The survival and future of philosophy

Is academic philosophy dead?  Is philosophy itself dead?  Is it even worth bothering about?

Rep. Rick Santorum, R-PA, argued years ago that the study of welding would give you a bigger payoff in terms of earning power than the study of philosophy. 

A lot of political leaders, business executives and college administrators have endorsed that view.  They think that what the country needs is more students of STEM (science technology, engineering, mathematics) topics and fewer liberal arts majors. 

Philosophy is a subject that contributes neither to individual career success, business profits nor national power.  So why bother with it?

Philosophy also has enemies within.  Some teachers of philosophy teach that philosophy teaches nothing—that there are no certain grounds for distinguishing reality from unreality, truth from falsehood or knowledge from ignorance.   If so, why bother with it?

My friend David White e-mailed me an article from the Times (of London) Literary Supplement by a philosophy professor named Crispin Sartwell, pushing back against philosophy’s foes.

The questions themselves arise in some form even among children, and they concern matters that are central to the lives of all of us: the question of how I or we should live is not a scientific question, and it is not so easy, on a sleepless night or on a beautiful day, to set it aside entirely.

That we are not likely to answer such questions once and for all or test our accounts with double-blind studies or particle accelerators, does not entail that the activity is avoidable or that it is profitless.

The fact is that everybody has a philosophy of some kind.  Everyone has some idea of good and bad, truth and falsehood, and some criteria for telling one from the other.

Every parent is a philosopher.  Good parents try to answer their children’s questions about how to live.  All parents teach children how to live, if only by example.  

Some people are unconscious of their philosophies; some have thought them out in detail.  Some philosophies make sense; some don’t.  Some learn from life experience rather than books, and many such have valuable wisdom.  Others learn from conversation, and still others learn from books.

The advantage of learning from books is that you don’t have to start from the beginning.  You don’t have re-invent the wheel.  There’s benefit from knowing what the great minds of the past have thought.

Philosophy may or may not survive as an academic discipline.  Philosophy as a human activity is eternal, as much for scientists, technicians, engineers, mathematicians—and welders—as anyone else.  Hopefully, people will never stop trying to figure out what life is all about, and never stop talking about it and writing about it.

Prof. Sartwell concluded his article thus. 

I take the persistence of philosophy and its return in some form to its traditional terrain to suggest that philosophy as an inquiry into ultimate values (or something along those lines) is irrepressible: we just weren’t going to be able to leave the questions alone forever, or the history of distinguished attempts to address them.

So the internal reasons for philosophy’s survival are not that puzzling.

And even through all the science, the university never entirely stopped viewing (or marketing) itself as a repository of human values and intellectual traditions.

A small philosophy department is an inexpensive way to express that.

Perhaps philosophy, like art, should congratulate itself on being, or on having been, open and critical enough to attack itself in its own entirety, even if, in both cases, many interesting and potentially useful traditional elements were jettisoned almost cavalierly.

In both cases, the traditional elements have slowly been recuperated in new forms; there is a lot of painting in the contemporary galleries.

The overweening scientism was uncritical and defensive, and the zeal of many twentieth-century philosophers against their own kind excessive.

As to Rorty’s notion that philosophy should merge with poetry or fiction, or that it should just admit that it always had been a merely literary genre: well, I find that as irritating in 2021 as I did in 1986, but I’m less worried now that the view will gain currency.

It has itself become a curious artifact in the museum of ideas.

∞∞

Here is the article in full.

Kill or Cure
How philosophy wrote its own obituary, then bounced back
By Crispin Sartwell

     When I arrived with bright eyes and a bushy tail (as I like to think) in the PhD programme in philosophy at the University of Virginia in 1983, I tried to recruit Richard Rorty, the eminent neo-pragmatist, as my dissertation supervisor. He was interested in my proposed topic on John Dewey’s aesthetics, he allowed. But he asked me whether I was sure I wanted to get a degree in philosophy. The very word seemed to make him tired. “It’s over”, he said flatly. “And a good thing too.” He suggested that there was more future in English or comparative literature. He could probably tell that I was no scientist, a young literary critic, then. But there really should be no philosophers in the next generation. I’d never get a job.
     Shortly before I met him, Rorty had written that philosophy would go the way of theology as a university department and as an area of inquiry. “Once grace, salvation, and the Divine Nature were subjects of study”, he wrote, “now the fact that they were so is the subject of study. Once theology was a pure and autonomous subject; now religion lies at the mercy of psychology, history, anthropology, and whatever other discipline cares to jump in”. Philosophy, which had spent these past few millennia trying to connect human experience to an external, transhuman reality and some sort of secure ground for our values, was interesting primarily as a historical curiosity or a genre of literature. As he wrote in “Keeping Philosophy Pure”, “if philosophy comes to an end, it will be because that picture is as remote from us as the picture of man as the child of God. If that day comes, it will seem as quaint to treat a man’s knowledge as a special relation between his mind and its object as it now does to treat his goodness as a special relation between his soul and God”.
     “If that day comes” has a nice scriptural quality. The end of a subject to which he’d devoted his life was, for Rorty, something devoutly to be wished for, but it was also a historical inevitability, or it had already happened, whether any particular philosophy professor or grad student thought so or not. “No matter how dark the time, we shall no longer turn to the philosophers for rescue as our ancestors turned to priests”, he predicted. “We shall turn instead to the poets and the engineers, the people who produce startling new projects for achieving the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” No wonder he looked at me funny when I said I was interested in the nature of beauty.

