Philosophy Professionalized: How We Killed the Thing We Loved.

[T]he main benefit [of university philosophy] might be that many a young and capable mind will be introduced to and inspired to study philosophy. Meanwhile it must be admitted that whoever has talent for it and thus is in need of it, might very well encounter it and get to know it in other ways. For things that love and are born for one another converge easily; kindred souls greet each other already from afar. Any book of a genuine philosopher that falls into the hands of such people will excite them more strongly and effectively than is possible through the lecture of an academic philosopher of the garden-variety…. [I]n general I have gradually formed the opinion that the benefit of academic philosophy just mentioned is outweighed by the disadvantage that philosophy as a profession produces for philosophy as the free search for truth, and that philosophy by government order imposes on philosophy practised on behalf of nature and humanity.

A. Schopenhauer, “On University Philosophy,” in A. Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena, trans. S. Roehr and C. Janaway (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014), pp. 125-176, at p. 125. [see also note 1 below]

We are all philosophers, yes?, and, I take it, what we all fell in love with when we first encountered philosophy is “real philosophy”:

By real philosophy, we mean synoptic, systematic, rational reflection on the individual and collective human condition, and on the natural world in which human and other conscious animals live, move, and have their being. Real philosophy fully includes the knowledge yielded by the natural and formal sciences; but, as we see it, real philosophy also goes significantly beneath and beyond the exact sciences, and non-reductively incorporates aesthetic, artistic, affective/emotional, ethical/moral, and, more generally, personal and practical insights that cannot be adequately captured or explained by the sciences. In a word, real philosophy is all about the nature, meaning, and value of individual and collective human existence in the natural cosmos, and how it is possible to know the philosophical limits of science, without also being anti-science.


Real philosophy is pursued by people working on individual or collective writing projects, or teaching projects, in the context of small, friendly circles of like-minded philosophers. Like-minded but not uncritical! Real philosophers read both intensively and also widely inside philosophy, and also widely outside of philosophy, critically discuss what they’ve read, write, mutually present and talk about their work, re-read, re-discuss, and then re-write, with the primary aim of producing work of originality and of the highest possible quality, given their own individual and collective abilities. They also seek to disseminate their work, through publication, teaching, or public conversation.

Real philosophy in this sense is very close to, if not indeed equivalent to, classical or perennial philosophy.

If that’s not what you mean by “real philosophy,” then please substitute your own definition—e.g., Schopenhauer’s, as per the epigraph, according to which genuine philosophy is “the free search for truth,” or Sellars’s, according to which philosophy is “understanding how things in the broadest sense of that term, hang together in the broadest sense of that term” (W. Sellars, “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man,” in W. Sellars, Science, Perception, and Reality (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963), pp. 1-40, at p. 1).

Indeed, my argument in this essay will work pretty much no matter what you mean by “real philosophy,” provided that (i) it’s at least in the spirit of classical or perennial philosophy,(ii) it’s not radically skeptical, and (iii) it’s not equivalent to what I call professional academic philosophy.

On the other hand, if you think “real philosophy” is equivalent to professional academic philosophy, and if you somehow or another loved professional academic philosophy even when you first got into philosophy, then I’m strongly tempted to say, fuck you. But luckily I won’t give in to that temptation.

The main thesis of this essay is that since at least the beginning of the 20th century (and if Schopenhauer is right, then since the mid-19th century), but especially since the end of World War II, real philosophy, the thing we all loved, has been killed by professional academic philosophy.

What is “professionalism”? It includes at least six necessary elements.

First, professionalism implies being engaged in a specific activity as one’s paid (usually full-time) occupation or practice. As a paid occupation or practice in the context of the modern world, professionalism directly entails capitalism.

Second, professionalism is the contrary of amateurism, in that amateurs are not paid to engage in the specific activity they truly love. Amateurs engage in that activity for its own sake, whereas professionals do it for the money. Of course, many professionals love what they do, but, sadly, virtually all professionals would stop engaging in that activity if they weren’t paid for it.

Third, professionalism implies the end of one’s apprenticeship, hence in order to become a professional there is an extended process of training, ending in the possession of a certain competence or skill, by which virtue of which one becomes a fully-licensed, paid practitioner.

Fourth, professionalism implies that there is a governing body, or collection of such governing bodies, that determines the training program and licensing procedures, as well as certain codes and standards by which one competently and skillfully conducts one’s licensed, paid occupation or practice.

Fifth, these licensing procedures, codes, and standards are used by that governing body or collection of governing bodies as devices to control the means of production relevant to that specific activity, and also the services provided by the practitioners engaged in that specific activity.

Sixth, this governing body or collection of governing bodies possesses coercive power with respect to the enforcement of that profession’s licensing, codes, and standards, and with respect to the control of that profession’s means of production and provision of services.

What is an “academic”? An academic is a teacher, scholar, and/or researcher in a university or other institute of higher education, e.g., a liberal arts college.

By a “State-like institution,” I mean any institution that issues commands regardless of the moral content of those commands, claims the right to issue such commands, and possesses the coercive power to compel obedience to these commands. In practice, every command-issuing institution that has its own gun-carrying police force or security guards, is a State-like institution. Hence all colleges and universities are “States,” in this extended sense. The total collection of these is what I call “the Professional Academic State.”

Since the beginning of the 20th century at least, but especially since the end of World War II, virtually all philosophers have been professional academics in all six senses of professionalism, living, moving, and having their occupational and practical being inside the Professional Academic State.

