The AOS is a ASS: How Specialization in Professional Philosophy Creates Disastrously Bad Philosophical Pictures.

“If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble,… “the law is a ass—a idiot.”

–Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, ch, 51.

If the law supposes that," said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat ...

1. Recently I read Samuel Wheeler’s very cool and insightful essay, “Specialization and the Future of Analytic Philosophy,” on the malign impact and implications of endemic, forced specialization, both early- and hyper-, in contemporary professional analytic philosophy.

That specialization is both endemic and forced in contemporary professional academic philosophy, and not merely professional analytic philosophy, is proven (i) by the simple, brute fact that all contemporary professional academic philosophers are professionally required to have some Areas of Specialization (AOSs), and (ii) by the correspondingly simple and brute fact that if they didn’t have AOSs, they could neither get nor keep a job in professional academic philosophy.

Am I right, or am I right? But isn’t this completely bonkers?

Now assertorically instead of interrogatively put: I think that the AOS and all it stands for–i.e., endemic, forced, early- and hyper-specialization in contemporary professional academic philosophy–is, just like The Law, as Dickens’s bumptious baddie Mr Bumble absurdly but also trenchantly observed, nothing but “a ass–a idiot.”

One way of seeing how patently absurd and wrongheaded the very idea of endemic, forced, early- and hyper-specialization in professional philosophy is, is to ask what Plato’s, Aristotle’s, Descartes’s, Kant’s, Hegel’s, Kierkegaard’s, Husserl’s, Heidegger’s, Sartre’s, Russell’s, or Wittgenstein’s AOSs were?

AOS: Real Philosophy, with A Special Focus on Everything Worth Thinking About in Human Life or the Larger Natural World; and Critical Meta-Philosophy with Respect to the Entire History of Philosophy and Contemporary Philosophy Too.

Or can you imagine Elisabeth of Bohemia, Mary Wollstonecraft, Emma Goldman, Simone Weil, or Simone de Beauvoir having an AOS, or a CV, or having to submit writing samples in her AOS?

Perhaps G.E.M. Anscombe, Hannah Arendt, or Iris Murdoch had to knuckle-under to this at some point in their post-WW II careers. Nevertheless, the very idea of that professional knuckling-under remains patently absurd and wrongheaded.

2. But for all the very-coolness and insightfulness of Wheeler’s essay, I was also vividly struck by his having overlooked what I take to be two even deeper points about the problem of specialization in professional philosophy.

First, the problem of specialization in professional philosophy is fundamentally an anarcho-political problem, because endemic, forced early-specialization and hyper-specialization flow naturally from the deep but all-too-often unacknowledged influence of larger sociocultural and political mechanisms of scientism, statism, and global corporate capitalism on professional academic philosophy.

Second, while Wheeler concentrates, ultimately, on the mildly apocalyptic thought that specialization will lead to the disappearance of philosophy departments—big fucking deal!, I say—it seems to me that the truly malign impact and implications of early-specialization, hyper-specialization, and more generally forced specialization in professional philosophy lie in the fact that specialization covertly intellectually and affectively induces or produces disastrously bad philosophical pictures, to which philosophers are then deeply dogmatically committed, to the extreme extent that they feel in their bones that anyone who challenges any of these pictures is either a fool or a knave, i.e., just plain stupid or morally evil, for the rest of their professional lives.

By a bad philosophical picture I mean a set of interlinked unarticulated, unargued presuppositions that consistently yields significant conceptual blindness/blinkeredness and conceptual confusion in philosophy.

And by a disastrously bad philosophical picture I mean a bad philosophical picture that is so gripping and so severely mistaken it that covertly drives philosophy into a conceptual cul de sac or vicious loop, consisting of endless insoluble antinomies and/or radical skepticism, in effect killing real philosophy, and then generating from its death throes only arid, narrow, pointless, busy-busy-busy bee philosophical scholasticism and sophistry. You know, the very sort of thing that the Critique of Pure Reason and Philosophical Investigations were written to diagnose, undermine, and overcome?

Sadly, there are all-too-many examples of how endemic, forced early-specialization and hyper-specialization in contemporary professional academic philosophy covertly induces or produces disastrously bad philosophical pictures.

3. One example is the almost-total isolation of philosophy of mind specialists from free will specialists.

This induces or produces the disastrously bad philosophical picture according to which any adequate solution to the free will problem could somehow avoid also being an adequate solution to the mind-body problem and mental causation problem, and conversely. What was it that Schopenhauer said about the “world-knot”?

