take the article for satire. So claiming that philosophers excel in examining everything and being unbound by hackneyed ideas holding others in thrall is just absurd. Philosophers who claim this regularly demonstrate its falsity while claiming it.


The level of inadvertent self-satirization in this sort of exercise is plainly embarrassing. What I get from this sort of thing is that where philosophers really excel is in exercises of self-congratulation wholly unmoored from actual learning, curiosity, or reasonable intellectual humility. For people who boldly claim to corner the market on open-minded, radical curiosity that seeks to leave no stone uncovered, they look a lot like people hiding under rocks. If philosophy is ever going to be better, even at what its old guard claims it does, it really needs to see that puling self-flattery and wanton arrogant insult of others is not the same thing as “defining philosophy.”