More precisely, since the beginning of the 20th century at least, but especially since the end of World War II, professional philosophers have virtually all been full-time, paid academics;

virtually all of them would not do philosophy unless they were paid;

the widgets that professional philosophers relentlessly produce in their academic factories are publications;

the primary competence or skill that is acquired by professional philosophers through their process of training is critical analysis and formally valid, rhetorically persuasive argumentation or logical reasoning, detached from substantive content;

the full process of training for professional philosophers terminates in the writing and defense of a dissertation, for which they receive a PhD, which in turn gives them a license to practice;

the primary service that professional philosophers provide to larger society is teaching undergraduates how to criticize effectively and argue well, with a working knowledge of the full set of debater’s tricks known as “informal fallacies,”

so that, as soon as possible after graduation, these young people will, with huge smiley faces


and “critical reasoning skills” freshly hard-wired into their brains,

enter the workforce of the larger capitalist economy, especially including the military-industrial complex, and hammer away there for the rest of their working lives;

in the USA at least, professional philosophers are governed and coercively controlled by their departmental and college or university administrations, the American Philosophical Association (APA), and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP);

and the primary means of this governance and coercive control over the professional lives of philosophers is the tenure-and-promotion (T&P) system.

It is a notable fact, however, that the three philosophers who have won Nobel prizes since 1945—Russell, Camus, and Sartre—were all fully outsiders, or “strangers,” to professional academic philosophy, and also that one of them, Russell, had even been officially expelled by the Professional Academic State in 1916 for his dangerously pacifist political views.

Correspondingly, it is my contention that recent and contemporary professional academic philosophy is inherently inimical to real philosophy, and what is more,

that the secret agenda of recent and contemporary professional academic philosophy is to kill real philosophy at its psychological source, because it is essentially too creative and rebellious, and ultimately uncontrollable by the Professional Academic State, by making us hate the thing we loved.

Therefore, to the extent that professional academic philosophy, since the beginning of the 20th century at least, but especially since the end of World War II, has gradually come to dominate the world of contemporary philosophy, it has killed real philosophy inside the Professional Academic State.

What are my reasons for these claim? I have six.

The first one is that, as James Campbell’s A Thoughtful Profession clearly shows, by 1927, virtually all philosophers in the USA were professional academics in the six senses of professionalism spelled out above (See J. Campbell, A Thoughtful Profession: The Early Years of the American Philosophical Association (Chicago, IL: Open Court, 2006)).

The second one is that the “analytic” vs. “Continental” divide, which has riven professional academic philosophy since 1945, and still continues to afflict it, is in fact fundamentally the expression of various oppressive cultural and political forces that undermine the very idea of real philosophy (see also R. Rorty, “Philosophy in America Today,” in R. Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis, MN: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1982), pp. 211-230) [see also note 2 below].

The third one is that in the decade immediately following 1945, the McCarthy era, professional academic philosophers, like all other academics, especially US academics, learned all too well that daring to think, speak, or write for yourself could get you fired, or forced out of the Professional Academic State in disgrace, and blacklisted (see, e.g., J. McCumber, Time in the Ditch: American Philosophy and the McCarthy Era (Chicago, IL: Northwestern Univ. Press, 2001).

The fourth one is that in the six decades following 1955, professional academic philosophers have also learned all too well that the T&P system is an extremely effective device for thought-control.

The fifth one is Plato’s classical dual objection (i) in the Apology, to coercive, authoritarian States, and (ii) in the Protagoras, to the Sophists, that so-called “philosophy” that is under the direct coercive control of any authoritarian State, and that is done only for the money in view of what the State finds acceptable, is inherently inimical to real philosophy—as contrastively represented by the examples of Plato’s own teacher, the anti-Sophist and real-philosophy martyr Socrates, and Plato’s own anti-professional (and in that sense, anti-academic) Academy.

And the sixth and final one is my psychological hypothesis that after a “lifer” sentence under the T&P system, many or even most professional academic philosophers in their 50s and 60s—which should be the prime age for real philosophy—instead end up suffering from what James C. Scott calls “a mild form” of “institutional neurosis”:

It is a direct result of long-term institutionalization itself. Those suffering from it are apathetic, take no initiative, display a general loss of interest in their surroundings, make no plans, and lack spontaneity. Because they are cooperative and give no trouble, such Institutional subjects may be seen by those in charge in favorable light, as they adapt well to institutional routines. In the severest cases they may become childish and affect a characteristic posture and gait….and become withdrawn and inaccessible. (J.C. Scott, Two Cheers for Anarchism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2012), p. 79.)

Otherwise put, my psychological hypothesis is that, on the not unreasonable assumption that nearly all professional academic philosophers went into the T&P system truly loving real philosophy, by the time they have actually slithered up the Greasy Pole of the system,
pre-reflectively realizing that their professionalization has forced them to care only for T&P,
many or even most of them end up, at some level, resentfully hating the thing they truly loved, real philosophy, which induces “a mild form” of a specifically professional-academic, institutionally-submissive, state of intellectual and moral catatonia.

That, in turn, would at least partially explain all those department-meetings-from-hell on Friday afternoons, so that this is what I looked like all weekend [see also note 3 below]:


Note 1. Schopenhauer was an outsider to academic philosophy for virtually all of his philosophical career, and, as I recently discovered, “On University Philosophy” beautifully anticipates many of the basic ideas, themes, and even tropes of APP. Indeed, Schopenhauer kicks the shit out of the professional philosophy of his day.

Note 2. Rorty quit professional philosophy permanently in 1982, at the age of 51, in order to take up a Humanities professorship at the University of Virginia, and then in the late 90s a similar professorship at Stanford. Since he thereby remained within the academy throughout his career, however, that makes him at best an “insider’s outsider,” and not a genuine outsider/stranger to professional academic philosophy, like Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Peirce, Russell, Camus, and Sartre.

Note 3. Devo, “Jocko Homo, Or, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We are DEVO,” in The Truth about De-Evolution (1975). The people writhing on the table in white body bags are contingent faculty.

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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.