Saturday, December 18, 2010

Heil and Mumford on contemporary academic philosophy

John Heil, from the preface to From an Ontological Point of View (Oxford University Press, 2003):

Philosophy today is often described as a profession. Philosophers have specialized interests and address one another in specialized journals. On the whole, what we do in philosophy is of little interest to anyone without a Ph.D. in the subject. Indeed, subdisciplines within philosophy are often intellectually isolated from one another…

The professionalization of philosophy, together with a depressed academic job market, has led to the interesting idea that success in philosophy should be measured by appropriate professional standards. In practice, this has too often meant that cleverness and technical savvy trump depth. Positions and ideas are dismissed or left unconsidered because they are not comme il faut. Journals are filled with papers exhibiting an impressive level of professional competence, but little in the way of insight, originality, or abiding interest. Non-mainstream, even wildly non-mainstream, conclusions are allowed, even encouraged, provided they come with appropriate technical credentials.

Stephen Mumford, in his contribution to Metaphysics: 5 Questions, edited by Asbjørn Steglich-Petersen (Automatic Press, 2010):

Since philosophy has become professionalized, I think few stones have been left unturned. Rather than subjects being neglected, I think there are more topics that have received too much attention. Most of the journals are filled with material that but a few people will ever read and which I think will not stand the test of time. The problem is that in various ways professional philosophers are obliged to publish, whether they have anything new and substantial to say or not. I would really like to see the journal editors take a lead in this respect and stop publishing papers on the negative basis of them making the fewest errors or fewest controversial claims and start publishing on the positive criterion of them having something important or interesting to say…

I like papers that offer bold new insights but it is all too rare that one finds them. The system of edited, peer-reviewed journals is an inherently conservative one where paradigm-challenging work is very unlikely to be accepted because it threatens the interests of the editor and referees…

I think contemporary philosophy has become too self-congratulatory, with an arrogant self-assurance that the work we are producing is vastly superior to that of the interested amateurs of the past. But has anyone of late produced as fine and appealing a work as Hume’s Treatise or Locke’s Essay? On the contrary, I fear that in future centuries, the current era will be looked upon as a philosophical dark age where very little of interest was authored.

No comment, except to invite comparison with what one might gather about the careerist mentality that prevails in much of “the profession” from Michael Huemer’s sobering advice to aspiring grad students in philosophy. (Here’s your homework assignment: Compare “advancing in the profession,” as that is understood today, and “the love of wisdom,” with reference to the dispute between Socrates and the Sophists.)


  1. Both of those are good comments, and it's nice to see such comments from leading metaphysicians. However, it's frustrating that many influential people actually share this view, but seem to do nothing to fix the situation. Same thing happens frequently on Leiter's blog. Some issue in the profession is brought up and philosophers, influential ones, suggest a number of ways to improve things on the comments, often in a heated and passionate manner. And nothing happens.

  2. Maybe the best solution to the problem as stated isn't one that would rely on 'influential people'. In fact, maybe trying to rely on influential people, academic policies, etc is part of the problem.

  3. Well if the Philosophy academia is like the scientific academia... then it all revolves about money and quantity of the publication.

    Often a well written article with poor science is more easily published than an article with very good science but lacking literary finesse (which is quite weird since it's not literature we deal with).

    Many colleagues I know have become disillusioned because of this.

  4. Philosopher or Engineer? That is the question. A PhD in electrical engineering can rightly be called an engineer, and no one would think the language odd. But what about the PhD in philosophy? Is it equivalent for him/her?

    For an example I'll use two, let us call them "thinkers:" Leo Strauss and Martin Heidegger. Now, regardless of what anyone thinks of either, they can be taken as representative examples of the point I'd like to make.

    During his formative years, Strauss sat in on some Heidegger lectures. Because of it, the former was duly impressed with the quality of the latter's thinking, and what it represented. There are some who argue that Strauss spent the rest of his career in confrontation with whatever project Heidegger was up to.

