Is Philosophy Really as Dead as it Seems?

I had considered writing something about the ideological nature of academic disciplines for Imaginary Relations, but I don’t know that it would be a productive project.  I cannot conceive of anyone who would be interested in reading it, so I’ve given it up halfway through.

I am still bothered by this problem, though.  It has left me wondering if there is any value at all in any form of institutional education, beyond simply the purchase of credentials and the pursuit of a better job network.  At this point, I cannot see any.

I’ve discussed the absolute uselessness of the discipline of English before.  The worst writer on any university committee will always be the English professor, who will turn out grammatically incorrect or syntactically awkward sentences full of malapropisms, and never make a point.  High school English teachers see it as their job to show students their favorite movies, and leave it to history teachers to teach students how to write a research paper.  I think it’s high time English was eliminated from secondary education in America (it is already beginning to be eliminated from colleges).  

My interest lately is the absurd pointlessness of the discipline of philosophy in America.  Almost nobody would take a college philosophy class, unless they are required to take a course in ethics for their particular major.  And with good reason.  Most college philosophy professors are caught up in arcane absurdities, and when they try to speak of something relevant to our world, they simply reveal a stunning stupidity.  Now, what I have in mind here is more than Raymond Geuss’s  claim, which I mention in the introduction to my Indispensable Goods, that philosophy departments serve to produce the “ideological carapace” that protects our economic and political system against “criticism and change.”  Surely that is the goal of all humanities.  But in the process it seems to produce the kind of poor thinkers Bertrand Russell lamented a century or so ago—thinking so obviously absurd that it must take years of training and careful winnowing to produce an entire department full of such idiots.

Let me offer just one recent example.  In a recent essay in The New York Times, in the column called “The Stone” for which each installment is written by a different academic philosopher, the latest essay makes once again the tired case that humans are really animals.  This should be familiar by now as the standard philosophical support of neoliberal ideology, in which our current construction as self-interested and competitive capitalist subjects is claimed to be hard-wired into our brains.  Then, it is a short step to arguing that we are poor reasoners by nature, so we’d best stop trying to think and let experts or technology do the thinking for us (after all, thinking is unnatural, and only leads to suffering, etc.).  Surely we don’t expect brilliance from anyone promoting any version of this neoliberal rubbish.

But let’s just consider two, only two, of the shockingly poor arguments made by Crispin Sartwell, a professor of philosophy at Dickinson College, in his essay “Humans Are Animals. Let’s Get Over It.”

First, he makes the claim that since we, like squirrels, a “have eyes and ears, scurry about on the ground and occasionally climb a tree”, therefore the idea that we are unique and different from squirrels is a delusion we had best get over.  This is his major argument in this essay.  The absurdity should be obvious.  Apparently, judging by the comments submitted at The New York Times online, it is not to most people.  So I’ll point out the obvious (as I so often find myself doing, usually to no avail).  

This is sort of like saying that since a cow and a boulder are both big brown things sitting in a field, it is not only foolish but morally wrong to draw distinctions between them.  We ought to be getting all our milk from boulders!  

Clearly, we are unique as a species.  We have the capacity for symbolic communication, which no other species on earth does. As a result, we have the capacity to change the planet to an extent no other species has ever done, and to become aware of our instincts and decide whether or not we want to follow their urgings.  Anyone who doubts this difference, who doubts we are different not in degree but in kind from all other species of animals, is just deluding himself (interestingly, the proponents of this myth are overwhelmingly, but not universally, men).  He is sitting at a computer reading this, or typing a comment into his twitter feed and sending it out over the internet, and denying that he is any different from animals.  She is wearing a mask and social distancing while awaiting a vaccine for a new virus, and denying her difference from animals.  This kind of denial of reality is astounding.  But philosophy professors seem to see it as their job to render college students confused enough, muddled enough, deluded enough to participate in this denial.  

One more error (there are at least four that I can see on an initial reading, but I won’t bother to list them all).  Sartwell argues that since the belief in human uniqueness has sometimes been used to evil ends, the belief must be false.  This is sort of like arguing that since the theory of evolution was used to advocate eugenics, then it must be false that evolution ever took place and we should stop teaching it.  

