Whither philosophy?

From Aeon:

‘As long as there has been such a subject as philosophy, there have been people who hated and despised it,’ reads the opening line of Bernard Williams’s article ‘On Hating and Despising Philosophy’ (1996). Almost 30 years later, philosophy is not hated so much as it is viewed with a mixture of uncertainty and indifference. As Kieran Setiya recently put it in the London Review of Books, academic philosophy in particular is ‘in a state of some confusion’. There are many reasons for philosophy’s stagnation, though the dual influences of specialisation and commercialisation, in particular, have turned philosophy into something that scarcely resembles the discipline as it was practised by the likes of Aristotle, Spinoza or Nietzsche.

Philosophers have always been concerned with the question of how best to philosophise. In ancient Greece, philosophy was frequently conducted outdoors, in public venues such as the Lyceum, while philosophical works were often written in a dialogue format. Augustine delivered his philosophy as confessions. Niccolò Machia

Machiavelli wrote philosophical treatises in the ‘mirrors for princes’ literary genre, while his most famous work, The Prince, was written as though it were an instruction for a ruler. Thomas More maintained the dialogue format that had been popular in ancient Greece when writing his famed philosophical novel Utopia (1516). By the late 1500s, Michel de Montaigne had popularised the essay, combining anecdote with autobiography.

In the century that followed, Francis Bacon was distinctly aphoristic in his works, while Thomas Hobbes wrote Leviathan (1651) in a lecture-style format. Baruch Spinoza’s work was unusual in being modelled after Euclid’s geometry. The Enlightenment saw a divergent approach to philosophy regarding form and content. Many works maintained the narrative model that had been used by Machiavelli and More, as in Voltaire’s Candide (1759), while Jean-Jacques Rousseau re-popularised the confessional format of philosophical writing. Immanuel Kant, however, was far less accessible in his writings. His often-impenetrable style would become increasingly popular in philosophy, taken up most consequentially in the work of G W F Hegel. Despite the renowned complexity of their works, both philosophers would become enduringly influential in modern philosophy.

In the 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche, greatly influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer, wrote in an aphoristic style, expressing his ideas – often as they came to him – in bursts of energetic prose. There are very few philosophers who have managed to capture the importance and intellectual rigour of philosophy while being as impassioned and poetic as Nietzsche. Perhaps this accounts for his enduring appeal among readers, though it would also account for the scepticism he often faces in more analytical traditions, where Nietzsche is not always treated as a ‘serious’ philosopher.

The 20th century proved to be a crucial turning point. While many great works were published, philosophy also became highly specialised. The rise of specialisation in academia diminished philosophy’s broader influence on artists and the general public. Philosophy became less involved with society more broadly and broke off into narrowly specialised fields, such as philosophy of mind, hermeneutics, semiotics, pragmatism and phenomenology.

There are different opinions about why specialisation took such a hold on philosophy. According to Terrance MacMullan, the rise of specialisation began in the 1960s, when universities were becoming more radicalised. During this time, academics began to dismiss non-academics as ‘dupes’. The problem grew when academics began to emulate the jargon-laden styles of philosophers like Jacques Derrida, deciding to speak mostly to each other, rather than to the general public. As MacMullan writes in ‘Jon Stewart and the New Public Intellectual’ (2007):

It’s much easier and more comfortable to speak to someone who shares your assumptions and uses your terms than someone who might challenge your assumptions in unexpected ways or ask you to explain what you mean.

Adrian Moore, on the other hand, explains that specialisation is seen as a way to distinguish oneself:

Academics in general, and philosophers in particular, need to make their mark on their profession in order to progress, and the only realistic way that they have of doing this, at least at an early stage in their careers, is by writing about very specific issues to which they can make a genuinely distinctive contribution.

Moore nevertheless laments the rise in specialisation, noting that, while specialists might be necessary in some instances, ‘there’s a danger that [philosophy] will end up not being pursued at all, in any meaningfully integrated way.’

Indeed, while specialisation might help academics to distinguish themselves in their field, their concentrated focus also means that their work is less likely to have a broader impact. In favouring specialisation, academics have not only narrowed the scope of philosophy, but have also unwittingly excluded those who may have their own contributions to make from outside the academy.

