How can you call yourselves philosophers?

There’s an interesting, maybe even startling interview with Nigel Warburton in the current issue of The Philosophers’ Magazine.  You probably know Warburton from his many books and the podcast he does with David Edmonds, called Philosophy Bites.  When I spoke to him, he had only recently resigned from his post at the Open University.  The reasons he gives are striking.  Here’s a bit of it:

Warburton says he’s happy to see philosophy now being taught in schools, and he hopes it will one day encourage reasonable and serious discussion of not just religion but also a wide range of other issues. That’s largely where the value of philosophy lies for him. Not necessarily in getting at truths, but asking good questions, teasing out what we really think or ought to think, about subjects which make a difference to people.

He says that this kind of work just isn’t done in academic philosophy as it’s practiced today. Part of the problem has to do with “the cuckoo in the nest, the burgeoning managerial class” which he sees as getting in the way of philosophical thinking and teaching. Other trouble lies with departmental committees hiring people who are just like them, creating clusters of similar people with similar views. Just as with society at large, he says, diversity helps departments flourish, but often departmental members are all nearly carbon copies of one another. So in their work they end up trying to discriminate themselves from each other with more and more hair-splitting but ultimately uninteresting distinctions. He reserves particular venom for the REF, the Research Excellence Framework, a system of expert review which assesses research undertaken in UK higher education, which is then used to allocate future rounds of funding. A lot of it turns on the importance of research having a social, economic or cultural impact. It’s not exactly the sort of thing that philosophical reflection on, say, the nature of being qua being is likely to have. He leans into my recorder to make sure I get every word:

“One of the most disturbing things about academic philosophy today is the way that so many supposed gadflies and rebels in philosophy have just rolled over in the face of the REF – particularly by going along with the idea of measuring and quantifying impact,” he says, making inverted commas with his fingers, “a technical notion which was constructed for completely different disciplines. I’m not even sure what research means in philosophy. Philosophers are struggling to find ways of describing what they do as having impact as defined by people who don’t seem to appreciate what sort of things they do. This is absurd. Why are you wasting your time? Why aren’t you standing up and saying philosophy’s not like that? To think that funding in higher education in philosophy is going to be determined partly by people’s creative writing about how they have impact with their work. Just by entering into this you’ve compromised yourself as a philosopher. It’s not the kind of thing that Socrates did or that Hume did or that John Locke did. Locke may have had patrons, but he seemed to write what he thought rather than kowtowing to forces which are pushing on to us a certain vision, a certain view of what philosophical activities should be. Why are you doing this? I’m getting out. For those of you left in, how can you call yourselves philosophers? This isn’t what philosophy’s about.”

Strong stuff.  You can read the whole article here:  ‘Nigel Warburton, Virtual Philosopher’.  Please do let me know what you think.

 

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40 Comments.

  1. Wow! A philosopher who realizes people’s ideas can be compromised by their sources of funding…

  2. If Nigel sees himself as a flexible, innovative and self-directed thinker rather than a jobbing philosopher then I think he is certainly doing the right thing in quitting formal academic life. There are many, many philosophy post-graduates ready to queue up for the paid positions he deplores. Of these, some will be good teachers, guiding students into critical and reflective teaching along the lines of Nigel’s own excellent ‘Philosophy: The Basics.’ I remember such teachers with gratitude.

    Just as philosophy needs the inspiration of a few truly great minds, it also needs to maintain respect and relevance as an academic discipline if it is not to go the way of the classics (Greek and Latin), which now hang on to their places in universities on a thread. Why should philosophy not answer questions on its unique role as an analytic and mind-opening tool, and justify its existence in order to keep its funding? Why should jobbing philosophers not take pride in their teaching of the basics of good argument, and offering the fine model arguments of the past for debate? Why should they not have to demonstrate the skills they teach by occasionally publishing a paper? Why must these papers elbow for a place in the top few journals? There are other outlets. I am not happy to hear that paid academics should be ashamed of their more modest and repetitive calling. Why should they not call themselves philosophers? The only ones I would challenge in this way are the lazy time-servers who openly despise their students. It takes time to learn to think critically, and to lead students to success therein is a massive achievement.

    If Nigel can take his gifts into a wider arena and bring more public respect for philosophy that is great. But is he really doing more than the academics who disseminate and open debate on historical, geographical, zoological and astronomical knowledge via television?

    My questions are not rhetorical. I look forward to hearing other views.

  3. Margaret Gullan-Whur@gwmarg:

    There is a difference between philosophy and history, geography, zoology and astronomy, etc.

    Learning about geography from a podcast does not generally lead me to think more about geographical issues. In general, I learn a bit of geography or astronomy and that satisfies my curiosity about the subject. I might go on to read a book on the subject, but there is nothing in, say, a basic explanation of the geography of Brasil which would leads me to needing to know more about the subject.

    On the other hand, most philosophical issues lead me from one question to another. Some of the podcasts cover the history of philosophy and when I listen to 15 minutes on the thought of Plotinus, that may be sufficient for me, just as 15 minutes on any historical question may be sufficient.

    However, other philosophical issues, ethical ones, metaphysical ones, epistemological ones, always seem to raise new questions and those new questions lead to more questions.

