December 24, 2014

Silence at the Top

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.

26 comments:

  1. The only reason to worry about doing philosophy in accord with the current academic practices and standards is if you want to work within that milieu. But as philosophy's history shows, doing philosophy and teaching/writing about it are not one and the same.

    Nothing prevents anyone from doing philosophy however he or she wants unless one is bent on working as a philosopher. I can easily see why someone who has put in the time to do a PhD in the field would feel committed to that but, if the job market isn't amenable to realizing that goal, then maybe the right thing for someone of a philosophical turn to do is to work in other spheres for a time (as you are doing and I have done).

    Aside from the loss of the stimulus that comes with regularly associating with other philosophers, nothing stops us from wrestling with the ideas that compel us on our own, or from producing a book or two (or some articles, at least) which reflect the outcome or process of our struggle. Perhaps the results might even be better (because fresher, more original, less hidebound) than had we buried ourselves in the longed for academic milieu.
    Of course it's easier for me to say this than for you since I take it you are still young enough to worry about job markets. Me, not so much!

    ReplyDelete
  2. the 2nd option actually makes a great deal of sense to me, why not rely on people who actually do successful applied work in areas like labor-relations and such? that said the philosophers in question could certainly call for the employment of people with actual experience/know-how in these areas tho I'm guessing most of what will make a difference in the running in institutions will have little to nothing to do with blogging.
    -dmf

    ReplyDelete
  3. Or maybe they are simply scared?

    The New Consensus members are incredibly ruthless, in a perpetual state of (fake?) moral outrage and seem perfectly fine with false accusations, gaslighting and social shaming.

    Suppose that you are a 72 years old Derek Parfit, mostly devoid of the social skills necessary for these online brawls, wouldn't you prefer to remain silent?

    ReplyDelete
  4. Dmf, Definitely people who have the requisite knowledge of labor relations and the finances of academia have to guide the discussions re adjunct teaching. But there is a moral dimension as well, of how some academics are going to be ok with having better working conditions than others and the disparity in privileges among academics. The idea isn't that someone like Burge or Scanlon has some special knowledge about how to improve the working conditions of other academics. But what they can talk to is how they feel, and how they make sense of, working in structures which are so hard on other academics. Given that they are reflective beings, and good philosophers as well, what do they make of such an issue? Even if they have nothing unique to say, just whatever they might say would be helpful to fostering dialogue.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. not sure that they are particularly reflective beings (obviously not a priority/necessity for academic philosophy) and perhaps they are good (as opposed to just famous) philosophers but I think at best we can say that they are involved and if tenured have a marginal degree of protection, of course one would hope they care about their work environs but a good chance that the selection/socialization processes involved in rising thru the ranks in academia actually work against people who care deeply and have much in the way of productive alternatives to offer, and thus the ever deepening mires of higher-ed.
      -dmf

      Delete
    2. I definitely agree that the socialization process of getting tenured, and even of getting well known in academia, come with the downsides that you mention. Given this, this fact itself can be more broadly discussed and debated. I can certainly imagine that many people wouldn't agree that rising up the academic ladder comes with a certain desensitization. What would a productive debate about this look like? That would be interesting to pursue. If I put myself in the place of someone like Fodor or Burge, I would be very worried about the possibility that my ability to do great work comes at the cost of becoming desensitized other issues in academia. Everything comes with a trade off, but I would then want to think about what kind of trade off are worth making. What is amazing about the top people's silence is it is unclear what they think about any of this. Do they think they are making a tradeoff? If so, how are they ok with that? Or do they feel they can do great philosophy and be not desensitized? If so, how do they feel they can achieve that? There is so much to think about here, and it is amazing how little the people with the most institutional security are doing it publically.

      Delete
    3. " There is so much to think about here, and it is amazing how little the people with the most institutional security are doing it publically"
      ah yes makes one wonder about the claims to be experts-in/teachers-of 'critical' thinking and what good are such role-models/pedagogues to people who aren't interested in becoming such people/professionals?
      -dmf

      Delete
    4. Definitely makes one wonder. The claims to be experts is basically a circle. The professors are supposed to be the best at critical thinking. How do we know they are the best at critical thinking? Because it takes critical thinking to know who is good at critical thinking, and so only the professors can tell us who is good at it. And they say they are the best at it, so they must be the best at it. It really is amazing how easily academics buy this line of thought and claim they are experts at critical thinking.