    Now, Strauss is usually called a philosopher. However, his originality, if he can be said to have been original at all, or in any sense, was related to a body of secondary commentary on those he himself understood to be real philosophers. For his own part, he judged that he was at most a scholar--that is, someone who knew the original material, and someone able to offer intelligent commentary. In fine (as Father C. might write), there exists a philosophical hierarchy consisting of philosopher, commentator or scholar, and down the line, so on and so on.

    Today's academic scene has its own Strauss industry going. So now it's commenting on the commentator's comments that fills the pages of the learned journals, and the book shelves.

    What's a philosopher, or scholar to do? Someone's got to write everything that gets published, and someone's got to read it all.

    I'm reminded of the quip by the erstwhile Brit comedian, Viv Stanshall: Why can't I be different and original, like everyone else?

  5. Critical comments such as those quoted in this blog post don't reflect my own experience of reading journal articles. In terms of sheer page numbers, I have probably read more "Great Books in Philosophy" than journal articles, but what always amazes me is how insightful the journal articles I read are, and how much they add to my understanding of philosophy. For one thing, I find the articles to be better argued usually than seminal texts. Perhaps I have just had better luck in the journal articles I have read than the lodgers of these critical remarks.

    As examples, I can mention the several articles I read in the field of ancient philosophy this semester: on whether Socrates gave anything like the defense speech Plato has him give in the Apology; on a flaw in Socrates' method of seeking definitions; on Aristotle's description of what God is like; on the idea that Jesus may have been a Cynic; and on the contrast between Stoic and Christian world views. All these articles added mightily to my understanding of ancient philosophy. Perhaps their having to do with the history of philosophy places them outside the purview of these critical comments.

    I, for my part, would encourage those interested in philosophy to continue to read (or begin to read) journal articles when they can and to see if they find what is written there to be an aid in their understanding of philosophy.

    Lastly, the real crux of the matter is the quality of the work being produced, not the motivation of those producing the work. I apparently disagree with the lodgers of these critical comments about the quality of work being produced today. Perhaps they are right that the motivation of many who publish in philosophy journals has to do with career security and advancement. This being a dominant motivation would be problematic if it were leading to sub-par work being published to a great extent, but I have not found published work to be of that nature, and so I cannot find any great fault with this sort of motivation, even if it is as widespread as those making the comments believe. Indeed, perhaps the very pressure to publish is forcing those who might otherwise not voice their views to present whatever insights they have about philosophy, and in this sense perhaps the quality I find to be present in philosophy articles is in part caused by the pressure to publish.

  6. Anonymous is missing the distinction that Thomas Kuhn made between normal and revolutionary science. Explaining Plato's Apology is well and good, but where is the paper that will shift the paradigm of philosophy?

  7. Jinzang:

    Do you think "that paper" can be identified until the paradigm shift has been codified into normal science? For all we know, "that paper" may have been written a decade ago, its impact still germinating, as it leavens the discourse in a way that analysis will be able to discern only in retrospect.

    Additionally, what if the key difference between philosophy and empirical sciences is precisely the intransigence of "perennial issues" in the former versus necessarily shifting foci in the latter? I suppose we can identify watershed moments in philosophy––the publications of, say, Augustine's City of God, Boethius Consolation of Philosophy, Anselm's Monlogion, Kant's first critique, Wittgenstein's Tractatus, Gödel's incompleteness proof, Chomsky's critique of Skinner, Kripke's book on naming and necessity, etc.––but I wonder how accurate it is to say there are philosophical "discoveries". It seems that philosophy grows by expanding new insights rather than by leaving 'old paradigms' behind entirely. Is philosophy dialectical or perichoretic?

  8. I'm afraid that this is not just an issue with philosophy. How many people seriously read literary journals, history journals, economics journals and cite them except professional literary critic, historians or economists? All of these 'disciplines' are overly professionalized. Scholars and academics are more concerned with citations (because it justifies research grants) than with content. It is partly down to the fact that we now have Universities that would be better called Omniversities. Everything is fractured and professionalised, and people cannot even conceive of the idea of truth being ultimately one and Unified.

    Those are great citations (smile), you could readily replace the words philosophy with -any academic discipline. Heck they even have sports professors, and David Beckham scholars! The medieval University is for the most part, and most regretably, dead!