    So if I listen to a podcast on what justice is, according to philosopher X, the discussion, far from settling my curiosity on the subject, whets it.

  4. swallerstein -

    Well, I’m not sure the difference between a philosophical topic and an e.g. historical or astronomical topic is as great as you suggest. I might be inspired to think or search further on any topic which was well presented. I am not sure that reflection on a philosophy-lite presentation would be very extended or profound. Books like Alain de Botton’s seem to do just about the amount of thinking most people are prepared to deal with.

    My real point re Nigel Warburton’s proposition is to preserve respect for the in-depth training supplied by routine academic teaching – in philosophy no less than any other discipline.

  5. Margaret Gullan-Whur@gwmarg:

    I agree that in-depth philosophical training (which I lack) deserves the same respect as
    training in any other discipline.

    Still, there seems to be something distinct about philosophy.

    I can’t imagine a blog called “Talking Geography” or “Talking Astronomy”, where people without academic training discuss the discipline in question on an equal basis with those who have such training.

    It would be ridiculous for me to debate geographical issues with a trained geographer.

    While at times I may appear ridiculous trying to debate philosophical issues with trained philosophers, there seem to be some philosophical issues, especially in the area of ethics or political theory, where I can venture to discuss or debate the issue in question with a trained philosopher without seeming comical.

    That trained philosophers like yourself are willing to encounter non-philosophers like me in this blog is surely a virtue of the discipline, but philosophy in that respect does seem to have some features which disciplines like geography do not have, features having to do with the fact that some philosophical questions lend themselves to discussion among all persons open to exploring the issue in a rational manner.

  6. There is much about the profession that is worrisome. I am not especially pleased with the neoliberalization of the university system, or with the centralization of resources into the hands of the salaried managerial class. Also, I am sure there are problems with the publication system, and related problems with the reviews process.

    That said, I am wary of those who complain too bitterly about citation or impact rates. I care about impact rates precisely because they indicate that there are certain authors who have managed to secure some kind of meaningful attention from their peers. Not begrudged attention stemming from obligations rooted in professional service, but attention in the sense of being read and acknowledged. It is a fine and worthy compliment to be cited, and is a fallible indicator that members of the profession are doing productive research.

  7. It is possible to agree with everything Nigel Warburton has said, finding a solution to the problem is more difficult. This is not a problem for philosophy only; it is a problem everywhere. The bottom line is put on a pedestal and worshiped daily. It would appear if things are done as they should be the bottom line would take care of itself. Rather than a system serving the individual the individual ends up serving the system. What is authentic or real gets lost in the process. The atmosphere in such environments gets depleted of oxygen. It brings Kafka to mind. It is the same in business, law, in government and in scientific research, where the research is geared to the funding rather than the funding being geared to the research. Authenticity is particularly difficult where funding is involved, as the people who fund are clueless and there are people who mindlessly play the system. A scientist who was in research wrote a very telling book on this problem.

    Not everyone wants to be an entrepreneur. Some
    people are more comfortable working within a system where the nuts and bolts are taken care of, where they can be creative and still have time for a personal life. New technology allows people to be creative within the system but demands a lot from them and it is mostly a young person’s game.

    There is a lot out there that is unreal; that lacks authenticity, where the machine is oiled daily; to what purpose. There is some evidence that change is happening but the educational system and all systems in place are evolving very slowly.

    The causal world of ideas will survive because it is elemental to everything else. It just has to determine how best to move to a different way of doing things, to a system that functions well without putting a stranglehold on creativity.

  8. Is what one does really Philosophy if the driving logic behind it is not the exploration of ideas, but the exploitation of a funding source? This should be a question we would ask even of a less fettered academic philosopher than Warburton has in mind. Is the scope of the rational exploration inherent in the discipline a function of the free exercise of the interaction of ideas, or is it really a function of people shaping ideas to the preferences of funders so as to have a good living making conversation?

    Will truly vital ideas die if the environment in which they were born is eliminated? If they would are they really Philosophy?

  9. Warburton

    “Part of the problem has to do with “the cuckoo in the nest, the burgeoning managerial class” which he sees as getting in the way of philosophical thinking and teaching.”

    Yes. You have to ask a serious question, when many universities have a ratio of four administrators to every one teacher. I’m sure they’re all very busy, ticking boxes and all.

    “Other trouble lies with departmental committees hiring people who are just like them, creating clusters of similar people with similar views.”

    They include those like themselves, and exclude those who are not. This way they create a safe atrophied environment for themselves.

    “Just as with society at large, he says, diversity helps departments flourish, but often departmental members are all nearly carbon copies of one another. ”

    Yes, for society at large. But this means a threat to the privileges of a privileged class. Especially the spectacularly mediocre who absolutely owe their position and the continuation of their material conditions to their privilege.

    “One of the most disturbing things about academic philosophy today is the way that so many supposed gadflies and rebels in philosophy have just rolled over in the face of the REF – particularly by going along with the idea of measuring and quantifying impact,”

    Disturbing as it turns out the gadflies and rebels were just putting on an act, and underneath they were safe mediocre bureaucrats. Like rich kids who dress up as punks, dye their hair a funny colour, then become bankers or accountants. It’s not as though they’ve changed – they always had the souls of accountants. Or maybe they never had souls – under the make up and nose rings there was nothing.

