Self-Reflections in a Shallow Pond: Jason Stanley’s “The Crisis of Philosophy” Revisited.

In 2010, Jason Stanley published an article in Inside Higher Ed called “The Crisis of Philosophy.” Stanley was later interviewed in 2012 on 3AM, to much the same effect.

From the contemporary vantage point of APP, imagine our interest!

Six years down the road, however, on a close reading of “The Crisis of Philosophy,” the overwhelming impression one gets is of a professional academic philosopher-Narcissus staring into a very shallow pond indeed.

Correspondingly, here’s a report on my backwards time-traveling visit to the original Inside Higher Ed piece–

In an old essay recently reintroduced to the professional academic philosophical world by way of a popular blog, Jason Stanley (then Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, Rutgers) laments the fact that most American humanists are uninterested in the intellectual product manufactured and marketed by himself and his associates in the professional academic discipline known today as “philosophy.”

Or is he upset that no one speaks to him at dinner parties?

If the Distinguished Professor’s performance at a by-now infamous conference on Philosophical Progress and Intellectual Culture may be taken as evidence, one suspects that it may well be the latter. Every sincere lover of wisdom who sits through the video of Professor Stanley’s remarks must be struck by the performance of it all (and the poor performance at that, even passing over Stanley’s apparent incapacity for eloquent speech, which doubtless would vex any cultivated humanist encountering him at a dinner party).

Above all there is the absence of seriousness, the total lack of deep thoughtfulness, the academic affectation. How faithfully it enacts the posturing typical of the sort of dinner party Stanley mentions in his essay, or, better, a pre-dinner party to which young fans are granted entry to ogle their idols before the stars retreat backstage for the real feast.

So much profession-as-performance, so little philosophy. So much “cool,” so little love of wisdom.

But to return to the original essay. Professor Stanley (now Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy, Yale University) admits that professional academic philosophers typically employ a “pedantic methodology” and have “withdrawn ever more to positions of removed spectators,” yet he is dismayed that those who appreciate literature, art, and culture rarely reward them for their work.

One might conclude that the nature of professional academic philosophy as described by Stanley himself would explain the lack of recognition, but apparently the Professor would not agree.

One might then expect Professor Stanley (PhD, MIT) at least to try sincerely to provide such an explanation, but, if so, one would be disappointed. In a bizarre effort actually to avoid explaining the crisis afflicting professional academic philosophy, Stanley offers the entirely mythical myth that the logical positivists were to blame, which myth he then pronounces, more or less correctly, “false in every detail.”

And having issued and elaborated this (by his own admission) irrelevant pronunciamento, Professor Stanley (recipient of numerous professional Honors & Prizes) proceeds to insist that philosophy has really always resembled contemporary professional academic philosophy. In fact, he says, David Lewis and Saul Kripke, as both thinkers and prose stylists, are simply carrying on the great historical tradition of philosophy.

So which is it? Have contemporary professional academic philosophers withdrawn into pedantic and unreadable debates about rational agency and vagueness, conducted as if in a legal proceeding, or are they no different from Descartes and Hume, who can be difficult but are more often than not quite readable?

It seems that Professor Stanley (winner of the 2007 APA book prize) cannot make up his mind.

What, then, is the crisis of philosophy—or, better, the crisis of professional academic philosophy?

Apparently it is that careerist academics who aim to “solve problems” by way of “abstract reflection” and the analysis of “the logical consequences of … basic doctrines” are shown too little respect by other humanists in the form of post-docs, “genius grants,” and attention in the popular press.

Surprising, isn’t it, given Stanley’s moving description of their professional activities, not to mention his own exhibition of professional academic philosophical style at the conference mentioned above!

Perhaps Professor Stanley (holder of various visiting Professorships and Fellowships) might take the time to consider why philosophy has traditionally been counted among the Humanities, and what this fact implies.

And if novelists, poets, musicians, and painters avoid speaking to him at parties, he might also consider that philosophers were once cultured individuals themselves, willing and able to communicate their ideas to an audience inclusive of more than bland academic pedants and naïve students training to become professional academics themselves.

I would conclude by remarking that in the end Professor Stanley’s screed amounts to a surfeit of sound and fury, signifying nothing, but I fear that all too many professional academic philosophers might not catch the allusion.

Therefore, I say only that this is another fine mess you’ve gotten us into, Stanley.

... using the line "This is another fine mess you have gotten us into