Monday, April 5, 2010

The (Real) Crisis of Philosophy

I've been somewhat reluctant to jump in on the kerfuffle since it borders on schlogging and I have better things to do, but comments praising Jason Stanley's "The Crisis of Philosophy" keep popping up, which, far from solving philosophy's perception problem across the humanities, simply reinforces it.

To catch you up to speed. As Stanley identifies it, the so-called crisis of philosophy has to do with how the discipline is perceived by the rest of the humanities, or more precisely, humanists:
Its questions – which concern the nature and scope of concepts like knowledge, representation, free will, rational agency, goodness, justice, laws, evidence and truth – seem antiquated and baroque. Its central debates seem disconnected from the issues of identity that plague and inspire the contemporary world. Its pedantic methodology seems designed to alienate rather than absorb. Whereas humanists have transformed into actors, using their teaching and research as political tools, philosophers have withdrawn ever more to positions as removed spectators, and not of life, but of some abstracted and disconnected realm of Grand Concepts.
Stanley's response to this problem is, more or less: "So what?" More charitably, in the comments on his article, Stanley remarks that he was out to give a two-pronged response to the crisis:
First[...]to show that philosophy as practiced today is continuous with philosophy as practiced in the past. Secondly, and more importantly[...]to show that philosophy as practiced today and in the past has both had historical importance[...]and contemporary relevance[...]
This is a remarkable non-response to the problem as he has framed it. First, the first point.

Stanley begins with the grand philosophical tradition of the modern period (read: Descartes through Kant), skips over the 19th century, picks up again with Logical Positivism, and then culminates with those philosophers who, presumably, it wouldn't be "odd" to call the geniuses of our field. His decision to ignore the whole 19th century is telling (as is the sin of omission he commits in not including Nancy Cartwright and Peter Galison as philosophers who have received MacArthur grants; it might be innocent, but for polemical purposes I'm going to say it's because they don't work on abstract topics like part/whole relations or modal realism, but on the history and philosophy of science [and maybe even a teensy, tiny bit of sociology [GASP! UNCLEAN!]). As historians of philosophy have focused more and more and more on this era it has become obvious that the 19th century (and not just Frege!) was at least as important as the early modern period (ending with Kant), if not more so, for shaping what we now consider to be both analytic and continental philosophy and our own self-understanding of its subject matter, methodology, and relationship to other disciplines.

This is all just to say that if we are going to use history to try to address the very real perception problem philosophy has, it best not be the type of whig history Stanley engages in. His first point seems to be nothing more than a history designed to let him declare David Lewis and Saul Kripke (read: analytic metaphysicians) to be the real philosophers these days and those other people who get cited a whole lot in the humanities to be the outliers (read: fake philosophers). But, the neglected history shows that, in very important ways, those who get called philosophers these days and those who aren't called philosophers may share the very same roots (or at least very similar ones), and the types of distinctions we take for granted these days within philosophy and between philosophy and other disciplines are often traceable back to very real philosophical disagreements. We shouldn't simply cite the sociological fact that we, as philosophers, identify with Kripke as part of the tradition more so than we do Nietzsche, or Zizek, insofar as Kripke asks the types of questions Descartes asks, since this simply serves to retrench the perception problem philosophy faces: a group who only allows certain people working on certain topics, those deemed sufficiently eternal, abstract, and important (read: currently hot) by philosophers and philosophers alone, to be admitted in the club. Instead, we should try to understand more clearly our own history and how it has shaped our discipline and others, while refraining from the temptation to shape that history to justify what we currently think of as proper philosophy.

