About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Talking Cure: The Political Model and The Dialectical Model

by Steve Neumann

I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States. Alexis de Tocqueville, On Democracy, 1835

When Alexis de Tocqueville surveyed the social and intellectual terroir of the fledgling United States of America in the early 1830s, he noticed that the independence of mind the Americans possessed led them to mistrust and even reject received opinions and philosophical systems. Though it could be argued that he had at least a bit of a favorable view of the Americans on that account (even while wondering aloud if it would ultimately lead to their demise), I think it’s clear that the American culture of today, nearly 200 years later, has obviously suffered from this lack of engagement with more rigorous philosophical thought. 

Nevertheless, three philosophers (all from the University of North Texas) recently argued in Inside Higher Ed that it may be time for the proceedings of the Ivory Tower to open itself up to official review and evaluation from the plebeian herd. It’s an interesting suggestion, one that would result in a sharp turn from the general trend of philosophical discourse and professionalization since the Renaissance, which was further solidified by the 19th Century German university system.

The authors’ argument rests mainly on the fact that the discipline of philosophy is “a highly technical, inward-looking field that values intellectual rigor over other values such as relevance or timeliness,” and on the emergence of a trend of criticism directed toward the standard peer review process and “academic accountability” anyway. They say that philosophers should take advantage of this trend by mentioning “a variety of ethical, epistemological, and political issues surrounding peer review worthy of philosophic reflection,” but insist that “the most pressing is the question of whether we should extend the notion of peer beyond disciplinary bounds.”

Though their essay is ultimately disappointing because they never really give a satisfactory reason as to why this is the most pressing question, I think a more interesting issue concerns the decentralization of philosophical inquiry and discourse itself. I’d like to offer some thoughts of my own, in regard to both professional philosophy and “lay philosophers” like me.

Getting back to de Tocqueville for a moment, he noticed that the social conditions of the Americans of his time didn’t allow for “speculative studies”; he observed that, since they enjoyed considerable success in navigating their practical lives, this led them to conclude that just about everything in life could be explained or grasped, and grasped by them. The necessary pragmatism of their day-to-day material and social existence showed that they didn’t need to “extract their philosophical method from books; they have found it in themselves.” They took from traditional (non-religious) sources of wisdom only what proved useful for pragmatic ends. And the fluidity with which individuals in an egalitarian, democratic society move about caused them sometimes to lose “the trace of the ideas of [their] forefathers” altogether.

What de Tocqueville is describing is nearly identical to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s observations in his essay “Self-Reliance,” which was published not long after de Tocqueville’s “On Democracy.”  Emerson and de Tocqueville were contemporaries (born in 1803 and 1805, respectively), and the similarities in thought come as no surprise. One wonders what de Tocqueville thought of someone like Emerson, a homegrown philosopher. To my knowledge de Tocqueville never mentioned Emerson in his writings, although he surely must have known of him.

It’s clear to me that in America today there is still a large (or at least vocal) contingent of these what you might call “self-reliant patriots.” I’m looking primarily at you, Tea Party; and, of course, other political Libertarians. I suppose that’s always been the case to some degree, but are these modern self-reliant patriots cut from the same cloth as those of Emerson’s and de Tocqueville’s time?

Without getting into a detailed analysis of early American social and political life, or creating a lengthy taxonomy of modern thinkers, I’d like to focus more on the average, workaday citizen earning a living, raising a family, doing her best to keep abreast of social and political trends and events via major media outlets (CNN, FOX, ABC, NBC, and maybe even the New York Times and Washington Times; but not outlets like Mother Jones or The Weekly Standard). I want to focus on the people I imagine make up the majority of the electorate, whatever their political allegiance.

It seems (and this is based partly on personal experience, partly on news reports and polls from all over the political spectrum) that these people form their opinions about religion, culture, science, etc., largely from a combination of their reading of the major media and the ensuing discussions they have (if they have them at all) with members of their social circle. They may occasionally come across articles and essays from Malcolm Gladwell or David Brooks, but I doubt they’re reading books by academic philosophers or philosophically-literate scientists. 

This is what I encounter most in my life: I work and live primarily among college-educated, middle-class people who strive for the ever-elusive work/life balance. Between earning a living, raising a family, and making time for hobbies, there never seems to be time or energy left over to devote to traditional intellectual pursuits. Indeed, when I go on at length about moral philosophy or the philosophy of space-time, they’re more likely to tell me that life is simply too short to waste on pondering such things. 

