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Reflections on St. Sylvester’s Eve

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.

4 thoughts on “Reflections on St. Sylvester’s Eve

  1. Very interesting! I thought the following point was both insightful and accurate:
    “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.” (Though I wonder whether 2-year colleges might be an exception to that generalization.)

    You write: “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.”
    I lost my ability to know ‘what philosophy looks like from the outside’ a long time ago — professional deformation set in many years back. But I actually think that there is NOT that much ‘wrangling about what the field is even supposed to be’: if you look at a bunch of journal articles over the last year or two, relatively few will be about what the field of philosophy is supposed to be. I suspect this is (in part) because many people realize there is no satisfying way to solve the meta-philosophical question of what philosophy is supposed to be — at least, no way that will be intellectually satisfying to all or most involved parties.

    And I actually think that this may be part of the reason for increased hyper-specialization in philosophy: I can’t justify my basic framework in a way that will satisfy someone who does not already accept that framework, at least not from more fundamental principles. But I still want to proceed. So I do it anyway, using a set of basic assumptions and/or methodologies that I share with some other people who are employed by philosophy departments.

    And to bring it back to Carnap: if different schools have different basic assumptions and methodologies, and the different schools end up producing, over say 20 years, different amounts of results that people outside that particular school consider interesting or otherwise good, then that school is more likely to attract more followers. That is, the only ‘test’ we have for the goodness of a basic framework is its fruitfulness. And the only way to judge whether a particular basic framework is fruitful is by working with it for many years and seeing what (if anything) results. To me, this sounds like Carnap’s response to Quine about their disagreements about analytic truth, reported in Howard Stein’s “Was C Entirely Wrong, After All?”

    Of course, I don’t think folks who are defending specialization in philosophy are thinking of Howard’s recollection of that encounter between C and Q: I don’t think Carnap’s comment to Quine in Chicago that day was the cause of hyperspecialization. But I think there is a similarity in concept between C’s response, and one reasonable defense of specialization in philosophy.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Greg. I think your approach of “by their fruits ye shall know them” is a good one, and I especially like your emphasis on “results that people outside that particular school consider interesting.” And yes, this approach was Carnap’s in Chicago 66 years ago or so, as reported by Howard Stein (though I believe Carnap put the bar a little higher — “a century or two” rather than “a decade or two”). However:

      1) you’re right to point out that looking at the journals you’d never guess that so much philosophical effort is devoted to defining the field; that’s because any given journal caters to a particular, usually quite narrow set of definitions, and those whose own definition doesn’t fall within that set don’t bother to submit their papers there or are rejected if they do.

      2) you’re also right that individual philosophers don’t generally spend much of their time on defining the field; they have (or should have) a clear sense of their own motivations and tend to pursue those, ignoring others. But in the exceptional philosophers whose work we keep referring back to (for you and me, that might include, say, Kant, Russell, Husserl, Carnap, Neurath, Wittgenstein, Austin, Strawson, Gödel, and Quine), and whose work essentially defines the field *for us*, there generally came a point where fundamental questions about the course they initially embarked on are raised, and rather than ignoring them they turn to confront them; at that point, in each of those cases, defining the field became central to their thinking. And those aspects of their thinking serve as the basic parameters delineating the sandboxes we allow ourselves to explore.

      3) One way this manifests itself is that many papers that appear to be about relatively small and specialized subjects on the surface are actually addressing the larger meta-philosophical issues our Leitfiguren wrestled with. I’ll use myself as an example; my paper on Carnap and Phenomenology, apparently looking at the details of certain Carnap passages to discern the specific influence of Husserl, really uses those passages, and the confrontation between those two philosophers, as a lens through which to focus more precisely on the meta-philosophical differences between them. And much of this blog has been taken up, so far, with attempts to show that certain currently mainstream conceptions of meta-philosophy (e.g. Williamson‘s) are inferior by their own standards to the meta-philosophical perspective suggested by the later Carnap.

      4) my theme was professionalization, not specialization. You’re right to associate them; and I agree that professionalization is a practical requirement for specialization. But I have no objection to specialization in and of itself.

      5) professionalization, on the other hand, has been quite deleterious, for reasons other than the specialization it’s led to. What I was trying to address in this post, very briefly, is that it’s especially bad under current conditions, in which professional academics are forced to produce lots of text meeting criteria internal to a discipline that may have little or no relevance (a) to anyone outside the discipline; (b) by the historical standards or expectations of that discipline in some broader context; (c) to anything whatever. The reason for that is that academics are largely protected from extra-academic pressures and contexts, and form their internal criteria in isolation from them.

      6) what I find especially sad about this isolation is that it coexists with the disappearance of the university as a protected space for weirdos and eccentrics, outsider types, people who don’t fit in. For roughly the reasons Mill suggests in On Liberty, I think it’s very important to have such people around (partly to question all the basic assumptions everyone else takes complacently for granted). They’ve never been able to survive in ordinary office jobs, now they’ve been driven out of universities as well. They will go underground, become taxi drivers, beggars, and terrorists. Is that progress?

      7) and finally, I wanted to make the point that you can’t just define philosophy any old way you like. The Vienna Circle’s idealistic program of making philosophy “scientific” in some sense can be achieved only at the price of making “philosophy” in that sense a field that the vast majority of those who are inclined to pay attention to it will ignore. They will attend rather to “philosophy” that defines itself as addressing questions they think important. You and I know that those questions (some of them, anyway) can only be addressed by taking the trouble to wade through lots of abstruse details before you even know exactly what question to ask. But that part gets lost, and translators are rare. (There is no room for them in academia, these days!)

  2. Thanks for this detailed and very thoughtful reply! I will quickly say I agree with almost everything here (especially point 5a-c), but I can’t resist adding one remark.
    You write: “what I find especially sad about this isolation is that it coexists with the disappearance of the university as a protected space for weirdos and eccentrics, outsider types, people who don’t fit in.” My first thought was: “When was the last time André went to an APA?”

    (Slightly more seriously, I’m not sure I agree that people who have philosophical inclinations, but are not cut out for office jobs, are on the fast track to homelessness or terrorism.)
    Again, thanks! I’ll write more later, if anything occurs to me.

    1. I haven’t been to an APA this year, yet, but I did make it to a couple of sessions at the one in Chicago last year. I saw fewer serious eccentrics than I remember having as undergraduate teachers, but admittedly I wasn’t specifically looking for them.

      I do think, though, that the marginalization of eccentricity, and the narrowing of the bounds of acceptable lifestyle behavior — especially in academia, though this is obviously a universal problem in modern society (political correctness is just the tip of the iceberg) — is not taken seriously enough; in fact I suspect you of not taking it quite seriously, either. This gets at only a small corner of the problem, and I’m not in agreement with all of it, but perhaps it hints at what a fundamental challenge this presents.

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