Towers of Ivory, Towers of Gold

English: Governor Mitt Romney of MA

Image via Wikipedia

Academics in general and philosophers in particular are often accused of dwelling in ivory towers that lift them out of the “real world” (which is, presumably, everything outside of academics). Being a philosophy professor, I do have some sympathy to this notion. After all, I do know professors who match the stereotypes of the ivory tower dwellers point for point.  I also am quite well aware that it is very easy to let a clever thought lead one far from the surly bounds of earth and out into the stratosphere and perhaps to infinity and beyond.

In some cases, speaking of academics as ivory tower dwellers is a harmless bit of commentary on their eccentric ways. However, it can also be a fairly serious charge-that academics in general and philosophers in particular are operating in isolation from the real world and engaged in practices that have no use or merit beyond the confines of these towers. In the case of philosophers, a review of the professional journals and conference subjects will tend to lend credence to that view.

In addition to, as Socrates might say, the usual attacks on philosophers, there is also a strong current of anti-intellectualism in the West-most especially in the United States. Here in the States we have a rather influential political movement that regularly attacks experts, intellectuals and education. These folks often put forth the odd notion that experts are not to be trusted specifically because they are experts and that education somehow makes a person less capable in regards to “getting it.” Going along with this is also an anti-science current that embraces such things as paranoia about vaccines (that has, bizarrely enough, led parents to swap infectious lollipops by mail).

While on my morning run, I was thinking about these matters and also about the Republican primary in my state of Florida. Specifically, I was thinking about the charges against Mitt Romney that he is “out of touch.” For those not familiar with Mitt, he wants to be the Republican nominee for president. In terms of his being out of touch, folks have pointed to his passionate (well, passionate for him) claim that corporations are people, his offer to make a $10,000 bet with Rick Perry during a debate, the fact that he makes about $57,000 per day from capital gains, and his remark that he did not make very much from speaker fees (he made about $374,000). Romney has also been bashed a bit because he knows French.

As I ran, I thought about how often I have been accused about being “out of touch” in my “ivory tower.” However, it struck me that the towers of gold provide far more isolation than the towers of ivory. After all, while I am a philosophy professor, my ivory tower is more of a small ivory shack behind my very non-ivory townhouse.  True, I do go out into that shack and think about odd things. But when I am not engaged in philosophy, I live a rather down to earth life: I drive myself to work in a 2001 Toyota, I cook my own meals, clean my own toilets, paint my own house (with help from my friend), do my own laundry, and so on. By way of contrast, thanks to the budget cuts in education, my yearly salary as a tenured full professor is less than what Romney makes per day. As such, I seem to be very much in touch with the “real world” of bills, taxes, grocery shopping and toilet cleaning. Based on my own experience, many professors tend to be in the same situation (there are, of course, exceptions involving the academic stars).

By way on contrast, consider the politicians who claim to be “in touch.” In the States, our higher end politicians tend to be millionaires. As noted above, Romney makes about $57,000 a day from his investments. His main foe, Newt Gingrich, is a millionaire insider. President Obama is also a millionaire. As such, the idea that such people are “in touch” seems a bit odd-especially given that I am so often accused of automatically being “out of touch” in my “ivory tower.”

It might, of course, be argued that a person who is a millionaire and who owns multiple houses (as is so often the case with the higher end politicians) can still be “in touch” and “get it.” However, if such folks can gaze down from their gold towers and see the plight of the common folks, then those of us who are supposed to hang out in towers of ivory should also be able to do this. Unless, of course, the towers of gold provide a better view.



Enhanced by Zemanta
Leave a comment ?


  1. s. wallerstein (amos)

    I’m not sure there’s any privileged or disadvantaged position on social reality.

    Lucid observers of reality come from all types of backgrounds.

    And if people want to close their eyes to injustice, they close them.

    In fact, Jeremy had a post a few weeks ago about epistemic privilege, and most of us agreed that
    no social class, either the privileged or the oppressed, have special insights into social reality per se.

    I’ll look for the previous conversation and link to it, but if I look for it now, I’ll lose what I’ve written so far.

  2. s.wallerstein,

    Interesting point. As you point out this does seem to be a matter of epistemic privilege. As a philosopher, I have often been told that my ivory tower dwelling puts me at an epistemic disadvantage in understanding the “real world.” Also, in American politics, one common tactic is to claim that a politician does not “get it” or is “out of touch” because s/he is a liberal/conservative/rich or otherwise occupies a position of epistemic disadvantage. In contrast, people claim that they do “get it” or are “in touch”, typically because of their background or family. For example, American politicians try to construct a narrative about how they are just “common folk” who had working class parents. in the 2012 election we will most likely see Democrats attacking Romney for not understanding the plight of the common man because he is an out of touch rich man (political epistemology…). One counterattack will be that Romney is a “job creator” and hence “knows” how to “create jobs” for the “soon-to-haves.”

