Friday, March 8, 2013

Political philosophers

Elsewhere, I have been questioning the viability of philosophy as a discipline, emphasizing its curious dependence on a basically religious – or at least pre-modern – view of the world.

But I have also noted another side of the issue, the way some academics may use their professional status as a means of promoting a favored ideology.

This may be done, as the linguist Noam Chomsky does it, in such a way as to keep separate the scholarship and the ideology; or, more questionably, as many humanities academics do it, injecting partisan politics into their teaching and research. It is not hard to find evidence that many philosophers follow the latter course.

Not only do these players have a vested personal interest in protecting and promoting 'the profession', they also have an ideological interest in doing so. Not surprisingly, skeptics about philosophy, from Wittgenstein to present-day critics, are very unpopular in professional philosophical circles.

Nonetheless, it seems pretty clear that – at least for those who reject a religious perspective – academic philosophy as an area of research is very problematic, and not many people apart from academic philosophers (and by no means all of those) take it seriously anymore.

Paul Horwich, writing at The Stone (the New York Times philosophy blog) has recently defended a scaled-down, Wittgensteinian vision of philosophy as purely descriptive and clarificatory. Whether such a limited and unambitious style of philosophy could form the basis of a viable academic discipline or profession I very much doubt, but I am sympathetic to Horwich's general – deflationary – approach.

He notes the propensity of academic philosophers to build rather dubious theoretical constructs: theories of meaning or theories of truth, for example, when there is simply no need for such things.

Take the words 'true' and 'truth'. They do not add anything substantial to a direct assertion which does not use these words. They do allow us, however, to make certain general statements in concise and convenient ways. But to ask, "What is truth?" is to ask an effectively meaningless – and certainly futile – question.

As Horwich puts it, "Truth emerges as exceptionally unprofound and as exceptionally unmysterious."

Interestingly, the inevitable reply defending the philosophical status quo published by The Stone a few days later was more concerned about the non-political – or politically quietistic – nature of Horwich's view of philosophy than anything else.

Michael P. Lynch unequivocally rejects a merely descriptive philosophy which leaves the world as it is.

"I think philosophy can play a more radical role," he writes. For example, his normative version of philosophy would seek to attack the idea of authority "which has been used over the centuries to stifle dissent and change."

And, sounding rather authoritarian himself, he insists that the philosopher must also take "conceptual leaps".

"She [note the irritating choice of pronoun as a badge of the author's progressive credentials] must aim at revision as much as description, and sketch new metaphysical theories, replacing old explanations with new."

On one level (the level of literal content) such empty rhetoric says very little. On another level, however, it provides yet another indication of the politicization and decline of the humanities.

Sadly, Lynch's reply to Horwich only serves to underscore the fact that a great many academics working in the humanities, philosophers amongst them, see their role not so much in terms of contributing to the stock of human knowledge, as of promoting progressive causes and social change.