Philosophy “Still in the Doldrums”

Time to bring this blog out of its three-month hibernation, and back to its main purpose, which is:  (wait for it)  philosophy.

Whether professionalized, academic philosophy is “in the doldrums” is something I pondered on this blog at least once before, as to my mind it is an obvious topic. More recently, the idea inspired my latest book after all, entitled What Should Philosophy Do? A Theory.  Anyone interested in something that could liven up philosophy by providing it a more substantial self-determining role in the contemporary world owes to himself or herself to have a look at this book.

I was reminded of this by a recent Brian Leiter “Blast from the Past” on his blog, linking to a post from seven years ago. In a comment I opined:

Regrettably away from my desk for over a week & having missed the poll, I would have voted Yes, philosophy is in the doldrums. Part of my evidence would be the absence of imposing or even significant figures under the age of 60, in the U.S. at least. (Timothy Williamson, an imposing figure by any measure, is British; & if I recall correctly, David John Chalmers is Australian & finally returned there.) This is odd considering that with the resources available on the Internet there are probably more people alive exposed to philosophy than ever before. As I try to keep in mind what’s already been said (not succeeding very well), allow me to cut to the chase by submitting that the reasons philosophy is in the doldrums are structural, not intellectual. They have little to do, that is, with metaphilosophical issues about philosophy’s relationship to the sciences, whether it is too specialized, whether it is relevant to public concerns, or what-have-you. Let me offer two suggestions why philosophy is indeed in the doldrums.

In the 1950s & 1960s, universities expanded to serve the GI generation, lavishly funded, & this meant large numbers of philosophers were hired; new doctoral programs were created to supply departments with Ph.D.s. No one really thinks the majority of these people had prospects for becoming the next Kant or the next Wittgenstein or even another Quine. As everyone not in a cave knows, this job market had collapsed by 1975, but the Ph.D.-producing engine kept running full blast (it still is). Moreover, in time the many mediocre professors hired during the boom years were tenured & on the hiring committees passing judgment on which members of the next generation to come down the pike deserved admission to the club: in the interests of full disclosure, my generation. We knew we had a rough road ahead, so many of us prepared accordingly: finding mentors to help us improve our teaching & beginning our publishing careers as graduate students, to increase our competitiveness in what we knew would be a hostile marketplace.

Academia had long since ceased to be a meritocracy, however. Let’s look at it this way: those who shaped the various traditions that made professional philosophy what it was — Kant, Peirce, Nietzsche, Russell, Wittgenstein, etc. — could never have found tenure track jobs after the 1970s, given the caliber of those making the decisions. Not that I am comparing us (or myself) to the giants of yesteryear, mind you. But the truth of the matter was, by comparing CVs it was clear to many of us of the ’80s generation that we were better qualified than many of those on the search committees – assuming publications & teaching experience counted for something, & also that we weren’t applying outside the AOSs/AOCs advertised. (If you get the impression that some of us, or at least one of us, from the “lost generation” doesn’t think much of our immediate elders who found jobs when they were readily available, you’re right! In the absence of stats, it is easiest to invoke Pareto’s 80-20 Distribution Rule: 80% of all that was being accomplished in philosophy was being accomplished by 20% of the profession. The rest were just coasting.)

This was all before the “adjunctification” of the universities really took off. We have no way of knowing if, perchance, the next potential Husserl or Quine or Rawls has no opportunity to develop professionally because he/she is too busy commuting between two or three campuses, teaching five or more classes, being paid starvation wages, juggling late bills, struggling to come up with the rent, & spending all his/her free time looking for his/her next job. This sort of stress-laden environment is not exactly conducive to developing as a philosopher!

The second reason philosophy might have fallen into the doldrums is related. Some will retort (as someone did on the Issues thread a few weeks ago): if you don’t like the labor situation in academia, then find another line of work. I submit that many potentially promising philosophers have done just that! There is no way of knowing how many, but they’ve probably been doing it quietly for going on 20 years now, if not more, mentally gauging the hostility of academia & deciding they would rather be somewhere else! Changing technology opened a lot of doors, after all, & as every thinking person knows, many of the analytic skills that make a person good at philosophy are readily adaptable to computer programming, website development, design, & assorted other information technology fields that continue to grow & change. As someone who walked away from an “adjunct” position (in a manner of speaking), if I’m ever asked, “Where are your generations’ Wittgensteins, Quines, etc.?” I’ll tell them, “Probably working for Google or involving themselves in tech start-ups.”

Do I need to point out that this is talent permanently lost to professional philosophy, whoever we decide deserves the blame?

No one replied directly. I did see this comment a couple days later:

Who’s [sic.] philosophy is in the doldrums? That’s the question.

Confessional: I’ve just about finished my PhD. I can’t and (at this point) don’t even try to make sense of pre-Frege philosophers. I simply have no idea what any of what they say means, have no idea how to go about reading them and, on the rare occasions when I try, end up mostly frustrated and annoyed. The sum total of what remained in my brain post-prelims about early modern philosophy would probably occupy about two pages.

So, if by “philosophy’” you mean that discipline that those old dudes were involved in, then maybe its in the doldrums. Maybe it isn’t. I quite simply can’t tell, because I’m not in touch with that discipline and frankly don’t have an interest in being in touch with it.

But if by “philosophy” you mean that post-Frege heavily analytic, deeply cautiously thought-out branch of inquiry, then I’d say it’s far from in the doldrums. There’s remarkable work all over the place. Metaontology and philosophy of mind strike me as some of the most interesting areas of current inquiry.

So yeah, I guess it depends on who’s [sic.] philosophy is being accused of doldrumity. Mine’s doing fine. Sorry about yours.

It received this one-liner retort:

the decline of analytic philosophy is largely because of this smug anti-historical attitude

I tend to agree. I wonder if this guy (I am assuming it’s a guy) finished and is now teaching undergraduates. I sincerely hope not! I would note that frenetic activity — no one I know of denies the existence of that — is not a sign of significance, much less progress. It may be a sign of something Chomsky somewhere observes (I am paraphrasing): furiously active exchanges being encouraged, and rewarded, but intended to stay within a specific set of parameters. All the while no conversation about the parameters themselves or their limitations is permitted.

This seems to be the state of affairs within a great deal of the philosophy of mind, and the parameters of most conversation within it: the materialist theory of the human person, this being only a special case of the materialist theory of the universe. All of which I discuss at length in What Should Philosophy Do? A Theory.

About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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