Now, Stanley's second response is to show the historical importance and contemporary relevance that philosophy has. In part, this point relies on the fact that philosophers have helped shape our conceptions of modernity (granted) and the usual platitudes about philosophers being good at instilling critical thinking skills in students. I think everyone in the humanities who engages with philosophers knows that we think that about ourselves, but simply stating it again does nothing to address their worries that the type of skills we are teaching students are hopelessly out of touch. So, for example, Stanley states about the value of philosophy:
Instead of teaching the middle-class American person about the actual poverty and oppression in her society, the philosopher forces her to reflect on abstract problem cases in which that person’s intuitions lead her to condemn the behavior of someone who is in fact behaving in all relevant respects similar to her. These are different methods of confronting complacency, but they are no less effective.
But, what is at issue here is why we should, as philosophers, "reflect on abstract problem cases" and not apply our awesome powers of critical thinking to real cases. Why trolley car problems and not "the actual poverty and oppression in society"? Philosophy, as I think Stanley has identified, faces a very real question that should be addressed about how our skills as philosophers are being applied, how they ought to be applied, to what problems they ought to be applied, and how effective they are at "confronting complacency".

Admitting this has nothing to do with giving into post-modern attacks on the conception of eternal truth or accepting the virulent anti-philosophy that supposedly pervades the humanities that are concerned with anthropological issues alone. Bringing up these issues simply shift the burden of proof, throw others off our scent, and provide us with an easy target to attack. But, we have been told over and over again that even considering that there might be a perception problem for philosophy, if there is anything we can do about it, if there is something particularly odd about the identity politics that dominate the field, if we might widen the scope of philosophy to include more problems, if we are perceived oddly because of our aggressive behavior in talks outside the philosophical sphere, or if we have a problem with communicating the importance of our projects to grant/fellowship boards, is somehow giving up the game.

It isn't. And if we want to try to rectify some of the perceived insults and slights that we experience, perhaps we should look at the philosopher in the mirror. After all, as one commenter remarks:
Comments like Stanley's remind me that we philosophers need to take responsibility for how we are perceived elsewhere in the academy. It's not enough to complain about marginalization and insult and injury, when we bring it on ourselves and do it to each other.
--Jaded Dissertator


FemPhil said...

As someone who works on not-"real" philosophy, I appreciate this very much--and I have a hard time working up sympathy for a group of people who regularly go out of their way (at philosophy conferences!) to tell me why my work is not sufficiently philosophical.

Big D said...

"if we are perceived oddly because of our aggressive behavior in talks outside the philosophical sphere"

As someone who specializes in an area of philosophy (non-Western) which requires substantial engagement with scholars outside of the philosophy community, this happens to me from time to time. Things can become very testy when I question a fundamental premise of an argument presented by someone at a conference, as though questioning someone's premises were unfair!

I'm not sure what to do about this specific problem, but there are numerous nods of understanding when people discover that I'm a philosopher.

Anonymous said...

Evelyn Fox Keller should count too...

Jaded Dissertator said...

And so should Vlastos, as others have pointed out...

PTS said...

I used to be a graduate student at flagship state school that had a cutting edge humanities research institute that taught a class that was basically "Survey of Critical Theory."

The first figure in the survey was Kant. My department had three Kant oriented scholars, one essentially world renowned, one that is very good and getting there, and a young professor right out of grad school who was cross-appointed with Women's Studies.

In the entire history of the survey course, none of these individuals has been asked to give the Kant lecture! The last year I was at the school, the "critical" Kant lecture was given by a person in the German department who said he hadn't read the Critiques since grad school and had to go ask the philosophy department for help!

The idea that any of this has anything to do with the rational value of the academic enterprises represented by the humanities or philosophy is a mistake.

This is all about the sociology of the university. Several humanities fields have linked arms to get rare funding/space/sabbatical/etc opportunities and exclude disciplines like philosophy.

The idea that we can fix this just by respectfully discussing our relative strengths and weaknesses and working it out critically underestimates the material basis of the conflict.

We aren't part of the club, and we never will be, except perhaps at the margins.

Anonymous said...

I want to say that this was an excellent analysis of Stanley's piece, and second what FemPhil said. It really is things like Stanley's article that make me want to leave the field of philosophy. One thing we can take heart in is the fact that what is done at the top philosophy PhD programs (i.e. - Stanley's) is often not the sort of thing that philosophers, more generally, do. Many of us work on interesting issues of identity and engage in dialogue with other humanities fields. Will it get us jobs? Maybe. I don't really care - it's the right thing to do and it's the more interesting work, anyway.

Anonymous said...

