October 15, 2014

Academic Philosopher's Anxiety

Imagine you dream your whole life of contributing to the progress of civilization. And you feel philosophy is essential to such progress. So you want to be a philosophy professor. You go through all the hoops and trials. You make it and you even excel. You become a top academic. You feel poised to realize your life ambition.

Then you look around and discover something unsettling: most people in society aren't listening to you. It is not just that they disagree with you. You can handle that. Your training has made you a mind ninja, able to turn the table on others. No, its worse. Most people ignore you. They don't know what you do and why they should listen to you.

You try to express this difficulty to fellow humanists. And the unsettling feeling expands: even fellow academics aren't listening to you. Worse, they insist you aren't really a philosopher. They point to Socrates and Nietzsche and say you are not like them.

You have all this philosophical knowledge. Earth shattering, mind blowing skill of self-reflection. The kind of skill that if only every person had it, the world would be transformed. You have acquired this skill through hard work and dedication. You are a servant for the public good ready to go on your mission. Yet... the public. They seem oblivious. What can you do?

This is the academic philosopher's anxiety.

Not all academic philosophers have it. If you became a philosophy professor just because you enjoy doing philosophy without thinking about its practical effects, you might not have have this anxiety. If you became a philosophy professor just because you enjoy hanging out with fellow academics talking about the categorical imperative, you probably won't have this anxiety. But if you became a philosophy professor because you see philosophy as a paradigm shifting, political landscape altering, human ennobling, community building work of the soul,  then yeah, you will probably have it.


This anxiety shines through pretty clearly in Jason Stanley's essay "The Crisis of Philosophy"

It is primarily a litany of complaints against fellow humanists. They don't give us as many prestigious awards as they give each other. They don't respect what we have to offer. They "add insult to injury" by calling second rate hacks philosophers. Like Rodney Dangerfield used to say: I don't get no respect!

But why this railing against fellow humanists? Why does it matter?

Stanley provides the reason when he says: 

"The activity of philosophy is also foreign to many American humanists. Fiction writers, artists, and directors create works generally outside of the academy, for audiences outside its walls... But unlike the fiction writer or the artist, there is hardly an audience anymore for philosophy outside of the academy. Few bankers care to hear about the latest views on rational agency or vagueness. Humanists are used to studying cultural works created outside the academy for audiences outside the academy. Philosophical work is cultural creation formed inside the academy for an audience that is now largely inside the academy."

The general public has some sense, however vague, for the cultural products with which most humanists engage: novels, songs, movies, etc. Because of this link, the literature professor has an easy hook to fall back when speaking to the public: you know what I am talking about, it is all around you, in bookstores, museums, theaters, etc.

But the contemporary philosophy professor has no such hook. The objects of inquiry which philosophy professors engage with are created by themselves. So how do you get the general public interested in philosophy?

Prestige and respect accorded to philosophy by fellow academics.

If all humanists were to say, "Philosophy is amazing and the philosophy professors brilliant! We could listen to them all day!", then the public, who otherwise might not know what philosophy is, will have a reason to listen to the philosophy professors.

On Stanley's view: (1) the world needs philosophy. (2) Philosophy is the province of philosophy professors. But (3) the philosophy professors, as with any specialization, talk mainly to each other, and are not easily accessible to the public. So (4) philosophy professors have an uphill battle. And (5) this uphill battle is made worse when know nothing humanists put Slavoj Zizek on the pedestal as a philosopher and denigrate philosophers like David Lewis. Therefore (6) these know nothing humanists are getting in the way of the expansion of philosophy and halting the progress of civilization.

Stanley's basic point: Look dumb humanists, we know the public is generally stupid. They don't know a good thing when they see it; they are unphilosophical; that is why they need us. But you are academics and you should know better. You should help us philosophers reach out to the public, not take their side and turn against us. Give us the respect we deserve so that we can save the world.


It is human instinct that if we don't understand why something is happening, we will look for someone to blame. Why is my TV not working? It must be because the neighbor who just walked in did something to it!

It is funny to blame humanists for disrespecting academic philosophers for the gap between most humanists and academic philosophers is just another version of the gap between the public and academic philosophers.

Suppose there is a literature professor who thinks Wittgenstein was an amazing philosopher and that current academic philosophers pale in comparison; that in fact, current philosophers are obtuse and trivial. Stanley might say in response: "But you don't know good philosophy from bad; you are not a professional philosopher. You need to trust us to determine who is good and who is bad. You can't just go by your instincts because your instincts are those of an amateur. Rely on us, and we will tell you who is good and bad."

The trouble with this kind of response is that it runs completely counter to why philosophy is supposed to matter to the general public. On the standard story of the importance of philosophy, it is essential because it helps people think for themselves. The world is in the dire situation it is because people are too quick to follow their leaders instead of thinking for themselves. If more people thought for themselves, we would be much better off.

