If you ask academic philosophers who are some of the most important contemporary philosophers, you will get names like: Derek Parfit, Tim Scanlon, Martha Nussbaum, Jerry Fodor, Thomas Nagel, Timothy Williamson, Christine Korsgaard, John McDowell, Robert Brandom, Peter Singer, Anthony Appiah, Ned Block, David Kaplan, John Searle and so on.
If one goes to academic philosophy blogs, one sees discussion of some of the pressing issues in the profession: should there be philosophy rankings, the under-representation of women and other minorities, how to make the discipline more open to non-Western philosophical traditions, whether there are enough jobs for all, or even most, philosophy PhDs, how to improve the conditions for adjunct professors, and so on.
If I ask myself what do the most well known philosophers think about these pressing issues, it is amazing that I am forced to admit: I have no idea. For the most part, the academic philosophy superstars have been silent on hot button issues in the profession. What is one to make of this fact?
One option is: it is a generational thing. Perhaps someone like Parfit or McDowell dosn't even read philosophy blogs. Maybe. But that doesn't explain their silence on the hot button professional topics. After all, they are very familiar with the concept of publishing. And in virtue of their recognition, they have a great platform to be heard. They could write editorials, organize APA sessions, conferences, and so on. Where are all of these activities? Since 1994, when Mind and World, came out, McDowell has no doubt given innumerable talks on the myth of the Given, on second nature, on enculturation. Has he published a single essay on what kind of enculturation the philosophy profession is fostering, and what he thinks are the prospects for improving the profession? Not that I am aware of. Why is this? How come the most well known philosophy professors are so silent about the most pressing issues in the profession?
Another option is: they don't have to speak up, because they don't have anything special to contribute. On this view, the philosophical expertise the best academic philosophers have concerns just the subject matter they write on. On ethics, philosophy of mind, political philosophy, and so on. They have things to say on moral skepticism, or the mind-body problem, or the state of nature, and that is where their expertise ends. What can be done about the lack of non-European philosophy in most philosophy departments? On this view, there is no reason Nagel or Scanlon or Kaplan would have anything interesting to say about that issue. After all, that is not what they specialize in. The trouble with this view: ok, if not the people who are thought to be best at philosophy, who else can have anything interesting and important to say on the hot button topics? The people who speak the loudest? Or the brashest? And what kind of an expertise is required to speak up for working conditions for adjuncts or the need for a better culture for women in the profession? This seems like nothing more than a cop out.
A third option: the well known philosophers don't speak up because the moment they do, they would come across as hypocrites. We can imagine Parfit speaking eloquently, even passionately, about helping fellow human beings, and about the foundations of ethics. But can we imagine Parfit speak so eloquently about the hardships of the adjunct professor who has to teach five classes in three universities in a semester just to make ends meet? Or about the sense of alienation which might creep into a Latino student's mind as she hears for the umpteenth time about the same European philosophers? This is much harder to imagine. For Parfit is not a neutral observer in the current state of affairs. Parfit can stand up and speak on behalf of that adjunct professor, but not without first acknowledging how his own professional career has been made possible by the very institutional structures which propagate situations like that of that adjunct professor. If Parfit tries to speak about the injustice of the adjunct professor's situation, without first acknowledging how he has benefited from the way the institution is set up, then it would seem as if Parfit is being two-faced, duplicitous, trying to have it both ways. But given that he has benefited from the institutional set up, how can Parfit distance himself from the institution without seeming ungrateful?
Consider the following line of thought: Parfit does great philosophy; he is able to do that because he has certain privileges (job security, prestige, ability to focus mainly on research, etc.); therefore those privileges must be worth having and fostering; in order to have those privileges, one has to accept the broader structures of the current institutional framework one is a part of; part of the broader structures are things like the unreliable job market and the reliance on adjuncts; so perhaps the job market, as it is now, and the adjuncts are necessary for Parfit to do great philosophy. And with this conclusion we can see why so little progress gets made on the institutional issues in academic philosophy.
