Q: What about after you’ve destroyed philosophy, though? What about once trolling has destroyed everything but trolling itself…. leaving nothing but a desolate wasteland haunted by the howling winds and the ghosts of extinct disciplines. Is that what you really want?
– J. Elson
A: Yes, but you forgot the lamentations of their women.
(Note: These days the wreaker of havoc obviously must also be willing to accept male lamentations, but analytic philosophy is notoriously dominated by married feminist dudes.)
With the collapse of the world economy and Western Civilization generally, my vendetta against academic economics is now less likely to be ascribed to eccentricity, mental illness, or a grudge, but for most, my vendetta against philosophy is still suspect.Why should something as “quixotic”, “mostly harmless”, and null as academic philosophy rouse any strong feelings whatsoever?
Because of the opportunity cost. Harmless-and-null philosophy is crowding out something better, and has been doing so since 1950 or so. Philosophy did not have to be what it is today; it was made what it is by purposeful, destructive action. The social institution of philosophy (the biz, the forms of production) has distorted philosophy itself. The job has destroyed the work. Philosophy could be a resource for the educated, thoughtful adult, but it isn’t.
Brian Leiter is indeed a crap philosopher of no real intellectual interest, but my struggle is not with him personally. His institutional importance dwarfs his person and his work. He is the Second Assistant Secretary Philosophy Commissar, and despite his lowly philosophical status, he’s in command because he controls the Philosophy Gourmet Report. This system of rankings provides the default standard according to which the philosophical nomenklatura decide hiring, firing, and promotion. By reading this report, philosophers and would-be philosophers at every level down to high school can find out who’s who and what’s what, what’s hot and what’s not. The Leiter Report displays and produces the interlocking, mutually reinforcing hierarchies by which students choose schools, schools choose students, and schools hire and promote.
NOTE: Since my crusade began I’ve repeatedly had to deal with two standard retorts: first, that I don’t enough about contemporary analytic philosophy to criticize it, and second, that the stuff I’m looking for is really out there, but that I just haven’t found it. My recent good-faith efforts to understand analytic philosophy better have been entirely in response to these two criticisms. I’ve never promised to change my ideas about what philosophy can and should be; I’ve just committed myself to verifying that the stuff I’m looking for really isn’t there.
So what’s wrong with contemporary academic philosophy, and what do I think that it should be instead?
1. Philosophers today (like most other scholars) systematically narrow the scope of their questioning in order to get more precise and more certain results. This is analyticity, or a version of it anyway. The process of narrowing iterates repeatedly, until finally you’re discussing sub-sub-sub-questions of original questions which have been long forgotten. Beyond that, often enough the analytic method is further ornamented with fanciful counterfactual hypotheticals which themselves can become independent objects of study. The outcome of all this is a perfect Potemkin village of conditionally rigorous conclusions which are irrelevant to anything actual or actually imaginable.
To systematically broaden the scope of questioning in order to bring in additional factors and produce more realistic descriptions of reality, while keeping as much rigor as possible (but not the maximum rigor) would be an equally valid philosophical strategy — the contextual, constructive or exploratory strategy — but professional philosophers at every level (above all during the Pavlovian early years) are strongly discouraged from doing this.
2. This general philosophy would be readable and usable for thoughtful, educated adults whose training is in non-philosophical fields; in various ways it would help them understand the world better. Philosophy would regain its adjacency to history, literature, maxims, wisdom literature, aphorisms, reflections, meditations, pamphleteering, social criticism, utopias, etc. and would quit pretending to be a expert specialized science (which Aaron Preston has shown it has never been). This philosophy would not privilege proof and science over persuasion, and could be constitutive of persons and peoples.
Historically, some philosophers have been read for pleasure and others not. (It is not a question merely of difficulty). In general, philosophy today models itself on the less readable philosophers: Aristotle, the scholastics, Kant and the Kantians, and the more barbarous writings of the early moderns. Many authors once read as philosophers are now classified by philosophers as mere literature, and others (e.g. William James) are read purely historically with respect to specific contributions relevant to the institutional philosophy of today. (According to Wiki, the philosophy pros blame Russell for giving too much attention to early philosophy in his History of Western Philosophy; I find this highly amusing).
3. The usability of philosophy to which I refer is usability in practice. People go through their lives living mostly routinely, but very frequently they can find themselves facing an unknown, unpredictable future which is to some degree capable of being formed by human initiatives; such cases range from the trivial and purely personal on up to the historically decisive and weighty. At these times they can only rely on the “philosophy” (in the popular sense) which they’ve developed in the course of their lives on the basis of their experience and knowledge. In my opinion, being a resource of for someone forming a personal philosophy is one of philosophy’s primary tasks, but contemporary philosophy minimizes this aspect when it doesn’t aggressively reject it.
