May 30, 2012

Meta-Philosophy Conference

"Is philosophy out of touch with everyday life?"

This question is sometimes posed to academic philosophers. It is not always clear in what way the question is intended. But somewhere behind it seems to lie an accusation of some kind. Or, at any rate, a worry about a possible accusation.

Here is one way to interpret the question: "Is academic philosophy failing in its responsibility to everyday people?" On this interpretation, one imagines that academic philosophers have been given a great task--of enlightening the population--and that perhaps they have been delinquent with regard to this task. That whereas philosophy is a grand, mighty subject, the academics have turned it into a trivial, silly game centered on getting tenure and academic recognition. That academic philosophers, with their tenure and their summers off and their conferences in exotic (as well as non-exotic) locations, are selling the public a false bill of goods while living the high life. Call this the accusation interpretation, since on this interpretation the very question amounts to an accusation.

In September of 2011 I went to a meta-philosophy conference at Harvard. By that time I had been out of academic philosophy for a few months. I was trying to make sense of my decision. Attempting to understand why I felt alienated from my education and from my job as a philosophy professor. A meta-philosophy conference at Harvard seemed just the ticket: an opportunity to hear others on the nature of philosophy, and to walk around campus and process the nine years I had spent there.
For me, as I imagine it was for many people, the main event of the conference was on Friday Night: a discussion between Jason Stanley and Carlin Romano. Stanley is a well reputed philosopher who teaches at a highly ranked philosophy program. He was one of my teachers at Cornell. I hadn't heard of Romano before, though a little web search suggested that he seemed to have a penchant for creating controversy and for speaking his mind about what he perceived to be the failings of academic philosophy. Given that he had been one of my teachers, I felt my loyalties were with Stanley, but, given my move out of the profession, it seemed as if Romano might speak for my frustrations. As much as anything, I wanted to go to the conference to see how I would balance these opposing sides within me.

A video of the discussion (debate? confrontation?) can be found here.

As anticipated, there was much disagreement between Stanley and Romano. Stanley defended academic philosophy and its necessity in society. He highlighted the good things professional philosophy does, and bemoaned a world without the advances made possible by a Frege or a Quine. Romano, for his part, called most professional ("analytic") philosophy a sham and criticized the manner in which academic philosophers write for each other without even attempting to be intelligible to non-academics. Stanley suggested that is part of the natural process for a specialized discipline. Romano retorted that it is an evasion of the true spirit of philosophy. Romano said Stanley should learn to write better. Stanley said that Romano might benefit from an introductory philosophy class. It seemed as if Stanley and Romano do not agree on much.

Yet, as I was sitting there listening, as if Stanley and Romano were externalizing a tension I felt within myself, it seemed to me that there was a crucial assumption they both shared. They both assumed the accusation interpretation of the question of philosophy's relation to the broader culture. Hence Stanley vehement affirmation that professional philosophy matters and is good. Stanley concedes that most people will not read his works, but he is quick to affirm (understandably) that it doesn't mean that his work is bad--or that he is derelict in his duties as a professional philosopher. The accusation assumption is even clearer with Romano, since his main thrust is to make the accusation that the kind of work which most of the people in the room do is trivial and insular--disconnected from broader inter-subjective discourse, and assuming that broad inter-subjective discourse is the method of grasping reality, disconnected from reality itself.


The question, "Is philosophy out of touch with everyday life?" can be interpreted in a different way. On this interpretation, the question is not primarily about the philosophy profession, and hence not about leveling an accusation against it. Rather, it is a question about the extent to which philosophy as a subject is alive and palpable in the general culture. In this sense, the question is, "Is philosophy valued in everyday life? Are there situations and artifacts in day to day life which enable philosophical reflection among people in the course of their lives?" On this interpretation, being "out of touch" is not a matter of an institution or some group of people withholding philosophy from the masses. Rather, it is a matter of whether most people are in general out of touch with the subject of philosophy; whether philosophical reflection is a skill that is valued and sought after the way that people normally seek the ability to make money or to hit a home run or to look like a model. It is a question of the extent to which the philosophical life is a sought after ideal in everyday life. Call this the realization interpretation, since on this interpretation the question is whether philosophy is realized in society at large.

