Saturday, February 9, 2013

On the Marketability (or Lack of) of Philosophy. Or: Philosophy As Worldview Oversight

[Note to those who have asked, “When are you going to post more about your life in Chile?” A promise: somewhere down the pike, perhaps on the weekend of my one-year anniversary in this place, I will post on what there is to like about Chile versus what I dislike—in light of the fact that any place one chooses is going to have definite plusses and definite minuses. It’s not Utopia here; although while I was away in the South I saw sights that could easily be taken for slices of Utopia! And I don't have to worry about a SWAT team or drone coming my way for having said politically incorrect things about the Obama regime’s latest caper or Homeland Security’s latest weapons purchase. Hopefully this will do for now—as a kind of teaser.]

Recently I was offered something I’d hoped and prayed for—a philosophy teaching job in Chile, with the bulk of the lecture to be offered in English (Spanish on PowerPoints), my first since arriving in Santiago slightly over eight months ago. Not to belabor this, but naturally I sent out an announcement to my network and chanced to include the salary—low, possibly due in part to the need to pay some new dues in a location where I am hardly a known quantity (yet)—but also possibly due just to philosophy’s not being a priority item at the institution (Universidad de Santiago de Chile—USACH) any more than it is at any major university in the U.S. Moreover, it’s just one course, suggesting that this is just a first step and not a final state of affairs (whatever that might turn out to be—full-time at a good-paying private institution would be the ideal, of course). At least one recipient of my announcement did a quick comparison between the CLP and the USD given the exchange rate of the day and offered the opinion that my pay was a slave wage not different from the adjunct wages I’d visibly walked away from in the States. The matter triggered a brief flurry of email exchanges, whose focus was on the marketability of philosophy—here or anywhere. Having some pressing business to attend to, I didn’t participate, but made a few mental notes. Those notes evolved into the present essay. My focus here: to what extent is the low pay awarded the professor of a philosophy course (as opposed to a course in, say, economics, or in chemistry, or in engineering) a reflection of the market, and to what extent does it reflect other matters—e.g., university politics, or the still larger cultural ambience of disdain for, or hostility to, philosophy, a discipline which among other things, ought to encourage critical thinking which often means distrust of the kind of authority that says, “X is true because I say so,” the subtext of quite a number of decisions by governments these days.

Is it a “bad thing” in some sense that philosophy pays less in universities than those other subjects? Wasn’t philosophy once at the core of a well-rounded education, and should this matter here, one of our concerns being the role philosophy ought to play in the civilization of the future—the Fifth Stage, if there is to be one?

Since this essay is long, let me state its envisioned role for philosophy at the outset. Philosophers consciously taking civilization towards its Fifth Stage, if it can be made to happen, will be worldview overseers; their enterprise, one of worldview oversight: identification, precise and clear formulation, development if necessary, and critical evaluation of worldviews as cultural artifacts within civilization, entities that will often be tacit (implicit, aside, possibly, from specific religious views or stated assumptions of science). A worldview, as explained in previous entries, is a comprehensive set of beliefs about what kind of world this is (what reality is like, fundamentally), how we as human beings fit in, and what kind of beings we are, at base. It provides a set of answers for what we should do based on its diagnosis of problems within our civilization and suggests remedies, themselves open to scrutiny and evaluation—including rejection if they turn out to be uninformed or misguided.

All of which implies that the philosopher should be more than an academic micro-specialist. He or she should know some science, some technology, some history, something of economics, something of business even (if a philosopher can by some chance learn to operate a business successfully, he is ahead in this endeavor!).