“Small Box” by Donald Judd, 1969

     Old disciplines die, occasionally, and there are no professors of alchemy or geomancy at Harvard (I think …). But disciplines rarely attempt to end themselves; it’s the sort of move that might persuade the provost to defund your department.        .   ..

     Nevertheless, philosophy in the twentieth century took a serious crack at public self-immolation, and many of the major figures in various traditions – Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Peirce, Dewey, Carnap, Derrida, Adorno, Rorty, Ayer, Foucault – expressed extreme misgivings about the whole history of their own discipline, which had got off on a terribly wrong foot with Plato, taken a disastrous turn with Descartes, and been dispatched by Hegel, or Nietzsche, or Wittgenstein. There was, they held in one form or another, a nest of nonsense or dishonesty or oppression at the heart of the whole thing. Many of them declared that philosophy was already over, or that they were here to bring it to an end, or that it had never actually existed in the first place. Maybe it was merely a genre of literature, or a primitive protoscience. At any rate, it had certainly been exposed and superseded.
     Indeed, perhaps the most widely agreed upon and clearly expressed conviction among major figures of twentieth-century philosophy in all its strands was the wrongness of their own discipline, from its origins and to its foundations.
     Ludwig Wittgenstein is often considered the century’s greatest philosopher, which is a bit ironic in that he has the peculiar distinction of having killed philosophy twice, early and later on in his career, in completely different ways. “Most propositions and questions, that have been written about philosophical matters, are not false, but senseless”, he wrote in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921). “We cannot, therefore, answer questions of this kind at all, but only state their senselessness.” And that was his solution to all the major problems that had emerged in Western philosophy: there had never been any problems in the first place. By the time he got to Philosophical Investigations (1954), Wittgenstein had changed his mind about many things, but not about ending philosophy. “What is your aim in philosophy? – to shew the fly [the philosopher] the way out of the fly-bottle [philosophy].” “The real discovery is the one that makes me capable of stopping doing philosophy when I want to. – The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself in question.” In both incarnations, Wittgenstein took philosophy to be an illness, a source of suffering, something to be diagnosed and treated rather than refuted.
     Thus, analytic philosophy developed paradoxically, by negating philosophy, and twentieth- century continental philosophy did likewise. Heidegger titled one his essays “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking”. Whether or not he meant that the task of thinking had come to an end, he certainly meant that philosophy, under the auspices of which western culture had gone badly wrong and misplaced Being, was finished; Nietzsche had administered the killing blow. In some sense, the entire tradition had been a mistake, leading us eventually into the technological nightmare we now inhabit. “What does it mean that philosophy in the present age [circa 1966] has entered its final stage?”, he asks, though that appears to be a question that begs the question.
     The jettisoning of Western philosophy becomes political in many places (throughout much Marxist theory, for example). Consider Derrida, who wrote in Margins of Philosophy: “Metaphysics – the white mythology which reassembles and reflects the culture of the West: the white man takes his own mythology, Indo-European mythology, his own logos, that is, the mythos of his idiom, for the universal form of that he must still wish to call Reason”. I’m not entirely certain how to interpret all of that, but it’s clear that the Western “logocentric” tradition (philosophy, in short) is being roundly historicized and roundly condemned.
     Now, you can’t be an anti-science scientist, exactly, or an anti-religious priest. But a possible parallel is provided by art, which turned against itself in many places and phases in the twentieth century, or even tried to end itself – to merge into the culture as a whole or make itself dissipate like a mist. I think of Marcel Duchamp, buying that urinal at the local plumbing supply store and then hanging it on a gallery wall; Robert Rauschenberg erasing a drawing by Willem de Kooning; Andy Warhol destroying the boundary between high art and pop culture; Donald Judd reducing the history of sculpture to a series of boxes; Rirkrit Tiravanija serving Thai food as a performance piece; John Cage presenting silence as music, and so on.
     Perhaps twentieth-century philosophy, unbeknown to itself, participated in the high modernist impulse to erase or negate the past and start anew. The anti-philosophy avatar Wittgenstein was greeted as a genius in quite the modernist vein: as a sort of Pablo Picasso or James Joyce. That sort of thoroughly modern genius displays his (and it is usually his) super-excellent importance by erasing, overcoming, transcending the past. But other factors – both internal to the discipline and coming at it from outside – led to its dedicating decades to diagnosing and bleeding itself. The internal pressure might be thought of as a growing sense of the discipline as having grown both overly refined and overly elaborate: a kind of aesthetic critique. Reading J. M. E. McTaggart is enough to make anyone reach for Occam’s razor. And then again, there was the usual pressure on younger scholars (G. E. Moore at the turn of the century, Wittgenstein in 1919) to outdo their teachers. Here that took the distinctively modernist form of a sweeping negation of all that had gone before. Nor was the impulse merely Oedipal. The dadaist Max Ernst wrote that “a horrible futile war [the First World War] had robbed us of five years of our existence. We had experienced the collapse into ridicule and shame of everything represented to us as just, true, and beautiful”. And so Dada turned against beauty, or art turned against art. Perhaps Wittgenstein, who served in the trenches, had a similar experience of alienation from his own traditions.