Understood in this sense, I think philosophy is out of touch with everyday life. This is the sense I described earlier of how hard it can be to have a philosophical conversation in the context of everyday life. And moreover, of how on the rare occasions that they do arise, how hard it can be to have good, intelligent and subtle philosophical conversations.
I think Stanley and Romano also agree that, in this realization sense, philosophy is out of touch with everyday life. For Stanley seems committed to the idea that philosophy is essentially what philosophy professors are good at. This is, after all, why according to him philosophy professors are not derelict in their responsibility to the public, since their responsibility is to do philosophy in the professional way, and that is what they are doing. And professional philosophy, like with any profession, involves specialization, and so it is bound to be beyond the scope of, as he puts it jokingly, "the unwashed masses, or even the washed masses". But if philosophy is what philosophy professors are good at, then it can hardly be expected that everyday people can have a similar appreciation for philosophy, let alone that they partake of such philosophical reflection. In effect what Stanley seems to say is: philosophy professors do good work, and society needs such work to be done. It is enough if some people in society are thinking about these philosophical questions. And, in fact, that is the most that can be expected, since not all people can be qualified to think about philosophy the way philosophy professors are qualified.

Even on Stanley's view it is in principle possible that philosophy can be widely realized in society. But then philosophy professors would be to everyday philosophers something like the way that major league baseball players would be to people who play baseball for fun. The image seems to be that philosophy professors are the best of the best with regard to philosophy, and the rest of society can be more philosophical by appreciating and cheering on and trying to read laymen's accounts of the cutting edge advances being made in the profession; sort of the way that the public can appreciate physicists. Understood in this way, an appreciation of philosophy in the culture seems to amount to nothing more than a kind of intellectual hero worship.
I think it is this implication of Stanley's view that Romano finds problematic. If one idolizes Albert Pujols and wants to be like him, that doesn't necessarily interfere with one's own striving to be a good baseball player. This is because it is obvious that with regard to baseball some people are good, and some people are not; and that nature partly dictates whether one ends up in one category or the other. But is it contrary to the spirit of philosophy to simply seek to emulate another philosopher, while assuming as given that they are just a much better philosopher than you?

There is at least one conception of philosophy on which this seems incoherent. It is the conception on which philosophy is a skill for questioning all assumptions, and for thinking about some of the broadest questions of human life for oneself. This doesn't imply that everyone should walk around thinking that they are as great as Kant. But it does imply that one think with Kant as one thinks with oneself, for anything less than that would be to not really be committed to questioning all of Kant's assumptions. But how can one presume to think with Kant if being a professional philosopher is a pre-requisite for doing that, and not everyone can be a professional philosopher? Here is the root of Romano's objection: in order to set up the philosophy profession as having a special kind of expertise, Stanley is committed to the idea that such expertise is lost to the majority of people. Hence the worry of elitism and a possible sham: as a philosophy professor Stanley seems committed to the idea that philosophy can be realized all through society, and yet, given the way he defines the philosophy, it seems as if philosophy is not the kind of thing which can be realized across the board in that way.

In a way, however, Romano's criticism of Stanley applies also to Romano himself. For Romano seems to assume that the reason why philosophy is not widely appreciated in our current culture is because of the failings of the philosophy profession. As if, if only the philosophy professors did their job properly, philosophy would be on every street corner and grocery store and in every household. But what is the reason to think that? Part of the fact that philosophy is not often found in everyday life is that most people don't turn to the philosophy profession to help them think through some of the broader issues of life. They turn instead to religion. Or to new age philosophy. Or to literature or movies or sports or music. Or to popular science or history or anthropology.