      Delete
  5. Anonymous at 11:10, I am not sure who is supposed to be in the New Consensus. I take it you mean some feminist philosophers, and others sympathetic to that, and you think these philosophers are too quick to be moral indignant. Be that as it may, it is hard to see how that can be the cause of Parfit's silence. Even if there is a feminist power in the profession, that is relatively recent, that too on the internet. Could that be the cause of Parfit's silence throughout his career? Beyond advancing some views of the self which are similar to some Buddhist views, how much has he talked about non-Western philosophy and how the profession can be expanded? And even if, supposing he doesn't have the "social skills" for online dialogue and so stays off the internet, why can't he publish in older forums? It seems to me backwards to say that prominent philosophers are keeping quiet because of the academics who are upset about how the profession is. But the ones who are upset are so because of the general acceptance of silence in the profession.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Could that be the cause of Parfit's silence throughout his career?"

      I think it wasn't a conscious choice, it's in the nature of privilege to be invisible to those who have it. What's more interesting is why he decided not to jump into the fray now that those questions are in the open. A possible explanation is the incredible nastiness
      of the current debate, which forces critics to remain anonymous (which may contribute in turn to the nastiness of said debate...).

      Delete
    2. Granted it wasn't a conscious choice in the past. Even if we stick with why someone like Parfit isn't entering the fray now, it seems strange to say it is because the current debate is so nasty. That to me seems like saying that the princes don't want to get dirty sparring with the ordinary folk, as if in order to have the privilege of engaging with the princes, the lay folk have to get their act together and act in a more dignified way. I think it is part of the responsibility of being a prince that one find ways to reach out to those with less privileges, and find ways to create productive dialogue. To say that I won't enter the fray unless it is more dignified is itself a privilege of the elite. They get to stay above the fray because they don't need that outlet to vent their frustrations or to progress in the profession. They can do it in private on facebook, and still climb up the ladder, all the while making it seem as if they are too civilized to engage with the rabble rousers. It is fine if this is what they want to do. But there is no reason why I, or anyone else, has to reaffirm their narrative of silence as if it is something noble.

      Delete
  6. The fact that a few blogs take certain issues to be the most pressing issues in the profession does not convince me that these issues are the most pressing issues in the profession. The "hot button" issues you mention have received attention from a couple of dozen commentators. Perhaps the distinguished philosophers you mention are focused on other issues rather than the issues that the bloggers might like them to address.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Fair enough. So what are the issues about the profession that the distinguished philosophers are focused on? I don't know. Just because I don't know, I am not saying they are not doing anything. But is it that they don't care if the general philosophical public knows what they are doing? And why wouldn't want the general public to know? The only reason I can think of is that they would then be held accountable, or they might be drawn into conversations which might unsettle the current structures. But that strikes me as a good thing, and not something to be avoided.

      Delete
    2. Yes, I'm sure the inability of young philosophers to get stable jobs in the profession is merely the hobby horse of some quirky bloggers and unimportant to the profession as a whole.

      Delete
  7. John Searle, whom you mention, was outspoken about the problems of the profession in an interview he had with Tim Crane this year:

    (Crane) You started your career at one of the high points of English-speaking, analytic, Anglophone philosophy. What’s your view of the state of philosophy at the moment?

    (Searle) I think it’s in terrible shape! What has happened in the subject I started out with, the philosophy of language, is that, roughly speaking, formal modeling has replaced insight.

    Any account of the philosophy of language ought to stick as closely as possible to the psychology of actual human speakers and hearers. And that doesn’t happen now. What happens now is that many philosophers aim to build a formal model where they can map a puzzling element of language onto it, and people think that gives you an insight. I mean a most famous current example of this is the idea that you will explain counterfactuals—for example, if I had dropped this pen, it would have fallen to the ground—by appealing to possible worlds. And then you have a whole load of technical stuff about how to describe the possible worlds. Well I won’t say that’s a waste of time because very intelligent people do it, but I don’t think it gives us insight. It’s as if I said: Well the way to understand the sentence, “All ravens are black,” is that what it really means is that all non-black things are non-ravens. You can get a mapping of one sentence onto other sentences where each side has the same truth conditions. But that is not, in general, the right way to understand the sense of the original sentence. And it’s a philosophical question of why you don’t get the insight.