  10. Margaret Gullan-Whur,

    “Why should they not call themselves philosophers? ”

    Because I say so.

    “My questions are not rhetorical.”

    Neither was my answer.

    “I look forward to hearing other views.”

    That’s good. Because in the bureaucracies, usually only one view is allowed – a certain kind of person can’t cope with someone who holds a different opinion to them, or lives a different lifestyle, or has different tastes in soft furnishings.

    Like the old Soviet joke. “Those in favour say Aye!…Those against say…. Siberia!!!”. Of course you wouldn’t be fired over one single disagreement – you’d be “managed out” for not “fitting in”.

  11. BLS Nelson,

    “I am not especially pleased with the neoliberalization of the university system, or with the centralization of resources into the hands of the salaried managerial class.”

    It’s not neoliberalization, it’s not even a new problem by a long shot. Machiavelli did not write in a time of neoliberalism. And neither did Machiavelli invent Machiavellianism.

    Once the focus of an organisation become political and bureaucrat, it just becomes exponentially more political and bureaucratic, until what you’re left with is just politicians and bureaucrats. And whatever the substance of what you were doing is gone, or the only thing that remains is as an illusion; a substancesless spectre – politicians and bureaucrats calling themselves philosophers (it’s possible they’re so deluded they believe they are.)

    It’s not about capitalism or the “bottom line” either. Unless your “bottom line” is the bottoms of the politicians and bureaucrats who control the organisation.

  12. - swallerstein -

    “I can’t imagine a blog called “Talking Geography” or “Talking Astronomy”, where people without academic training discuss the discipline in question on an equal basis with those who have such training. It would be ridiculous for me to debate geographical issues with a trained geographer. ……. Philosophy … does seem to have some features which disciplines like geography do not have, features having to do with the fact that some philosophical questions lend themselves to discussion among all persons open to exploring the issue in a rational manner.”

    You may be right that exploring issues in geography or astronomy without an informed background might not be well received, although we have no evidence that such loftiness is universal. Experts who tweet seem happy to respond to lay opinions.

    But your point is strengthened by Lee Jamison’s question – “Will truly vital ideas die if the environment in which they were born is eliminated? Yes, philosophy can exist with universities. There were exchanges of profound thinking before philosophy became a university subject (although that was at least nine centuries ago) just as there was social inquiry before sociology became a university discipline, and discussion of media issues before academe regulated media studies.

    The freedom of talking philosophy outside a formal situation collapses when exploring an issue is not conducted in a rational manner. Reasoned argument is the lifeblood of philosophy, and looking ridiculous only occurs when reason is abandoned. Rants, irrelevance and abuse are not hard to recognise: you are clearly a member of Team Reason. Bring it on.

    That philosophy welcomes new ideas couched in good argument wherever they are found does not negate the value of good academic philosophy teaching. The people most likely to undermine respect for this are trained philosophers who fail to honour the skills that were once considered worthy of a salary.

  13. Margaret Gullan-Whur

    “Experts who tweet seem happy to respond to lay opinions.”

    Lay? As in laity?

    Are you some kind of priest or priestess?

    Are you getting all Wizard of Oz on us?

    I can’t think rationally, until you hand me a diploma in Rational Thinkology?

  14. JMRC — just a reminder. Here at TPM, we expect that all posters will interpret each other charitably (within the bounds of the literal). Keep your contributions productive.

  15. JMRC – This is not the first time your contributions have overstepped the mark. If you want to continue commenting here, you won’t let it happen again.

  16. How is this in any way controversial? Anyone who cares about thought knows philosophy departments are explicitly designed to keep it out.

  17. Thanks swallerstein – As I intended, ‘lay means “not trained in or not having a detailed knowledge of a particular subject”.

    Ben and Jeremy: Thanks but don’t worry about my sensitivities. Philosophy departments do a good job but -like blogs – they have always been shark-infested waters.

  18. JMRC and Ted,

    I am on record several times in this blog speaking to the editorial influence of the status quo on the scope of thought in the field of Philosophy. That said I don’t believe the people doing this are consciously deciding to shape the field in the choices they make, any more than dinosaurs other than birds consciously decided to exclude diminutiveness as an evolutionary option in the face of dramatically changing environmental conditions.

    When groups of humans develop a corporate sensibility a corporate culture with powerful editorial qualities is a part of the process. Such a culture can have the effect of limiting what we are capable of perceiving, just as the limits of language can limit our conceptual toolkit. It is not a purposeful process.

    If you think you see such limits at work your task is to educate, not to deride.

  19. Jeremy Stangroom,

    I apologise. That post came across as more aggressive than my lighthearted intention. If you could remove it.

    swallerstein,

    Lay doesn’t mean untrained. It means someone who is generally a member of one of the main Christian churches who is not ordained. It’s a specific religious distinction between those who are priests in a church and those who are not. It’s a word that is still very actively used in that context by the religious. The figure of speech “in layman’s terms”, as in in non technical terms, is not literal. You will never hear a plumber refer to apprentice plumbers as layplumbers, or computer programmers refer to non computer programs as lay people. As the term has never lost its’ priestly connotations.

    But all the same, it’s just a word, and people can do as they like with it.

