APP is Not Alone, Sort-Of: “Where Academic Philosophy Went Wrong,” “Alternative Academias,” & “The Career Move That Dare Not Speak Its Name” (CH, PP, and DN Re-Posts, With Afterwords by Z)

1. Where Academic Philosophy Went Wrong, by Charles Huenemann.

CH’s personal blog, 19 August 2014

A potted history:

I believe Peter Sloterdijk is right that the Enlightenment has been followed by philosophical cynicism, or an impressive array of natural knowledge unaccompanied by any faith in providence. The U.S., which became the dominant intellectual and cultural force in the course of the 20th century, was well-suited to put this cynicism to work: for America was built upon a pragmatic, “can do” attitude, and seemed ready to let expediency drive ideology . (There are probably interesting connections here to Protestantism and Holland of the 17th century.) And so there arose on American shores the fulfillment of the German idea of a research university, with its faculty as a specialized workforce and its students as Model-Ts rumbling down an assembly line on which three credits of this and three credits of that are bolted on to each chassis.

Each academic discipline became a guild or union, where membership is tightly controlled and guild members insist on their indispensability to the general curriculum. New disciplines created their own means of controlling membership and making cases for their newfound indispensability.

As unions generally lost power and new models of management were developed in the last third of the 20th century, the university also experienced a shift in authority from the faculty to the administration. In the names of efficiency and accountability, administrators deployed numerous measures for evaluating faculty “productivity”; and the nature of these measures encouraged faculty to entrench themselves more firmly in their respective guilds.

In the case of philosophy, this meant (1) more attention devoted to narrow problem-solving activity rather then efforts to deepen philosophical wonder; (2) increasingly narrow specialization and less general knowledge of the discipline itself and its history; (3) less engagement with anyone outside the professional guild; and (4) development of various cants and shibboleths to patrol membership in the guild.

What to do? (Provided, that is, that one is inclined to see these results as problems!)

Most academic philosophy departments see themselves primarily as housing a specialized academic discipline, and contributing only incidentally here or there to a university’s general education curriculum. The priority needs to be reversed. Frankly, there is little or no need for specialized academic philosophy; if it disappeared overnight, the only ones who would notice would be the practitioners themselves. But on the other hand, despite the occasional iconoclastic polemic saying otherwise, there is a widespread recognition that philosophy provides a valuable contribution to the mind of an educated person, even if the person is not working toward a degree in the field. Philosophy professors need to see their primary job as enriching the mental lives, values, and discourses of non-philosophers. For almost everyone, we should be a side dish rather than the main course. That is where our societal value lies.

Now it can be argued that in order to do this well, philosophers also need opportunities to continue to learn and grow: they too need the chance to “geek out” with fellow philosophers through publications and conferences. And, where there is both talent and motivation, some philosophers will manage to advance our very old and rich discipline. But genuine advances in philosophy will not happen with the frequency of advances in younger and more technological disciplines, like computer science and chemistry. Genuine advances in philosophy are as few and far between as are the geniuses of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. For most of us most of the time, our primary job is to enlighten masses.

If philosophy reconceived itself along these lines, graduate training in philosophy would look very different. Right now, the usual aim is to equip each student for intensely critical interaction with a vanishingly narrow band of specialists. (Typically, these PhDs are then hired to teach very broad undergraduate classes – an assignment for which, of course, they are wholly unprepared.) But if my proposal were adopted, these candidates would be trained to engage meaningfully, fruitfully, and philosophically with a wide range of people lacking expertise in philosophy. They would be required to write not dissertations, but books that could meaningfully inform the lives of their fellow citizens. This would be the norm rather than the now-celebrated exception. Philosophy would move out of the tower and back into the agora.

I can hear the complaint: “But there are many really smart people who are now attracted to philosophy’s narrow and difficult questions, and wouldn’t go into the discipline at all if they instead had to ‘dumb down’ their efforts for bigger audiences.” I grant the objection, and have three responses:

  • First, it seems to me that these smart people might be able to find as much enjoyment working through equally difficult abstract problems in other fields – fields in which solving the problems would have more impact on more people. Smart problem-solvers are in demand all over the place.
  • Second, there would still be room in the discipline for some really smart, narrow specialists, even if most of the room were given over to the broader task I’m recommending. Right now, of course, all of the room is reserved for narrow specialists – and that just doesn’t seem sensible, especially given the nature of the great majority of teaching jobs that exist.
  • And third, I bet that for every person who is drawn into philosophy because of an inordinate enthusiasm for tight and narrow problems, there are ten really smart people who turn away from the discipline because there is no current opportunity for tackling broad and deep questions, and bringing them to the attention of wider audiences.

