On Solving Professional Philosophy’s Irrelevance Problem.

In Robert Hanna’s recent essay, “How to Escape Irrelevance: Performance Philosophy, Public Philosophy, and Borderless Philosophy”–itself building on Carlo Cellucci’s recent essay, “Philosophy at a Crossroads: Escaping From Irrelevance”–Hanna describes and critically analyzes two contra-professional-academic-philosophy movements, namely public philosophy and performance philosophy.

Both kinds of philosophy respond to the increasing irrelevance of professional academic philosophy, by, essentially, locating such irrelevance in the fact that recent and contemporary professional academic philosophy has become at once too “professional” and too “academic.”

The underlying criticism here is one that characterizes contemporary professional academic philosophy as not only obscure, pedantic, and intellectually poverty-stricken (hence “academic” in the pejorative sense of being esoteric, scholastic in the bad sense, and ultimately trivial), but also mentally enslaved by an ideology of “salaried professionalism” that’s inherently inimical to the aims and nature of genuine philosophy.[i]

These are all sure-fire ways of ensuring irrelevance: therefore, as such, professional academic philosophy is fast drawing the classical calling or discipline of philosophy into disrepute.

This, then, is a critique of the form of professional philosophy.

Now if professional philosophy is irrelevant, then how can it be ascribed a positive value?

As Hanna’s and Cellucci’s articles testify–and these are only the tip of a veritable iceberg–there is an increasing number of articles or blog posts that seek to justify philosophy to the wider public.

This is typically in the form of a purely pragmatic argument that appeals to “transferable cognitive skills”: where it is thought that the cognitive skills of discernment, critical analysis, and rational reflection, which are supposedly gained while reading for a degree in philosophy, can be put to use in an array of jobs.

Apparently, the “market” really, really needs such thinkers; and, apparently, they can add “real value” (read: “real wealth creation”) to a company or institution.

This kind of justification is a very long way indeed from the classical Greek idea of philosophy as the pursuit of truth or wisdom; and it’s almost infinitely distant from the late 18th-, 19th-, and early 20th century Idealist-Romantic, Marxist, or Existentialist conceptions of philosophy as life-changing, world-changing, or otherwise creative, profoundly meaningful for life, and emancipatory.

Quite apart from this sharp, tragic break with the history of philosophy up through the end of World War 2, the contemporary “transferable skills” claim itself is highly dubious, for three reasons.

First, there are plenty of other disciplines that can inculcate the relevant skills: a good historian, or physicist, would certainly develop such abilities in their studies.

Second, it is highly questionable whether those skills, if truly obtained, would be put to use in the interests of the market.

Although I will not explore this here, there is surely a deep and indeed necessary connection between

(i) resisting the value of money qua value, and

(ii) realizing the intrinsic value of genuine philosophy.

Third, the question must be raised as to whether the typical philosophy BA, MA, or PhD degree, in the typical anglophone philosophy department, is in fact inculcating the above-mentioned skills.

This is a question that all those who have studied and worked in such departments must ask themselves.

For my part, I certainly do not think this is the case: that is, I am saying that the cognitive skills characteristic of discernment, critical analysis, and rational reflection, as they relate to genuine philosophy, are not being inculcated.

Moreover it seems to me that there is indeed a crisis in the discipline of professional academic philosophy, and also that it is one that is, in its own way, an existential crisis that is closely related to what Edmund Husserl, in the 1930s, so aptly called “the crisis of European sciences.”[ii]

As someone who transferred from natural science into professional academic philosophical studies, I am acutely aware of how disastrous the current state of affairs is.

Remarkably, despite leaving the natural sciences because of a sense that “we” the scientists lacked self-reflection and thought regarding our methods and implicit metaphysical commitments, I was appalled to find that professional academic philosophers were even more unreflective – a damning indictment for a field that’s supposedly grounded on cognitive capacities for discernment, critical analysis, and rational reflection.

Indeed, as Hanna notes, part of basic problem of professional academic anglophone philosophy is a naïve commitment to scientific naturalism, or scientism.

How ironic!

Now putting aside the transferable skills argument, many a student of philosophy might argue against the above by accepting that philosophy is in some sense irrelevant, but that relevance is not necessarily a virtue: wisdom, truth, meaning itself, need not occur within the purview of the “masses” (read here in terms of the general population, or some form of democratic endorsement).

For it may very well be the case that a scenario occurs whereby the dominant beliefs and political realities are defined by nefarious, hegemonic ideologies and that a pursuit of truth in such a context renders one’s intellectual activities more and more “irrelevant.”

Certainly, monasticism does not require relevance, at least for its practitioners, in order to be deeply meaningful or in some other sense highly valuable.