  20. JMRC

    Just for clarification re:

    ['Lay'] is a specific religious distinction between those who are priests in a church and those who are not. . The figure of speech “in layman’s terms”, as in in non technical terms, is not literal.

    ‘Lay’ and ‘layman’ are words actively used in any context contrasting the trained with the untrained viz.

    n pl lay persons, laypersons, lay people, laypeople
    1. a person who is not a member of the clergy
    2. a person who does not have specialized or professional knowledge of a subject e.g. a lay person’s guide to conveyancing

    Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged

  21. Lee Jamison,

    “When groups of humans develop a corporate sensibility a corporate culture with powerful editorial qualities is a part of the process.”

    And those who do not fit the text are edited out, and airbrushed from the official photographs. But usually they’re excluded by not being allowed in in the first place.

    “Such a culture can have the effect of limiting what we are capable of perceiving, just as the limits of language can limit our conceptual toolkit. It is not a purposeful process.”

    This is where I would disagree with you, and where Orwell would disagree with you. It is a purposeful process. In 1984, Orwell was writing as much about the contemporary democratic and free world, as some future totalitarian dsytopia. The Newspeak dictionary, where with each edition words are removed from the language, is an exercise social control through lexical impoverishment. This isn’t some figment of Orwell’s imagination. Newspapers have style guides for words that should and should not be used, this is as much about ideology as grammar. And the most forbidden words are so unspeakable they’re not even in the style guide. The writer must be cultured to know what they are. And this is where a certain kind of education comes in handy; the kind where minds are closed instead of opened. Where the shark words have been removed. Where only one reality is possible. Where There Is No Alternative.

    The Chinese authorities have banned science fiction writers from writing stories with alternative realities. It is very purposeful. The authorities want to stop the people from even imagining any possible alternatives.

  22. JMRC,

    I only have time for e brief note, but the quick answer to your comment is that most well-meaning people believe they are unaffected by such editorial desires, and the vast majority of people believe they are well-meaning. It is the CULTURE ITSELF that guides the limits of our capacity to perceive the conceptual editing. Our common preconceptions are shaped to the benefit of the culture as though the culture were an organism in and of itself.

    I believe that this is a human instinct (nature, not nurture), and that the operation of it can be seen in the diffusion of tiny cultural units studied in very isolated areas like Malaysia and Papua New Guinea in the aftermath of W.W.II.

  23. Lee Jamison:

    I agree that the vast majority of people are well meaning.

    What amazed and disappointed me when I ventured in the world of philosophy fairly late in life is that so many well meaning philosophers are seemingly unaware that their good intentions are rationalizations of unconscious fears, paranoias, envy, resentment, habits of thought coming from their culture or social class, a need to control others, the will to power, etc.

    In my naiveté I had expected philosophers, being lovers of wisdom and highly educated people, to be more aware than others and they are not.

    I at least try to be aware that my good intentions are often rationalizations of unconscious drives or needs or habits and I also try to be aware that my good intentions, if blind, can harm or destroy others.

  24. Lee Jamison,

    “that most well-meaning people believe they are unaffected by such editorial desires, and the vast majority of people believe they are well-meaning.”

    Everyone wants to believe they’re well-meaning. During the first world war, Germany’s IG Farben were experiencing wage inflation pressure cutting into their profits, as so many men were at the front. They took their problem to the German government, who obliged by rounding up 25,000 Belgians to work for IFG as slave labour. I’d have to look up his name, but one of the directors of IFG in response to criticism of their use of slave labour, said he was giving the men the dignity of work. Some people never stop helping.

    In the time of empire, the British ruling class believed (they still do believe) their power and wealth was granted to them from a divine source. God has chosen them. They literally had a God given right to wealth and power. But it came with an obligation. They had been granted this paternal power to shepherd those God had chosen not to enrich and empower, for their own good, as God is so wise. The British elites were obliged to enrich and empower themselves at the expense of the little people of the world, all the better to control them for their own good.

    Absurd as it sounds it, it’s often the mentality of the powerful. Augusto Pinochet believed he was on a mission from God.

    “It is the CULTURE ITSELF that guides the limits of our capacity to perceive the conceptual editing.”

    This is what Orwell calls Doublethink. It’s simply cognitive dissonance and thought repression. When something is too traumatic or dissonant to experience, it’s pushed from the consciousness. When asked to do something bad, or lie, or possibly commit an act of harmful selfishness, it’s very possible for people to push the traumatic reality completely out of mind. Or even have a comforting narrative that they are ultimately, possibly in some nebulous way that is never clear (God’s esoteric telepathic communications – why he can never just speak in plain English, instead of belly feelings etc). That actually, they are helping those they are harming.

    “Our common preconceptions are shaped to the benefit of the culture as though the culture were an organism in and of itself.”

    Cui bono? In the 19th century, the justification would have been the mysterious logic of the Lord. In the 20th, biological determinism. The idea that culture is an incorporeal and alien entity that we have no control over, is another justification, that’s really an abdication of responsibility.

  25. Rational Hoplite

    Thank you, NW — and BLS Nelson.

    I’d like to share with readers of this thread an anecdote. I believe it is relevant. I will abbreviate and abridge, buy my even abridgments tend to need abridging. Apologies in advance.

