Our point of departure for this week’s article will be a remark by philosopher Harry Frankfurt, best known as having authored the colorful little tract On Bullshit (2005) which, significantly, may be the only work by a professional philosopher to stand out during that entire decade. Certainly it sold the best, and that’s what counts, isn’t it? Frankfurt recently commented on the current state of the art regarding scholarship in academic philosophy:
I believe that there is, at least in this country, a more or less general agreement among philosophers and other scholars that our subject is currently in the doldrums. Until not very long ago, there were powerful creative impulses moving energetically through the field. There was the work in England of G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell and of Gilbert Ryle, Paul Grice, and Herbert Hart, as well as the work of various logicial positivsts. In the United States, even after interest in William James and John Dewey had receded, there was lively attention to contributions by Willard Quine and Donald Davidson, John Rawls and Saul Kripke. In addition, some philosophers were powerfully moved by the gigantic speculative edifice of Whitehead. Heidegger was having a massive impact on European philosophy, as well as on other disciplines–and not only in Europe, but here as well. And, of course, there was everywhere a vigorously appreciative and productive response to the work of Wittgenstein.
The lively impact of these impressive figures has faded. We are no longer busily preoccupied with responding to them. Except for a few contributors of somewhat less general scope, such as Habermas, no one has replaced the imposingly great figures of the recent past in providing us with contagiously inspiring direction. Nowadays, there are really no conspicuously fresh, bold, and intellectually exciting new challenges or innovations. For the most part, the field is quiet. We seem, more or less, to be marking time. (Steven Cahn, ed., Portraits of American Philosophy , pp. 125-126; quoted on Brian Leiter’s blog)
A number of major figures made philosophy worth studying during the twentieth century. We can find first rate intellects in both of the major traditions, that of the analytic tradition that dominated the English-speaking world and that of the existential-phenomenological tradition that dominated on Continental Europe. The names of the first generation are well known: G.E. Moore, Bertrand Russell, Alfred North Whitehead, Ludwig Wittgenstein (both “Wittgensteins”), A.J. Ayer, Karl Popper, others; later, we saw Nelson Goodman, Wilfred Sellars, W.V. Quine, John Rawls; a bit later, John Searle and obviously Saul Kripke. On the Continent were imposing figures beginning with Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre obviously; later, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jurgen Habermas, and more.
Meanwhile, “historicist” philosophy of science, born of the idea of paying more attention to actual science as opposed to logical reconstructions in the wake of the breakdown of logical empiricism, gave us Stephen Toulmin, Norwood Russell Hanson, Thomas S. Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, and more. As the discipline moved into the final quarter of the twentieth century we saw major writings by additional giants such as Michael Dummett, Donald Davidson, and Richard Rorty. These are just the names I can think of off the top of my head. This list is not exhaustive; nor is it intended to be. Rorty might be seen as possibly the last truly imposing figure in twentieth century philosophy, whose work ironically left us with the sense that the primary work of the analytic tradition was over; with such discoveries as the lack of a need for a “theory” about truth once we’ve rejected Platonism, there is actually little left for such a tradition to do that is interesting or novel.
This was all after the job market in philosophy collapsed, of course. All of a sudden, younger philosophers were too busy trying to survive in the field to rise in stature.
Today, of course, with the exception of Searle and a handful of others, these figures have passed to their eternal reward whatever it may be. The youngest philosophers of stature in academic philosophy today are in their 70s (Searle is in his 80s); a handful are in their 60s. There are almost no younger voices, especially in the U.S. One thinks of Timothy Williamson who is British and David John Chalmers who is Australian. The former is in his late 50s; the latter, in his late 40s.
Among 30-somethings and younger: no one. Ayer wrote Language, Truth & Logic when he was in his 20s. Can anyone imagine a feat like that today?
As a direct consequence of the long-term collapse which began in the 1970s, the field really is “in the doldrums” and “marking time.” One can ask of U.S. philosophy today, Where are its Russells, Quines, Rawlses, or Kripkes? One can only guess, but many are probably writing computer software or designing apps for hand-held gadgets. After all, most of the skills that make a person a good analytic philosopher are transferable to other fields and occupations, computer science and cognate technologies being the obvious example. Whatever philosophical talents such individuals might have developed and brought to the field have been lost. Assuming they were interested in philosophy at one time, they may have kept the subject as a hobby. Hobbyists don’t tend to become the next generation’s movers and shakers in an academic discipline, however. Assuming they have the time make any contributions at all, with no academic affiliation they are simply ignored.
Academia is not a meritocracy. This is a primary fact of its political economy: that it has its one-percenters just as the larger economy has its one-percenters. Does anyone really believe admission to this club is solely a matter of accomplishment? There are, in fact, good philosophers out there in the tenured class not on my list because they did not graduate from a “ranked” Ph.D. program, and thus despite sometimes long lists of publications, the best they could hope for was a job at Podunksville State Community College instead of Harvard or Penn State or Princeton. Since no one reads the work of philosophers from Podunksville State Community College, their work may impress their wives but otherwise sits on library shelves unread.
What some have begun to call the neoliberal attack on higher education bears a large part of the responsibility for this situation. This attack has its roots in the 1970s response to the campus disruptions of the previous decade, and involves increasing corporate influence on universities and an increasingly corporate mindset within them. The university president becomes a glorified fundraiser; layers of administration expand; faculty are paid progressively less as they suffer “adjunctification” in the name of “cost cutting” (this while plush new buildings go up and expensive campus beautification projects are undertaken). Students, of course, are treated as consumers in this model, even as they go massively into debt: perfect preparation for a precarious life in the mass consumption culture of the near future, which everything will be commodified and leveraged to the hilt.
Where will this end? We get a suggestion from the final paragraph of this recent article on the demise of the legal profession. While society may well have too many lawyers, the author’s final paragraph is telling.
At this point, it is probably no more risky to pursue even a Ph.D in political philosophy or “regular philosophy” or history or whatever. Typically talented and accomplished students have to borrow little to nothing–at least if they don’t have a family and are very frugal–to flourish in said programs. The career prospects in a world where liberal education is disappearing, tenure has no future, political correctness and techno-vocationalism are crowding out everything else, might not be all that much worse than that for most law students today. That is, pretty bleepin’ bad.
Yes, a few intelligent and determined folks can pursue such programs without borrowing money if they live frugally. But then what? At present, they can look forward to “careers” working for starvation wages under the thumbs of ridiculously overpaid administrations. Their students will suffer from the relative unavailability of their professors as the latter commute to other jobs on other campuses. From lack of time, they will do no scholarly research. Whatever research skills they had developed enabling them to write theses and dissertations will wither from nonuse; eventually their interest in their subject will wear down as their patience with their work conditions wears thin. Some will eventually quit and learn to write software.
We should see here, in a nutshell, why there are no more Russells or Quines or Kripkes … why scholarship is dying in the U.S.
It is, of course, worth asking what subjects like philosophy contribute, whether to the economy or the culture. When taught properly, what they contribute to the lives of their students is an ability, on the part of the people, to think. To examine, to evaluate, to assess, as individuals instead of mindless followers. There are, among the one-percenters (and those above them), some who manifestly do not want a population with a troublesome critical mass of independent-minded thinkers. Such people are problems for authority.
That, obviously, is a much longer story.
Whatever else we can say at the moment, at present this is not likely to end well!