The philosopher need not appeal to the market or the masses.

However, even if this point is granted, there is problem of the nature of the philosophy that is being taught in contemporary professional academic philosophy programs.

This the second prong of what I take to be Hanna’s critique; whereas the first was the critique of the form of contemporary professional academic philosophy, the second is the critique of the content of contemporary professional academic philosophy.

As regards this point, I do recognize the “hegemony”–i.e., the fact that ruling elites exert ideological control over the people they coercively oppress, to the point of mind-control–that Hanna describes, with direct application to the type of thinking that is taking place in the professional philosophical academy.

“Hegemony” is a psycho-social category; more dramatically, in professional academic philosophy it means the mind-control that more or less subtly disciplines the academic philosophical practitioner into reading, thinking, talking, and writing in a professionally “acceptable,” “reasonable,” and “respectable” way.

This is a deeper and wider point, about the nature of what is being taught and how it is being taught, with both the form and content of academic philosophy feeding into a vicious circle that renders the entire pursuit of professional academic philosophy irrelevant.

With such a damning indictment, it is no surprise to find Hanna imploring the philosophically inclined to leave the academy and join him in his borderless philosophy project, which I take to be a project that takes place within, and imparts effect, in the larger cosmopolitan world and anthroposphere.

Given this injunction to exit the professional academy, however, there immediately and explicitly arises a highly pressing issue: this is the economic issue.

The issue is as simple and unavoidable as death-and-taxes: what material support can those who attempt to escape the academy expect?

How are they to support themselves?

The professional academy is at least a reliable (and sometimes highly well-paying) source of income and provides direct access to other kinds of resources.

So although there are good reasons to abandon the professional academy, before doing so, this economic reality is surely a crucial issue to consider.

Working and existing outside of the academy certainly provides one with a particular kind of insight and perspective (things that must be cherished); however, after a certain point, the sheer privilege of reading, thinking, talking, and writing philosophy without worrying about money is something a philosophical writer both craves and requires.

In view of the economic issue alone, it seems that if the professional academy could be significantly reformed–and, more specifically, that the form and content of professional academic philosophy could be significantly reformed–then it could provide a new generation of philosophers, especially those who are not from well-to-do backgrounds, with the wherewithal to philosophize.

Nonetheless, the question is, can the professional academy be reformed?, and if so, is it ever likely to be?

The answer to the first question, in my opinion, is “of course,” but the answer to the second question is “probably not.”

The latter answer’s expression of pessimism is derived from the fact that similar concerns and critiques are being forwarded about the professional academy at large.

I cannot speak fully to this point, given my limited experiences; however, it seems to me that the professional academic modus operandi – in the arts, humanities and social sciences at the very least – is likely to be highly similar across all disciplines.

This opens up systemic questions regarding the nature of universities as social institutions: how they operate, where they operate, how they are evaluated and how they self-evaluate, their proximity to politics and financial institutions, their utility, their guiding ideology, the coherence or incoherence of the university with respect to the constituent parts, etc.

Indeed, there is a strong social-critical spirit, reminiscent of the Frankfurt School, animating the borderless philosophy movement, and thus the very idea of a “social institution” becomes a prima facie problem.

But there is an equally prima facie problem at the heart of this: assuming there is a kind of resistance to social institutions built into borderless philosophy, it is difficult to see how “we,” fledgling philosophers, students of philosophy, will be afforded the opportunity to gain exposure to experienced philosophers, professional academic or otherwise.

Outside of university, I, like many others, had no access whatsoever to this group of people, for better or for worse.

There is, within a large subset of the working class, an intellectual apathy brought on by the very conditions under which they labor; indeed, even with respect to those who are intellectually engaged, it is often the case that they have neither the experience nor the means for influencing those around them.

Belonging to the bourgeoisie, ironically, has provided many with this intellectual mobility.

Moreover, assuming one did have access to this intellectual community, what guarantee would one have with respect to feedback and the other factors of student development?

I can see this myself: many students write to me asking for me to review, edit, or critique their work; but I myself am fully occupied with trying to earn an income, develop my own body of work, and have a personal life.

Even as someone how has a PhD, I am still lacking in intellectual relationships that would allow me to send articles, let alone manuscripts, to my “connections” for review and feedback.

Professional academic philosophers are, by virtue of their employment contracts, compelled or at least obligated to do as much, at least for students.

Hanna undertakes the critique of social institutions, from the specific standpoint of the philosophy of mind, in the forthcoming book, The Mind-Body Politic (Palgrave, 2019), co-authored with Michelle Maiese.

Here social institutions inside contemporary neoliberal nation-States are categorized in terms of being

either (i) destructive, deforming ones,

or (ii) constructive, enabling ones.