    A few years back I was lecturing (adjunct) at a local state university — a non-elite, non-ranking institution with mercifully generous admissions standards, and (hence) a student body fielded mainly from two smallish contiguous area codes. I myself did a semester there very many years ago before completing my undergraduate studies at an equally non-elite non-ranking university with equally charitable admissions policies, in one of the two aforementioned area codes.

    This institution had but one “core requirement” philosophy course — an introduction to logic, which frog-marched the students across the badlands of modus ponens and modus tollens, categorical syllogisms, and logical fallacies. At the beginning of the course students sat an 80-question exam consisting of these topics, and at the end of the course sat a version of the same exam — similar ratios of question-types, but different phrasing. Performance on the exit-exam (we were told) could not count for less than 80% of the students’ final grade.

    We were given rather a lot of lee-way as to how we delivered the content; and although there was predictable convergence, no two instructors taught the course the same way.

    Once it became clear to me that this was the only philosophy class the undergrads were required to take, I took it upon myself to ensure we covered a few other things — among them, (1) an introduction to the main branches of philosophy, and how epistemology and logic are related; (2) a reading and discussion of The Euthyphro; (3) a discussion of the differences between knowledge, belief, and faith; and (4) a discussion of the difference between ‘training’ and ‘education’.

    This last topic mattered to me, because of the nature of the course content, on the one hand, and the departmental parameters for assessment, on the other. I had scope to *train* students as I saw fit, to the end of ensuring they performed well on the exit-exam; but the generous latitude notwithstanding, there was very little space therein to advance one whit the students’ education — in the true sense of the word.

    Since I used the first two weeks of the term to introduce students to the mood and method of philosophy – to make real for them, so far as possible, what “being philosophical” (about something) might mean, and how important it is that those we designated as “educated” (rather than “well-trained” or “degree-holding) have a philosophical attitude – students tended to leave the first fortnight of my lectures with precisely the sort of look we like our students to have at the end of the session. Students often lingered behind to chat, or follow-up with questions or comments; and even if only a few disclosed to me their symptoms, many showed signs of having been bitten by the bug. But it was very dispiriting to hear students leave the lectures of my colleagues, who – by staying squarely on-track – began their lectures with “All men are mortal…”, and thereafter faithfully plodded through their chosen textbook.

    Not that there was anything at all wrong with that. But our students – many of whom should not have been at university, frankly – were, in their first month of their first semester, still looking for those things that would distinguish college from high school. Yomping around on the terra incognita of “If P, Q” on day-one of their first philosophy class ever wasn’t winning hearts and minds to the cause. (There seemed to be little point in discussing the etymology of ‘philosophy’ – which most of my colleagues seemed to do before “Socrates is a man” – if one was going to ignore the question “How does knowledge differ from wisdom?” and jump straight into validity.)

    At the first faculty meeting (in October, five weeks into the term), the HoD asked how the new adjuncts were faring; and I – too prideful and stupid to know either my place or how one should respond to such questions from one’s new boss – dared to offer for discussion whether this “core requirement” was such a good idea, and ask of the assembled troops whether it seemed terrible to anyone else that the *one* chance we are guaranteed to make an early impression upon undergraduates is with BARBARA rather than Socrates.

    The HoD and senior faculty were very kind and gracious in their response to my untimely meditations. It is how my queries were tabled, though, that is the point of this story.

    I insisted – and quite possibly pounded the conference table – that it was our duty (I pray I did not say “solemn duty”) to have our students leave the classroom a little better than they were before they entered it. A little more curious. A little more skeptical. A little confused, perhaps – confused in that positive, productive sense – but certainly a little better than they were when they slammed down hard on the alarm clock and stumbled out of bed in the morning. All educators (I insisted) have this duty; but of all departments, and among all specialists, we more so than others — for if not the philosophers, then who?

    “Well” chuckled the four-year-and-still-returning adjunct next to me, “I think you set your standards a little high”.

    “Shall we aim instead leave them no-better-off, or worse-off?”, I responded.

    I remained at the university for five consecutive semesters, and in the narrow space allotted me tried my best to ensure that my students were getting their “If P, Q” (etc.), but were also learning to expect more from themselves, and were engaging their other subjects with an inquisitive and critical eye — and interested in taking more philosophy courses. My enthusiasm for these simple objectives was manifestly not shared by tenured faculty, while the adjuncts were concerned that coloring outside of departmental lines might redound negatively upon them and injure their status within the guild.

    I will tell you that am between forty and fifty years-old, and in no sense or context am I an old-timer. But when I return to my cache of books from the likes of Hocking, Muirhead, Sidgwick, Santayana, or Royce, or rummage through JSTOR archives or Google Scholar for early papers, I confront every time the feeling that philosophy is no longer what it was, and that something wonderful has been lost.

    That sentiment, I know, is absurd. But I know, too, that The Guild is not what it was — or, it seems to be no longer what it seems to have been. The basic questions we ask, and enjoin our charges to ask with us, have not changed — or, have not changed very much. I think we all welcome additional questions, as we do new voices to our shared stoa (painted or unpainted).