I can hardly blame them. I don’t have a spouse or children (with the exception of my beautiful eight year-old German Shepherd Dog), so I’m free to devote most of my leisure time to intellectual pursuits. This means dividing my time between the vagaries of my day-to-day existence and the pleasures of “intellectual adventuring.” Clearly others feel they derive enough philosophical guidance from their religion or other “pop philosophies” that are easily accessible (and digestible) from the likes of Oprah or Dr. Oz. I don’t intend the term “pop philosophies” in a necessarily pejorative sense because, as I noted in the previous paragraph, the predicament most middle-class people find themselves in lends itself quite naturally to the simplicity and purported practicality of these philosophies, and they may be efficacious, to a point.

So to recap: I imagine the “average citizen” to be college-educated, busy as hell with work and family and hobbies, absorbing — sometimes inadvertently, sometimes intentionally — “philosophical” insight from major media outlets in tv show, blog post, or essay form. I don’t see them seeking out and reading book-length theses by academic philosophers. Additionally, I imagine that the information they are processing is either accepted outright (due to confirmation bias — yes, we all have it), or is put through a very brief dialectical analysis that doesn’t go beyond one or two objections at most. Again, this is a natural outcome of the time/energy problem involved in engaging in intellectual activity once one has satisfied the foundational needs represented by something akin to Maslow’s hierarchy.

Allow me to coin two terms, the Dialectical Model (DM) and the Political Model (PM), to designate two approaches to philosophy vis-à-vis the decentralization of philosophical inquiry and discourse. I’d like to designate the DM as what might be called the traditional notion of academic philosophy: the systematic search for the truth of matters discussed amongst and between professional philosophers. The PM, on the other hand, represents what the authors of the Insider Higher Ed article consider to be sophistry. I call it the “Political” model because this is what I believe occurs in American political (and cultural) discourse; that is, the generally specious, casuistic, partisan rhetoric employed by politicians, bloggers, and talking head ideologues on both ends of the political spectrum.

It seems to me that the PM is the option of choice whether one is conservative or liberal, religious or atheist — whether you’re Rick Santorum or Sam Harris. Individuals like Santorum and Harris are much more involved in the culture wars because they’re public intellectuals (before you slam down the lid of your laptop in disgust, I’m using that term descriptively, because they are in the public eye influencing the culture) and because they tend to say things that turn them into lightning rods for ideological derision. The sort of things they say is in turn what gets discussed among average citizens making up the electorate.

It is likely that our early American citizens of de Tocqueville’s time were just as impassioned, if not more so, by their social and political beliefs. de Tocqueville already called our attention to a fact that has become painfully contentious in the culture wars of our time, namely, the role of religion in public life: “It must never be forgotten that religion gave birth to Anglo-American society.” However, he went on to observe that “religious institutions have remained wholly distinct from political institutions, so that former laws have been easily changed whilst former belief has remained unshaken.” This clearly isn’t the case for us modern Americans. Whatever the actual influence of Christianity on our political system, religion and politics in America are now two sides of the same societal coin. Just think of “In God We Trust” on actual coins.

Now, despite the protracted extinction burst of the highly-visible Religious Right, there are signs that Americans are becoming less rigid in their religious beliefs, or at least less likely to allow those beliefs to inform their political positions. This is a welcome development, but as Nietzsche warned, God’s shadow is still intolerably long. I think it’s clear that there is a stark and important difference between the early Americans, whatever the strength of their religious beliefs, and the self-reliant patriots of today. It seems to me that the PM of today is much different from the PM of America’s early years, which is why it is detrimental to our political lives to maintain our version of the PM. From this perspective, the three University of North Texas philosophers’ suggestion that academic philosophy open itself up to non-academic evaluation and judgment seems ill-advised.

Regardless, what they suggest may already be taking place, albeit unofficially. For instance, they mention utilizing “the number of publications in popular magazines or newspaper articles; number of hits on philosophic blogs; number of quotes in the media; or the number of grants awarded by public agencies to conduct dedisciplined philosophic work” as potential evaluative criteria. While it is still the case that professional philosophers’ primary outlets for their work are academic journals, the de-centralization the authors in question seem to endorse is already happening through blogs like our own Rationally Speaking, FreethoughtBlogs and Patheos, where young DM philosophers like Dan Fincke of Camels with Hammers churn out prodigious amounts of philosophical discussion outside the Ivory Tower.