It would take some courage for philosophy as a discipline to make this move and “demean itself” by talking to broader audiences. It might seem like some sort of admission of defeat. But in reality, I think this move would be greeted very enthusiastically by a lot of educated people who have become increasingly disappointed in academic philosophers’ refusal to connect with people other than themselves. Moreover, it might encourage other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences to follow our lead, and recall their original purpose: to enlighten, deepen, enrich, and complicate the minds of human beings from all walks of life.

1.1 Afterword, by Z.

CH’s critique of academic philosophy is, I think, substantially correct.

But his positive answer to the “what to do?” question simply doesn’t take into account the sociocultural-political fact of “hyper-disciplined” professionalization in academic philosophy.

CH’s proposals—reverse early- and hyper-specialization, and undertake a revolution in attitude, so that philosophy professors “see their primary job as enriching the mental lives, values, and discourses of non-philosophers”—are just fine!, as far as they go.

But does CH really think that the good little professional do-bees and their  administrators and political overlords will ever actually let these things happen, in the ordinary course of things?

–Not fucking likely.

Therefore, the only other options are (i) under-the-radar resistance and subversion from inside professional academic philosophy, or (ii) exiting professional academic philosophy.

But the witch-hunting, coercive moralists of professional philosophy will, sooner or later, hunt down, “out” by naming names, publicly shame, and “collabo-collegially” arrange for their administrators and political overlords to fire or force out, all those who engage in (i).

Therefore, at the end of the day, it seems that only (ii) is actually tenable.

2. Alternative Academias, by Daniel Linford.

Philosophical Percolations, 23 February 2016

I’ve been intrigued lately by the idea of alternative academias. By “alternative academias,” I mean environments that are, in some sense, academic – they are aimed at knowledge production, at the exchange of ideas, at systematic investigation, and so  on – but which have operated, for various reasons, outside of the academic mainstream. Some alternative academias have been neglected or rejected for good reason, while others have simply disappeared or been ignored.

I am especially intrigued by the possibility of alternative academias because they highlight the contingency of contemporary, mainstream academia. Often, if political and social forces had developed differently, one of the alternative academias would have risen to prominence. Or, if future political/social forces are radically different from those we face, we might see a return to prominence of one of the alternatives.

Part of what this means is that we should be a bit more humble – or skeptical – about the merits of contemporary, mainstream academia. But what it also implies is that there are rich possibilities for academic engagement outside of the mainstream, including rich areas that can be mined for ideas to be used in contemporary debates. Alternative academias sometimes offer ways to bring students’ own religious, political, or cultural concerns into our curricula, as religious, political, and cultural movements have involved their own mechanisms for the dissemination and production of ideas and arguments.

In this post, I’ll focus on alternative academias in relation to philosophy – alternative philosophical movements as it were – but the lessons can, with varying success, presumably be extended to other areas of inquiry. And, as someone with several publications in philosophy of religion, I will devote most of my attention to religion. Nonetheless, many of the same lessons hold for political and cultural movements.

We can distinguish a few varieties of alternative academias.

Some academias have been lost to history. Some groups lost to history existed prior to the establishment of writing and widespread literacy. This group would presumably include a number of pre-Socratics and whatever primitive investigations of the world occurred during the Neo- and Paleolithic. Others existed long after the development of writing, but either didn’t write down their own discussions or produced writings now relegated to obscure parts of libraries. Here, we might think of the Oxford Realists, who published comparatively little but, by many accounts, had lively discussions. (Discussions brewing among the Oxford Realists would influence a young CS Lewis to develop a kind of theistic metaethical intuitionism.) Another example might be various medieval mystical traditions, which were not themselves historically considered part of philosophy but which some historians of philosophy have recently turned to. (At the recent eastern division meeting of the APA, I attended a session in which Christina Van Dyke argued that studying medieval mysticism is a way to include long forgotten female thinkers in a discussion of medieval philosophy.) Or we might think of various Greek and Roman traditions, whose writings were not seen fit to be preserved by later generations.

Another group of historically lost academias, but which are sufficiently distinct to be afforded their category, are those non-Western traditions that, due to various oppressive and Imperialistic forces, have been lost to history. This includes much that has been labeled “non-Western philosophy” and “Eastern Religion”. I admit that I am skeptical of both labels. Both ‘philosophy’ and ‘religion’ are Western categorizations and it’s difficult to see why the re-labeling of non-Western traditions with Western labels would not itself be imperialistic. I’d rather that we let such movements speak in their own terms. Nonetheless, non-Western intellectual traditions are interesting in their own right and have much they could offer in communication with Western philosophy and theology. There is no good reason not to include them in our courses, other than perhaps the ignorance of the professor or time limitations.