Okay, that’s only two. But clearly astoundingly stupid errors, made by a professor of philosophy at a university.  The claim used to be that we need instruction in philosophy to teach our citizens how to reason better.  If this is the kind of reasoning philosophy teaches, wouldn’t we be far better off without it?  

Clearly, philosophy is a dying discipline.  I expect in the next couple of decades most American colleges will no longer have philosophy (or English) departments at all.  Many already do not.  

One more candidate for an institutional practice that might facilitate the effort to make explicit our assumptions and commitments seems to have given up the effort.  Philosophy is now the attempt to pander to students’ ideological beliefs, or to use cheap rhetoric to justify the ideology necessary to keep global capitalism running.

The publication of an essay like Sartwell’s should make all professional philosophers ashamed.  For the rest of us, well, we can at least steer clear of Dickinson College.  Although I doubt it’s much better anywhere else.  

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  1. Absurd as it is to be the only one commenting on my own blog post: I wonder what happens to the potential student who gets a professor like this. If the student is reasonably intelligent, she will quickly see that these arguments are specious and lose interest in philosophy as a discipline in which intelligence is unhelpful. (In my one and only attempt at a philosophy class, a sophomore class in philosophy of science, this was my experience—the professor made arguments that were specious, and relied on the worst kind of rhetoric, but seemed unable to grasp the better arguments being made in the “text” for the class—I never took a philosophy class again.). On the other hand, the student who is a poor thinker will learn that philosophy is a strategy for using sophistry, specious arguments, and cheap rhetoric to defend whatever position you happen to hold, without ever stopping to examine why you hold that position to begin with. This student will do well in philosophy with a professor like Sartwell, and will be encouraged to go on to graduate school—and in this way, the discipline perpetuates its downward spiral into worse and worse thought, until it reaches the state it is in now, where anyone capable of real thought is winnowed out early, and the academy is being run by the idiots.

    I will say that philosophy is not unique in this—English and Psychology, at least, have beaten them to the bottom of this pit.

  2. And here’s the link to the essay from The Stone:

  3. Gaurav

     /  March 8, 2021

    this has been a dilemma for me – i love the world of ideas and observations and reflection to arrive at a nuanced understanding of reality which makes me want to get into philosophy as a full time engagement. And yet i find the academic confines of philosophy too removed from the world – as if a tiny group is happy playing a game they have invented within themselves and deliberately keeping it inaccessible to maintain its perceived value – and this is not my concept of practising philosophy.
    However, modem living – read, being a corporate slave – leaves little room for reflection esp for a lazy person like me who prefers an institution/ externally enforced structure to bring in some discipline in my life, and hence the dilemma of whether to join academia to do something i like without becoming one of them!

  4. Yes, being a corporate slave does leave little time for reflection. If one wants to think, one has to accept a life of relative poverty.

    But let me ask you this: would becoming (or pretending to be) as poor a thinker as Professor Sartwell really fulfill your aim of arriving at a better understanding of reality? This isn’t the goal of most college professors I know (and I know many of them!). Their goal is usually to get tenure so that they can STOP ever thinking about the world, and can teach rote classes taking up about ten or twelve hours of their time for thirty weeks of the year, and get paid six figures for it. I’m not joking here—I know a number of college professors who brag about never having read another book after getting tenure, and about getting paid a hundred grand for a job they can do in ten hours a week. This is the goal of most people who go into philosophy, really. There isn’t even a “game” they play among themselves while keeping the rules a secret—most of them do nothing at all, except teach kids to be worse thinkers.

    I’d like to think there are a few members of the profession who don’t fit this description, and that they just aren’t among the few hundred I know—that they perhaps teach at the kinds of schools that I would never have access to. But maybe that’s just a fantasy.

    Anyway, I wouldn’t be so quick to call it laziness. I would argue that we cannot progress much in isolation, and that to engage in any serious contemplation requires a practice and a discourse. We lack what seems like “motivation” when we lack a collective community. Maybe the goal is to produce such a practice and a discourse outside of the universities? You’d have to find some people willing to put down their phones for a while, ignore football or whatever reality TV show is the new fad, and devote that leisure to reading, thinking, writing, discussing…

    It’s hard, though. Netflix and Instagram are, apparently, so powerfully addictive.

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