Oh no, I totally forgot! that neither philosophy of mind specialists nor free will specialists ever read or take Schopenhauer seriously.

–Except for the truly brilliant Brian O’Shaughnessy, and the poor bastard’s life-work, consisting of the two massive studies,The Will and Consciousness and the World, were almost completely ignored by mainstream philosophers of mind and free will during his lifetime, except for damning him with faint praise by noticing his totally brilliant although unfortunately titled Journal of Philosophy article, “Trying (as the Mental ‘Pineal Gland),” (sadly, insulated from free accessibility by pay-wall shit); and also except for D.R. Griffin’s* very cool (and, amazingly!, freely accessible) book, Unsnarling the World-Knot: Consciousness, Freedom, and the Mind-Body Problem, again, as far as I can tell, pretty much completely ignored by mainstream recent and contemporary philosophers of mind and free will….

(*That’s DAVID RAY Griffin, the politically radical process philosopher, and not DONALD REDFIELD Griffin, whose break-through work on bat-echolation and cognitive ethology heavily influenced Thomas Nagel, most obviously in “What is it like to be a bat?,”

although weirdly enough, the two D.R. Griffins’ work is deeply compatible and BOTH have been pretty much completely ignored by mainstream recent and contemporary philosophers of mind and free will.

Proof: if you’re working AOS-wise in either contemporary philosophy of mind or contemporary philosophy of free will, had you ever heard of either of them?, and if so, could you tell them apart? No? QED.)

4. Another example is the almost-total isolation of philosophy of mind specialists from specialists in the history of philosophy up to this morning at 6am, especially Aristotle specialists, specialists in German idealism, and those vanishingly few professional philosophers who still read and take seriously panexperientialist classics like Dewey’s Experience and Nature, Bergson’s Creative Evolution, Samuel Alexander’s Space, Time and Deity, and/or Whitehead’s Process and Reality, or will admit in polite company without blushing with professional embarrassment–or worse, pathetically apologizing for their “stupidity”–that they actually quite liked Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos.

This induces or produces the disastrously bad philosophical picture according to which there are only two serious alternative solutions to the mind-body problem, dualism, whether substance or property, or physicalism, whether non-reductive, reductive, or eliminative.

True, some varieties of neutral monism (with a physicalist slant) have recently gotten a professionally-validated brief look-in, because of Chalmers’s speculations in the second half of The Conscious Mind; and also true, Galen Strawson’s version of panpsychism gets a limited hearing, or at least the all-too-familiar blank stare of incomprehension.

Still, it must also be pointed out that although Strawson the Younger was generally well respected when he toed the party-lines, nevertheless, like Rorty in the 80s after his highly subversive Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, and like the semi-renegade Putnam in the 90s, and more recently, like the Nagel of Mind and Cosmos and like the Peter Unger of Empty Ideas, Strawson the Y too is generally regarded nowadays as yet another one of those pitiable White Males With A Pre-Existing High Status Reputation, Gone Bonkers, Grumpy, and ‘Iconoclastic’ (Notice the Shudders) in His Dotage.

In other words, there’s a widespread mainstream eyes-wide-shut refusal to engage with non-AOS validated ideas, smeared over with some politically correct, nasty ad hominem shit thrown in for good measure. Nice, very nice: is this one great profession, or what?

And even leaving aside the varieties of neutral monism, panpsychism, or panexperientialism, whatever the fuck happened to hylomorphism, and the varieties of idealism, as equally serious options?

5. Another example is the almost-total isolation of free will specialists from specialists in the history of philosophy, especially Aristotle specialists, specialists in German idealism, specialists in existentialism/phenomenology, and specialists in American pragmatism.

This induces or produces the disastrously bad philosophical picture according to which there are only three serious alternative solutions to the free will problem, hard determinism, soft determinism, and classical libertarianism (agent-causal, event-causal, and non-causal), and correspondingly the equally disastrous picture according to which compatibilism and incompatibilism are contradictories or anyhow contraries.

But why in Aristotle’s name couldn’t there be a non-classical libertarianism, according to which the source of non-deterministic, non-indeterministic agency is a complex, creative, intrinsically structured life-process, i.e., an individual animal, non-rational or rational; and why in Kant’s name couldn’t there be incompatibilism at the source of agency, and compatibilism elsewhere, in the non-living parts of nature?

Holy hylomorphism, oh my Kant, and wowza!