To be sure, this is not what philosophy is today. Today you will find a Stephen Hawking stating as he did recently in The Grand Design (2010) that “philosophy is dead.” If it is dead, it most assuredly cannot subsist at the core of education, traditional or otherwise. One thing should be clear, easily understood within our Stages of Civilization framework: the “queen of the sciences” has indeed abdicated her throne. In Auguste Comte’s Third Stage, philosophy is replaced by science, taking us to positions like Hawking’s. As we’ve noted previously, Comte could not have foreseen that Stage Three would be replaced by Stage Four (except, of course, for those remaining in the hard sciences like Hawking, or a few others working in, e.g., evolutionary biology such as Richard Dawkins). It was during Stage Three’s rise—amidst a triumphant Newtonian empire in physics, the emergence of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection in biology, the appearance of such new areas as Freud’s psychoanalysis, etc.—that philosophy all-but-voluntarily stepped aside in favor of the idea that the sciences alone yield truth about the world. (This very statement is not a scientific claim, but never mind that just now.) With the fall of the Newtonian empire—at the hands of Einstein, the emergence of quantum-mechanical reality, and all that’s happened since—one would think that the door to philosophy’s comeback would be opened wide. The realization that a lot of what we thought represented edifices of “objective knowledge” or “universal truth” had failed to stand only provided source materials for hundreds of specialized doctoral dissertations and dust-gathering journal articles. Meanwhile, Stage Three was replaced—culturally, educationally, spiritually—by Stage Four: roughly speaking, the Postmodern Stage (key philosophical representatives: Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty; other useful names to drop include Ludwig Wittgenstein, Thomas S. Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, Jean Baudrillard).

Stage Four, in other words, has retained philosophy’s abdication. Within the general strictures of postmodernism, philosophy remains an academic decoration—along with the rest of the humanities. It elucidates power relationships instead of the rationality of science or confused uses of language (the standby of the tradition that grew out of Wittgensteinian analysis). Its denizens use phrases like structures of domination. They emphasize history’s victims (usually women and minorities) as against victimizers (white men—never mind the fact that white men invented civilization in the first place). Stage Four postmodernist philosophy is clueless about real power. It never mentions the City of London or the Fabian Society or the Bank for International Settlements or the Federal Reserve System. What it does emphasize is the local, the particular, the specific, in all things; its major writers find such concepts as objectivity unintelligible; they warn against any attempts to elucidate the nature of, e.g., Truth with a capital T (Rorty offers a good case study in the massive introductory essay of his Consequences of Pragmatism, 1981). Stage Four epistemology—if one can call it that—eschews viewing commonplace truths (“snow is white,” “cruelty is wrong”) as amounting to more than cultural consensus, exemplars of solidarity instead of objectivity. This, of course, hardly seems worth serious pay—even in university settings—when there is real work to be done! Small wonder that philosophy is not marketable, if this is the best that it can produce! There are a few writers—I have known several—who would insist that philosophy can be marketable, because it has been. They would point to Ayn Rand, whose philosophical novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) certainly proved marketable; not just did they sell well (they continue to sell well), but now they’ve both been made into major film productions. Rand’s nonfiction essays have also been widely read—to an extent far greater than that of any academic philosopher. Every so often her ideas garner new attention—a few years ago, when Alan Greenspan discussed his supposed debt to her in his book The Age of Turbulence (2007), and most recently, when Paul Ryan—Mitt Romney’s choice for running-mate—cited her as an inspiration (I do not believe either one understood her). Articles both celebrating and bashing Rand appeared both in print media and online.

Most academic philosophers, of course, dismiss Rand out of hand—often with a sneering belligerence sufficiently out of proportion to her actual influence in American society (she’s hardly up there with Madonna, after all, or even Suzanne Somers!) that one suspects an envy for which she had no patience. Rand’s writings appealed to a certain segment of the population: realistic, business-focused, enjoying new technology, psychologically oriented towards independence and economic self-sufficiency, and intelligent enough to appreciate a need for a thoughtful and systematic justification for modern capitalism. Some of these people are intellectuals in any reasonable sense of this term; they just aren’t professional intellectuals in universities or “think tanks.” All of which has to lead a fair-minded person to suspect that the problem of the marketability of philosophy isn’t with philosophy as such but with the kind of philosophy that developed within Stage Three and became ensconced in the higher-educational bureaucracy: micro-specialized, esoteric, remote from “real world” problems and issues—and by its very nature unable to identify and challenge real power systems or structures of domination in the world (philosophers who do so openly will find themselves quickly weeded out in an academic search as “conspiracy nuts”!). Some will object that whatever else one says, Rand’s Objectivism as a systematic philosophy wasn’t very good, that it was simplistic and uninformed about its own historical antecedents including an unacknowledged debt to Nietzsche, that it wasn’t addressed to her fellow philosophers but to the public, and that it was strawmannish and occasionally juvenile in its dismissal of historically important thinkers (e.g., one of her essays characterizes Kant as the “first hippie”). This characterization isn’t entirely wrong, but it is exaggerated, and begs a question: should philosophy be written exclusively for specialists or an educated wide audience? This depends on what problems we view philosophy as needed to solve—what problems philosophy is uniquely able to formulate and address—and suggests that we need a different approach than the academic one whatever evaluation we accord Rand’s philosophy.