Maybe a hybrid of the Dialectical Model and the Political Model has already emerged, quite organically, and what the academy has to do is to co-opt it. Being a non-academic myself, I really can’t say how the academy would incorporate such developments into their evaluative process. But one suggestion I would like to see come to fruition, and one I believe would help rehabilitate the Political Model, is for our public education system to “teach the controversy,” so to speak: that is, have our secondary education system incorporate classes that discuss the history of religion and philosophy, including the salient aspects of each major religion (Hinduism, Buddhism, and the Abrahamic Trinity) and philosophical school (e.g., Analytic, Continental, etc.), and perhaps most importantly an introduction to basic philosophical concepts. I don’t see this happening any time soon, but there is no harm in having a wish list.


  1. All mankind needs is truth,
    Truth much more simple than thought.
    Sadly most have been led astray,
    And gone the other Way.
    Truth is


  2. Where I live and among the people I am most around it is very different. I am weird by their standards. I am put into close proximity with people I would not ordinarily choose to be around.

    I am poor and have an interest in science and philosophy and politics. The people around me, not so much. Some are Tea Party conservatives who believe in a variety of conspiracy theories. Others are convinced the government is suppressing the truth about free energy, aliens and UFO's. Many are racist and homophobic. Most are either recovering addicts or suffer from significant mental illness like schizophrenia. (I myself suffer from depression,so I should talk.) All have been homeless at least once in the recent past.

    My biggest concern is staying calm when someone says something more horribly racist than usual. I'm probably misrepresenting them too. Some are just as liberal and educated as I am but I tend not to notice that I guess.

    Anyway, most "debates" I witness are really just power plays or "are you one of us?"

    Any decentralization I am aware of is due to iTunes. Through iTunes U I have access to university level lectures. John Searle's lectures basically walk you through the history of philosophy from Descartes up. Marianne Talbot has excellent lecture on critical reasoning and rhetoric. John Campbell, also from Berkeley, is an awesome lecturer.

    A second outlet I have is by means of local MeetUps of other philosophically minded people. I haven't been to one in a long time because of scheduling conflicts but those have been nice in the past.

    What I am really missing and what I think is most important is what happens after the lecture. That is where the real "meat" of learning takes place. All outside distraction has been filtered out. Even in the MeetUp group we had some who were..... less than all together... so to speak.

    I am not impressed with Freethought Blogs or the online atheist community in general. There are just as worried about "winning" debates and bullying others as anyone else is as far as I can tell. And the level of philosophical ignorance among so-called atheists is truly astonishing if you ask me. Is feminism and the need for women at skeptical conventions to be safe from sexual harassment or assault controversial among atheists? Really???? Well then you can count me out. I want nothing to do with them.

    The way you improve discourse is by improving discourse. The way you make society better is by making your immediate society better. It would help their own cause if online atheists were a little less assholy and it would help those around me if they had a little more than $200 a month to get by on.

  3. I think there's been a tendency among some philosophers to disregard issues and problems which we encounter in life and to focus on matters of metaphysics and epistemology which are irrelevant to them. Then we have the promotion, even the exaltation, of futility and un-reason which is characteristic of post-modernism. It's no wonder philosophy is considered insignificant by most of us.

    But I think that's changing, as we see from this blog and the works of other philosophers who are applying critical thinking to vital social and political concerns. Philosophy may be recovering itself, as Dewey put it: "Philosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men."

  4. I was struck by this from Krugman's column today ("The Ignorance Caucus") in the NYTimes: "Last year the Texas G.O.P. explicitly condemned efforts to teach 'critical thinking skills,' because, it said, such efforts 'have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.'"

    At last count there are around 120 "_____ and Philosophy" books (in total from two publishers, Open Court and Wiley) for the general reader. I don't think there is a dearth of material from philosophers outside of academic journals. It's a matter of the conservative mindset that wants to avoid it.

    1. I saw that article too. And that mindset is precisely the problem. I don't know how prevalent it is outside of Texas and other areas of the Bible belt. I don't have children, but from what I gather from friends and co-workers, it seems here in the Northeast things are a little better.

