If We’re So Smart, Then Why Are We Such Assholes?

This is a true story about my life, followed by a short argument.

Last Saturday, Y sent to the APP circle the following bit of text, which in turn was excerpted from this article, which by now everyone in professional philosophy has either read or heard about:

Scholars in all disciplines have disagreements. But philosophy is unusual, many say, in its tradition of developing ideas through face-to-face and sometimes brutal debate. “People in other disciplines think we’re just thugs,” said Louise Antony, a philosopher at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

That reliance on debate can pose a particular dilemma for women, she added. Argue aggressively, and they’re branded shrews (to put it nicely). Hold back, and they’re not good philosophers.

“Many people have called philosophy the combat sport of academia,” Ms. Antony said. “But if you can’t have those conversations, you’re at a disadvantage.”

Jennifer Schuessler, “A Star Philosopher Falls, and a Debate Over Sexism Is Set Off,” New York Times, August 3, 2013.

Independently, I had also read this other more nerdy item about GRE scores for 2013, which basically shows how comparatively smart prospective professional philosophers are.

Juxtaposing in my mind the already-famous article, Y’s excerpt, and the other more nerdy thing, naturally I thought: “If we’re so smart, then why are we such assholes, both to each other and also to the world at large?”  and sent something to that effect to the APP circle.

Then, very insightfully, X wrote back this:

I wonder sometimes whether the point on combative conversation styles doesn’t hold that much weight, at least on its own—e.g., an area like law also (at least tacitly) demands aggressive conversation, but law’s at gender parity. There are lots of other things going on, and though conversation style may interact with other factors to exclude certain people from the discipline, it doesn’t strike me as a major deterrent in its own right. Maybe as a subset of the bigger problem of general negative culture.

Something clicked. So now for the short argument.

I think that X’s points about comparing professional philosophy with law and noticing the non-deterrent effect of aggressive conversation in that field, are totally apposite. Correspondingly, as X suggests, there is some significant complexity to this whole smartness/asshole question.

1. Not only are women significantly under-represented in professional philosophy, but lots of other groups are too—ethnic/racial groups, class-based groups, and sexual-identity groups. Why?

2. Consider the comparison with law. In that field, aggressive conversation and dialectical proficiency (verging on complete assholed-ness) are the professional norm, and yet women are at parity.

3. Anyone who has ever read Plato knows that there’s a subtle but fundamental difference between aggressive conversation/dialectical proficiency and real philosophy. Indeed it’s precisely the difference between sophistry and real philosophy.

4. How did the norm in professional philosophy get to be, basically, sophistry in Plato’s sense?

My own view is that it’s because as the discipline became more and more professionalized, and as scientism became the default view, philosophers lost the sense that there’s any substantive non-science-based core to philosophy itself, and then more or less unthinkingly (how ironic), in order to justify their jobs and pretend that they’re really “professionals,” latched onto the idea that professional philosophers are value-neutral analysis-and-argument-machines, thereby, in effect, mimicking the worst features of the law profession, without any real or valuable practical impact—unlike law, when it’s practised, as it is sometimes, by principled people of genuine integrity.

5. So why do so many smart people stay away from professional philosophy in droves? I think it’s because (i) they’re fairly disgusted by the sophistry and triviality of so much contemporary work in philosophy, (ii) the scientism also revolts them, and they yearn for something practical and real, having to do with the actual human condition, and (iii) they might otherwise be inclined to put up with conversational styles verging on complete assholed-ness, if the job prospects, the money, the social status were all really good—but they’re not.

6. So who ends up in professional philosophy? Answer: (A) careerist sophists, (B) real philosophers who are constantly annoyed by and struggling with the whole enterprise, but can’t bring themselves to become lawyers or scientists, and also can’t figure out any other way of being so close to the thing they really love, short of becoming existential heroes and flinging themselves into the void of joblessness clutching their copies of Plato’s Dialogues, and (C) borderline-cases between class (A) and class (B).

7. For convenience, let’s call the members of class (A), class (A) assholes.

8. Now take one guess which class of professional philosophers mostly populates The Fortune 500 Philosophy Club–i.e., the elite group of 500 tenure-track philosophers at the so-called top-ranked 25 philosophy departments?

9. But on the other hand, no doubt, the majority of professional philosophers, and especially those outside The Fortune 500 Philosophy Club, actually belong either to class (B) or to class (C). So there is some genuine ground for hope here.

10. In particular, the members of class (B) and class (C) could actively work against, resist, and subvert careerist sophistry and scientism, which, if I am correct, are the real causes of why we’re such assholes, even though we’re so smart.

Then perhaps, just perhaps, many more smart people in those significantly under-represented groups might also actually become  philosophers for the rest of their lives, instead of avoiding this enterprise in droves, and help the current members of class (B) and class (C) turn what used to be “professional philosophy” into an authentic, vital intellectual and practical project in which the real philosophy of the future can emerge and truly flourish.

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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.

2 thoughts on “If We’re So Smart, Then Why Are We Such Assholes?

  1. with: “philosophers lost the sense that there’s any substantive non-science-based core to philosophy itself, and then more or less unthinkingly (how ironic), in order to justify their jobs and pretend that they’re really “professionals,” latched onto the idea that professional philosophers are value-neutral analysis-and-argument-machines, thereby, in effect, mimicking the worst features of the law profession, without any real or valuable practical impact”

    Why leave behind practical impact in the transition to becoming more “professional”? And any reason for choosing this brand of “professionalism” over another kind?

    • Of course, I don’t deny that professionals–of any kind–can have a practical impact. On the contrary, every kind of professionalism has its own kind of practical impact. But I guess I am implicitly denying that professional philosophers can have any real or valuable practical impact if they think of themselves as essentially experts in formal or informal reasoning, without any reason-guiding substantive commitment to a deeper or larger philosophical view of the human condition or the world. Also I think that philosophers have latched onto this special, sophistical brand of professionalism because, in deferring to scientists as intellectual Masters of the Universe, they then can’t find anything else they’re really good at doing. So they become assholes instead. And that’s both ironic and tragic.

      More generally, what I’m challenging is the idea that there’s an obvious and smooth connection between being a real philosopher and being a professional of any sort. I think it’s interesting and strange, e.g., that research scientists don’t call themselves “professional scientists” in order to justify what they’re doing: they just do science. Similarly, why “professional” philosophers? What precisely is it that we’re professing? What carefully-controlled service are we providing to individuals, society, or the world, as philosophers (as opposed to, say, as college or university teachers, which of course we are, but not specifically by virtue of being philosophers), such that we can justify their paying us for it and also justify our carefully controlling its dissemination? Isn’t that exactly what the Sophists did?

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