  9. I think the late Rorty already eaised this discussion a while back.

    My favorite critic of professional philosophy professors was Pirsig, who called them philosophicologists. He was one of the best.

    Then there is what should have been the show stopper from Whitehead that western philosophy consists of nothing more than footnotes to Plato.

    Gotta admire those pragmatists!

  10. Ah, Michael Huemer. His "Why I'm not an objectivist" was instrumental in convincing my pretentious teenage self that Ayn Rand was, in fact, an idiot.


    "How many people seriously read literary journals, history journals, economics journals and cite them except professional literary critic, historians or economists?"

    You're almost certainly right about literary and history journals, but I have seen economics journals cited by laymen to support this or that point. (Admittedly, the majority of economics articles are going to be completely useless/baffling/irrelevant to anyone but a working economist.)

  11. I note that at one point I did want to become a philosopher, and although Huemer's article -- which I had not heretofore read -- was not what convinced me to pursue other interests, it was considerations similar to those he provides. (I'm getting a PhD in economics ... and as low-ranked as my program is, I'll probably make more than just about any philosopher from a top 50 program. C'est la vie.)

  12. This Michael Huemer bloke words should be taken with a grain of salt. I have to question the wisdom of a man who maintains a website in which one of the main tabs is entitled "Scary Bible Quotes."

    What's worse, it's given a link at the UC Boulder philosophy website.

  13. "I have to question the wisdom of a man who maintains a website in which one of the main tabs is entitled 'Scary Bible Quotes.'"

    Eh. His position, re biblical authority, is entirely uncontroversial -- even agreed with -- by most working philosophers. If that bothers you enough to discount everything Huemer says, you'll have to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

    'Sides, if you're an atheist, it seems relatively innocuous to point out what you believe are contradictory biblical statements.

  14. Never said I'll discount everything he says. Just that I'll take it with a grain of salt, as I do all things by "most working philosophers," since "most working philosophers" are fools.

  15. "since "most working philosophers" are fools."

    In addition to the above which accurately reflects sentiments of common folk, and the pragmatists I noted before, I would add as further example the recent musings of John Searle.

    I listened with incredulity how shallow his thinking is in his philosophy of mind course. Then, I thought maybe he would say something important on a less difficult topic in his course on philosophy of society.

    Nope. It looks as though he really needs to takes his own advice and - as he did for brain anatomy - perhaps read a freshman text on sociology, as he displays no apparent familiarity with this and its related branches of social science.

    The joke used to be that he and his ilk were masters of the obvious, but even this feat appears too difficult for philosophers in academia today.

  16. You know, jt, your opinion had more value before you ended every inability to defend your positions with "it's all metaphysics so you can't prove me wrong maybe I'm right!!!"

    Sometimes the person overcome with incredulity has the problem on their end. ;)

  17. "it's all metaphysics so you can't prove me wrong maybe I'm right!!!"

    It would seem that for metaphysics, this is almost a definition.

    I like how Searle's work framed phenomena in a direct realism, and questions of diety and eternity are treated with somewhat cynical agnosticism if not dismissal.

    But his development of the mechanisms of his realism come off as philosophical verbosity. Rather than relying on his linguistic paradigm to describe behavior, IMO, Searle's notions of group agency would be better informed with adopting some process concepts of events (the stuff the logical positivists happily shoved under the rug in the early 20th century).thought.

  18. I should have said

    "I like how Searle's work frames phenomena in a direct realism, and questions of deity and eternity are treated with agnosticism, though his is often of a somewhat cynical and/or dismissive nature."

  19. Huemer is something of an odd duck: an atheist, political libertarian, free will libertarian, substance dualist, non-naturalist moral realist. He's certainly no fad-follower.

  20. ^ No kidding. I purchased his ethics book though and I thought it was real good (though he seems to have little to say about Aquinas or virtue ethics/natural law).

    Anyways, interestingly enough, don't you think the Middle Ages were exactly the same way? Scholasticism was similar to this in many ways. They had their own complex logical terminology, their own formal systems, their own formats of debate and publishing, and most of them nobody has even heard of. They were definitely not exactly people's people.