    But I would not mind a real renaissance of philosophy — not by way of new books or para-genres (A Philosopher’s Guide to Metallica on the shelves of Barns~Ignoble left me shuddering), but by way of a return to confidence that what we do is very important. Not for the Guild, or the Academy; not for “democracy” or “social justice”, or even for Western Civilization, or for any single such thing; but for all the good things that may yet be made possible by the courage of an unassuming undergrad from a non-elite, non-ranking state college, who – having become a little more philosophical than she was the month prior – one day finds herself prepared and confident to say: “Sorry, I don’t think that makes sense — and here’s why”. She will need some logic to identify the problem, and for her “here’s why” to be compelling; but she will need philosophy to know that making sense of nonsense matters.

  26. - Rational Hoplite –

    Thank you for that – and for getting us back to the blog topic. Your preliminary course does sound a bit heavy, but the principle is all in your last sentence –

    “she will need philosophy to know that making sense of nonsense matters.”

    I would add “some formal” philosophy.

  27. swallerstein,

    “What amazed and disappointed me when I ventured in the world of philosophy fairly late in life is that so many well meaning philosophers are seemingly unaware that their good intentions are rationalizations of unconscious fears, paranoias, envy, resentment, habits of thought coming from their culture or social class, a need to control others, the will to power, etc.”

    You went in looking to learn something. And you did. It just wasn’t what you were expecting.

    “In my naiveté I had expected philosophers, being lovers of wisdom and highly educated people, to be more aware than others and they are not.”

    As a teenager, I had the same romantic idea of artists. Until I met a few, and then a few more. And then realised most of them are morons, who know very little about art, or even the art they create themselves. Even if they’ve been to an exclusive art school.

    Warburton could be a moron for all I know. But it does seem he is acting authentically. If he can make a living through writing and talking, which not many can do, for him, he may be engaging more productively in philosophy than otherwise.

    Do philosophers acting in good faith believe in truth and honesty. They don’t. Leo Strauss did not. He believed truths were only for the philosopher kings. And for the masses truths that were more appropriate to their interests and lesser minds. This is why George W Bush could lie with such comfort – and his cadre of Straussian Philosopher Kings could do as they pleased. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, there was no intention to bring “freedom and democracy”, there wasn’t even a real intention to brazenly steal the oil. Many people have a responsibility for what happened, but a professor, essentially, of philosophy, at the University of Chicago, surprisingly is more responsible than others.

    You must engage philosophy, before it engages you.

    “I at least try to be aware that my good intentions are often rationalizations of unconscious drives or needs or habits and I also try to be aware that my good intentions, if blind, can harm or destroy others.”

    Yes..And I really should get that tattooed on my wrist. But what you say there is an important direction for philosophy to go in. Existentially important.

  28. JMRC:

    I first sought the poets and the musicians, sure that they were special, higher, more generous, less materialistic, less greedy, more enlightened or illuminated.

    I went to a poetry group and even married a musician, daughter of musicians, a world of musicians.

    No comment on how things turned out.

    I was then recruited by revolutionaries, I being sure that they were the vanguard, seeing farther, special, more giving, more empathetic, illuminated, less materialistic, less envious, not social climbers, truly fraternal.

    No comment once again.

    Being older and having learned a bit, I’ll probably stick with the philosophy section of the library for a long-time now and after all, where is there to go?

    From each stage, I’ve preserved a couple of friends, which is what counts.

  29. Rational Hoplite

    Thank you, Margaret. It is kind of you to acknowledge my over-long post.

    For everyone following this thread – in particular, those interested in philosophy as (earnest) truth-seeking, I humbly recommend the following paper:

    http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.1086/341235?uid=3739696&uid=308824283&uid=2&uid=3&uid=3739256&uid=60&sid=21102070004823

    Those who study Chinese philosophy will likely recognize the name Francois Jullien, and perhaps know this work already. Those who are neither experts nor informed dabblers in Chinese philosophy will nonetheless enjoy this paper. I believe there is a complete PDF out there in cyberspace in cyberspace, but I have lost track of the URL.

  30. Rational Hoplite, I much enjoyed that comment. How would you feel if I turned the comment into a new thread? I feel as though it deserves attention all its own.

  31. Rational Hoplite

    BLS Nelson — wow; well, thank you; and if it would serve the interests of this forum, I’d be very pleased indeed. You will need, though, to forgive me in advance if a new thread on this head results eventually in my attaching to it another imperfectly-abridged comment. Cheers!

  32. Consider yourself pre-forgiven and pre-encouraged for such potential crimes. :)

  33. swallerstein,

    “No comment on how things turned out.”

    No need. I feel your pain.

    “Being older and having learned a bit, I’ll probably stick with the philosophy section of the library for a long-time now

    and after all, where is there to go?”

    A religious cult.

    ……Don’t join a cult. But at this point you could imagine how you might end up standing on a street corner, covered in blood and waving a machete, while giving a quasi religious/political speech into a kid’s I-phone.

  34. JMRC,
    “Everyone wants to believe they’re well-meaning.”
    “Absurd as it sounds it, it’s often the mentality of the powerful. Augusto Pinochet believed he was on a mission from God.”
    I’m pleased we agree on something because it’s clear there is an educational task to help you understand what I mean in other areas. You take exception to this statement, for example: “It is the CULTURE ITSELF that guides the limits of our capacity to perceive the conceptual editing.”, claiming, ”This is what Orwell calls Doublethink. It’s simply cognitive dissonance and thought repression.” Which is, in fact, not true.