     The primary external or institutional pressure on philosophy, mounting as the nineteenth century turned towards the twentieth, was the success of science at providing confirmable knowledge that was often concretely applicable. It’s a familiar story that Aristotle took on all of human knowledge in every discipline that existed in his time and invented some new ones as well (even “physics”, perhaps), but that by the seventeenth century the “special sciences” were spinning themselves off from “natural philosophy” as matters of particular expertise. By the late nineteenth century, the term “science” coalesced around a series of disciplines and a repertoire of fairly precise empirical techniques. (Earlier in the century, the term “science” is still used quite loosely: Hegel called his own philosophy science, for example.) Roughly, philosophy and the special sciences traded places epistemologically: science was thought to be the primary or even the only source of human knowledge. Many philosophers agreed.
     If so, the condition of philosophy in the academy around 1900 was intolerable. Kantians and Hegelians purported to explain the structure of history and consciousness in ever more profuse and obscure terms; the philosophy faculties of Oxford and Cambridge, for example, were dominated by T. H. Green and F. H. Bradley. No one could point to any sort of well-confirmed theory of anything, and as one read the work, one started to suspect that the discipline had slipped into senselessness.
     In the first presidential address to the American Philosophical Association (1902), J. E. Creighton gave a typical declaration:
     If we look at the country as a whole it does not seem too much to say that philosophy does not enjoy the general recognition, even among educated men, that is accorded to many of the other sciences, nor is the philosophical teacher and writer universally conceded to be a specially trained scholar whose opinions in his own field are as much entitled to respect as those of the physicist or biologist in his special domain.
     Some thirty-five years later, A. J. Ayer flatly declared in Language, Truth and Logic that “There is no field of experience which cannot, in principle, be brought under some form of scientific law, and no type of speculative knowledge about the world which it is, in principle, beyond the power of science to give. We have already gone some way to substantiate this proposition by demolishing metaphysics … With this we complete the overthrow of speculative philosophy”. He ends the book with this: “What we must recognize is that it is necessary for a philosopher to become a scientist … if he is to make any contribution towards the growth of human knowledge”.
     Ayer and his contemporary Heidegger didn’t agree on much, even a vocabulary with which they might have communicated with one another. But they agreed that, in Heidegger’s words,
     “The development of the sciences is at the same time their separation from philosophy and the establishment of their independence. This process belongs to the completion of philosophy … The sciences are now taking over as their own task what philosophy in the course of its history tried to present in certain places, and even there only inadequately, that is, ontologies of the various regions of beings (nature, history, law, art).”
     In the first golden age of scientism (perhaps we are now in the second), then, philosophy faced a trilemma: perhaps it is itself a science (and so needs extreme immediate reform); or perhaps it can serve as an aid or “propaedeutic” to science; or perhaps (not being suited to deliver any knowledge itself) philosophy should cease operations immediately. The first of these approaches was taken up, among many others, by the pragmatists. The movement’s founder Charles Sanders Peirce wrote in “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities” (1868): “Metaphysicians will all agree that metaphysics has reached a pitch of certainty far beyond that of the physical sciences; – only they can agree upon nothing else … Philosophy ought to imitate the successful sciences in its methods, so far as to proceed only from tangible premises which can be subjected to careful scrutiny”.
     The logical positivists, W. V. O. Quine and many others, meanwhile, took the approach of treating philosophy as a “handmaiden to the sciences” (in Locke’s phrase). “Philosophy has long suffered”, wrote Quine in “Has Philosophy Lost Contact with People?” (1979), “as hard sciences have not, from a wavering consensus on professional competence. Students of the heavens are separable into astrologers and astronomers as readily as are the minor domestic ruminants into sheep and goats, but the separation of philosophers into sages and cranks seems to be more sensitive to frames of reference.” So, he argued, philosophy had better narrow its focus to clarifying the terms and projects of empirical science.
     Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the nature and usefulness of philosophy, as well as the security of its spot in the academy, have often been somewhat tentative, and it has often been held by its practitioners to be in crisis. But the most remarkable thing about philosophy’s century long attempt at self-destruction was that it did not succeed – that philosophy never lost its place in the disciplinary matrix. It has never quite, as so many of these figures prophesied, been transformed from a going discourse into an historical artifact. It might not even be too strong to say that philosophy survived by destroying itself, or at least by emphatically disciplining itself for a century or so to cure itself of certain excesses and get itself back to being fighting fit. As Nietzsche famously pointed out, to create anything at this late stage of history (1880), you have to clear the ground of a lot of debris.
     Indeed, the persistent and urgent calls to end philosophy – or to reform it radically – ended up as a part of its evolving disciplinary identity; and at this stage Wittgenstein and Heidegger and Rorty take up a place in intellectual histories that connect them backwards to Plato and forward to the journal articles and conference papers of today. These figures continued philosophy by trying to negate it.    