  3. s. wallerstein (amos)

    You’re the expert on fallacies, but it seems to me that saying that academics live in a ivory tower and hence, cannot understand the plight of ordinary people (as if academics were not ordinary people) is the good old ad hominem fallacy.

    By the way, I know a few academics (including my son), was one myself for a while and they have absolutely the same existential and socioeconomic problems as so-called ordinary people.

    The next time someone accuses you of living in an ivory tower, invite them to help you paint your house the next time painting is due.

  4. I’ve heard that those ivory towers tend to provide a good vantage point.

  5. S.wallerstein,

    I would agree that saying that academics live in ivory towers and so are wrong in their claims would be an ad homimem. Naturally, if it could be shown that the academic environment does cause academics to be “out of touch”, then that would be non-fallacious.

    My own experience is that the “ivory tower” gambit is usually a straw man and/or hasty generalization.

    Painting is awesome-just ask Huck Finn. 🙂

  6. Adam,

    True. If you mount a ballista or two you can do some serious damage.

  7. I think a philosopher and a person who aspires to elected office would view this issue from different angles. Politicians are very practical, ego-centric, individuals. Most know that its the politician’s job to be able to be “in touch” as much as possible, to handle and understand social & political issues, be they those that pertain to common folk in the US or those that interest plutocrats from other countries in international fora.
    The philosopher is interested (sometimes) in the abstract “in se” of things – for ex., that such and such a thing is not in and of itself a factor determining whether one is able to handle & understand social & political issues.
    Concerning Mitt Romney, I’d expect him to be better able to handle & understand a whole array of social & political issues than me own humble self. Not because his plutocratic or Mormon or Bain background make him better able to do so – rather, its because I expect this of any person running for POTUS in order to get my vote.
    I think he recognizes, like Obama, that to get elected he has to be “in touch”, that he needs to be attuned to the needs of the American people.
    Now, as to what “in touch” exactly means in detail is another question…

  8. These people who accuse you of living in an ivory tower. Are they such people whom you trust to make a sound judgment? Do they know what they are talking about? If they do not fulfill these two requirements I suggest if it be at all possible,that you ignore them.
    Alternatively you could ask them if they were ever accused of living in an Ivory tower when they practised philosophy. The reply will almost certainly be “I have neither been a philosopher nor practised Philosophy”; or something along those lines. To which you reply “then you do not know what you are talking about.”

  9. “Unless, of course, the towers of gold provide a better view.”

    Not likely — if anything, gold would be more distracting!

  10. As a writer, I’m not worried about the people in the ivory tower of Academe.

    I’m worried about the CEOs gazing down on the rest of us from the steel tower of Corporate Power.

  11. I wonder from where this out of touch claim with respect to philosophers-scientist comes from. If we take into account that majors changes in history and in our way/standard of life were initiated by philosophers-scientists.

    It seems to me that philosophers-scientists use simplified models to address complex problems. The common ethical dilemas-should you kill the fat man or changing the train tracks- are simplifications for more complex questions. When are there moral grounds to take a life? The answer to this question could lead us to war justifications. Now if you ask should we go to war with this country; that will not be an out of touch question. Or should we apply death penalty?
    Similarly with science, they tend to use model systems to answer very specific questions that they then apply to a more general and common reality.

    These model systems seem completely out of touch for the general public, but they are not. If the philosophy and science are sound they are very much in touch with the critical problems of the time.

    Now, regarding politicians, I believe that in general they are not seeking universal truth, but representing different social groups seeking for power. Mitt’s Rommey out of touchness is a reflection of the ivory self indulgent tower of the social group he represents. No share sacrifice, no USA as a common country but just their self interest. And any egocentric self interest will create a true ivory tower out of touch with the needs of the majority of human beings.

  12. James,

    It is quite reasonable to expect the POTUS (or POTUS wannabe) to be in touch. S/he need not be a mere “common man/woman”, but to be president of “all Americans”, s/he would certainly need to “get” the people.

  13. Ziggy,

    True-that shiny gold would certainly be hard to look away from. So shiny…so very shiny…

  14. Shelley,

    Perhaps that is why corner offices have windows-so those up there can stay in touch with us folks down here.

  15. Juan,

    It dates back to at least Socrates and probably before (most famously in the Clouds).

  16. ➡ Towers of ivory and real world seems to be just dichotomic terms which respond to a system of classification based just on opposite forces and
    antithetical choices

    Regards Amalia 💡

Leave a Comment

NOTE - You can use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>