Please allow me to digress further. (Hopefully I can be forgiven for the complexity and unwieldiness here—but the problem we are grappling with really does have a lot of facets.) Those who know me really well, know I have a strong interest in the music, life, and thinking of Brian Eno: British musician, experimental composer, producer, visual artist, activist, and occasional essayist (author of “The Long Now” unfortunately only available online in a shortened version, from which the San Francisco-based Long Now Foundation took its name). Where does a British musician fit in here? In interviews given long ago—and as reported in David Sheppard’s biography On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno (2008)—Eno relates that formative experience that shaped him—well-intended criticism of his interest in art that came from someone he respected as a somewhat precocious teenager, wondering why someone with his intelligence want to waste it becoming an artist. Let’s look at it:

[The criticism] set a question going in my mind that has always stayed with me, and motivated a lot of what I’ve done: what does art do for people, why do people do it, why don’t we only do rational things, like design better engines? And because it came from someone I very much respected, that was the foundation of my intellectual life.
Many of Brian Eno’s “fans” will see him with the lens through which they would view any “rock musician”: a former member of the British art rock band Roxy Music who then went on to pen his own skewed tunes with names like “Baby’s On Fire.” Eno should not be regarded as an intellectual dilettante, however (in my humble opinion). He’s read his way through some weighty material—in systems theory applied to organizations (Stafford Beer’s Brain of the Firm, 1973,for example), a possible biological basis for the arts (e.g., Morse Peckham’s Man’s Rage for Chaos: Biology, Behavior and the Arts (1965), and a great deal of political theory in addition to his interactions with other recognized avant garde composers such as John Cage. His approach to music actually reflects a strong preoccupation with the use of systems to generate and maintain creativity—creating musical systems that will “run themselves” and develop without the composer’s continued interference. Many of his recordings, with names like Music for Airports (1979) and Generative Music 1 (1996)—available only as computer software since the tracks are intended to come out different with each play—reflect this preoccupation.

So what’s the big deal here? What does any of this have to do with philosophy, much less its marketability?

I encountered Eno in the mid-1970s as a university undergraduate as just another art-rock musician (I was a maniac record collector at the time); then I encountered his ideas through interviews in music magazines (late-1970s, early-1980s), and determined to remember quotes such as the above. They apply to philosophy no less than they do to art! Perhaps they apply even more! What does philosophy do for those of us who “like” it, who were drawn to it? What should it do for civilization that art and poetry can’t do? Why shouldn’t we apply the formal-logical and critical-thinking skills available in philosophy to practical problems such as writing useful software (“designing better machines”)? Does it have anything to contribute to an advanced civilization—a Secular City (to use Harvey Cox’s provocative term from his 1965 book)? In an advanced civilization, the dominant forms of life are technical / technological and specialized; many organizations will tend to be large, complex, and global in scope; hierarchy will be omnipresent; the “business of business will be business” as the breadwinning denizens of the expanding Secular City focus on earning their livings and supporting their families.

In this environment, ethics tends to be utilitarian in a broad, tacit sense (it is interesting that several leading Austrian school economists, e.g., Ludwig von Mises, were utilitarians, not Randian rational egoists). It should be no mystery why pragmatism (later: neo-pragmatism) became, and has remained, the distinctively American philosophy. For there is a sense in which pragmatism and neo-pragmatism are “nonphilosophies”: even more than logical positivism, they are expressions of the collective mentality of the Secular City which has set philosophy aside when there is “real work to be done.” In this light, again: is there any wonder why philosophy isn’t considered marketable, and why even in universities, philosophy teachers tend to be the lowest paid of all adjuncts (although strangely, English teachers tend to be paid even worse)? Thus for philosophers anyway—the role philosophy either does or should play in civilization is of some urgency. I hope to make the case that a role for philosophy in helping guide the civilization of the future is also of interest. If mainstream academic philosophers will not do this work, then others must.

For it is also clear: academic philosophy is aging and dying. The youngest academic philosopher of historical significance, Saul Kripke, is in his 70s. Without going into details that would extend this essay indefinitely, the majority of the “work” being done by younger generations holds out little hope for contributing to the future: I just don’t see efforts by radical feminists preoccupied with finding masculine domination over feminine nature in science as helping much in making the case for the value of philosophy (as opposed to being a queen-sized embarrassment!).