     Nevertheless, I don’t think the self-destructive impulse was adequately motivated. The idea of prohibiting subject matters and modes of inquiry a priori – ruling out in advance all the general or theoretical reflection that might ever emerge on the arts, or on politics, or on the relation of human consciousness to the world, as unempirical and therefore senseless – strikes me as irrational, even if the speculation had grown excessive and problematic. The questions themselves arise in some form even among children, and they concern matters that are central to the lives of all of us: the question of how I or we should live is not a scientific question, and it is not so easy, on a sleepless night or on a beautiful day, to set it aside entirely. That we are not likely to answer such questions once and for all or test our accounts with double-blind studies or particle accelerators, does not entail that the activity is avoidable or that it is profitless. I don’t think I could set such questions aside even if I wanted to, and I don’t think the Derridas or Carnaps or Rortys have given me adequate reasons why I should.
     The analytic philosophy of the twentieth century slowly started to revive the sort of speculation, particularly in value theory, that Wittgenstein and Quine had tried to suppress. It didn’t refute the prohibition but reconstructed the areas of inquiry on a clearer basis, using the analytic toolkit. John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971) is a good example of one sort of response: laborious, perhaps, but surely not entirely meaningless. Rawls re-opened sections of the history of philosophy, especially Kant, and soon there was a blossoming of analytic ethics in a Kantian vein, à la Derek Parfit or Christine Korsgaard.
     Saul Kripke and David Lewis took the techniques of Frege and Wittgenstein along on their flights of speculative metaphysics. Arthur Danto and Nelson Goodman used them to explore questions about the nature and meaning of art. Philosophy, in very much its traditional outlines, had survived, though it had been chastened. To take another example, by the early 2000s the movement known as “speculative realism” (associated with Graham Harman) had emerged in continental philosophy, doing in a straightforward way the grand metaphysics that Derrida had apparently deconstructed. Rorty himself made a “political turn” as he went on; pretty soon he was praising Rawls and writing such moral/political tracts as Achieving Our Country.
     The pro-philosophy backlash perhaps coincided initially with a return to the humanistic disciplines and suspicion of science associated with the counter-culture of the 1960s. The positivists’ scientism could not have appealed to Thoreauvian hippies, and perhaps that helped philosophy departments stay afloat even through the disciplinary self-destruction. It definitely wasn’t philosophy professors’ contribution to neuroscience, I feel, that kept us holding on.
     I take the persistence of philosophy and its return in some form to its traditional terrain to suggest that philosophy as an inquiry into ultimate values (or something along those lines) is irrepressible: we just weren’t going to be able to leave the questions alone forever, or the history of distinguished attempts to address them. So, the internal reasons for philosophy’s survival are not that puzzling. And even through all the science, the university never entirely stopped viewing (or marketing) itself as a repository of human values and intellectual traditions. A small philosophy department is an inexpensive way to express that.
     Perhaps philosophy, like art, should congratulate itself on being, or on having been, open and critical enough to attack itself in its own entirety, even if, in both cases, many interesting and potentially useful traditional elements were jettisoned almost cavalierly. In both cases, the traditional elements have slowly been recuperated in new forms; there is a lot of painting in the contemporary galleries. The overweening scientism was uncritical and defensive, and the zeal of many twentieth-century philosophers against their own kind excessive. As to Rorty’s notion that philosophy should merge with poetry or fiction, or that it should just admit that it always had been a merely literary genre: well, I find that as irritating in 2021 as I did in 1986, but I’m less worried now that the view will gain currency. It has itself become a curious artifact in the museum of ideas.