    And this is pervading other areas of philosophy. Formal epistemology seems to me so boring. I’m sure there’s some merit in it, but it puts me to sleep…. They’ve lost sight of the questions.

    (Crane) What advice would you give to a young philosopher starting out to not lose sight of the questions?

    (Searle) Well, my advice would be to take questions that genuinely worry you. Take questions that really keep you awake at night, and work on them with passion. I think what we try to do is bully the graduate students. The graduate students suffer worse than the undergraduates. We bully the graduate students into thinking that they have to accept our conception of what is a legitimate philosophical problem, so very few of them come with their own philosophical problems. They get an inventory of problems that they get from their professors. My bet would be to follow your own passion. That would be my advice. That’s what I did.

    These extracts come from the record of the interview on the NYRB blog

    http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2014/jun/20/john-searle-philosopher-world/

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. To some extent I appreciate what Searle says here. But frankly, to me it sounds more like an elderly professor chiding the profession for moving away from his interests, than someone interested in opening a philosophical dialogue about thinking through the many issues facing the profession. It's great that Searle thinks grad students should take the questions that genuinely worry them, and they shouldn't be bullied. But how can one do that when the job market is how it is? Should a grad student pursue her interests without worrying about getting a job? Or is Searle saying that we should structure the profession so that grad students' can pursue their deepest interests and yet feel secure that they can get jobs? If so, great. What is Searle's ideas for how to realize such a magical combination? Searle's basic point seems to be that he followed his passion, and that is what grad students should also do now. But what is missing is an acknowledgement of how academia has changed in the last fifty years, and how Searle was able to follow his passions without worrying that he might not get a job. He seems to think that somehow he is still a live role model for the present in terms of how he was an academic. I am not sure about this at all. I think he is a role model in terms of the philosophy itself, but not in terms of the struggles and situations of being an academic. Searle has to acknowledge how the privileges he had have become hard to generalize now for all academics. But it seems to me that he is living into the fantasy that if only grad students have as much gumption as he had, then things would work out fine for them too. To my mind, this exhibits a certain kind of deep insensitiveness to the current reality.

      Delete
    2. If the job market for young philosophers in academia was better in Searle's time than now, that's just the way it is, no? I recall a Chinese slogan from my youth that I had hung on my wall: "Times change, and with them their demands." I don't recall the source but it was good advice then and now, both.

      I tend to agree (albeit from the outside looking in) that modern academic philosophy has grown stodgy and stultified but that probably was not to be helped given its insularity as an academic pursuit. In my day the economy and academia were wide open and lots of folks rushed through those doors and many established themselves in the groves of academe. Today, apparently, things are different and there's a glut of academics with severe competition among the disciplines for new participants.

      Philosophy, not being a real world pay-as-you-go enterprise (it basically pays if and only if you end up teaching it to others), seems to find itself at a disadvantage now in the competition for new students. At the same time the years have seen a build up of philosophers in the field so there's apparently less room for new aspirants to teach the subject. So there is an unsurprising tightness in the field and, presumably, a winnowing out. It's just supply and demand I'd guess.

      What I'm trying to say is that this is just the way things are and maybe the best young aspiring philosophers can do today is compete in today's tighter field -- or try other fields. Philosophy as a subject is in some ways uniquely suited to academic environs but those environs no longer have as much room for philosophy as they once did. Incoming students want to focus on things that will give them real world skills, things that pay back and philosophy isn't much of a draw now and certainly not as much as it was 30-40 years ago. As a result one's chances of getting a tenure track position now are much smaller.

      Nor will this be helped by getting more established philosophers to speak up or take your side. The one thing they can do to help your cause is retire en masse, I suppose, because that will open up positions. But it would also diminish the credibility of the field since the presence of established, respected names are what give it that. Besides, it would be against the self-interest of today's upper tier philosophers to cut enjoyable and even remunerative careers short just to make room for others and there's nothing about philosophy that demands such selflessness by exponents. Why should Searle do anything more than comment, as he has done in that interview, about the things he thinks have gone wrong in his field? He does make some interesting points by the way (though perhaps I only say that because I find the elements he alludes favorably to more interesting than those he disparages -- I always found "possible worlds" arguments dry, abstract and unrelated to the real philosophical issues that have engaged me).