The hostile job market, mentioned briefly above, has surely also exacted effects here, effects that almost no one has examined. Very bright and potentially talented philosophers have doubtless looked at their own marketability as prospective Ph.D.s and gone elsewhere (into computer science, for example). The field has thus suffered from a “brain drain.” Most poorly paid adjuncts who stuck it out and received their Ph.D.s are too busy trying to survive to write good philosophy—with survival often meaning dissembling and pretending to be politically correct while seeing clearly the fundamental irrationalism of political correctness. Many eventually decide they can’t do it. They leave academia, furthering the “brain drain.”

These problems for the future of academic philosophy, however weighty in their own terms, do not quite get to the heart of an important matter. Academia itself—the environment that nurtured Stage Three logical positivism and philosophical analysis and then Stage Four postmodernism and political correctness—may come to be seen as increasingly outmoded, the product of an earlier age, as civilization moves forward. Higher education, including philosophy, is now more easily dispensed online for those inclined to do so (the results are sometimes awkward but I expect this will disappear as technology improves and brings more and more of the features of the traditional classroom into the virtual classroom, including people on different continents interacting in real time on Webinars, using Skype, etc., as if they were in the same room). New educational forms of life will emerge, and we can’t predict what they will do. They won’t play by the “rules” of older forms—preoccupied with curricula and degrees. Philosophy must move forward into this environment while looking at it—both as observer and as participant—if it is to contribute. Perhaps if God establishes His Kingdom on Earth, philosophy will not be necessary. But unless, or until, that happens, I believe civilization will suffer if the specific correctives and guidance philosophy can offer never develop. What correctives and guidance are we talking about? We come at last to our main thesis about philosophy as worldview overseer.

First, what conditions render philosophy both possible and useful, and what it has contributed when these conditions were satisfied? Philosophy needed—it is true—to separate itself from dogmatic religion, for no reason other than dogmatic religion is inherently authoritarian. Philosophy cannot really exist in a Stage One cultural environment. It can only develop and flourish when civilization has developed enough to support a plurality of opinions—which admittedly may mean nothing more than an inability of authorities to stamp out competing points of view. Such conditions existed amongst the ancient Greeks, which is why we had not just Plato and Aristotle but also Stoics, Epicureans, and others. Philosophers could ask, within their communities and generally for posterity, questions of better versus worse ethically, epistemically, politically, existentially. This brought into focus realizations that logical norms, evidential relations, ethical values, etc., existed in some sense independently of either individuals or priestly authorities or political ones. Philosophers were in a position to begin formulating and evaluating the prevailing worldviews in their surrounding civilizations. They could develop them, defend them (or criticize them) with arguments, apply them further, etc.—even if their methods were largely a priori. Thus arose Stage Two civilization. Its greatest achievements: the systems developed by St. Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon, and others without whom early modern science might never have developed—or might have developed centuries later. Science and technology do, after all, have a philosophical foundation and basis! They require their practitioners to begin with certain very general assumptions about the world we inhabit—that events in the world manifest order and not randomness however random they may seem! Absent those assumptions—which came about primarily in the West—there will be no motivation to do science, or develop new technologies! (Quantum indeterminacy might suggest counter-considerations, but these will have to wait for another time.)

We’ve previously seen how, under Stage Three, philosophy became a “handmaiden to the sciences” as the latter advanced. By the time Comte was writing, it made at least some sense to say that the natural sciences were the future intellectually, and that meliorism ought to be the guiding assumption of a utilitarian ethos. Philosophers would have to content themselves with the reduced role of analysts (or bad psychologists—the view most analysts had of existentialism, already jumping the gun on Stage Four). This modest, reduced role for philosophy fitted the enterprise nicely into the emerging bureaucratic structure of the modern university. This role led to its above-described abdication. Philosophy ceded its intellectual authority to science—which in turn, as historians and sociologists of science have shown in great detail—owed more to the authority of monied interests than its practitioners cared to see. (The cynical remark that cognitive science consists of six academic disciplines in search of grant money does, after all, have some basis in reality.)

