Or, rather, why do our fellow humanities profs fail to respect us any more? Jason Stanley (Rutgers) attempts to answer this question in a way that shows what is and always has been great about philosophy as we (i.e., “analytic philosophers” broadly understood) do it. First, a worry about the “we.” I think a number of readers and participants in this blog are not particularly happy about being identified in that way. Indeed, I probably fit the label and, for different reasons, I’m not happy about that. But I’d like to write from the inside on this piece, rather than present philosophy in academia today as some distant problem. Most of us, analytic or not, are quite affected by the conception of philosophy that does dominate in Anglo-American-Australasian universities today, so in a sense we all have a vested interest in these discussions as, in some way, insiders.
All the quotes below are from Stanley, except for this one:
Janet Maslin, the reviewer closes with this observation:
When Cass [an academic and central character] witnesses a PowerPoint presentation featuring “brain scans of sophomores, neuroimaged in the throes of moral deliberation over whether they should, in theory, toss a hapless fat man onto the tracks in order to use his bulk to save five other men from an oncoming trolley,” this book occupies its ideal vantage point: close to the absurdity of current academic thinking yet just far enough away to laugh.
A case can be made that some of the distrust of philosophy today is that it is seen as having radically misunderstood what is important in human life and thought. So one might at the end want to know if JS realizes that.
1. First, the insults; here’s one of many:
In the recently announced results of the new American Council of Learned Societies “New Faculty Fellows” program, 53 recent Ph.D.s in the humanities were awarded post-doctoral fellowships. None of the initial list of winners held a Ph.D. in philosophy. This is only the most recent insult to the oldest of disciplines.
2. What are the other, respectible humanities doing:
Humans organize themselves into societies, cultures, nations, religions, genders, and races, and employ art and literature to represent their character. According to one view, the humanities should explain the nature of these formations – how the cultural artifacts the groups produce represent their respective identities. … Confrontation with the other has become a necessity of modernity, and humanists have settled into playing a role as our arbiter with the unfamiliar.
Philosophy stands apart from this emerging consensus about the purpose of the humanities. Its questions – which concern the nature and scope of concepts like knowledge, representation, free will, rational agency, goodness, justice, laws, evidence and truth – seem antiquated and baroque. Its central debates seem disconnected from the issues of identity … Whereas humanists have transformed into actors, using their teaching and research as political tools, philosophers have withdrawn ever more to positions as removed spectators, and not of life, but of some abstracted and disconnected realm of Grand Concepts.
3. What’s wrong with the estrangement:
That philosophy has become estranged from the humanities is ironic. Philosophy has shaped the modernity in which its role has been supplanted by the anthropology of the other … There is perhaps a place for the history of Philosophy – investigation into how abstract reflection on grand concepts led to the modern world – but no more use for the abstract theorizing of a Descartes, Kant, or Spinoza.
4. And a positive characterization of philosophy:
Philosophical problems also have a childlike grandiosity. When a philosopher announces that she is working on the nature of truth, she sounds like a teenager discovering the world of ideas for the first time. The notion that someone could come up with a new way to show that (say) we know that we are not brains in vats must seem infantile, even more so when the methods seem so dry and dilettantish. As the philosopher David Hill has described the discipline, it is “the ungainly attempt to tackle questions that come naturally to children, using methods that come naturally to lawyers.”
The view that there is no proper place anymore in the academy for the theorizing of figures such as Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, and Kant is well-reflected in the relative success philosophers achieve in competition with fellow humanists for various fellowships. .. Nevertheless, while contemporary philosophy shares positivist enlightenment values, the positivist anti-metaphysical program has fallen into disfavor. Many leading contemporary philosophers have achieved their status precisely because of defenses of metaphysical views. ….In short, philosophy has not changed. David Lewis writes very differently than Nietzsche. But the unusual figure was Nietzsche, and not Lewis. The great philosophical works have always been difficult technical tomes, pursuing arcane arguments in the service of grand metaphysical and epistemological conclusions. None are easy reading for laypersons, and few base their arguments on anthropology or sociology. The conclusions they draw, and the methods they employ, are the same that one finds in the work of philosophers today. There are many philosophers working today who embrace and argue for Hume’s skeptical conclusions, just as there are many philosophers today arguing for Descartes’ view about the relation between the body and the soul in the Meditations. … But given the role that the Humanities have adopted in modern civilization, what role does philosophy have to play? … current philosophers … have returned to the traditional philosophical questions one finds in classical philosophy – the nature of persons and rational agency, the status of free will, the nature and reality of material objects. …
5. The good that philosophy brings to educations:
Most humanists challenge preconceptions by confronting students with alternative cultural identities. The philosopher instead focuses on the beliefs that constitute a religious or cultural identity. … Instead of teaching the middle-class American person about the actual poverty and oppression in her society, the philosopher forces her to reflect on abstract problem cases in which that person’s intuitions lead her to condemn the behavior of someone who is in fact behaving in all relevant respects similar to her. These are different methods of confronting complacency, but they are no less effective … if the purpose of the humanities is to challenge preconceptions and basic beliefs, in the service of forming a better and more tolerant citizen of a diverse and globalized world, the methods of the philosopher and the methods of the historian are equally necessary.
So philosophy is still engaged in abstract reflection on the grand concepts, just as it’s core always has been. And that enables us to really help students by revealing to them their basic ideas in the service of making them more tolerant.
On to comments on JS above. First things first: can we put some infelicities aside? For example, most Humean scholars in the Hume Society resist the idea that Hume reached sceptical conclusions; he was constructing a naturalistic conception of the human mind, and, I would add, its conclusions about the limitedness of human reason are abundantly supported by recent research. But these are not sceptical conclusions; rather, we realize our knowledge is largely owing to instinct. Somewhat simillarly, many philosophers today may be dualists, but it’s surprising to be told they are Cartesian substance dualism. I have no idea where these folk are, but there aren’t many in the forums I know about.
Secondly, many historians of philosophy get very nervous about the idea that there are these grand concepts that have been contemplated for millennia. I mean, we might not be all that sensitive to different cultures but we really shouldn’t assume that all the philosophers that English speakers read shared our culture and concepts.
Thirdly, as someone who thinks that there is something to be said for a conception of the mind’s relations to nature that we largely lost with Fodor’s language of thought, and Chisholm’s misinterpretation of Brentano’s quasi-thomistic conception of intentionality, I can report that there’s a great hostility to important thought that prevailed for most of those millennia.
But let me leave it to you, dear readers, to advance pros and cons to this picture. Do you think, for example, our contribution to education is well captured?
Let me also remind you of our tradition of respectful disagreement. Furthermore, since Stanley’s was one of the few straight analytic sessions to move out of the Westin for the Pacific APA, let us note that in some ways he is on the side of the good (supposing, of course, there is one. With sides.)
(And thanks to Chris Green, York University, for the email about JS’s article.)