After the embarrassment of well-known philosopher of mind Colin McGinn for alleged inappropriate actions toward a female grad student, The Stone, a New York Times blog “for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless,” decided to host a series of articles on women in professional philosophy.
The second of these articles is titled “What’s Wrong with Philosophy?” In the process of providing her answer to this important question, Linda Alcoff inadvertently demonstrates the much deeper issues currently plaguing the esoteric brand of analytic philosophy emphasized at many of today’s top universities.
Alcoff takes as her starting point the underrepresentation of women in philosophy and argues that the problem with philosophy, the real problem, is the discrimination, the gender-norms, and the bizarre sexual power dynamics at play in grad schools around the country. Most of the writers in the series have taken the same tack and applied the now rote social science critiques—based on the Trinitarian criteria of race, gender, and class—to their chosen academic field.
To be sure, there are real perversions of behavior among university-employed philosophers, but if we are to take seriously the question “What’s Wrong with Philosophy,” we have to look more broadly at how the field conceives of itself and how it conducts itself. Alcoff says that philosophers like to believe that “debate is meant to be a means to truth.” An admirable sentiment. She recognizes, however, that the mode of robust “rough and tumble” debate that characterizes contemporary philosophical circles often opens the door to couched personal attacks which aim to establish intellectual superiority rather than seek the truth.
In fact, more public philosophers have asserted that contemporary analytic philosophy is more a game than a sincere search for truth. Stanley Fish controversially made the distinction between “relativism as a philosophical position . . . and relativism as a way of life.” Once we break thought from action, the conclusion is obvious. As Fish put it in a 2011 post titled “Does Philosophy Matter?”:
Philosophy is not the name of, or the site of, thought generally; it is a special, insular form of thought and its propositions have weight and value only in the precincts of its game. Points are awarded in that game to the player who has the best argument going (“best” is a disciplinary judgment) for moral relativism or its opposite or some other position considered “major.” When it’s not the game of philosophy that is being played, but some other—energy policy, trade policy, debt reduction, military strategy, domestic life—grand philosophical theses like “there are no moral absolutes” or “yes there are” will at best be rhetorical flourishes; they will not be genuine currency or do any decisive work. Believing or disbelieving in moral absolutes is a philosophical position, not a recipe for living.
In Fish’s mind, philosophy no longer matters except to those it employs, and it seems that Alcoff agrees. While she might make hand-waving assertions about the search for truth, she thinks that philosophy’s primary contribution, and primary issue, is equal employment, and so her primary frustration is that it doesn’t employ different demographics equally.
When philosophers, the great gadflies of society, non-reflectively assent to mainline thought, we might fairly wonder if they have lost their way. Contra Fish, philosophy does matter when it contemplatively searches for truth and offers its findings and its methods to the common good. One aspect of this good might be an attempt to inhibit the unfair treatment of women, but when this brand of “philosophy” hypocritically asserts thoughtless activism as some sort of highest good—it preemptively assumes that thought, and thus, philosophy, does not provide real, activity directing mandates.
This critique does not apply to all contemporary philosophy or philosophers, far from it. There are plenty of academic philosophers who recognize that philosophy must impact one’s lived choices and experience (Robert George and Cornel West come to mind); for them, it’s justifiable to study the most non-applicable and esoteric philosophical subjects in the pursuit of truth and the personal virtue of careful, concentrated thought. For only when we question society’s premises and attempt to live with intellectual integrity is philosophy freed from the constricting limits of inane, if jargoned, word play and verbal ripostes.
J. David Nolan is a graduate of Williams College and a junior fellow at First Things.