      Anyway, to a large extent philosophy is not about doing but about thinking about doing and nobody in the real world pays for that. There's a place for it to the extent there are others who want to read philosophy but that means other philosophers! It's a self-involved field when you think about it. Many of the great philosophers of the past have made their living elsewhere than in the academy even if, in the modern world, the academy has become nearly the sole venue of modern philosophy. If the jobs aren't there, do other stuff and philosophize as the spirit moves you and find your audience if you can. That's what the great ones in pre-academic times did. Maybe that's where really meaningful philosophy has to happen in any case.

      Delete
    3. Stuart, I think you might be drawing too sharp a contrast between academic and non-academic philosophy, as if the former is not a space of creative philosophy, and only the latter can be that. For every Socrates, there is a Plato; for every Kierkegaard and Rousseau, a Kant and a Hegel. I think part of the reason non-academic philosophy is needed is as a way to challenge academic philosophy, not to simply ignore academic philosophy as trivial and useless. In the history of philosophy, there has been a great deal of fruitful (if combative and also sometimes friendly) interaction between academic and non-academic philosophers, and I think that kind of mutual exchange is needed for creative tensions.

      Similarly, I don't see how just Searle, et al retiring solves anything by itself. The next generation might be a little more open and honest about the job market and the current conditions, but the more pressing issue is what the institutional structures of academic philosophy can allow, not what are the personalities of particular academics. I am also inclined to agree with Searle about the focus on possible worlds, but this is neither here nor there for present purposes. The issue facing academic philosophy isn't that the right views aren't in vogue; what is in vogue comes and goes. The more pertinent issue is what the changing conditions of academic mean about what philosophy can be done in academia. This is not an issue of whether Searle or Lewis is right. It is whether academics now have the freedom to even do the kind of thinking Searle and Lewis did. That Searle seems to take it for granted that his situation when he was a grad student still applies as is to the present is what suggests to me that he is out of touch. Naturally, he might be concerned that if he acknowledges that academia has changed, then he might be treated as out-dated. But actually, if he can face up to the changes and acknowledges the privileges he had, then that is the way for him to stay contemporary and of relevance to the present.

      Delete
    4. I don't know what kind of privileges Searle had that you have in mind. He went into the field when academia and philosophy departments were both growing. That is apparently no longer the case. First, with the baby boomers entering the system there were so many more students coming in and then with a gradual opening up of standards to bring in more and more young people from all walks of life there was the need for more college level institutions and to grow various departments. Philosophy had more cachet in those days, too.

      As I once mentioned to you, back when I flirted with philosophy in my college years my father was very much against, deeming it useless economically. I majored in philosophy anyway (never listened to him much on things I liked anyway) but in the end of the day he was probably right about it as a potential career for me. When I decided not to pursue a higher degree in the field it was at least partly because his judgment still resonated with me (though I'd largely rejected it up till then) although, in retrospect, that was probably a good time to enter the field, better than now for sure. From everything I've seen in your posts and elsewhere it seems that the field has really been shrinking, especially in response to the changing demographics and the impact on student demand. I don't see how Searle or any of the established philosophers can do much about that.

      Can they change their departments' policies? Or their institutions? Here and there perhaps, but they'd still be up against real world facts which militate against hiring lots more tenure track philosophers where demand for them has shrunk. Plus, as we've already discussed, the rigidly structured standards of modern academic philosophy reflect the needs of a university setting, making it hard to do philosophy in a more personal way. You need some standard ways to compare people's work and so the institutional templates naturally take hold.

      Doing philosophy outside the academy at least allows one to find his or her own mode and methods though it's not likely to be lucrative unless you can somehow turn your passion for ideas and understanding into an audience-generating body of work -- rather hard, I suppose, because it takes philosophers (or fairly sophisticated philosophically inclined readers) to appreciate philosophy and they aren't legion in the wider reading public.