I myself haven’t actually read the book manuscript, which is currently between final submission and editorial production, so I will leave this point here.

But this leads me on to a deeper concern: from Hanna’s remarks on public philosophy and borderless philosophy in particular, it’s clear that there is a commitment to a serious political program, namely, cosmopolitan anarcho-socialism of a specifically existentialist and Kantian variety–as it were, The Kant-Monster Meets Kierkegaard And Kropotkin, and then they all go out for a night on the town with Diogenes and his lantern.

Perhaps it is better to think of this in terms of an underlying premise.

In various places, Hanna has addressed this point, and affirms that there is indeed a substantive commitment to existential Kantian cosmopolitan social anarchism in borderless philosophy–see, e.g., the book series THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, especially vol. 4, Kant, Agnosticism, and Anarchism.

There are deeply important issues here that touch on the nature of the human, technology/technocracy and its impact on subjectivity, the nature of the public, and the nature of individual and sociopolitical agency – reflection, response, resistance, and revolution.

These are the positive theses that anyone rejecting and/or exiting professional academic philosophy must address.

With respect to the relationship of philosophy to art, we are told by the performance philosophers that Hanna describes, that

philosophical performances stand in an intimate relation to art. They use art’s ludic strategies of confusion and dislocation.

Although I am certainly committed to “art” in abstracto, it is difficult to see how anything like artistic performance is required for public philosophy to achieve its emancipatory goal.

Indeed, I am actually fine with sitting in a lecture theater and listening attentively for an hour (or more) to a philosophical discussion or lecture.

To be sure, I concede, this is of course a type of performance in itself.

But the content is crucial: you can’t sex up a dead dog.

Communication and interaction qua some notion of the “public,” is another question altogether, and an inferior one at that.

Nonetheless, Hanna’s metaphilosophical view includes what he calls “presentational polymorphism,” which says that there is no a priori reason why real philosophy cannot be presented in as many different formats as artworks are.

Cogent as this claim appears to be, it would be very helpful to me, to see precisely how this philosophical presentational polymorphism manifests itself.

Hanna also asserts: 

I think it’s also clear that Voltaire’s radically enlightened critique of professional academic philosophy as abstract, world-alienated, self-alienating, sanctimonious theorizing applies directly to the problem of irrelevance for contemporary professional academic philosophy.

It is difficult to know how to read this, and certainly requires an excursion into Hanna’s oeuvre.

Without a reconstruction of Hanna’s overall philosophy, which he calls rational anthropology, a simple way to criticize Hanna’s use of Voltaire’s critique of philosophy in Candide, would be by just denying the analogy between

(i) Voltaire’s characterization of the Leibnizian-Wolffian philosophy, as represented by Pangloss, as detached from reality, as aloof and inapplicable to the problems of Man, etc., and

(ii) contemporary professional academic philosophy, as represented for example by the American Philosophical Association (aka the APA).

Indeed, I think the Pangloss/APA analogy is fundamentally wrong, because whatever it is that Voltaire is criticizing about the Leibnizian-Wolffian philosophy just doesn’t pertain to professional philosophy’s irrelevance problem.

What I mean is that Leibniz-Wolff style abstraction is not a philosophical vice, whereas meaningless abstraction is.

So, when Leibniz contributes to calculus, or Descartes to geometry, and these contributions inform their abstract discussions of metaphysics, there is nothing aloof or humanly-inapplicable about this; rather they are parts of a system of thought which the Rationalist philosophers both consciously connect to Christianity, read here in terms of a tangible-practical way of life, not particular theological doctrines.

Leibniz’s theodicy may be absurd and risible, but it is noteworthy that he is compelled to read his philosophy in terms of the problem of evil.

Regarding meaningless abstraction, we can easily think about the analytical method of problem creation/solution, which anyone who has been in an anglophone philosophy department will know very well.

The Identity of Indiscernibles and the Indiscernibility of Identicals say nothing to the human condition and are simply not understood in any way that would give them existential-human content.

On the other hand, the German idealist philosophers showed us how abstract discussions of logic can be related to such things as desire and the will, politics, and revolution.

It is worth pursuing this point about meaningless vs. meaningful abstraction further, by taking the most recent example of a text which has been hailed by what we might call The Church Of Philosophical Irrelevance–contemporary professional academic philosophers at the Universities of Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Leipzig especially–Irad Kimhi’s Thinking and Being, aka T&B, which I felt compelled to read given the publicity it has already attracted.

In T&B there are lengthy discussions of negation, categorematic and syncategorematic particles (but what motivated Kimhi’s use of these terms beggars the imagination, as they say), etc., etc., and then T&B comes to the grand conclusion that metaphysics, properly understood, is metaphysical quietism (!).