Excellent reply. I too deeply appreciated John Capps' call to self-criticism.

Anonymous said...

Is this a forum for posting book reviews?

Jaded Dissertator said...

Anon. 9:03 a.m.,

No, it isn't a forum for posting book reviews. It's a forum for discussing issues of interest to professional philosophy. And also to complain, a lot.

Anonymous said...

I agree with FemPhil. The ones for so long doing the marginalizing have now become the ones being marginalized. Sounds like justice to me!

Anonymous said...

There is only one Real Crisis of Philosophy worth discussing: the fact that all of those currently gets PhDs in philosophy are completely screwed in the face of the job market and how they can best go about trying to change careers in the face of this depressing fact.

Anonymous said...

I thought that this was a forum for discussing the state of the philosophy job market, not the state of philosophy as a discipline. Now, there is obviously a relationship between the two, but the scope of the latter far exceeds that of the former. There are many good essays and books out there discussing the topics of whether philosophy is relevant and how scholars in other disciplines perceive philosophy and philosophers. Still, I'd hope that the blog moderators would exercise more restraint. There are proper forums for reviewing books. They include the book review sections of journals (even on-line journals) or personal blogs. Now, what do people think about the new VAP positions in the APA JfP? That's much more relevant to my life. Also, if the blog moderators can post their own book reviews, can others do so too?

Jaded Dissertator said...

Anon. 9:52 a.m.,

Two things: I think you misunderstand the purpose of this blog and I don't understand your point about the book reviews. The latter first.

I did link to a few books, but that was to show the ways in which Stanley's historical response to our perception problem was lacking. I haven't posted a book review, but a response to an article about the way philosophy is perceived in the humanities. I take it, as you note, that this is in some way an important issue to consider for those of us applying to fellowships, humanities post-docs, and the like.

Moreover, the scope of this blog is not simply job market issues. Certainly that's a big part of what we do here, but we've expanded the scope from the old venture to include issues that are of relevance to the profession of philosophy.

So, when things like Stanley's article start getting play in the wider philososphere and they are directly relevant to issues like fellowship funding, or how we are perceived in the academy and the things we, as young philosophers, can do to change that rather than simply sticking our heads in the ground, well, I'm going to post on these things.

Besides, we all know the job market sucks and I'm sure some posts will be forthcoming. Still, in the future I'll try to post exclusively on things that are directly relevant to your own life; just let me know what they are.

Applicantus said...

Seconding Anon 4:57, I was just going to say, a really strange omission of Evelyn Fox-Keller, Jaded Dissertator.

GTChristie said...

I'll be surprised if you don't end up with 1000 comments on this one. It's a lot more fun than job market headache commiseration.
Now if I'm reading you right, it seems the baseline issue is whether the (perennial btw) "crisis" in phi is a perception problem (we're perceived as asbstract/disconnected/superfluous/useless) or a method problem (some do phi abstractly, earning the misperception, while others do it applied and seem to be something other than philosophers for doing so). And our guest on the spit today is someone who wants to defend "more of the same, just change the perception," where our inveterate host here says we should look at the methods. I vote for the latter, and let the perceptions catch up with us later. This generation is about to revolutionize philosophy just as radically as the Enlightenment did. And Stanley's contribution (I'll come back to apologize after I read it I'm sure LOL) is being characterized as old school, more of the same. If phi does not deserve to live, it will die. The only way it can deserve to live is to change (in part) what it does. I have my own theories towards that end, as you do. But it's plain to me, the "Crisis of Philosophy" is that 21st century phi has not been invented yet and 20th century phi was atrocious. Take comfort in the fact that the radicals eventually become the venerables. LOL. And if I have read anybody wrong here, I apologize in advance of your correction.

Anonymous said...

What crisis?

Anonymous said...

GTChristie said "But it's plain to me, the "Crisis of Philosophy" is that 21st century phi has not been invented yet and 20th century phi was atrocious."

I'm intrigued by the last part of this claim. Any chance you'd care to elaborate in what way 20th c phil was atrocious?

ModalPontiff said...