  5. >But one suggestion I would like to see come to fruition, and one I believe would help rehabilitate the Political Model, is for our public education system to “teach the controversy,” so to speak: that is, have our secondary education system incorporate classes that discuss the history of religion and philosophy, including the salient aspects of each major religion (Hinduism, Buddhism, and the Abrahamic Trinity) and philosophical school (e.g., Analytic, Continental, etc.), and perhaps most importantly an introduction to basic philosophical concepts. I don’t see this happening any time soon, but there is no harm in having a wish list.

    This would be great. Actually, it would be great even if the public learned very few concrete facts from their school introduction to philosophy. They would at least learn that not everything goes, that arguments can be good or bad, and that philosophical, political and moral discourse is supposed to make some sort of sense.

    In retrospect, I didn't really grok this until probably my late teens, up to which point it still seemed to me that I could essentially make up politics, ethics and philosophy on the fly, based on whatever sounded good.

    1. Yeah, I'd be happy to see even the minimum you suggest. But again, I'm not hopeful - at least I don't think it'll happen in my lifetime.

  6. "Maybe a hybrid of the Dialectical Model and the Political Model has already emerged, quite organically, and what the academy has to do is to co-opt it."

    I think such hybrid inbreeding would be an abomination, given that the Political Model (PM) is too contaminated with sophistry, anti-intellectualism, and sloppy thinking (bombarded with non-sequiturs and logical fallacies). I think what we need is what you implicitly suggested, namely making philosophy accessible to everyone by teaching critical thinking in order to domesticate PM into a more civil discourse. Honestly, I don't think this would happen since American culture is so deeply anti-intellectual and anti-philosophical.

    1. I think the problem is less a lack of critical thinking skills than the fact that truth is not particularly important in many contexts of public discourse. In such contexts, language is not an instrument of truth but a repertoire of rhetorical moves used to forward one's agenda. The problem is the attitude: what good is truth if it doesn't serve my interests?

    2. A further worry might be that this is a more intractable problem than you're conceiving, Paul. You hit the nail on the head: what good is truth at all?

      I don't intend to cast aspersions on the obvious benefits of acquirable information, such as empirical research or legal evidence, but instead question what you would say to defend that other kind of search: the often relative, always difficult, and wholly self-absorbed quest for personal meaning. Even people who would answer you in the negative and say something like "the truth *is* important, and that's why I support science", are merely looking at truth as an achieveable goal, as if it's to be a trophy to be won.

      Maybe it's a bit hyperbolic, but it seems to me like the triumph of american-style competitive social discourse is that it supplies everyone with enough distraction so that most people feel the search for a meaningful life to be a wasting asset. I would thus respond to your problem that it isn't that people are self-interested, but that to pursue subjective insight into objective truth is too amorphous a goal for a consumer-driven society to place any kind of value on.

      Is that really a problem, though?

    3. @Philononus -

      I think you're right. Any suggestions on how to get school boards to incorporate it into curricula? My (pessimistic) view is that the red states are going to reject it as a design of Satan, and blue states will claim it's not in the budget...

      @Paul -

      I think you may have it exactly right. So in that sense it seems American culture hasn't lost its pragmatic bent.

      @Ryder -

      My guess is that those who enter scientific disciplines have more of a regard for "truth" than other professions; but even today many of these scientists become quasi-celebrities in their own right. I don't think that's a bad thing, because at least the scientific method has the built-in self-correction of peer review and replicable (or not) experiments and research.

  7. Like Steve, I see value in having a knowledge of the history of ideas (especially scientific ideas, but also religious, political and moral ideas).

    There may also be value in teaching the basic principles of reasoning and logic (as Ian suggests).

    I would de-emphasize the term 'philosophy', however. Its meaning has changed over time, and I don't know that we really need it anymore.

    1. Call what? The thing is, I don't really see philosophy as a single, coherent intellectual discipline. Arguably it used to be when old-fashioned metaphysics was at its core, but even then there were problems (e.g. everyone building their own system rather than a (science-like) convergence occurring).

      So I see a fragmentation. Reflective work (meta-thinking) associated with various intellectual disciplines can still usefully be called philosophy of this or that.

      I don't have much interest in a metaphysics divorced from physics, and scientists don't seem to need lessons in epistemology to do their work. Which is not to say that there may not be useful things to do in ontology or epistemology or whatever.