A third group of alternative academias are those which have been developed by movements that deliberately separated themselves from mainstream academia. I can think of two separatist movements. The first were the academically inclined Christian fundamentalists – for example, those who left Princeton Theological Seminary to form Westminster Theological Seminary as part of the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversy – and who argued that there cannot be any common ground between Christian and non-Christian. The second are the various spiritual, mystical, and New Age movements that formed during the countercultural movements of the 1960s, some of whom spurned mainstream academia. Others left mainstream academia because i.e. New Age groups were willing to fund projects that mainstream funding agencies wouldn’t touch. (See David Kaiser’s How the Hippies Saved Physics.)

As an atheist and a naturalist, I cannot say that I find any sort of sympathy with either Christian Fundamentalism or countercultural spirituality, but my personal disagreement with figures and movements is no reason to avoid discussing them.  Moreover, both Fundamentalist thinkers and countercultural gurus have impacted our political/cultural discourses and are important for understanding today’s cultural landscape. As an example, understanding presuppositionalism – one of the theological movements established by the folks who made the exodus to Westminster – is not just a matter of intellectual or theological history, but important for understanding Christian reconstructionism, Creationism, and the associated theocratic tendencies of some GOP candidates. (See Julie Ingersoll’s Building God’s Kingdom.)

Many of presuppositionalism’s contemporary defenders are zealous hacks with little academic training. There are exceptions, who are often employed at Reformed seminaries. Nonetheless, the movement’s founder – Cornelius Van Til – earned his doctorate in philosophy at Princeton University, writing a dissertation on Reformed epistemology as a reaction to Hegelian idealism and pragmatism. While I disagree with Van Til, and find the political implications of his views abhorrent, I find his work interesting to read and engage in much the same way that I find the writings of other historical religious figures interesting to read and engage.

Moreover, while mainstream philosophers of science (Philip Kitcher, Elliott Sober, Robert Pennock, Michael Ruse) have engaged movements outside of the scientific mainstream that have claimed the pretensions of science (Creationism, climate change denialism), mainstream epistemologists, metaphysicians, and logicians have not engaged presuppositionalism. To my mind, this is odd, given that the two cases are largely parallel. Just as Creationists deny mainstream science, and attempt to replace it with a Christian alternative, presuppositionalists deny mainstream epistemology, attempting to replace it with an alternative that centers Christian revelation. Perhaps the engagement of philosophers of science with Creationism can be explained by the philosophical implications of several related court rulings. But why shouldn’t philosophers concern themselves with a movement that has important political implications? Why shouldn’t epistemologists ask what has gone wrong with the epistemological practices of specific religious communities, especially if those communities have centered an intellectual discussion of epistemology?

Presuppositionalism contains, at its core, theological and philosophical doctrines that motivate Christian separatism and supremacy, explaining why the intellectually oriented members of the movement established their own seminaries, journals, and other vestiges of academic life, living alongside but separate from mainstream American academia for most of the 20th century. The movement’s influence on Creationism can partly (but certainly not totally) explain the development of Creationist museums and Bible colleges.

I think this is an interesting realization – that even while those of us in mainstream ivory towers develop our various projects, there are parallel ivory towers that have developed alongside us. Moreover, the movements produced in the parallel ivory towers are interesting to explore in their own right, offering intriguing possibilities as a source of new arguments and new intellectual engagements. And they offer ways that academics can better engage our broader culture, without producing overly simplistic caricatures that fail to resonate with the views our students bring to university from their home communities.

2.1 Afterword, by Z.

This is an interesting piece, and certainly directly relevant to APP.

But I also had two somewhat critical follow-up thoughts about it.

First, I think that there’s an important distinction to be made between (i) alternative academias (“alternative ivory towers”)  and (ii) alternatives to academia. In view of APP’s critique of “enlightenment lite,” our idea about rebel arts education most certainly belongs behind door number (ii), not door number (i). See, e.g.,

Rebel Arts Education: A Simple Model for Serious Research, Teaching, and Learning Outside the Professional Academic State.

From Enlightenment Lite to Nihilism: How Professional Philosophy Has Totally Let Everyone Down about the Real Purpose of an Undergraduate Liberal Arts Education.

Second, Linford’s attitude towards alternative approaches to religion/theology strikes me as a perfect example of “sanitized” social critique inside professional academic philosophy.