I don't find 20th Cent. philosophy all that atrocious and I doubt most philosophers do either. What is unfortunate is despite the fact that analytic philosophy attempts to seek *clarity* above all else, it has become esoteric to much of the rest of the humanities. Contrast Stanely's piece with Martha Nussbaum's recent article (linked just below stanley's on leiter)

Her suggestion is that this is a time for solidarity among the disciplines in the Humanities, because we are all being judged under a dangerous and flawed calculus of worth. I believe that philosophy benefits greatly from entertaining many different methods and perspectives. I work mainly in analytic philosophy, but I don't know what I would do if my Grad program didn't have several people working in different methods. They make conversations more interesting and, more times then not, they get me to think about issues in new and interesting ways. I think philosophy has the ability to be a flagship for Solidarity in the Humanities because of these reasons. We shouldn't stand back and complain about how no one really gets us and hope that people will change their minds if we get defensive (which is what i take to be stanley's point.)

Anonymous said...

An article similar to Nussbaum's, and equally compelling, by a less well-known philosopher is Ralston's "Recovering Pragmatism's Practicality: Four Views":

GTChristie said...

Anonymous 7:23 said...
I'm intrigued by the last part of this claim. Any chance you'd care to elaborate in what way 20th c phil was atrocious?

Sure I'd care to. Since it's a bit long for a comment, I wrote a special blog to do so. Smokers welcome. I'd prefer not to get into a cannonade over it, but then again if it turns out to be a cannonade of historical proportions, like Descartes vs. Gassendi, I'll go for it. LOL.

Anonymous said...


Russell is one of the good guys in your post. Can you explain what the relevant difference is between Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy or The Principles of Mathematics and Naming and Necessity? Or is Kripke also one of the good guys? And if Kripke is also one of the good guys, then whose philosophy do you find atrocious?

GTChristie said...

Not concerned with mathematics. I'm only pointing out Russell believed in emotivism. That does not make him a good guy in my post. I'm about meta-ethics and practical ethics, and about the relation between the school. I have no idea about Kripke. Is he one of your good guys? Set theory ... Phi of language ... analytical. Here we are, logically empirical again. No he's probably not going to be one of my good guys. Would I be one of his? I don't mean to start a forest fire here. I just mean to list the elements of 20th century philosophy that don't get moral theory anywhere. Since Hume/Smith "self-interest" is at the root of our politics and economics, and what we want in society is justice, what use would I have for Kripke? If you get my drift.

GTChristie said...

I already have responded here to Anon's "Kripke" comment but before Jaded allows it to post, I'm asking him to strike it, and replace it with this:

Anyone who is interested is invited to absorb my little blog and comment there rather than here.

Apropos the Kripke question above: no I cannot "explain the relevant difference ..." Come over to the Moxie Files and explain how that would benefit my 11-point list of atrociousnesses or talk me out of them. Perhaps we do need a 20th century correction to Language, Truth and Logic courtesy of Kripke or somebody else, but I doubt it's essential to ethics (that's my bailiwick) to decide whether a tree can cause its own name, to decide whether it's ethical to cut it down.

Please do come see me, Anon. I'll post whatever ANYBODY says about ANYTHING phi related over there and save Jaded a few winces and smirks over here.

Anyone else? One-word comments accepted, such as "Cool" or even "BS."


Anonymous said...

Odd that other scholars are said to shun philosophers, since they often claim degrees in Philosophy.

I was on ProQuest trying to figure out how many PhDs are given in Philosophy a year. The first answer I got was over 1000, so I limited it to PhDs to get rid of the Masters degrees, but it was still over 800.

This is way too high a number so I started looking at the degrees, and what I realized is that people with degrees in Communication, Theology, Political Science, and Education, as well as many other disciplines, often include "Philosophy" as their subject area, whereas philosophers rarely assert that they have degrees in other subjects.

After controlling for as many of these dissertations, and excluding schools without philosophy programmes, the numbers for a single year were closer to the 400 mark.

Still over-counting I'm sure, but a much more manageable number.

What struck me as odd is the idea that these people must seriously believe themselves to be doing philosophy, though I am sure almost none of them has taken even a single graduate course in Philosophy.