Crispin Sartwell is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. His most recent book is Entanglements: A system of philosophy, 2017.

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8 Responses to “The survival and future of philosophy”

  1. Geri Lawhon Says:

    Very interesting post and viewpoints on philosophy. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Vincent Says:

    Thanks for this, Phil. How strange! Another recent article in the TLS refers to a book by Prof. Anthony O’Hear,

    one of several recent philosophers who have turned their backs on the idea that their subject is a purely academic discipline, to embrace the old but still attractive principle that it entails a personal quest for meaning. He believes also that philosophy rests on religious foundations. Transcendence, Creation and Incarnation, an important and often riveting book . . .

    It’s not an easy read for me as a layman but the article gets it right: “important and often riveting”. I’d go further and say that despite the intricate academic nature of O’Hear’s book—even the title is daunting—it could not be more relevant to college students and thus the world. For it is these who will be tackling the obvious ills of humanity after we are gone.

    So important that I’ve made it a personal priority to read, learn and digest the contents of Transcendence, Creation and Incarnation; then to write a review. It might take a long time.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Vincent Says:

    I meant to say “Read, mark, learn & inwardly digest” – a phrase impressed upon us countless times at school, and (as I’ve just learned) coming from Thomas Cranmer:

    “Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them … “

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ted Lechman Says:

    Q: Is philosophy worthwhile?
    A: Yes it is. The older one gets, the more important it becomes.

    Q: Is academic philosophy dead?
    A: Yes. Completely. Philosophers in colleges/universities are like diocesan seminary directors – non believers who go through the motions. As Rorty correctly pointed out – western philosophy and the priesthood rose together, and fell together. Their cause of death was modernism.

    Q: Should academic philosophy be resurrected?
    A: No, not at all. Philosophers are trained as historians of ideas rather than as philosophers – much like musicologists. Or else they are translators of other philosophers.

    Q: How is philosophy being taught in academia?
    A; Teachers who show students videos in class rather than reading plato’s dialogs and Aristotle’s works will be cast in the lowest circle of hell, along with traitors,

    Q: Is learning welding or another trade preferable to getting a degree in philosophy or other liberal arts.
    A: Definitely. Why make <$15/hour as a barista or a checkout person, or an Amazon delivery shlep while holding down $200k in student debt from a mediocre institution. Better to have a skilled trade at a sustainable wage that supports a family, and then join a philosophy (or literature) study group in your spare time. The only purpose of liberal education is to saddle working class students under the false promise of escape from the working class – they actually end up lower than the working class – as unskilled service laborers.

    Q: Are Wittgenstein or Russell or Dewey or Rorty the greatest philosophers of the 20th Century?
    A: No – they are the enemies of philosophy, from within. The greatest 20th century philosophers are Heidegger, the last of the PreSocratics, and the latter, ontological, Alain Badiou.

    Q: Is Pragmatism, Marxism, Materialism, Anarchism,, Libertarianism, Empiricism, Logical Positivism, postmodernism, objectivism, etc. valid subjects of philosophy?
    A: No. They are the correct opinions of the age, the passing fad.of the herd. Not the perennial philosophy.

    Q: So how should philosophy be pursued then, if not by taking on student debt and enrolling in college courses?
    A: By applying critical thinking, you will find a way.

    Leonard Pinth Garnell, III

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Lazaros Giannas Says:

    Isn’t academic philosophy a contradiction in terms?

    I share your concerns about philosophy in general though!

    Like

  6. poojakhatri0446 Says:

    Such a good post..

    Like

  7. The survival and future of philosophy – mostly philosophy Says:

    […] The survival and future of philosophy […]

    Like

  8. the glennster Says:

    Philosophy and religion are ineradicable traits of being human. That’s why the commies feel threatened by them. Check out my philosophy posts ok? https://creativity413282887.wordpress.com/2021/06/07/a-list-of-my-philosophy-essays/

    Like

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