Argumentative or Combative?


The virtues of being a philosopher in the world are slim when compared to other professions.  One of the reasons I am going to argue that this is true is precisely because philosophers do not immediately see that this is true.  In the main, philosophers insulate the questions they ask and the answers they make to a very small field of experts, ones in which individuals from outside of academia are not allowed within those grounds without some kind of exception.  In this post, I make four points concerning the inability of philosophers to be engaged with the world in such a way that they make their discipline open to outsiders.  This insularity, while in and of itself not a harm, can be seen as something that is limiting the profession from attracting future experts. 

The first point is that the most virtuous philosophers are the ethicists whom I agree with.  Some names come to mind, but I'd rather point out the things they are doing in addition to theorizing about ethical theories.  They are part of policy conversations that range from abortion access to animal rights.  These philosophers see a link between the work that they do and the persuasion implicit within holding the views that they hold.  In other words, if I believe that more women should have access to abortion or birth control, I make an effort publicly engage with the issues such that I will persuade more people to believe what I do.  This kind of philosophy-based outreach is a direct counterexample to my funk regarding the rest of the discipline.  M&E, on the other hand, tends to be so insulated its to the point that the professors do not engage with anyone outside of journals and conferences.  To be fair, there is very little time to go to a high school and talk about computational theories of mind when you are so driven to produce high-quality research.  What we have to ask ourselves as a discipline, however, is whether or not this stark separation is doing our subject any favors when it comes to producing majors. 

The second point is that philosophers are by in large not interested in other people.  This generalization comes from watching research oriented philosophers try to talk to typical members of American society about philosophy and failing miserably.  The reasons for failure include, but are certainly not limited to: 1) Not being able to talk to the listener at the level that they are comprehending the material, i.e. philosophers who are so imbued with their discipline they forget that some of their students have only been studying the material for a mere matter of weeks, not the better part of three-some decades.  2) Becoming impatient with the level at which a student is comprehending the material, i.e. they are not asking interesting questions, the kind of which would motivate interesting papers, but are stuck on the comprehension level of engaging with the material, which, for someone who graduate from one of the topic philosophy departments in the world, is a poor usage of a professor's time (or so they think).  3) Students are attributed with bad intentions, deemed to lazy to take seriously, or are considered so transient in the academy that working out difficulties with the material with them is deemed not a good usage of time.

The third point is that I am not exempt from any of the first two points.  I recently had the displeasure of going to talk to a high school audience about metaphysical issues from Plato, Hume, and Kant, and of the students in the classroom who were listening, which I would put to about half, I would say a total of two or three were genuinely following the material.  There are a couple of reasons for this, and I will go over them now.  The first is that I was doing a poor job of teaching.  This is in keeping with point number two, which is to say that philosophers who have been asking these questions for a number of years forget what it's like to try to and experience these things for the first time.  The standards of language analytic philosophers expect from participants in the dialogue is far too high for students who are only just starting it.  It translates into almost everything they say being put down or corrected, with only the high performing students surviving the grilling period.
As an aside, I wish it were the case that juniors would be able to take philosophy starting in high school.  I think that would make the philosophy requirement when they got to college far less jarring, and I think it would offer more jobs to philosophy MA/PhD graduates who cannot secure jobs at higher education institutions.  It is clear to me that juniors in high school are capable of engaging with philosophical questions, and if they're asked to read Walden and find value in it, I dare say finding value in Plato is a far more fruitful endeavor.

Philosophy is as frustrating as the other humanities because of its reliance on the those within the highest positions to be engaging with those in the lowest positions.  Imagine if Apple's Steve Cook was forced to go around to the retail stores and discuss some of the higher level arrangements within the company with staff working the sales floor.  It would be pompous to say in all cases it would be a waste of time.  It would be disingenuous to say, by in large, it would be a good usage of his time.  Because of this, we get a heightened resentment from experts having to offer their time to people who do not, largely, appreciate their work, either from the immediate standpoint of hearing what they have to say during a lecture, or from the historical standpoint of understanding that an academic's career has been built up from decades of writing papers, monographs, and presentations on the topic that the student is only beginning to learn about. 

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