    “Culture” as I understand the word, is a full range of societal influences encompassing not only the great mass of human interactions, but also interactions with things like the arts, architecture, and the attitudes of people about the natural world and the universe of ideas. All one needs to show the powerful influence of culture on human ideas is to revisit science fiction movies, starting with Georges Méliès 1902 film, A Trip to the Moon. As one advances from this story to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, to the post war films of George Pal, to Star Trek, and onward everything from the art to the storylines is firmly rooted in the limitations of their times. These are not limits placed on unthinking peasants. They are constrictions on the imaginations of open-minded and brilliant creators who are seeking to compensate for influences they know are affecting them. Understanding that is hardly “doublethink”.

    ”When something is too traumatic or dissonant to experience, it’s pushed from the consciousness.” In fact, the range of things of which we are not conscious, but upon which our minds are constantly acting, is vastly greater than that. If you are involved in collegiate education in even the most peripheral way you will have heard of how badly new students write. Young people can’t write in standard English because their communications skills are forming around texting. They don’t use sentences, let alone paragraphs. Why, really, is this? One reason is face-to-face communications are much, much more difficult than sterile text (Psychology texts have consistently said, over the course of decades, that 80% of what we communicate face-to-face is non-verbal.), and English itself, while very expressive for the competent user, is a very difficult language to learn. Nonetheless, even very well educated members of our society can be blithely unaware of the large amount of subtext in face-to-face communication. The culture in which they live primes their minds to be aware of the content of the words, but less consciously aware of the gestures, facial expressions, and flush of the skin.

    Now, keeping in mind my comments about the culture preparing your mind to see, or be aware, find an online version of Metropolis and consider the imagery there. You say in a later post answering Swallerstein: “As a teenager, I had the same romantic idea of artists. Until I met a few, and then a few more. And then realised most of them are morons, who know very little about art, or even the art they create themselves. Even if they’ve been to an exclusive art school.” As a professional artist with more than three decades of experience (who did not, perhaps fortuitously, attend a graduate school in my subject) I actually do have very strong ideas about what I and other artists do. After taking Aesthetics in college I was convinced the professional philosopher who taught me, and Roger Fry as well, were both morons. The ensuing years have not improved my opinion of either. “Significant Form” is quasi-religious nonsense. It assumes some state of “significance” exists of its own accord.

    What Art really does is very similar to what polemics seeks to do in the political realm- sensitize a receptive mind to the expectation that certain presentations of (in Art’s case) visual information will be more valuable than others. There is some extent to which this process involves real discovery of underlying fundamental sensitivities of the visual system or of the interactions between abstract cognitive centers and the various processing centers for sense organs, but in large measure what determines whether an artist will be “successful” is social.

    In Fritz Lang’s social environment in the 1920s the ultimate reach of his expectation of architectural modernity extended only as far into the future as the influences that framed the design of the Empire State Building in 1931. It even missed the emergence of Bauhaus as an architectural driver, though that was happening in his midst.

    One can see this social process all over the history of Art in things like the difference between the formality of the presentation of the families of the Pharaohs and that of normal people, the development of a culture of the exaltation of nature in the early United States, and even the transformation of Jackson Pollock from alcoholic struggling regionalist to Abstract Expressionist genius. Archaeologists don’t have problem with pot hunters because ancient pottery is really more significant than modern knock-offs of ancient pottery. They have a problem because lazy-minded people believe that, because ancient pottery is displayed in museums, ancient pottery dug up out of the ground is more significant.

    Like neurons primed to respond to specific stimuli, activations, and suppressions in certain ways, most human beings respond within a culture according to a form of programming they were established in in their youth. That is my response to your: ” Cui bono? In the 19th century, the justification would have been the mysterious logic of the Lord. In the 20th, biological determinism. The idea that culture is an incorporeal and alien entity that we have no control over, is another justification, that’s really an abdication of responsibility.” That is not the same thing as “incorporeal alien entity”. It is simply an emergent-order entity of which we individuals are necessarily an unwitting part.

  35. Lee Jamison,

    “If you are involved in collegiate education in even the most peripheral way you will have heard of how badly new students write.”

    There is an American problem, and it predates the ubiquity of mobile phone texting. It’s really more to do with the over use of multiple choice questions. The only way to teach kids how to write is to get them to write, not tick boxes.

    Conversely there’s a problem in England. A level physics (that’s pre-college physics – though a lot people refer to A level as college, it’s more pre-university). Calculus has been removed from the curriculum, among other things. The course has become less science/technical and more wordy. The average student if they progress to university is finding themselves less prepared than previous generations. But also, because of the internet the above average students are way ahead of previous generations as they’ve been able to access university quality materials from the web.

    “Young people can’t write in standard English because their communications skills are forming around texting. They don’t use sentences, let alone paragraphs. Why, really, is this?

    One reason is face-to-face communications are much, much more difficult than sterile text (Psychology texts have consistently said, over the course of decades, that 80% of what we communicate face-to-face is non-verbal.)”