Part of the fact that philosophy is not often found in everyday life is that most people have no idea what Plato or Hume or Russell were saying--or why they bothered to say it at all. Or even who these people are, or that they even existed. These are not names in their vocabulary. Neither are words like, "the mind-body problem" or "the problem of other minds", or "moral skepticism" or "compatibilism about free will". Most philosophy majors who have tried to explain their studies to their family or friends know this situation.
Again, this is not because people are stupid or uninterested in broader questions of life. I think this is because in everyday life there is so much diversity that it unclear how caring about philosophy is different from caring about baseball or Madonna or the latest action movie. Philosophy is for the most part missing from everyday life because it seems optional, as if it were simply a hobby one might have, the way one might like bowling or a particular musical band. And this is because, given the vast diversity in our rapidly globalized world, it is unclear who can stand up to claim a universal human voice. What such a universal voice would look. Whether such a voice is even possible.
Romano seems to assume that if only philosophy professors talked the way he would prefer they talk, then the public will gratefully listen. But it is just as likely that if all philosophy professors spoke like Romano, then large sections of the public might respond, "Who are you to tell us how to live our life, or even to tell us what categories we should use in making sense of our lives?"The people responding this way wouldn't just be from religious groups. But also scientists, artists, politicians, etc. For, after all, every profession has some claim on contributing to a good life, and so it is unlikely that non-professional philosophers would just be waiting to follow the lead of professional philosophers.

Seen from this perspective, it is Stanley who seems more egalitarian than Romano. For it is as if Stanley recognizes that professional philosophy now does not, and perhaps cannot, have the kind of broad stage required to help people choose which personal or social projects are worth taking on. There is the refrain I so often heard in my education: "philosophy professors are not priests or gurus."
In one sense, this idea seems humble, as if professional philosophers are not seeking undue power. But in another sense, it invites the question: "But if even professional philosophy cannot lay claim to a broad social platform for helping people choose valuable life projects, what can?" Down this line of thought, there is the sense that choosing life projects has become something essentially subjective and private, as if any claim to a public voice on the topic is bound to be a move towards totalitarianism. And further down this line of thought is the situation now prevalent in society: it is hard to have public discussions of philosophy, and there is not much of a sense that the people interacting in public spaces have enough in common to talk about the more abstract dimensions of their life projects.

I think there is a paucity of philosophy in ordinary public spaces because, given the diversity in the culture, it is unclear who gets to speak with a universal voice--one which can help bring all the diverse groups to the table and find substantive commonalities so as to cultivate shared projects.

In a way, professional philosophy faces the same situation. This is evident if one asks: When Stanley speaks about professional philosophy, who is he speaking for?

One might think that Stanley is speaking for the philosophy profession as such. But, of course, this isn't true. As is evident from the scores of other, sometimes quite exotic, conceptions of philosophy one finds at the American Philosophical Association meetings. And, of course, Carlin Romano is also a philosophy professor, and so has as much a claim to speak for the profession--what it is, what it can hope to be, what it should strive for--as Stanley.
If Stanley is not speaking for the profession as a whole, is he then speaking just for himself? That isn't quite possible, since, after all, he is speaking as a philosophy professor. He must be speaking in some sense as a professional, since the issue being discussed is his job as a professional philosopher. The idea that he is speaking just for himself can seem humble, but in a way it can also be an evasion. For how would Stanley be able to speak just for himself even while being a part of the philosophy profession? Far from being a sign of humility, the ability to speak just as oneself seems like a privilege, as if one were granted the special status of being free of the profession even while being in it. It was exactly this kind of a privilege which was accorded to Wittgenstein, and which made many professional philosophers think of him as a prima donna. Being part of a profession means that one's voice as a professional cannot be completely separated from other voices in the profession.

If Stanley is not speaking for the profession as a whole but also not just for himself, who is he speaking for? The third, most likely, possibility is that he is speaking for others, inside and outside the profession, who broadly agree with him. He is articulating the way he sees the philosophy profession, and this is something less than an expression of the philosophy profession as such (since there are other professionals who see philosophy differently) and it is something more than a purely individual view (since there are other professionals who see philosophy similarly--which is not to say identically). In this particular instance Stanley is a representative of something, and that is of philosophy conceived in the way he articulated it. This, after all, is why there can be follow up discussions like the one on Leiter's Blog, where some people applaud Stanley and others are more critical. For it is people making clear whether they are roughly in the group of people who broadly agree with Stanley.

