Meet the new problems, same as the old problems

Thu 17 Jan 2013 02:17 PM

In a recent item at 3 Quarks Daily under the title The Problems of Philosophy, philosophers Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse lament that (according to them) contemporary professional philosophers are too worried about what's wrong with professional philosophy and pay too little attention to genuine philosophical problems. They mark this distinction by writing lower-case-p "philosophy" for the activity of thinking about hard problems and upper-case-P "Philosophy" for the profession. After starting with a poorly-adapted joke,* they pose their worry this way:

It should come as no surprise that philosophy 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. ... So, why does Philosophy - capital "P" – exist?

I think it is important for philosophers to ask both what philosophy is and why it should be a profession, but I am perplexed by their premise that philosophers are now "perhaps more than ever" concerned with philosophy as a profession. In fact, it is common to claim that philosophers now are less reflective than they used to be. There used to be a standard genre of philosophical writing which outlined what philosophy is or should be, and there was a time when most philosophers wrote something in that vein. Arguably, it went out of fashion with the 20th-century (and especially post-war) institutionalization of academic disciplines.

It is unclear to me who Aikin and Talisse are fretting about. Although they deride philosophers who spend their time complaining about the irrelevance of academic philosophy, they don't identify their targets. The closest they come is giving a list of philosophers who work without reflective handwringing:

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.

This is an odd list. Some of them clearly do work in the line of Philosophy. My impression of Cornel West, though, his work has drifted further out as he's gotten older. Regardless, I don't understand the contrast class well enough to understand this list.**

Perhaps the article is a conservative rejection of what Aiken and Talisse see as some progressive threat, and that their veiled descriptions are code. Their fellow reactionaries might understand who the target is, in that case, but I don't.

If anybody clicks through and reads the article, I'm open to suggestions.

* They start with a joke about "an existentialist, a modal realist, and an eliminative materialist" walking into a bar. The bartender asks "Is this a joke?" Since that roster is not the canonical set-up for a joke, the punchline doesn't quite fit. The version I'm familiar with starts with "a priest, a rabbi, and a Buddhist monk", because clergy of various religions do form the roster for a standard class of jokes.

** The list is not meant to contrast with philosophers who work only on abstruse questions in metaphysics (for example) because work on such questions is not reflexive handwringing about the profession.


from: Matt Brown

Fri 18 Jan 2013 05:49 AM

Perhaps they are targeting someone like Richard Rorty? Attempting to dismiss Rorty's attacks on Philosophy is common amongst SAAPsters like Talisse. My only other thought is the recent metaphilosophical writings of Kitcher, but I don't think these criticisms hit the mark in that case.

from: P.D.

Fri 18 Jan 2013 08:07 AM

Matt: Perhaps, but Rorty has been dead long enough that he can't make for "perhaps more than ever".