      For what's left, I'm not sure. I was taught the basics of reasoning and argument in high school in the context of English classes (essay-writing, debating) and learned the basics of evidence-based thinking in the context of various subjects. I learned a lot about the scientific method via an excellent chemistry program. And reading and analysing texts in English and English Literature classes enhanced critical thinking. And so on.

      How effectively these generic skills can be taught directly I don't know.

      Logic's position is complicated as it relates to mathematics as well as to ordinary reasoning.

      A bit of ethical theory may be useful. It can be presented in such a way as to be respectful of both religious and non-religious perspectives.

      And then there is the history of ideas. I think it's good to have a familiarity with some of the great thinkers and intellectual movements of the past. And, of course, many of those thinkers we call philosophers saw themselves as natural philosophers (or what we would call scientists).

      So I am not – like Colin McGinn – looking to replace the term philosophy with another. I am just suggesting we recognize that, in a shifting intellectual and linguistic landscape, 'philosophy' as a label for a single free-standing discipline has become somewhat problematic.

    2. Mark,

      I would agree that philosophy appears as Babylon on a less than general view of it (as perhaps it should), but on a general view I think it has an epistemological unity. (Note that science might appear as Babylon if one knows nothing about scientific method.) Philosophy (of every kind) is unified by the fact of addressing questions that cannot be answered by empirical method or mathematical method, which is not to say that philosophy cannot be defined in a positive way. This makes philosophy one of the three domains of knowledge. We can theorize about the nature of this domain but we cannot deny that it is there. To forget about philosophy would be simply to digress to dogmatism and chance in the realm in which philosophy deals.

    3. Paul

      Your "three domains of knowledge" is itself a philosophical construct; and your suggestion that "to forget about philosophy would be simply to digress to dogmatism and chance" has to my ears a dogmatic ring.

      Your analysis of academic philosophy in another comment struck me as rather good, however.

    4. Mark,

      Regarding my statement that "to forget about philosophy would be simply to digress to dogmatism and chance in the realm in which philosophy deals," this seems a reasonable conclusion given what I said prior to it, so I don't see how it's dogmatic. Also, to call something a "philosophical construct" is no argument against it, as one might learn in a philosophy class. Is this sort of pseudo-argumentation what you envision taking the place of philosophy? ;)

    5. My point about your "three domains of knowledge" being a philosophical construct was not meant as an argument against it. But I was implicitly suggesting a certain circularity in your approach – which is evident again in your appeal in your most recent comment to the authority of philosophy ("...as one might learn in a philosophy class...").

      Another way of putting my point is that philosophical constructs necessarily have a certain arbitrariness about them (in the sense that there would always be other ways of conceptualizing the issue).

      And your claim that "to forget about philosophy would be simply to digress to dogmatism and chance ..." is (in my view) dogmatic because you are simply asserting that there is no satisfactory non-philosophical way of dealing with issues which cannot be addressed directly by science or mathematics. It's philosophy, you are saying, or it's dogmatism or chance. I can think of plenty of other ways of framing the issue.

      What about ordinary reasoning? If you are suggesting that all ordinary reasoning is part of philosophy then your understanding of philosophy is too broad to be useful, I would say.

      Also, what about natural insight and intuition based on everyday experience? People can, you know, be very wise without any philosophical training at all. Most great writers, for instance. Or just ordinary people.

      These issues are not clear-cut. I value highly many aspects of the Western philosophical tradition. And parts of this tradition (whatever labels we give them) continue to flourish and will survive into the future.

    6. "Another way of putting my point is that philosophical constructs necessarily have a certain arbitrariness about them (in the sense that there would always be other ways of conceptualizing the issue)."

      I would agree that for any given philosophical topic there are multiple ways of conceptualizing it. I don't believe, however, that the question of which conceptualization to adopt is completely arbitrary, and I doubt you belief this either. If someone suggested to you a conceptualization of, say, what morality is, would say, "Why not? It's completely arbitrary how we think about it"?

      The reality is that there's a definite dimension of better and worse among different conceptualizations on a given topic. Coherence and logical consistency are two factors that might make one conceptualization better than another.

      So the fact that there are varying conceptions on different topics is less a problem for philosophy than the reason that it exists: philosophy is concerned with finding the best among varying conceptions on the basis of such things as logic and coherence.

      I've long been developing the sense that it's this normativity in philosophy - the fact that it consists in suggesting better as opposed to worse ways of thinking about things, as opposed to uncovering positive facts - that makes more purely science-minded people uncomfortable with it.