    I hate it when psychologists use neat sounding stats like 80%. It’s far more complex. There is a connection between the non-verbal elements in face-to-face communication, and the cliched argot of teen texting. The verbal content can be largely without meaning – it’s largely social grooming.

    “, and English itself, while very expressive for the competent user, is a very difficult language to learn. Nonetheless, even very well educated members of our society can be blithely unaware of the large amount of subtext in face-to-face communication. The culture in which they live primes their minds to be aware of the content of the words, but less consciously aware of the gestures, facial expressions, and flush of the skin.”

    Ray Liotta was interviewed the Guardian recently. He says he won’t make jokes in interviews anymore, because so many young journalists can’t tell he’s making a joke, and the quote is printed as serious. If he does make a joke, he has to suffix it with a “THAT WAS A JOKE”.

    Communication is wonderfully complex and entertaining. Outside the context where there is an explicit need for literalness (like engineering – where a little misunderstood sarcasm could result in a bridge collapsing. Blunt literalness is essential.) Many people are unaware of how much music is in human speech – it’s actual music; notes. A good communicator is also a good listener. If you ask me a question, and I respond with something absurd but in a noteless monotone, if you’re attuned to that kind of detail you will get the joke. Many people do not get the joke, which has happened in cases for Liotta.

    Bill Bryson, the writer, his wife stopped him from talking to his neighbour, as he upset him. For instance, Bryson returns from a trip, he meets his neighbour and mentions his trip. His neighbour asks “Who did you fly with?”, and Bryson says “I don’t know, they were all strangers”. His neighbour would not get the joke, and instead become confused and upset.

    There are all kinds of other complexities. An engineer may lose their job by giving a blunt answer to a marketing or sales director. But they could get murdered by their engineering colleagues if they used communication appropriate for the marketing director with them.

  36. Sadly it is not just philosophy that has suffered.

    In every walk of life one sees that occupations that were once ill paid and reserved only for those with a burning passions for the arena, are now infested with people who see them simply as a way to make a pretty good living.

    Politicians learn to argue, and make good money lying and arguing in public.
    Scientists can be hired to use their skills on construct elaborate models cloaked on obfuscatory verbiage, to prove whatever their sponsors want to see proved.

    I rather long for the days of the gentleman scientist or philosopher of private means whose sole motivation was to uncover here and there, something approaching a universal truth.

    I think my final disgust came after having spent years researching a topic and weeks calculating writing it down, its starling conclusions was refuted not by rational argument, correction of factual assertion but with a wave of the hand ‘buts that is simply your opinion’ !!!

    I am re-reading (again) Benson and Stangroom’s ‘Why Truth Matters’ .

    But in the end, the Left has captured academia, rewritten the rules, applied for state sponsorship and now guides research and education into propaganda generation and indoctrination along the latest lines of political correctness.

    In the end it is destroying the credibility of science. politics and philosophy. Socialist lackeys, is what we are producing. All guaranteed a living as long as they stay firmly ‘on message’ to whatever is the currently fashionable revisionist rewriting of the truth into fashionable doctrine.

    Whilst accusing everyone who differs of performing the very act of perversion that they themselves are engaged in.

  37. Leo,

    “But in the end, the Left has captured academia, rewritten the rules, applied for state sponsorship and now guides research and education into propaganda generation and indoctrination along the latest lines of political correctness.”

    Leo, do you even know your left from your right?

    Universities have always been in the business of propaganda and indoctrination. But it’s usually been right-wing propaganda and indoctrination. They tend to be very conservative places, closing the minds of the latest generation of the privileged.

    Left wing elements tend to be purely superficial. They might spout nonsense about Marx, but they may owe their job to the same right-wing class based exclusion as the rest of the university staff.

    “In the end it is destroying the credibility of science. politics and philosophy.”

    Yes, but it could be creative destruction, which is a good thing. If the house is no good anymore let it burn to the ground. Let the problem liquidate itself.

    “Socialist lackeys, is what we are producing. All guaranteed a living as long as they stay firmly ‘on message’ to whatever is the currently fashionable revisionist rewriting of the truth into fashionable doctrine.”

    Leo, you have socialists under the bed. It’s virtually impossible to find a socialist in a mainstream socialist party these days, let alone in a university.

    The racket with universities has been for a long time, is that people with good social connections, get the jobs. What’s socialist about including and excluding people on the basis of their social class. They really do have a brass neck these days – when they exclude people for reasons of class, they’ll claim the people do not have the right personality, or their personality isn’t the right fit. Discriminating on the basis of race would be racist, on gender; sexist, but personality they can discriminate who they like – and not feel the slightest bit guilty – even pretend to themselves they’re actually a little left-wing and liberal. I think they only have one black student at Oxford – the rest just didn’t have the right personalities.

    Leo, what are you worried about, we’re in the most grindingly constipated age of conservatism in generations. We have 18 year-olds marching around like stuffy 55 year-olds. 16 is the new middle-age. Being the kind of young person a stuffy conservative old person likes, is the only way to get on. Either put on the show, or find yourself living a life of zero hour contracts, if you’re lucky.

    “Whilst accusing everyone who differs of performing the very act of perversion that they themselves are engaged in.”

    Leo, what perversion has anyone accused you of?

  38. How can you call yourselves philosophers? | Talking Philosophy

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