According to sanitized social critique, the value of engaging with these Others is ultimately either (i) to show how stupid and wrong they are, or (ii) to recruit them for (neo)liberal democratic politically-correct “social justice warrior” purposes, that are permitted or even encouraged by college and university administrators and their political overlords.

But the (neo)liberal democratic politically-correct “social justice warrior” status quo in professional philosophy is totally left in place, as uncritized, uncriticizable, and unimpeachable.

For example, Linford assumes that the two-box atheism vs. theism picture exhausts the logical space, and also that atheism is obviously correct, without any argument.

Really? What about pan(en)theism and agnosticism?

Another example is Jason Stanley’s recent stuff on propaganda, which critically analyzes ideologically-laden language while argument-lessly assuming the truth of the (neo)liberal democratic politically correct status quo, and never challenging the military-corporate-university complex or the larger statist political structure.

Really? What about Frankfurt School style neo-marxism and social anarchism?

3. The Career Move That Dare Not Speak Its Name, by Josh Parsons.

Daily Nous, 15 March 2016

My sister works in advertising, an industry where high-pressure workplaces are at least as common as they are in academia, and remuneration is better. A few years ago she decided that her current employer was asking too many hours of her for the pay she was getting. It wasn’t that what they were asking of her was scandalous or unfair (at least by the standards of the industry); just that it was incompatible with her living the life she wanted to live. So she handed in her notice and approached other employers in the same industry, and got a new job more to her liking in a few months. She didn’t even have to leave Sydney, where her family is based, to do it.

Can you imagine that happening in academia? Maybe in the sciences, but in philosophy, in the humanities? I can’t—and that’s why for a long time I’ve stuck at my high-pressure job, which (obviously, to me, and everyone around me) doesn’t provide the kind of work-life balance that I want. My employer isn’t behaving scandalously or unfairly: it’s just that the local cost of living has massively outstripped academic salaries and university-wide pressures mean that everyone in my position is asked to work very long hours during term-time. It’s a type of position that suits more junior academics who want to prioritise their careers for a few years, and then move on, and that’s just not the kind of job I want—for one thing I’ve already done that.

I asked a number of my mentors and advisors in the profession what to do, and they all advised me that it would be best to sit tight, circulate rumours that I was “moveable”, and wait for a better offer to roll in. So I did, and I got a bit of interest, but no actual offers, from other universities in the UK. I’m grateful to my friends who put my name forward for those things, but on sober reflection, this was the wrong advice. It’s not very pleasant to keep doing a difficult job while plotting to leave it; and the practice of circulating your name and waiting for offers, and then receiving none, can be (even) more dispiriting than “going on the market” in a conventional way.

They also advised me to definitely not do what my sister did. That, they told me, would be career suicide—would be perceived (not by them, of course, but by others) as “leaving the profession”, or as lack of commitment. I’ve now come around to the view that (1) this perception is very much exaggerated; (2) well-meaning people perpetuate it by giving that kind of advice; and (3) who cares? It’s a fool’s game to be an academic because you like getting the approval of your peers! (Because academics, and philosophers in particular, are so good at giving approval). As we all know, the only sensible reason to be an academic is because you like doing it. So the only sensible thing to do if your job becomes a cross that you must bear, rather than a vocation, is to ditch it. That is showing commitment to academia—as opposed to a misguided fetish for academic employment.

Now I can imagine someone hastily reading the previous paragraph and storing for later gossip “Ah, Parsons has announced that he’s leaving the profession”. (If that’s you, read it again). I’m leaving my job. I expect that this will mean that I have more, rather than less, time for academia, because I’ll be in a better position to enjoy teaching and research, wherever I end up doing them. I plan to make my career fit my life, instead of the other way around—I’m going to move to somewhere I want to live, and where I can afford to have the lifestyle I want on an academic salary. I’ll ask the local university if they’ll have me, and if they don’t, it’ll be their loss, not mine. I’m under no illusions about the risk of not getting a university post under these conditions. But that’s a risk I’m prepared to take—better that than the certainly of living and working under circumstances I don’t like—and it shouldn’t be thought of as “leaving academia”.

Since no piece of writing by a philosopher is complete without an “objections and replies” section, I now anticipate some reactions you may have to this, and what I would say in reply:

(1) “First-world problems! How can you be upset about not being able to afford to buy a house when there is real poverty in the world…” Right: being a middle-class professional and feeling that your job is insufficiently rewarding is indeed a first-world problem. I’m talking about the solution to that problem, which is quitting the job. The result can hardly be that I spend less time working to end world poverty.