  8. Fascinating topic. I would take the general question to be that of how philosophy should be institutionalized in society. Based on my experience as a philosophy bachelor's/master's student, I would describe the academic status quo as follows: it's structured and conceived along de Sadean lines as a contest wherein people compete to become tenured philosophy professors. As in a contest like America's Got Talent, anyone who doesn't advance from one level to the next (for whatever reason) is presumed to have been eliminated and is regarded as no longer having any legitimate affiliation with the contest. Even PhD's who lecture within the academy but did not grab the brass ring of full tenured professor have a ghostlike presence in the sacred halls; it's mutually agreed that the mantle of failure should weight heavily on them. Having imbibed this mentality, not a few of my former classmates who departed from the academy with bachelor's degree, master's degrees, and even PhDs have an attitude along the lines that it would be in bad taste ever to think about philosophy again: they don't want to be one of those subpar, extra-academic philosophy amateurs that their professors taught them to hate: such professors cringe at the thought of even lecturers penning a philosophical thought: how much lower must be a mere wayward philosophy degree holder. As to the man in the street, i.e. someone without even a philosophy degree, it would be flattery to call their philosophical efforts charlatanism; the proper term is 'gibberish'.

    The above may be a bit hyperbolic but the hyperbole is there to highlight what I believe are real tendencies of thought in the academy.

    But a (tenured) philosophy professor might defend the sacred order model as follows: philosophical issues are very complex and if you're not on the cutting edge, something that requires an academic research appointment, you're a fool to even bother with them. I think this view, which I believe has been part of the motor of philosophy's irrelevance in our society, is false, misleading, contrary to nature of philosophy, and perhaps a bit of a sham.

    A first point is that the notion that academic philosophy is a coherent framework within which experts work is dubious, a house of cards made of rhetoric. Put any two randomly selected tenured philosophy professors together and the chances are 90% that they won't understand each other; further, there's a 60% chance that they will regard one another as insane. Despite the rhetoric, philosophy by nature is highly individualistic: each philosopher is effectively working within a framework of their own invention, much like a fiction writer and writers generally. Philosophy isn't like physics or chemistry wherein there is a substantial shared framework, so when a tenured professor speaks of a cutting edge, they are really just talking about the cutting-edge of their own thought, something that not even most of their tenured peers are on. My main point here is that philosophy doesn't lend itself to the sort of shared framework that some philosophers try to pretend exists" "The philosopher is not a citizen of an community of ideas; that is what makes him a philosopher." -Wittgenstein

    (continued below)

    1. Paul -

      Thanks for the input! I don't have a lot of time on my lunch hour to respond, but I wanted to address one thing real quick. You say:

      "Despite the rhetoric, philosophy by nature is highly individualistic: each philosopher is effectively working within a framework of their own invention, much like a fiction writer and writers generally."

      Can you elaborate on that? What about someone like Owen Flanagan who conceives of ethics as "human ecology"? I guess we could say that this is his own "invention" or idea, but in his book he utilizes generally-accepted philosophical categories (i.e., epistemology, metaphysics, etc.) that he expects his peers (and laypeople) to engage with...

    2. Juno,

      Regarding philosophy being individualistic, in the field of physics there's general agreement about subject matter, approach, and established truths, and points of disagreement are largely limited to cutting-edge hypotheses. The three points of agreement mentioned - subject matter, approach, and established truths - comprise the framework within which physicists work. Philosophy can have no such framework because its subject matter, approach, and established truths, are all legitimately contestable. A philosopher could reasonably argue, for example, that ethics is the only subject that philosophers should be concerned with, or that ethics is one subject that philosophers should not be concerned with. Generally philosophy, in the relevant respect, exists only as an infinite set of hypotheses, with no widely settled points of agreement that might serve as a framework. The chances of just two philosophers agreeing on enough points to "share a framework" is very low, and so miraculous when it happens. A whole philosophy department sharing a framework is theater.

