Has professionalization been good for philosophy? When people ask this question (usually to answer firmly in the negative), they think of logical positivism as a kind of turning point, at which philosophy (programmatically, at least) became “technical.” They remember the Vienna Circle’s pronouncements about breaking the big, unmanageable problems down into subunits it makes better sense to address, and about the corresponding submersion of the individual thinker into the collective endeavor of (unified) science. But, such critics object, did Kant’s hope of putting philosophy “auf den sicheren Weg einer Wissenschaft” (which the logical empiricists were trying to realize) even make any sense? Isn’t this a category mistake?
I agree with this criticism but I don’t think logical empiricism is to blame for what has happened to philosophy. Even the original program of Vienna logical empiricism in the 1920s is to be understood more as a Gegenentwurf (a counter-sketch) to both the established ideals of German classicism (Goethe, Humboldt, Schiller, Kant) and the new reactionary ideals touted by the likes of Heidegger and Carl Schmitt. The Vienna Circle was addressing the large and urgent questions of its time and place, and was saying that there was a different way to go from the two ways that most people then found attractive, or obviously persuasive. (The Circle was saying that reactionary Romanticism wasn’t the only alternative to traditional German classicism; there was a different and much better way.) Torn out of their central European context and scattered to the winds in the 1930s, obviously, the logical empiricists were completely unable to get across what their original message had been.
More to the point, though, some of the individual members of this movement went on trying to put this message on a firmer basis, and rejected some of the more specific doctrines associated with the 1920s Vienna Circle. I’ve focussed on Carnap, in this blog, and in his case I think a good case can be made that the progression from analysis to explication (to summarize his progress from 1930 to 1950 somewhat crudely) has still not been widely assimilated, has not become part of professional philosophical discourse, and is still largely ignored. (I’ve gone on about this here in the context of the specifically “Carnapian linguistic turn.”) — To the cost of professional philosophy, since many of the problems it spends so much detailed (including “technical”) energy on would evaporate or come to seem trivial and irrelevant if they took the later Carnap’s conception seriously. Moreover, this Carnapian view has almost nothing to do with any specific technical arguments in logic or any part of science; it consists largely in a change of perspective, akin to (and as Michael Friedman likes to remind us, to some extent a further development of) Kant’s famous “Copernican revolution.”
So I don’t think the effects of professionalization in the past half-century can be laid at the logical empiricists’ door. I think they have more to do with the steeply rising relative costs of university education over the past several decades (i.e. with the steeply declining relative costs of many other things in life due to technological progress). Education, like art, can’t really be made a lot more efficient – unless you think moocs will save us. In any case, even believers in moocs will admit that the result of all the steep increase in costs over the past decades is that universities have become far more competitive places, much more hostile to what was once called “the contemplative life.” If you don’t publish a lot, you don’t get rewarded (and if you’re not the sort who can prove they can publish a lot, you don’t get tenure in the first place). This has totally changed the atmosphere of academia. There is no place to hide any more for those with intellectual tastes who just wanted to participate in a a certain basic set of insights or literacies (without perhaps contributing much to them) and pass them on to the next generation. And in that situation, each discipline is obviously going to develop standards by which to referee the new competitive free-for-all, and those standards aren’t necessarily going to align with what might traditionally have been expected of a discipline. In the case of philosophy, they aren’t necessarily going to align with the goal, say, of addressing the large and urgent question of its time and place.
In fact they are highly unlikely to align with that goal, since academics, for all the changes in their circumstances, are very protected from the large and urgent questions of their time and place. In other respects, being an academic has become much more of an ordinary bourgeois job. It has become rare to find academics with any commitment to higher ideals (let alone anything like a “contemplative life”) — perhaps even rarer now than among other groups. The weird and original eccentrics that used to make universities such interesting places have been crowded out by the ruthless competitive pressures. But the standards by which academic competition are judged are not the same as those out in the world. “Productivity” is judged not in the terms it is judged by in business or politics but in the peculiar, local terms each discipline evolves for itself, over which there can only ever be very imperfect control from outside the discipline.
In philosophy, you might think, it should be different, since philosophy is – whatever else it might be — the repository of all the big questions from other disciplines, the big questions that are usually not about specific facts, but about what concepts to use. Philosophy has been, and still is, a clearing house for all these conceptual controversies, and where there is a close connection with the disciplines in which those controversies originated (as in the philosophy of physics or of biology), it’s true that external control over philosophical standards is more effective. But in the parts that philosophers themselves regard as “central” to their discipline (philosophy of language, say, or metaphysics) external control is weak to nonexistent. So there is no need – and thus not much of a tendency — for these studies to have any connection whatever to the large and urgent questions of their time and place.
Okay, you might say, so what is wrong, after all, with the traditional 1920s Vienna Circle rhetoric that sought to make philosophy more “scientific,” make it more like the more clearly-defined natural sciences? Well, its clearing-house function makes this impossible, for the bits that philosophers think of as “central” are precisely those where the more general questions are addressed, that cut across all disciplines and don’t derive from one specific discipline or the other. When you get to that level of generality, it becomes inherently controversial how to proceed. What one philosopher considers a reasonable procedure is invariably rejected by others as beside the point. And when anyone claims that philosophy is (or should be) this or that, they’re (at least) claiming that one of the many historically trodden paths is better or more important than the others, i.e. they’re advancing a normative meta-philosophical claim, usually with arguments of some kind or another. Others refute those arguments and make different meta-philosophical claims. To many philosophers these meta-philosophical issues will seem more fundamental and more important than the conceptual controversies from other fields, since it looks to them as if you can’t start to address those other controversies until you’ve settled how to go about it, i.e. what (meta-) concepts to use. Two results: meta-philosophical controversies are even more controversial, even less likely to be settled, than substantive ones from other fields; and second, a huge proportion of philosophical writing is taken up with what looks from the outside like pointless and highly abstract wrangling about what the field is even supposed to be. There is no way around this, which is why I agree with the critics who think Kant’s hope of putting philosophy on the safe path of a science is a kind of category mistake. And why I think that “professional” and “philosophy” will never go together very well, least of all under the present conditions of the academic world.