      I don't see how Searle or other established figures in the field could change any of that. They've done alright but they don't owe others coming after them anything beyond the example they have set in their own careers and to do the best work they can. I think you want them to advocate for opening up philosophy departments to more new blood but there just may not be enough cash in the till to pay for that. Perhaps a better way is to try to add a philosophical dimension to other fields, to the work of other departments (which seems to be one direction some universities are headed, though it does tend to dilute the philosophical curriculum I think). Perhaps though my views are just too reflective of my own position outside the academic sphere. Since I decided against a career as a professional philosopher 40 years ago perhaps I am just too certain that that's a viable choice for others. But perhaps it's not.

      Delete
    5. Great points. What you say suggests another reason the people who are well known keep quiet: because they don't want to break the illusion that they have power in determining the direction of academia. Suppose many of the famous philosophy professors get together and articulate the need for better working conditions for adjuncts. Will their universities listen to them? Very open question. Not at all clear the universities will listen to them. That will make the philosophy profession seem useless, and without listeners, even in academia, let alone in general society. So the professors conclude unconsciously that it is better to keep quiet, and live into the hope of having a voice. But in this way they are only accepting their silence more. Similarly, suppose all these famous people get together and stand for the site visits from the APA to improve the conditions at philosophy departments. Will the profession in general listen to them? Not clear. And that suggests that perhaps the philosophy profession is deeply divided. Which isn't necessarily bad, but it requires honestly facing up to it, rather than living into the fantasy that the profession has a unified voice.

      Still, whether the universities will listen to them, or even whether other professors will listen to them, are not the main questions. The main issue is are the famous professors acting with the interests of the profession as a whole, and trying publically to tackle with those issues or aren't they? Perhaps the American political system won't change overall. But that is no reason not to speak out as citizens. One has to live into the hope of change. Not the delusional hope fostered by keeping silent, actual hope which comes through not keeping quiet.

      Delete
  8. Please, folks. Read Bosquet's 'How the University Works' before bloviating on the structural transformation of academic labor over the last 40+ years. So tired of reading the same foolishness about 'market demand' and 'overproduction of PhDs and so forth. Most of the 'great' philosophers you mention are too busy cultivating their private intellectual gardens at elitist institutions to give much of a damn about what's happening to their 'inferiors' and the abysmal labor conditions we're all facing these days. Change will have to come from below, from the 75% of us who are working 'contingently'. We don't need 'great' leaders, just a grassroots unionization movement (already underway) and the willingness to make things uncomfortable from all of those, from university presidents to tenured faculty, who are complicit with the casualization of the profession and the corporatization of the university.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Well you could just occupy the administration buildings and shut stuff down. Bet that would help a lot!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Anonymous at 5:55, Thanks for the heads up. I hadn't heard of Bosquet's book, and it looks great. Really pertinent and spot on. I agree that contingent faculty shouldn't have to wait for the tenured folk, let alone the "top" tenured folk, to get their act together, or to even show some level of public commitment to the issues (beyond talking to some friends on facebook).

    At the same time, given that academia is supposed to be a land of ideas, the power of who are thought to be the best thinkers cannot be underestimated. If the contingent faculty unionize without linking with, or being critical of the ideas of, the tenured faculty, I think many opponents will simply dismiss the "agitators" as low level thinkers who are griping because they weren't smart enough to get the better jobs. At most, it will become a pity thing, like even the less intelligent academics require minimum wage and health care. I don't see how a response to this kind of dismissal can be only political, or about group organizing. Something about the ideas of the tenured faculty, and the fact that they are not the best thinkers overall (even if one concedes they are for some specified domain of inquiry-even this requires more thought) needs to be articulated in order for the contingent faculty to be heard. The structures of academia remain immovable as long as the ideas created by those structures are not addressed. In this sense, political change in academia requires changes at the level of ideas as well, or at least questioning the main narrative myths of academia, the very myths according to which some people are seen to be the most effective thinkers.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I think it's shameful that these "big name" philosophers have for the most part been silent about sexual harassment and gender issues, adjunct issues, race issues, and so on. i know many of these names mentioned (not well, but I do know them), and my impression is that they are just so wrapped in their own careers and work, they are only marginally aware of the many social issues confronting philosophy and when they are aware, more or less indifferent.

    people do not get to the top of the philosophy profession by being the activist type. they get there by being completely absorbed by their own work. they wind up in the proverbial ivory tower, untroubled by what's going on outside. i'm not saying this excuses them, but i think it's what explains the silence.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Don't forget Peter Singer, who is particularly well-suited to confront such issues.

    ReplyDelete