4. I do not know how original this next thought is, but in my opinion the situation just described in #3 is the source of ethics and normativity. When facing an open future the questions “What should I do?”, “What should we do?”, “Who am I?”, “Who are we?”, in one form or another, are unavoidable. The practical is the ethical, the ethical is the practical, and both are inextricable from and constitutive of personal being, belonging, and social being. This orientation toward an unknown and open future should be the anchor and reference point for all thinking on normativity, but for most contemporary philosophy it is not. By and large Anglo-American philosophy during the last half-century or more has avoided these questions, or has apodictically declared them to be undiscussable and nonsensical, or has muddied them up with fake precision to the extent that they are difficult or impossible to do anything with.
5. The situation in #3, facing an open, contingent future partly formable by human actions and human choices, renders some traditional goals of philosophy and science obsolete or even potentially harmful. If the turning points are real turning points, and if there really are two or more importantly different possible outcomes at many different points in time, of which only one can be realized, and if the actual outcome is contingent and systematically unpredictable, and if there are diverging paths from every moment of decision through new moments of decision onward into the future, then there are important kinds of Truth which are in practice impossible to attain or even state (i.e., possible only in the sense that a million monkeys might eventually type the works of Shakespeare). Tomorrow becomes a single particular partnered with one or more other ghost particulars which never came into being and never will, and the understanding of tomorrow’s outcome reality becomes simply a recognition that it’s there, rather than its explanation in terms of Truth. (Davidson talked about events as particulars two decades or so ago, but no one seems to have gone anywhere with it.)
6. The kind of question described in #5 is much discussed in many disciplines, but I think that there’s often an attempt to minimize or deny its impact, for example by convergence theories, fluctuation theories, or many-world theories, which all allow you to preserve Truth while making change, indeterminacy, real multiple possibility, and human choice insignificant. Be that as it may, questions of the type “What should I do?”, “What should we do?”, “Who am I?”, “Who are we?” are not truth-functional, and do presuppose an open future of real uncertainty. And since the future is by definition as yet undecided, even simple practical statements like “I’m going to build a shed in the back yard” cannot be true, since they are about an act that hasn’t happened and might not, and a thing that doesn’t exist and might never. Projects and proposals can’t be truths, but life consists above all of projects and proposals, and if philosophy is to be usable in the way that I’ve proposed that it should be, the insistence on Truth is a fatal impediment. Personal identities, group identities, and individual affiliations with groups are all projects and proposals, and group-formation is a multi-dimensional, multi-player process of persuasion involving much more than Truth. (Whether this has anything to do with Wittgenstein’s assertion that there cannot be a propositional ethics I don’t know; I think that it does.)
7. Philosophy should be a philosophy of wholes. Holism is distinguishable from generalism, though similar to it, but it’s above all contrastive to universalism. By and large universalism consists of rigorous truths which are everywhere and always true, and truths of this kind (for example in mathematics and logic) are found by narrowing the topic and making the definitions more abstract until finally rigorous Truth is achieved. Generalism uses the opposite method: it expands and contexts the topic, and makes the language more concrete until a realistic (but less certain) description of a broader reality is achieved.
8. The whole is more than just the general, however; in fact, a whole can be a part. A philosophical whole is an attempted description of everything about a topic — in the most general sense, everything about everything, but most often just everything about some specific question, particular or situation.
Holistic statements are always false. You always leave something out or get something wrong, and in any case, the world’s always changing, so that even if an ambitious holistic statement happened to be true today, it wouldn’t be tomorrow. Any holistic statement — above all any generalist holistic statement — immediately elicits opposition, and this is of necessity. Some will find the proffered holism suggestive, or usable with adaptations; others will find it thoroughly objectionable — and the debate will continue. Nobody should ever take holistic statements at face value.
9. So why do we want wholes at all? For practical reasons; we have no choice. We live our lives in accordance with our own holistic schemes. When we make decisions, we make on them on the basis of the whole we have constructed to model our own world, and a new holism presented by someone else might help us to improve the one we already have. No matter what, holism is a a gamble; it accepts responsibility for everything about a topic, including aspects not yet understood, and does the best it can. If we fail or screw up, we cannot (or should not) say things like “How was I to know that? Nobody told me about that” unless the unknown factor was something which was in actual fact unknowable. Holism deals with realities as they present themselves.