6. Another example is the almost-total three-way isolation of M&E specialists from specialists in the history of philosophy and from specialists in social and political philosophy.

This induces or produces the disastrously bad meta-philosophical picture according to which doing M&E and doing history of philosophy are not essentially the same philosophical activity, and according to which both, in their contemporary professional philosophical manifestations, are not heavily covertly determined by scientism, statism, and global corporate capitalism.

7. Another example is the almost-total isolation of specialists in social and political philosophy from specialists in post-Kantian continental European philosophy.

This induces or produces the disastrously bad philosophical picture according to which all the basic problems of social and political philosophy are exclusively problems inside the classical liberal and neo-liberal traditions,

such that the conventional wisdom of Establishment Hobbes-Locke-Mill-Rawls-liberal democracy-Libertarian thinking never ever seriously encounters the edgy Dis-Establishment thinking of Hegelians, Marxists, social anarchists, existentialists, or Frankfurt School Critical Theorists, or conversely,

and above all, such that mainstream contemporary social and political philosophy is not itself deeply politically-committed.

OMK! and fucking wowza! There was even a very cool book about this just recently published by Lorna Finlayson, The Political is Political: Conformity and the Illusion of Dissent in Contemporary Political Philosophy. I wonder whether anyone in mainstream social and political philosophy will pay any attention to it whatsoever?

8. And finally, for now, yet another example, perhaps in some ways the most egregious example of all, is the almost total three-way internal isolation of specialists in meta-ethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics from one another, which is almost infinitely compounded and magnified by the almost total external isolation of any ethics specialists of any sub-kind from specialists in social and political philosophy and also from specialists in the philosophy of religion/philosophical theology.

This induces or produces the disastrously bad philosophical picture according to which all ethicists must be either atheists (in a majority of 70+%, according to the 2009 PhilPapers survey) or theists, middle excluded, as if serious versions of agnosticism had never ever existed,

according to which the only serious way one could do moral philosophy from a religious point of view is to defend the absurdly dumb-ass theory of Divine Command Ethics (= it’s right just because the gods say it’s right, or just because God says it’s right),

according to which the knock-down Socratic moral-and-rational-arbitrariness objection to Divine Command Ethics does not also have a perfect analogue showing that Statist Command Ethics (= it’s right just because the government, no matter how it got into power, says it’s right) is just as absurdly dumb-ass,

and according to which the fundamental problem of political authority is not every bit as much a fundamental problem in ethics and in philosophy of religion/philosophical theology. The State, the Good, and God. Why did anyone ever think these weren’t essentially interlinked?

To be sure, the essays collected in Nagel’s Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament do, bless his mind and heart!, when taken collectively, point clearly and distinctly to this essential interlinkage. But did anyone in mainstream professional ethics , or in mainstream social and political philosophy,  pay any attention whatsoever to this 2009 book, except to be affronted by the absurdly dumb-ass idea that Nagel in his philosophically senile, declining years had hobbled over to the Religious Right?

Only endemic, forced early- and hyper-specialization in contemporary professional academic philosophy can adequately explain all this bullshit.

9. I conclude that as long as professional academic philosophy forces early- and hyper-specialization on all its practitioners, and correspondingly forces them all to sell themselves on the open job market and for the rest of their professional careers under their name-branding AOSs, like they were nothing but walking, talking, go-go-go publishing, moistly robotic sandwich-board advertisements for cigarettes or soft drinks, then professional academic philosophy is going to be and remain disastrously philosophically fucked-up.

10. I started this essay with the bumptious Mr Bumble, so by way of balance I’ll close with the generous and gentle but also entirely unjustly neglected panexperientialist philosopher of mind and free will, David Ray Griffin:

Philosophy is a human enterprise, carried on by fully human beings, and paradigmatic thinking and the associated wishful-and-fearful thinking are part and parcel of the human condition. People who become professional philosophers, furthermore, are probably even more prone than most people to think paradigmatically. The criticism of the fact that panexperientialism has been ignored, accordingly, is not meant to be an indictment of any individual or the mainline philosophical community in general.(Unsnarling the World-Knot, p. 85)

This was written in 1998. So with all due respect to Griffin, and with the full benefit of 20-20 hindsight from almost twenty years further down the road of endemic, forced early- and hyper-specialization in professional philosophy, we can clearly see from here that Griffin is being MUCH too concessive and nice. We can and should, utterly without apology, indict “the mainline philosophy community in general.” The AOS and all it stands for is a complete ASS.

 

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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.