(2) “You’re very lucky that you are established enough to be able to choose where to live and let the jobs come to you. Spare a thought for more junior academics who do not yet have a strong track record of publication, and have temporary jobs with even higher teaching loads.” Yes; I’m lucky and privileged. But both are relative scales—no matter where you are as an academic, there are some people who have been more successful than you so far, and some people who have been less successful. It’s never feels qualitatively different, it never feels that you have finally arrived. Everyone who has a PhD is a highly qualified and intellectually capable person. We’re all sufficiently qualified and capable to be sure of getting a job that will keep us in a fair bit of comfort. No-one in the world is established enough as an academic to choose which city they will live in and be sure of getting a university position there.

Any academic who is dissatisfied with their job, be it permanent or temporary, is in relevantly the same position. The only reason it might seem otherwise is if you thought that a permanent academic job is an end in itself, and as someone who currently has one, I can tell you it’s not.

(3) “Isn’t this just awfully self-involved of you? Why do you think anyone cares about your life decisions?” Well, if you’ve read this far in, I must at least have been moderately entertaining. But seriously, there is an issue here that people need to speak up about. There is quite a lot of discussion and good career advice available on the web for junior academics. But there is very little advice around for mid-career academics—it’s a culture of silence, as if every associate professor, every senior lecturer in the world was perfectly satisfied with their job. If I’d read something like this piece a couple of years earlier, I’d be a happier man now, and I think, I know one or two people out there who, reading this, may feel enabled to make the same decision I have.

Imagine if we all just stopped believing that the only way to be an academic is to be constantly employed by a university. There—wouldn’t that make people’s lives a lot better? Let’s just do that.

3.1  Afterword, by Z.

I’m totally on board with the idea that one might want to exit professional academic philosophy, for all sorts of good reasons.

But are these reasons, namely,

(i) “my high-pressure job, which (obviously, to me, and everyone around me) doesn’t provide the kind of work-life balance that I want,” and

(ii) “[m]y employer isn’t behaving scandalously or unfairly: it’s just that the local cost of living has massively outstripped academic salaries and university-wide pressures mean that everyone in my position is asked to work very long hours during term-time,”

really the only or best reasons JP can find for wanting to leave Oxford?

Seemingly, yes. For he then says this:

I’m leaving my job. I expect that this will mean that I have more, rather than less, time for academia, because I’ll be in a better position to enjoy teaching and research, wherever I end up doing them. I plan to make my career fit my life, instead of the other way around—I’m going to move to somewhere I want to live, and where I can afford to have the lifestyle I want on an academic salary. I’ll ask the local university if they’ll have me, and if they don’t, it’ll be their loss, not mine. I’m under no illusions about the risk of not getting a university post under these conditions. But that’s a risk I’m prepared to take—better that than the certainly of living and working under circumstances I don’t like—and it shouldn’t be thought of as ‘leaving academia’.

Hmm. So JP’s leaving Oxford because he wants to be an even better good little do-bee professional academic philosopher, with an even better lifestyle.

Or in other words, he’s going to be a free-lance professional academic philosopher.

No doubt, JP is a very clever guy. I mean, the job at Oxford and everything. But where is real philosophy in this picture?

As far as I can see, given what he’s said explicitly, nowhere.

Nevertheless, there’s a world of difference between being a free-lance professional academic philosopher and being an independent philosopher.

It’s the difference between having a hyper-disciplined mind and being intellectually autonomous.

So the counterfactual question I’d like to ask JP is:

If the local university weren’t willing or able to have you, would you stop pursuing philosophy, and do something else, because it better fitted the lifestyle you want?

I’m hoping, for JP’s sake, that the answer is no!, and that his “career move” is only a halfway house in a life-changing transition from being a card-carrying Fortune 500 Philosophy Club professional academic philosopher to being an independent philosopher.

But frankly, I’m not optimistic. After all, this post was featured in the Daily Arse.

Interesting exercise for the reader: Compare and contrast the case of Josh Parsons with the case of Crispin Sartwell:

The Leiter-Motif in the Sartwell Debate, and the Double-Edged Sword.

On Playing the “Mental Health Issues” Card in the Crispin Sartwell Debate.

What It’s Like to Exit Professional Philosophy: Crispin Sartwell.

Abusive Speech vs. Edgy Speech: Professional Philosophy’s Fanny Squeers and Professional Philosophy’s Lenny Bruce.

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About Z

Z is a 50-something cosmopolitan anarcho-philosopher, and previously was a tenured full professor of philosophy at a public university somewhere in North America, but still managed to escape with his life.