      While it seems that historical and continental philosophy has been comfortable with the idea of a philosopher as a kind of individual writer, it seems American scientism has pushed philosophy departments into at least pretending that philosophy is a field that differs only in its detail from, say, chemistry. In practice, a philosophy department believing that it shares a framework could come only from one of two things: delusion or dogmatism. In the delusion case, philosophers in the department each imagine their own general framework that all are working in and interact in ways crafted to avoid disturbing one another's imaginings (hence theater). This was fun to watch as a student. Students often know philosophy professors better than philosophy professors know each other, so students might have the rather comic experience of seeing two professors they know to be different planets talking as if they were fellow NASA engineers. (continued below)

    3. (continuation) Regarding dogmatism, suppose a department somehow has a framework, i.e. a set of general positions that everyone agrees with and works within. Let's further suppose that this department formed in a way that has "integrity": viz. the department is effectively a gathering of independently like-minded philosophers. This is a bad model for philosophy. If we think of philosophy departments as self-selecting schools of philosophy, moral hazards arise due to the nature of philosophy. Philosophers can (and probably should) change their minds on occasion, and when employment is welded to positions, a philosopher is set up for the sorts of problems faced by an atheist priest. Students can have a similar problem.

      So disciplinary frameworks and philosophy do not mix. Talk of "THE problems of philosophy" and "THE discipline of philosophy" is, beyond the scientistic connotations, like talking about the problems of travel writing or the discipline of novel writing.

      I should say that I loved most of my philosophy professors. It's just that American scientism has led us to a distorted way of thinking about philosophy, one that effectively renders philosophy department entities that absorb the philosophical energy of our country and shut it off. If philosophical energy were smoke, philosophy departments would be air filters. The help to keep American air clean of philosophy. Philosophy education should be a stepping stone to doing something with philosophy in our culture and not a mere perilous opportunity to join an obscure priesthood.

      Regarding your mention of Owen Flanagan, I wonder if a distinction is needed between doing philosophy, on the one hand, and philosophically interesting phenomena that philosophers might talk about (such as ethics), on the other. There's also the distinction between philosophical theorizing (Rawls writing A Theory of Justice) and implementation of philosophical theory (policies, etc., that implement Rawls' ideas). Another distinction that might be relevant is that between philosophy as conscious philosophizing and philosophy as an aspect of culture wherein culture as a whole is a kind of philosophizer, coming more or less unconsciously to widely shared philosophical viewpoints. Beyond this, I'm not familiar enough with Flanagan's ideas to say much more.

  9. (continuation) Second, I'll mention that between 2009 and 2012 I organized a good-sized philosophy meetup group, where the members were just anyone interested in philosophy. Initially my academic training had me thinking: what possible value could come from taking philosophically uneducated people through philosophical issues. A good answer soon came to me, however, which is that the value of philosophizing should be measured relatively rather than absolutely: each person is on their own philosophical cutting-edge, and whatever their absolute level a movement forward has value. If a person, through learning say the distinction between ontology and epistemology, moves from B to C, that has as much value as a professor moving from T to U. Philosophical advances at whatever level change outlooks and enrich lives. This is why it's not foolish to pursue philosophy even if one is not on some philosophy professor's cutting-edge.

    So given the above, my view on how philosophy should be institutionalized in society might be as follows: while I think the existence of specialized philosophical researchers is a good and important thing in itself, I think we should move away from both the contest model and the sacred order model. This could be done by thinking of philosophy as a kind of writing and of philosophy education as being about producing writers of a certain kind. In this way, during their education, philosophy students can think about the sort of philosophical writing they would like to do, rather than the grave binary of tenure or oblivion. Now if universities began churning out philosophy grads who see themselves as trained writers of a certain kind, as opposed people who may think about philosophy only at the risk of charlatanism, philosophical writing might find a place in the broader society; and a bridge might thereby be built between academic philosophy and the broader culture. On a positive note it seems that something like this is already happening organically. There are a number of instances of non-academic philosophers (former academic philosophy students) being able to trade on their philosophy creds: blogs and podcasts such as "The Partially Examined Life." It would be a boon to such efforts if academic philosophy supported and was in part oriented toward such efforts.

    Regarding the UNT proposal, it's typical of tenured academic philosophers to think only about what tenured academic philosophers can do: with the legions of philosophy students they've taught being "just gone" they're the only ones with any real affiliation with philosophy left. But it's to their credit that they didn't conceive something like a Vatican-style philosopher-mobile that they'll tour America mainstreets in tossing out miniature editions of Plato's Apology beneath rains of ticker tape.

    As a final point, as Massimo is an academic philosopher, I should say that none of the above is directed at him. With all his great extra-academic efforts and his relatively low level of academic snootiness, he's a refreshing exception to the rule and I think part of a better order.


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