Expertise counts for much in today’s intellectual climate, and it makes sense that those educated and trained in specific fields would be given greater consideration than a dabbler. But it is those philosophers who wrote on a wide range of areas that left a profound mark on philosophy. Aristotle dedicated himself to a plethora of fields, including science, economics, political theory, art, dance, biology, zoology, botany, metaphysics, rhetoric and psychology. Today, any researcher who draws on different, ‘antagonistic’ fields would be accused of deviating from their specialisation. Consequently, monumental books that defied tradition – from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics to Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil (1886) – are few and far between. This is not to say, however, that there are no influential philosophers. Saul Kripke and Derek Parfit, both not long deceased, are perhaps the most significant philosophers in recent years, but their influence is primarily confined to academia. Martha Nussbaum on the other hand, is one of the most important and prolific philosophers working today. Her contributions to ethics, law and emotion have been both highly regarded and far-reaching, and she is often lauded for her style and rigour, illustrating that not all philosophers are focused on narrow fields of specialisation.

But ‘the blight of specialisation’, as David Bloor calls it, remains stubbornly engrained in the practice of philosophy, and ‘represents an artificial barrier to the free traffic of ideas.’ John Potts, meanwhile, argues that an emphasis on specialisation has effectively discouraged any new icons from emerging:

A command of history, philosophy, theology, psychology, philology, literature and the Classics fostered German intellectuals of the calibre of Nietzsche and Weber, to name just two of the most influential universal scholars; such figures became much rarer in the 20th century, as academic research came to favour specialisation over generalisation.

Reading Nietzsche may at times be arduous and convoluted, but it is never dull

By demoting the significance of generalised thinking, the connective tissue that naturally exists between various disciplines is obscured. One is expected, instead, to abide by the methodologies inherent in their field. If, as Henri Bergson argued in The Creative Mind (1946), philosophy is supposed to ‘lead us to a completer perception of reality’, then this ongoing emphasis on specialisation today compromises how much we can truly know about the world in any meaningful depth, compromising the task of philosophy itself. As Milan Kundera put it in The Art of the Novel (1988):

The rise of the sciences propelled man into the tunnels of the specialised disciplines. The more he advanced in knowledge, the less clearly could he see either the world as a whole or his own self, and he plunged further into what Husserl’s pupil Heidegger called, in a beautiful and almost magical phrase, ‘the forgetting of being’.

To narrow one’s approach to knowledge to any one field, any one area of specialisation, is to reduce one’s view of the world to the regulations of competing discourses, trivialising knowledge as something reducible to a methodology. Under such conditions, knowledge is merely a vessel, a code or a tool, something to be mastered and manipulated.

By moving away from a more generalised focus, philosophy became increasingly detached from the more poetic style that nourished its spirit. James Miller, for instance, called pre-20th-century philosophy a ‘species of poetry’. Nietzsche’s own unique, poetic writing style can account for much of the renown his ideas continue to receive (and also much of the criticism levelled at him by other philosophers). Reading Nietzsche may at times be arduous and convoluted, but it is never dull. Indeed, Tamsin Shaw spoke of Nietzsche as less a philosopher and more a ‘philosopher-poet’. Jean-Paul Sartre called him ‘a poet who had the misfortune of having been taken for a philosopher’.

While many sought to separate philosophy from other creative styles and pursuits, notably poetry and literature, Mary Midgley insisted that ‘poetry exists to express [our] visions directly, in concentrated form.’ Even Martin Heidegger, whose writing was far less poetic than Nietzsche’s, called for ‘a poet in a destitute time’, and saw poets as those who reach directly into the abyss during the ‘world’s night’

Link to the rest at Aeon

3 thoughts on “Whither philosophy?”

  1. Of course, there’s something worse:

    Jurisprudence. The philosophy of legal reasoning. I dare anyone of sound mind and reasonable reading skills to puzzle their way through Hart, Kelsen, Dworkin, and Ely without throwing at least 75% of the books against the wall† (because jurisprudence, unlike almost the entire remainder of law, is virtually never written at less than book length — even if published in unpolished draft form as law-journal articles, nobody who reads jurisprudence ever reads the articles again once they’re revised in book form).

    And within jurisprudence “scholarship” (much of which resembles not counting angels on the head of a pin, but determining which of them are righteous dudes and which of them are uneducated cretins), things are even more overspecialized than in academic philosophy.

    † I did. And I didn’t throw any of the books against the wall. There’s never been much question about whether I have “reasonable reading skills.” Nor whether I’m “of sound mind”…

    • As a recovering lawyer, I can say that most lawyers don’t write very well once they get beyond standard form documents. Trial judges are even worse.

      Appellate judges/justices usually have clerks who are close enough to college that they still remember how to put together a sentence that won’t send a middle-school English teacher into shock.

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