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

Recently, someone sent me a copy of this extremely recent interesting Harper’s article by William Deresiewicz, “The Neoliberal Arts: How College Sold its Soul to the Market.”

It’s a scathing critique of contemporary undergraduate liberal arts education, very nicely timed to appear with the beginning of the 2015-2016 academic year.

I don’t know WD’s previous work, especially including Excellent Sheep, but it feels to me like WD’s argument has been importantly inspired by Frankfurt school Critical Theory:

so, contemporary undergraduate liberal arts education has been bought, sold, and made-over by global corporate capitalism and its users into nothing but kitschy, trite, highly-marketable, essentially inauthentic, mind-candy,

so fundamentally, nowadays, it is just a social status symbol and a prep-school for entering the business world, and “competing in a global economy,” aka “commodification.”

But anyhow, whatever WD’s inspiration, it’s definitely in line with anarcho-critique, and I totally agree with everything WD says in the “neoliberal arts” piece by way of negative criticism.

But at the same time, I sharply disagree with his crucial background thesis, mentioned once or twice in passing, but not actually argued-for, about the real purpose of an undergraduate liberal arts education, which he claims is to teach undergraduates the content-free ability to analyze, criticize, and make arguments.

On the contrary, I think that this conception of the real purpose of a liberal arts education is nothing but Enlightenment Lite,

i.e., a serious downgrade and flattening-out of the classical imperative, Sapere aude!, and of Kant’s “have the courage to use your own understanding!” in “What is Enlightenment?,”

which leads inevitably to what I call a “postmodern anti-rational nihilist skepticism,” aka PARNS,

according to which there are no deep, substantive truths about the human condition, and no rational meaning in life, no highest good, only a plurality of different equally valuable (hence equally valueless) standpoints,

and an all-purpose analytical-critical logical reasoning method that can be applied to them, without regard to the specific character or evaluative significance of their content,

like a logic-chopping machine running an algorithm, checking proofs in truth-functional logic.

But I think that’s a deeply misguided conception of rational enlightenment—on the contrary,

there are some deep substantive truths about the human condition,

there is a rational meaning to life and there is a highest good,

and the analytical-critical logical reasoning method that goes along with all this is only and at best a necessary condition of it, not a sufficient condition,

and even it is not a method that can be correctly applied in an all-purpose way,  mechanically, as a recursive function,

because we’re not essentially logic-chopping machines.

And even logic itself, above, beyond, and beneath truth-functional logic, is fundamentally a categorically normative enterprise, and not inherently mechanical, even if it has some mechanical algorithms contained within it.

Indeed, there’s not even a mechanical decision-procedure for checking the validity of proofs in the classical first-order predicate calculus!, much less for any rational enterprise more complicated than that, e.g., richer classical logics, non-classical logics, basic arithmetic, the rest of mathematics, natural science, religion, politics, philosophy, life.

But most importantly of all, if there is to be a rational justification of logic itself, logic must be presupposed and used. But this is circular, and possibly viciously circular, which constitutes an amazingly hard problem in the philosophy of logic known as “the logocentric predicament,” the simplest version of which is this:

(1) A justification of deductive logic must be either deductive or non-deductive (e.g., inductive).

(2) But a deductive justification of deductive logic is viciously circular, and a non-deductive justification is too weak.

(3) Therefore deductive logic cannot be rationally justified, and is groundless.

Then, what is to be done?

As I see it, given the logocentric predicament, either (1) logic is rationally unjustified and groundless, or else (2) something normatively deeper than logic, that also fully includes logic within its scope, is needed to provide a rational justification of logic.

But logic is not rationally groundless. So something else normatively deeper than logic, that also fully includes logic within its scope, must rationally justify logic;

and I think that this logic-including source of justification can only be the irreducible capacity for human rationality itself, and rational human free agency more generally,

to the extent that this can be freely developed and realized by each of us, in community with each other, as a primitive categorically normative ground, a highest good, and a self-justifying justifier.

Therefore, in a nutshell, so far, here’s my basic critical argument:

1. Necessarily (Enlightenment Lite –> PARNS)

2. But not PARNS!

3. Therefore, not Enlightenment Lite!

4. Enlightenment Lite is wrong even about logic.

5. Necessarily (logic –> normatively robust human rationality).

6. Therefore, normatively robust human rationality!

Moreover, sadly, this recipe for nihilism, i.e.,

Necessarily (Enlightenment Lite –> PARNS)

has been brought about, essentially, by the intellectual and spiritual poverty of recent and contemporary mainstream professional academic philosophy,

after Quine’s devastating critique(s) of the analytic-synthetic distinction as formulated by the Logical Conventionalists in particular and the Logical Empiricists more generally,

and correspondingly the almost-unnoticed death of the classical Analytic tradition,
together with the general acceptance of Quine’s critique by mainstream Analytic and non-Analytic professional philosophers alike, in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s.

After that time, leaving aside the facts of the institutional dominance, scientism, and covert Establishment politics of Analytic philosophy,

there was actually nothing left to defend about Analytic philosophy per se in particular or about mainstream professional philosophy in general, whether Analytic or non-Analytic, except its analytical-critical method of logical reasoning, i.e., Enlightenment Lite.

So, according to recent and contemporary professional philosophy, teaching Enlightenment Lite is the express purpose of an undergraduate education in philosophy, a thesis that is then generalized to all the liberal arts disciplines.

Administrator: “You don’t actually bring in any money, or bake any bread. So what the hell do you do?”