10. “Personal philosophy” is holistic, and public philosophy is also holistic, and holistic philosophies developed within the university could conceivably be resources for either of them. But they seldom are. One present-day impediment is the liberal dogma that individuals are all strangers to one another, so that personal philosophies are subjective and purely private, which makes it an intrusion on privacy and a violation of freedom for anyone to try to influence someone else at any very deep level. (People today are exceedingly scrupulous about “not telling others how to live their lives”.) A second major impediment is the scientistic dogma that every statement that’s not a statement of fact is meaningless hand-waving nonsense, and you still do find many traces of this in academic philosophy and social science. But the most destructive impediment at all to the development of a usable philosophy in the universities is the enforced principle that only truth is important, and that all truths are specialist truths.
11. Holistic thinking is managerial thinking. Specialist thinking is subaltern thinking — specialists are docile bodies and attendant lords. (See Jeff Schmidt, Disciplined Minds.) Even in philosophy, which I think should be the broadest and most independent field of study, the university trains philosophers to do their jobs according to apodictic rules (paradigms) which are not to be questioned or even to be discussed much, but are only to be obeyed. The university does not teach freedom or free citizenship, and for good reason: free minds make managements’ job more difficult, and nowadays everything is managed. The university is managed by university managers, politics is managed by PhD politicos, and government is nothing but management by experts. This is the golden age of management, and for the nomenklatura it’s really terribly unfortunate that Western Civilization is collapsing right at the point when they were ready to achieve total world domination.
12. What do the managers — the real men — study? Well, they’re all practical, high-testosterone men, some of them (e.g. Karl Rove) with very little formal education indeed. Managers are as smart and hard-working as academics, and they resent academic arrogance and take pleasure in making academics look bad (not that it’s hard). Their educations seem mostly to be in engineering, economics, finance, law, and mushy quasi-fields like international relations, public relations, and management. Graduates of Bible colleges are probably as common as humanities graduates.
And without much help from philosophy or any of the liberal arts, they’ve all patched together their own holistic personal philosophies, and based on what we know, these personal philosophies are horrible indeed. And they rule the world, and we obey them.
13. So the world fares on, its docile, jellified citizens obediently performing their assigned tasks and intermittently emitting subjective, purely-private grumbles about the management they always obey. High above them, the real decisions are being made by real men, and down at street level unemployed humanities majors scuffle for scraps and remember the far-off days when anyone gave a shit what they did.
What would you do with actually-existing philosophy if you were to replace Leiter as Philosophy Commissar and were empowered to take drastic measures?
Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Language, and Logic would be reassigned to psychology, linguistics, mathematics, AI, and Computer Science, as appropriate. A few liaison functionaries would be left behind. Philosophy of Science and Political Philosophy would be sent to reeducation camps, and those few capable of reeducation would be retained. Ethicists working in hospitals, etc. would be left there. The other Ethicists together with the Metaphysicians and Epistemologists would be sent to Happy Puppy Farm, where incontinent old dogs are sent when the family gets tired of cleaning up after them, and there they would live out their days frisking and sporting in the happy meadows.
What kind of philosopher are you?
I have very limited involvement in “Continental” philosophy (Foucault, Nietzsche, some Marxism). This can get a bit sticky, because Continental Philosophy is the Hamilton Burger / Washington Generals / Workers and Peasants Party fall guy in today’s cartelized philosophical world, and non-analytic philosophers are usually assumed to be Continentals.
My own interests are pragmatism, “practical philosophy”, left social criticism, Chinese Philosophy, and process philosophy (and the theory of historicity). All of these tendencies are marginal in today’s philosophy biz, and process philosophy approaches extinction.
In reality I’m not a philosopher at all, of course, but a pamphleteer, polemicist, satirist, and guttersnipe. That ship has sailed.
Do you claim that every present-day Anglo-American philosopher fails on every point of your denunciation?
Too goddamn many of them fail on too goddamn counts. Many fail in every single one. Charles Taylor passes my tests, with a B- on readability. Toulmin is out of philosophy now. Rorty is dead. Putnam is moving in the right direction, but he’s a hundred years old and still seems too meta.
Is there anything that you’d like to say to your critics?
When making your criticism, please cpecify whether you think that what I’m saying a.) not right, b.) partly right but exaggerated, c.) in many respects right, but that’s not a bad thing at all, d.) right, but please shut up because there’s nothing we can do about it and it’s too depressing, or e.) not proven.
If e.), shut up and get out of here, because of course it’s not proven.