It is to immediately undercut this reason for philosophy if one adds, "And now listen to us philosophy professors." Even the least reflective lay person can see the tension in the injunction, "Think for yourself! And to do so listen to me!"

Surely this is the thought that is bound to come to the Wittgenstein loving literature professor when told that she is just an amateur. She might think: If you don't claim a superiority over me regarding philosophy, I don't have to listen to you. And if you do claim a superiority over me regarding philosophy, then why doesn't that show you are confused and repressing the tension which even the least reflective person can see? In what way can I think of myself as just an amateur and retain the right to think for myself?

This is not to deny there can be philosophical expertise. There can be. But it is to say that it is up to the academic philosopher to articulate a conception of philosophical expertise which doesn't make people submissive to philosophy professors. Why would anyone want to give up one kind of oppression only to immediately replace it with another?

Stanley might say: "There is no oppression. Literature professors shouldn't presume to know who is and is not a good philosopher. By doing so they are encroaching on the professional philosopher's turf. We are the ones who know most about philosophy and so we know best."

But who cares who knows best what philosophy is?

The Wittgenstein loving literature professor knows two things: when she reads Wittgenstein's Investigations, she finds it and the way it is written exciting and somehow relevant to her interests, and when she reads Kripke's Naming and Necessity she doesn't feel similarly excited. When the literature professor says, "Wittgenstein is a real philosopher, unlike most analytic philosophers", she is speaking to whether she is excited when reading one kind of text and not another.

To say that the literature professor is only an amateur philosopher is to say that she should second guess her own instincts of what she enjoys and doesn't enjoy; that she is too uninitiated into the higher realms of philosophy to know what she would enjoy if she knew more. But it is this line of thought that makes "amateur" philosophers suspicious of an argument like Stanley's. For Stanley seems to imply that anytime a person uses the word "philosophy" or talks about any author who is considered "a philosopher" or raises questions (such as "What can we know?") that are deemed "philosophical", then they should immediately recognize that they are less qualified to think about these matters than academic philosophers.

The uncomfortable feeling arises that Stanley, unable to inspire interest in most humanists, is substituting authority for inspiration. When Stanley says Wittgenstein and Nietzsche are the outliers in the history of philosophy and that all along philosophers wrote like Kripke and David Lewis, he seems to be relying on a conception of how philosophy "has always been done" as a reason why humanists should care about contemporary academic philosophers.

But what if the literature professor says, "Well, I have read Hume and Kant. I find them really exciting. I just don't find Quine and Dummett similarly exciting"? What is Stanley going to do? Give an impromptu lecture about why Dummett is a brilliant philosopher? No matter how passionate the impromptu lecture, a heart wants what it wants.

You can't argue or lecture your way into someone loving you. Or being inspired by your work. That, of course, is part of the academic philosopher's anxiety.


From Stanley's essay one gets the feeling that academic philosophy is a happy group of like minded thinkers, and that if only the humanists gave more love to academic philosophers, the philosophers would get on with the task of changing the world.

Nothing is farther from the truth. Surely Stanley knows that academic philosophers disagree among themselves about what the history of philosophy has been and what counts as good and bad philosophy. After all, it is not just wooly eyed humanists who think Zizek is a more important philosopher than Fodor. Some academic philosophers think the same thing. No philosopher at Rutgers or Yale might think that, but you could find quite a few academic philosophers elsewhere who would.

Here is where the academic philosopher's anxiety starts to reach a feverish pitch. Not only are the public and many humanists not listening, but even many academic philosophers seem to not be listening. What hope can there be of ever reaching the public and changing the course of human history if one can't even change the mind of a fellow academic philosopher?

One doesn't need to look far from Stanley to see academic philosophers saying the kinds of things he blames humanists for saying.

Here is Hubert Dreyfus railing against his time as a philosophy professor at MIT, and saying that there is no reason for most people to think about philosophers as respected within analytic philosophy as Hilary Putnam or Jerry Fodor (see from 24:30 on). Dreyfus is explicit that the philosophers he finds most exciting are thinkers such as Heidegger and Kierkegaard, not to mention writers such as Melville, and that most analytic philosophers don't have much to contribute to world historical issues of human meaning and purpose.

What is the difference if Dreyfus says it or a literature professor says it?

Perhaps it is that Dreyfus is a philosophy professor and so he is qualified to say such things in a way the literature professor isn't. But if the implication is that the literature professor should concede to philosophy professors, why can't the literature professor just concede to Dreyfus? The literature professor can say, "Yeah, like Dreyfus, I find most analytic philosophy boring." What is wrong with that? In fact, most of the philosophers that humanists find interesting (Dreyfus, Cavell, Rorty, MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, Cornel West and so on) are philosophers who have called out the philosophy profession in one way or another for being too insular and disconnected from the broader issues most people care about.