Professional Academic Humanist: “OK, so I’ll admit it’s true that we don’t bring in any money, or bake any bread. And we don’t teach content, bad bad bad. Wait a minute, I know: we teach content-free critical thinking! And everyone who makes money and bakes bread in this dog-eat-dog world really really needs critical thinking, especially content-free critical thinking, so that they can go, go, go, always creating new and better ways of making money and baking bread, and never question the value of endlessly making money or baking bread! So that’s why you should fund the humanities! Yay!”

Hence for that reason alone, if for no other, we must reject recent and contemporary mainstream professional academic philosophy.

(Here is a Wikipedia-driven ad hominem sidebar: According to his Wikipedia article,WD was an undergraduate at Columbia in the early 80s; and presumably he studied some philosophy there? Let’s assume so.

Now the Columbia Department back then was–and still is–an Analytic department, and indeed a leading one, following on from the heady days of Arthur Danto et al.

So if WD did indeed study philosophy at Columbia, and if he did well in his philosophy classes, as he no doubt did, he then very probably thereby swallowed the “blue pill” of mainstream Analytic professional academic philosophy from that period. If so, then all that would then nicely account for his commitment to Enlightenment Lite…..)

So anyhow, here’s the updated version of my basic critical argument:

1. Necessarily (Enlightenment Lite –> PARNS)

2. But not PARNS!

3. Therefore, not Enlightenment Lite!

4. Enlightenment Lite is wrong even about logic.

5. Necessarily (logic –> normatively robust human rationality)

6. Therefore, normatively robust human rationality!

7. Necessarily (Recent & Contemporary Mainstream Professional Academic Philosophy –> Enlightenment Lite)

8. Therefore, not Recent & Contemporary Mainstream Professional Academic Philosophy! but, normatively robust human rationality!

In other words, tragically, recent and contemporary professional academic philosophy has totally let everyone down, both about the real purpose of an undergraduate liberal arts education in particular and also about the normatively robust nature of human rationality in general.

Now, I suppose, I could easily end this edgy essay with that pleasingly cynical anarcho-philosophical conclusion.

But I do also think that real philosophy demands that we at least attempt some positive answers to really hard questions.

So, what then is the real, rationally defensible purpose, if any, of an undergraduate liberal arts education?

Obviously enough, looking back over what I’ve already written, my answer is going to have something to do with the irreducible capacity for human rationality itself, and rational human free agency more generally, as self-justifying justifier, and a primitive categorically normative ground, i.e., with normatively robust human rationality.

Moreover, another clue towards my answer is the ironic fact that Enlightenment Lite isn’t even consistent with WD’s own further claims, above and beyond the Enlightenment Lite thesis,

about the intrinsic value of what is classically pursued or studied, in the liberal arts, hence pursuing ends with intrinsic value, for their own sake,

and about the intrinsic (and also instrumental) value of rationally/ethically criticizing, rejecting, and exiting the global corporate capitalist/Statist status quo, in order to create and belong to a better real world.

So, correspondingly, my thesis is that the real, rationally defensible purpose of an undergraduate liberal arts education is to make it possible for people to find out for themselves, in their own unique ways,

about (i) the irreducible capacity for human rationality itself, and rational human free agency more generally, to the extent that this can be freely developed and realized by each of us, in community with each other, as a primitive categorically normative ground, which is the highest good, and the self-justifying justifier, i.e., normatively robust human rationality,

about (ii) how to focus on all and only the things that really intrinsically matter,

and about (iii) the intrinsic (and also instrumental) value of rationally/ethically criticizing, rejecting, and exiting the global corporate capitalist/Statist status quo, in order to create and belong to a better real world.

Obviously this is a totally substantive, and not content-free, Enlightenment ideal, whether you agree with it or not. So let’s call it Heavy-Duty Enlightenment.

Therefore I’m saying that the real, rationally defensible purpose of an undergraduate liberal arts education is making it really possible for students to recognize and pursue Heavy-Duty Enlightenment, as autonomously chosen by them.

And one more quick thing before I stop!, even though I fully realize that we’re already past the end of class, and you’re all checking your incoming texts, Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, etc., and have stopped even pretending to listen.

There is still at least one real and serious question left over, which is this:

Is Heavy-Duty Enlightenment even minimally compatible with the existence of the Professional Academic State?

If, as I strongly suspect, NOT, then, paradoxically, pursuing the real, rationally defensible purpose of an undergraduate liberal arts education will forever be at war with the actual global corporate capitalist/Statist institutions that currently provide this education.

On the one hand, the despairing response to the paradox is just to give up, and forget about undergraduate liberal arts education: it’s permanently “commodified” and fucked-up now and forever, and that’s all there is to it.

But on the other hand, I think that the only viable non-despairing response to the paradox would be for people who are imbued with the passion and spirit of Heavy-Duty Enlightenment to reject and exit the current system of higher education, in order to create and belong to a NEW system of non-global-corporate capitalist/non-Statist institutions for providing liberal arts education.

And since recent and contemporary professional academic philosophers are basically responsible for the widespread onset of PARNS in the early 21st century, via Enlightenment Lite,

then who better than the real philosophers currently living inside or outside the Professional Academic State to lead the way towards this non-despairing fix?

So that’s a real project for contemporary real philosophers living inside or outside the Professional Academic State.

And now, with no one actually left in the classroom but me, feeling yet again like a complete piece of shit, laughing bitterly inside, just one of the permanent staff at Dismaland For Academics, muttered into the echoing void:

OK, you can go now. Thanks for your patience. See you next class.”

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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.