Think of some of the classics of academic philosophy of the last fifty to seventy five years. Word and Object (written at Harvard). The Concept of Mind (Oxford). A Theory of Justice (Harvard). Anarchy, State and Utopia (Harvard). Reasons and Persons (Oxford). Naming and Necessity (Princeton). And so on. Now in saying that these are some of the best works, what we seem to be saying is that the positions had by the philosophers who wrote those works must have been good. That being tenured professors at Harvard, Princeton and Oxford is an (the?) optimal way to produce great philosophy. But once this inference is drawn, it seems as if those institutional jobs and structures have to be safe guarded if great philosophy is to be possible. That to be too critical of the institutions of philosophy would be to be lose sight of the deep connection between those institutional structures and the quality of philosophy. So as long as one focuses on doing good philosophy, as it is defined by these texts, then it can feel that, however unfortunate some aspects of the profession may be, they might have to be put up with in order to create great philosophy.
So if you are considered one of the best philosophers around, what can you do? If you talk publicly about all the problems in the profession, you can seem hypocritical since the privileges you are criticizing are also the very ones which are giving you the platform and the ability to make such criticisms. If you want to avoid hypocrisy, the only option left seems to be to double down on your work, and to focus all the more on trying to do great philosophy. For if you produce great philosophy, then the privileges you have are not simply privileges, but rather structures required for the great work being produced. But the trouble with this line of thinking is obvious: it reaffirms the status quo, as if producing good philosophy can make up for one's institutional silence.
Since a work like A Theory of Justice was created within certain institutional structures, do we have to be committed to those structures if we are to value such a work?
No. This is easiest to see with texts from a bygone age. Descartes' Meditations was written during the time of colonialism. Since it is a great text, does that mean we have to support colonialism? Of course not. Nor does it mean that because the text was written in the time of colonialism, the Meditations is itself somehow corrupt as a philosophical work. It takes some effort, and nuance, but we can distinguish the value of the Meditations from the structures within which they were written. This is partly aided by the fact that we are no longer try to live exactly the way Descartes did in order to continue philosophy in his manner. We don't depend on kings to give us money to do philosophy, or hob nob with the aristocracy in the way Descartes did.
Even though they is closer to us in time, the same can be done with A Theory of Justice or Naming and Necessity. We can appreciate the quality of the work without continuing the mode of life in which they were written by acknowledging that they too now belong to a bygone era, one in which Rawls or Kripke didn't have to deal with, and be mindful of, the issues which contemporary philosophers have to deal with.
There are three options:
1) Say we belong to the same time as Rawls, say that it he was a great philosopher, and so commit to the institutional structures Rawls was a part of;
2) Say we belong to the same time as Rawls, say he belonged to bad institutional structures, and so denounce his work as problematic; or
3) Say we belong to a different time than Rawls, say he was a great philosopher, and so take on the task of how to continue thinking in that mode without continuing the institutional structures within which Rawls worked.
Option (1) perpetuates the status quo. It gives a sense of historical proximity, especially to the people who were friends or students of Rawls and Nozick and Sellars, etc. But that very sense of proximity and sameness is also what makes one turn a blind eye to the obvious institutional problems within which Rawls, et al. worked.
Option (2) goes to the other extreme, and tries to change the system by denouncing the philosophy it produces. But this is to throw the baby out with the bath water. For if you say Rawls, Sellars and Quine didn't produce good work, you seem to be motivated to make that judgment on institutional grounds, rather than on evaluating the work in terms of its content. One can of course disagree with A Theory of Justice, but I think it is pretty hard to say that it is bad philosophy, as if it is failing to meet even some basic standards of good philosophy. If one cannot see the beauty and power of Rawl's work, then it seems as if one is missing out on appreciating something good about the world.
Option (3) avoids the problems of (1) and (2). But it requires that one accept that one is living in a new era, and that means to embrace breaking with the past in significant ways. This can be hard to do, especially if one defines one's identity as a philosopher in those older ways. But if one can manage to do this, and so define one's identity as a philosopher in a new way, then one gains the ability to be within academic philosophy in a new way, and without feeling beholden to its past.
Academic philosophy will start to change and improve when more philosophers, including well known philosophers, start to embrace (3). In doing that, they will find their voice, and will be able to be critical of the profession without being hypocritical. The root of the hypocricy is trying to be critical of the current institutional structures even while trying to just emulate the past philosophers who were themselves silent about those institutional structures. You can't have your cake and eat it too. If you want to be just like Rawls or just like Lewis, then you can't bemoan the institutional structures which enable you to be like them. But if you are willing to be a new kind of academic philosopher, one which we haven't seen before, then you can accept that even the privileges you have are simply a matter of luck and chance, and then help create, as a fellow partner with everyone else, new structures in academia.