The same point applies to Romano. Even though it didn't feel like it in that room, there are many other people, professional philosophers and non-professionals, who share Romano's view of the profession. Which is not to say that their views are identical to Romano, but that there are broad family resemblances. And, of course, there are other ways of looking at philosophy beyond the way Stanley or Romano do.
Part of what it is to differ about the nature of philosophy is to differ about what constitutes a philosophical move. I think this was the core of the disagreement between Stanley and Romano. Is Stanley's form of professional writing a manner of clarifying the topics or a manner of obfuscation? Is Romano's harping about Stanley's writing a philosophical response to the text or an absurdly trivial, irrelevant and mean-spirited response? The issue here is not whether Stanley's writing or Romano's criticism of it are exemplary of the kinds of philosophical moves they strive to be. Rather, the issue is whether the form of move they are seeking to emulate is one which is an ideal of philosophy. In this sense, there are two levels to the disagreement between Stanley and Romano. On one level, there is what to make of Stanley's book, or of the "criticisms" Romano makes of it. But, on another, even more significant level, there is the issue of whether the kind of thing each is striving to do is good philosophy, and here it is no longer a question of just Stanley versus Romano. But of people who write like Stanley, and who are normally considered exemplary philosophers by some people: Lewis, Dummett, etc. And of people who seem to turn philosophy into a performance of resistance the way that Romano aims to, and who are normally considered exemplary philosophers by some other people: Rorty, West, etc.

Once a disagreement reaches this level, it is hard to see how it can be negotiated. At least without significant commitment to overcoming the disagreement. At some point the other starts to seem less like another version of me, and more like something else altogether. ("I am making a philosophical point, but he isn't.") And when it becomes something else altogether, while still claiming to be what I am, then one can feel called to stand up and make clear that that other is actually a bad version of me, so that no one else can conflate me with that other. ("A good philosophical criticism looks like this, not like that. That is just bad thinking.") This seems to me part of the dynamic during Stanley and Romano's discussion. Both are laying claim to what philosophy is, and since they disagree quite deeply, they seem called, simply in the spirit of truth, to explain why the other's form of philosophy is just bad.
This is not to say that Stanley and Romano can't be collegial. If they are good people, they can. As is evident from this picture or this one from David Chalmers' photos from their dinner after the talk.
But it does raise the question: in what way can they consistently do philosophy together? Is that possible? One might say, "But why bother? Let a thousand flowers bloom." Yes, let's. But what does that mean for how philosophy will be taught in introductory classes when professors speak of "philosophy" and "the philosophical tradition"? Or when philosophy professors speak to the public about what philosophy professors do? Can there be a sense then that the professors are speaking with some kind of a unified voice? If so, can the voice have anything substantive to say beyond something as generic as "Philosophy is questioning assumptions and thinking clearly." Pitched at this level of abstraction, it is not quite clear what philosophy is. It seems to mean something only when a person is able to add for oneself some more concrete sense of what questioning assumptions or thinking clearly looks like (that is, which kind of actions one is seeking to emulate), and this is precisely where the space of disagreement crops up once again.
Plurality can be an ideal of diverse forms of shared flourishing. The kind which fosters oneness within diversity. Or plurality can simply be a nice name for deep disagreement and mass confusion. The kind which suggests that one simply tolerate the people one disagrees with, and which fosters mainly hanging out with those one broadly agrees with. Whether in the broader culture or in the philosophy profession, it is not always clear which sense of plurality is being sought.
Who in the general society can stand up and speak with a universal voice of humanity? The answer is unclear. Who in academic philosophy can stand up and speak with such a voice even within the profession? The answer here too is unclear. If finding such a common voice of humanity is hard even in academic philosophy, it is no wonder that it can seem near impossible in everyday life.

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