The Problems of Philosophy

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

SocratesAn existentialist, a modal realist, and an eliminative materialist walk into a bar; the bartender looks up at them and says, “Is this a joke?”

It should come as no surprise that a discipline that was founded by an ancient Athenian urging us all to “know thyself!” should still be in the business of self-examination. But one may be stunned to find that, perhaps more than ever, the profession of Philosophy is fixed on questions of its existence. Perhaps everyone agrees that philosophy, the everyday activity of trying to think clearly and critically about things that matter, is essential to a properly human life. And maybe it’s not too controversial to say that we all should philosophize. But, as Socrates shows, there could be philosophers without there being Philosophers; there could be clear and critical thinkers without there bring a profession of Philosophy. So, why does Philosophy – capital “P” – exist?

This question comes in two related versions, institutional and internal. The institutional question about Philosophy’s existence is about why there are, and should be, departments of Philosophy. What is the curricular purpose of Philosophy? What is the role of Philosophy within the Humanities (assuming that it belongs among the Humanities at all)? Why do students need Philosophy courses? Presumably students could learn philosophy outside of Philosophy, so why bother with Philosophy? The institutional question is increasingly urgent: in an environment of severe fiscal uncertainty and shrinking academic budgets, Philosophy has been forced to confront its own institutional mortality. These days, Philosophers are called upon to defend both philosophy and Philosophy to Deans, Provosts, and Boards of Trust. The internal question, by contrast, is less about the fortunes of Philosophy within colleges and universities and more a matter of soul-searching among Philosophers: What is the point of being a Philosopher? What are we Philosophers doing? Should we encourage students to become Philosophers? The dominant view seems to be that the answer to the institutional question depends upon the answer to the internal one. Consequently, much of contemporary Philosophy is devoted, at least in part, to examining Philosophy itself.

Explorations of the internal question have produced an impressive menu of well-founded complaints about the profession. When it comes to inclusiveness along metrics of race, class, and gender, the truth about Philosophy is indeed terrible. And the mechanisms of research in Philosophy — from the management of its flagship journals and the procedures of peer-review that they employ to the ways in which research is distributed and recognized — are in many quarters inefficient, arcane, and unreliable. What’s more, the primary organization for Philosophers, The American Philosophical Association (APA), is notorious for its seemingly perpetual state of disorder, perhaps best symbolized by the fact that it is only within the last year that the APA was able to develop a minimally functional (even if still far from lovely) website.

A popular reaction has it that the problems of Philosophy are essentially problems belonging to the domain of what might be called “meta” Philosophy. The idea is that the problems of Philosophy ultimately derive from the alleged fact that Philosophy is a distortion of philosophy. Those who take this view hence propose that the solution to Philosophy’s problems is to make it more public, accessible, and culturally relevant; this means that Philosophers must to do less Philosophy and more of something else, namely philosophy. Some add to this the related claim that the main problem with Philosophy is that methods employed and the topics explored by its mainstream are too abstract, technical, detached, and jargon-laden.

Unfortunately, those proffering these prescriptions spend more time addressing Philosophers about the need to replace Philosophy with philosophy than talking to the public about philosophy (or Philosophy); hence the many professional societies of Philosophers in which members speak exclusively to like-minded Philosophers about the badness of Philosophy. Further, the meta-Philosophers seem unable to pose their critiques of the methods and foci of mainstream Philosophy without employing an obscure and inaccessible jargon of their own devising. The lesson is that when Philosophers deploy a “meta” critique of Philosophy, one still gets Philosophy rather than philosophy. Ironically, meta-Philosophy is not only a kind of Philosophy, it’s a kind of Philosophy that’s even more detached, intangible, and impractical than first-order Philosophy is alleged to be.

These failings of meta-Philosophical responses to the problems of Philosophy are damning in themselves. But perhaps the biggest rebuff of “meta” crusaders against Philosophy is that those Philosophers among us who have been most successful in engaging a public audience and effectively addressing matters of public concern — one thinks instantly of Michael Sandel, Philip Pettit, Martha Nussbaum, Jurgen Habermas, Debra Satz, Cornel West, and Thomas Pogge, but there are many others — have not given up on Philosophy in the least. In fact they are paradigmatic Philosophers in their methods, vocabulary, and foci. As it turns out, the most effective publicly engaged philosophers are Philosophers.

All of this suggests an odd result. When taken too far, self-examination can become pathological and counter-productive, a substitute for action and a self-effacing bulwark for the status-quo. Perhaps, then, the problems of Philosophy might be better addressed once Philosophers abandon the internal question and begin taking more seriously the institutional question on its own terms. That is to say, it might be that the best solution to the problems of Philosophy is to see those problems not as occasions for meta-Philosophizing, but rather as homely institutional matters of professional inclusion, instruction, and organization. To be sure, in calling these problems “homely” we do not diminish their importance. We repeat: Many of the truths about Philosophy are terrible. Our point is this: The problems of Philosophy demand sustained attention and resolute action; but what they don’t need is higher-order Philosophy, a Philosophy about how to reconstruct Philosophy and remake Philosophers into something else.