In the face of all the human suffering around us, of technological revolutions, of profound political and social changes and upheaval, it seems to me that for Kimhi to assert, and for The Church Of Philosophical Irrelevance to applaud, his form of quietism, is obscene and meaningless abstraction par excellence.

If this isn’t a new “crisis of the European sciences,” then I don’t know what is.

Comparing scholastic/Latin tradition discussions and even treaties on syncategorematic terms (typically in the form of exegesis of Aristotle’s Analytics), one also finds the discussion extremely abstract; nevertheless, this abstractness is contextualized by the fact that such writing is part of a broad theological (Christian) metaphysics.

As such, monasticism, mysticism, or any other iteration of Christian quietism is entirely understandable: there is a commitment to a world view that speaks to the various aspects of being (ontological, phenomenological, etc.).

This is infinitely far from meaningless abstraction.

Coincidentally, after reading Kimhi’s book, Hanna’s own critical review of T&B was made known to me.

In my opinion, Hanna’s review is critically nuanced, cogent, and penned in authoritative ink.

A central observation is that in T&B there is an implicit expression of neo-Hegelian absolute idealism – something Hanna refers to as “radical.”

Although this is true and seems to offer something like a response to my reading of Kimhi as an exemplar of irrelevance, by contextualizing Kimhi’s arguments, when critically further examined, the neo-Hegelianism of the Pittsburgh/Chicago/Leipzig neo-Hegelian school reveals itself to be suffering from the very same malaise.

For one thing, this tradition can be read as a taming of Hegel, an attempt to do away with his “problematic” metaphysics and read the great wizard epistemologically: they are killing the lion for its skin.

Indeed, this deflation of Hegel into a consumable figure of philosophical respectability (Hegel as advocating a recognition ethics of rational engagement) is scandalously to whittle down the cosmic “notion” [Begriff] so that it fits the contemporary liberal idealized political subject.

What of Hegel’s idea of history, what of collective organization, of resistance and struggle?

As Marx so clearly saw, Hegel is a violent figure, and a reading of his work is indeed a tremendous event; but in Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Leipzig, like the violence of Hollywood, thanks to this transmutation, Hegel can now be projected at a safe distance and enjoyed from the comfort of the graduate seminar near you.

Perhaps the most radical suggestion made by Hanna is the proposal to get rid of philosophy programs and degrees altogether.

These are to be replaced with a network of borderless philosophical communities.

It is indeed the logical consequence of much of his discussion.

However, there may be a middle way.

First, perhaps a broader distribution of subjects across the undergraduate philosophy degree is all that is needed.

This is based on the intuition that 18 to 21 year olds are hardly equipped with the experiences needed to entertain the type of philosophical inquiry that genuine philosophy is typified by.

Students can read languages, history, one of the natural sciences, mathematics, etc., and probably gain a better grounding than they would via studying philosophy alone.

The “transferable skills” that so many philosophy degrees advertise can certainly be gained elsewhere (as discussed above).

Second, some philosophical sub-disciplines would do well to be housed in other departments.

For example, Greek and Scholastic thought can comfortably be coupled in Classics, German Idealism in history and literature departments, history and philosophy of science within science departments – where the philosophers will be informed by the practice of their colleagues and the students and researchers will be enriched by the philosophers insights etc.

By doing this, the irrelevance problem would be solved to quite a degree.

Nonetheless, Hanna would no doubt argue that this “sideways movement” strategy is simply postponing the inevitable: namely radically re-thinking, exiting, and reconstituting higher education itself, with borderless philosophy leading the way.

What is a “good” philosopher or a “bad” philosopher?

These are questions for others to answer: however, what we can universally commend is a committed philosopher, or at least someone in love with the pursuit of wisdom.

There are many committed philosophers out here on the periphery: they are keen and hungry, they understand that philosophical flourishing can only occur within a worldwide community that is a broad or common church, as it were “chapel,” radically different from mainstream professional academic philosophy and its “established” Church of Philosophical Irrelevance.

This sustained intervention by Hanna demands respect; and I hope that these thoughts, as expressed above, will encourage others to contribute and respond accordingly.


[i] See, e.g., J. Schmidt, Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System That Shapes Their Lives (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000).

[ii] See, e.g., R. Hanna,“Husserl’s Crisis and Our Crisis,” International Journal of Philosophical Studies 22 (2014): 752-770, also available online at URL = <https://www.academia.edu/9517034/Husserls_Crisis_and_Our_Crisis>.

APP Editors’ Note:

Emre Kazim has a PhD in philosophy; his interests include the philosophy of enlightenment, political philosophy more generally, and the ethics of technology.

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