In light of this fact, Stanley blaming the humanists seems confused at best and disingenuous at worst. It seems confused because though he wants to speak to the condition of academia and academic philosophy in general, he seems willfully blind to the fact that there are many within his own profession who disagree with him and agree with the humanists. Why then is he blaming the humanists instead of taking on those in the profession who say similarly disparaging things about analytic philosophers?

It is because Stanley must be aware that in a conversation between him and Dreyfus there is no way he is going to convince Dreyfus of the brilliance of Lewis' On the Plurality of Worlds in such a way that Dreyfus is going to engage with Lewis as essential to his own intellectual projects. Not because Stanley is lacking as a philosopher, but because Lewis' project isn't about uncovering the hidden modes of being lost in the course of the Western philosophical history! If you want to think about the meaning of life, Lewis isn't the philosopher you would go to. Maybe you read Harry Frankfurt or Susan Wolf. But even reading them isn't quite like reading Kierkegaard. Suppose you want your philosophy to not just talk about the meaning of life, however subtly, but you want it to open horizons of meaning for you, something that when reading you feel that new pathways are being opened from the inner depths of your being and the stars and the moon are themselves dancing in celebration. Even if you get that from reading Frankfurt, that is not something you can force onto someone who doesn't get it from reading Frankfurt, let alone reading Lewis.

Here Stanley's argument can start to seem disingenuous; as if knowing full well that there are philosophers like Dreyfus who disagree with him, he is hiding that from the humanists in order to win a dialectical point against them. But no such hiding is plausible, and that renders Stanley's argument farcical. For the humanists are well aware that there are deep disagreements between academic philosophers. They are in fact taking sides in that disagreement by saying they prefer Rorty and Cavell over Kripke and Lewis. To respond to this by taking on the air of a unified philosophical voice, one which is shared not just throughout current academic philosophy but also throughout the history of philosophy, is to unwittingly come across as out of touch and sort of pitiable. The way a spouse comes across when trying to lecture other couples about marital bliss without realizing they all know about her marital problems.


Now we have reached the rock bottom of the academic philosopher's anxiety: the worry that perhaps the expertise one has gained in becoming an academic philosopher, far from being the medicine which can solve society's problems, is itself just one more version of the disease of fractured communities which is ravaging the broader world. That far from bringing universal reason to bear on the disparate groups vying for power and recognition in the society, academic philosophy has itself splintered into disparate groups, each vying for power and recognition within academic philosophy and within academia and society more generally. That the modes of discourse in academic philosophy, far from healing a fractured society, cannot heal even the fractures within academic philosophy itself. In fact, that it cannot even bear to look clearly at those fractures.

The mind reasons thus. I want to help with the most pressing problems in the world. I want to do that in my role as a professional philosopher. But I can only do that if professional philosophy is itself fine, a beautiful unified field whose methods can be exported to society in order to do good. Yes, professional philosophy is fine! Yes it is. Why then isn't the society at large listening to professional philosophy? Well, it can't be because of issues internal to the profession. Because we are fine! So the causes must be external. Oh yeah, it is those darn humanists who don't understand us. They are in between the academic philosophers and the public. They need to be educated and set straight. Then things will be fine! Yes, then everything will go just as planned.


  1. I am wondering how you square your reading with Stanley's 2010 article with his comments at the APA, linked to here 14/01/01/gender-inclusive-conferences-session/

  2. http://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2014/01/01/gender-inclusive-conferences-session/

  3. Anonymous, thanks for the link to Stanley's 2013 APA talk. I had not seen it before. It was interesting to read, and there is much in it I agree with and find inspiring. But I don't really know how to square the 2010 article with the 2013 one. In particular, there are three tensions I am not sure how to reconcile.

    1) In the 2010 essay, he says other humanities don't understand philosophy (as if philosophy is fine), but then in the 2013 essay he says that the other humanities have done a much better job valuing plurallity (implying philosophy is definitely not fine).

    2) In the 2013 essay, he says how Dotson's essay about the culture of justification is brilliant (which I agree with), but at the same time he is on the board of the Philosophical Gourmet Report, which is a main institutional way that culture is propogated, and has, as far as I am aware, not explained why he remains on the board, or why he values PGR.

    3) In the 2013 essay he makes it seem as if Dotson's point applies just to political philosophy, that Rawls is wrong, and that political philosophy needs to engage more with ideology. This suggests that there is a sharp separation between political philosophy and say, epistemology, Stanley's own first field. But if anything, it seems as if Dotson's points would apply as clearly to epistemology in helping to underwrite institutional ways of enforcing what counts as reasons and justification.

  4. As of September/October 2014, I think Stanley would say that political philosophy and philosophy of education are the most important parts of philosophy as traditionally or historically understood, and that there aren't any clear separations between those branches of philosophy and say, epistemology or semantics. In short, Stanley has become a passionate humanist (perhaps an "analytical humanist"?). His next book is on the semantics and pragmatics of propaganda. His philosophical and metaphilosophical views have evolved very quickly, and in a very interesting way, since 2010.