Stage Four thinking turned philosophy from handmaiden to potential critic of the sciences, occasionally seeing them as one form of life among many and hardly deserving of dominance (Feyerabend). Unfortunately, with the collapse of the job market and the rise of political correctness, nothing of the sort happened. Philosophy became a handmaiden to the political agenda (“the personal is the political” is a mantra of radical feminists).

A few philosophers married the historicism of Kuhn and Feyerabend to positive science; captivated by new findings in neurophysiology, they theorized that perhaps our commonsense descriptions of ourselves as beings with beliefs, etc., have no more basis in reality than Ptolemaic astronomy, that they characterize a “folk psychology,” and that we should become eliminative materialists (see works such as Paul Churchland’s Scientific Realism and the Plasticity of Mind, 1979) and Patricia Smith Churchland’s Neurophilosophy, 1981, as definitive statements of these proposals; interestingly, both Feyerabend and Rorty defended versions of eliminative materialism in early papers). Worldviews as beliefs held tacitly within a cultural consensus would be, of course, utterly mysterious to an eliminativist—linguistic products of a “folk sociology,” one might call it. This notwithstanding, is it not clear to the most bleary-eyed that eliminative materialism is no less a worldview (or part of one) than any other form of materialism? Pointing out the logical paradox involved in stating the belief that beliefs, worldviews, etc., have no real existence—a staple of eliminative materialism—is something philosophy can certainly do that is very specific. In fairness, this issue has been raised several times in the literature—I know of one philosopher who took it seriously enough to try to refute it—but it refuses to go away.

What philosophy can do in its effort to serve as a corrective and a guide for the civilization of the future is what it has always done best: identify and formulate the prevailing worldview, and then subject it to rigorous testing: is it logically consistent or self-referentially inconsistent? Is it consistent with fact, to the best we can tell (and there is, of course, room for differences of opinion)? Perhaps most importantly: is it helping us or harming us? That is: is it bringing us increasingly into harmony with each other and with our surroundings, or is it damaging all our relationships? Is it helping us accept and further our lives as they are in the world as it is, distinguishing what we ought to change from what we must accept because of our nature and because of how reality works? These questions precede specific decisions about what kind of worldview we ought to embrace versus what we should reject. (While I believe we should reject materialism in all forms, this is a separate thesis I will not argue for here.)

Many writers—some of them academic philosophers—need to bash Ayn Rand. Some of the specifics raised by her critics may be valid—I’m not arguing that issue one way or the other here, either. The point I would make is that Rand’s philosophy did the above. It was comprehensive and systematic. It placed value on logical consistency. It is not self-refuting. Rand offered Objectivism as solving a problem of the first magnitude: a philosophical justification for capitalism that (she argues) capitalism did not have and without which it would be destroyed, taking civilization down with it (a major theme, obviously, of Atlas Shrugged). It laid out a worldview: a perspective incorporating a metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, philosophy of government and of economics for how human beings could both compete and cooperate harmoniously, based on a set of premises about our nature as rational agents of volitional consciousness to the rest of a reality of objects with determinate natures of their own.

And Miss Rand’s philosophy turned out to be marketable! Is this a test of its truth? Of course not. But clearly it resonated within our particular civilization in the grip of Stage Three. It met a need. It solved problems, for those who perceived capitalism’s absence of a philosophical foundation as a problem (to my mind, Mises offers the best sense of what constitutes a problem: whatever prompts unease in a person and motivates the person to consider action to relieve the unease; cf. his discussion in Human Action, 1949). Conditions have changed considerably since Rand’s writings. But the problem of how to take civilization forward—how to get past the present terminal adolescence of perpetual war, empire building (economic as well as political), the destructive idea that central banks can print and governments can spend their way into sustainable prosperity, the problem of how to balance competing claims of personal freedom and sustainable liberty as a societal phenomenon, and what to do about claims that present-day civilization is out of harmony with the natural environment on which it ultimately depends (a core contention of anthropogenic climate change arguments).

These are all problems that cry out for the sort of work philosophers can do as worldview overseers. Could such philosophy be marketable? I don’t know. If enough people with educations were able to learn of it, and find that it solves problems in their lives, or in matters of public policy regarding war, government untruths, the environment, etc., all going beyond matters of mere economic sustenance—if it could be seen as guiding a lost world back towards genuine flourishing—than I could see philosophy as worldview oversight as marketable. At the very least, it seems worthwhile to make a sustained effort to find out!

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