Thursday, February 6, 2020

The Sociology of Philosophy I

I had been hoping to start a new book by now, but it's coming from England and hasn't arrived yet. Therefore, I've decided to write a little about the sociology of philosophy, which falls within the broader topic of the sociology of academia and resembles the sociology of creative writing programs, which I touched upon earlier. I'm not primarily interested in the content of the academic fields discussed, and for me this is a more general analysis of human behavior in academic settings. The reason why I'm writing about philosophy is that I was a philosophy major as an undergraduate and attended graduate school briefly. This is not a topic that I would ordinarily think about much now, but I occasionally look at 3 Quarks Daily in search of new reading materials, and S. Abbas Raza, the editor, has a graduate degree in philosophy and likes to include articles by philosophers. I usually skip them, but occasionally I read ones by Justin E.H. Smith, and this keeps me peripherally aware of the field. I have also occasionally viewed videos or listened to podcasts with Daniel Dennett and Massimo Pigliucci, two other philosophers whom Raza likes.

This subject goes way back for me, and I've spent a lot of time thinking about how I became interested in philosophy and why I eventually became disillusioned with it. I think many people enter the field of philosophy because they have broad interests stretching from mathematical and scientific areas to literature and the arts, and they don't want to specialize and become scientists, engineers, writers or artists. This is the kind of information that never presents itself directly to you, and you have to sort it out by yourself over many years. After thinking about it for a long time, I decided that my undergraduate philosophy department faculty included a few confused pastors. In the four years that I spent there, no one told me that the only tenured faculty had studied theology at some point in their educations. They were good students who initially thought that they would become clergymen; most of them ended up attending divinity school and subsequently got Ph.D.'s in philosophy. Thus, through a series of unpredictable events, they became philosophy professors at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. I don't think that any of them were talented at philosophy, and it seems that they came to it by accident. Because of this, they were unable to deal with philosophy majors who had no interest in theology.  My own background was quite different, and I simply liked the college environment, wasn't a particularly good student and didn't want to specialize. I certainly had no interest in theology. By the time I arrived in graduate school, philosophy seemed like pointless rote learning centered on the writings of mediocre thinkers. This thought was completely beyond the scope of my undergraduate professors.

Just to give an example, let me repeat what I said earlier about moral philosophy, which, in my experience, is a complete waste of time. If you study it, you may learn about Kant's categorical imperative. I have concluded that it is nothing more than a warmed-over version of the golden rule, which has been around since the Bible. I now think that more headway was made by E.O. Wilson, the entomologist, than moral philosophers were able to make collectively over thousands of years. This was simply the identification of humans as a eusocial species and the establishment of a connection between moral behavior and DNA. A lot of what passes for philosophy is simply an extension of theological reasoning dating from the Middle Ages. In the case of morality and ethics, I think it best to start from scratch and begin with human genetic predispositions, because without them we wouldn't have any moral tendencies. Wilson himself has little interest in this field, and the task is left to others.

Another example of why I dislike philosophy is the case of Daniel Dennett. On the surface you would think that I would find him appealing, because he is very science-oriented and his theories are more empirical than those of most philosophers. However, I attended one of his lectures several years ago and found him to be a windbag. He has an excellent academic background and is extremely knowledgeable, but he hasn't really developed a distinctive worldview that might differentiate him from an ordinary scientist. Unfortunately, Dennett tows the line as an academic philosopher and spouts faddish philosophical terms such as "qualia," which strikes me as slightly idiotic. I find that philosophers habitually obfuscate fairly straightforward scientific ideas, and that it is better to go directly to the science. In this vein, I'm also unhappy with Justin E.H. Smith, who is one of the most elegant philosophical writers you're likely to come across, but whose writings never seem to have any practical applications; I see him more as an entertaining writer than as a substantive one. I am guessing that he drifted into philosophy because he liked to write, but writing alone does not make a good philosopher, and he consistently lacks the depth of a serious thinker.

Perhaps the person whose life best sums up my thoughts on philosophy is Ludwig Wittgenstein. He came from a wealthy Viennese family and had wide cultural exposure. For example, one of his sisters posed for Gustav Klimt. His interests tended to be technical, and first he tried aeronautical engineering and later architecture. Somehow he became interested in mathematical logic and found himself working with Bertrand Russell at Cambridge. By then, Russell was already getting tired of philosophy and was happy to unload his research on Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein's work was initially an odd combination of logic and mysticism, but after World War I and a stint as a schoolteacher in rural Austria it propelled him to rock-star status at Cambridge. However, as time passed, Wittgenstein increasingly became impatient with his philosophy colleagues, and his focus changed from logic to ordinary language. By the time of his death in 1951 he was recommending other fields, such as medicine, to his students. In my view, Wittgenstein was a frustrated artist, and none of his ideas are likely to be of lasting significance. I think that the same can be said of most philosophical ideas, and that the most durable ideas come from science. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with pursuing most academic fields, but that philosophy as an academic discipline has little to offer anyone.

My conclusion on academic philosophy is therefore much the same as my conclusion on creative writing programs. Yes, students can enroll in these courses and learn something, but they could just as well do something else and might end up happier. I see colleges and universities as economic entities in which the tenured faculty usually get good salaries and favorable working conditions while the students, particularly in fashionable subjects, may come away with nothing. I mean this not in the sense that the students are out a few dollars, but that the actual value of the education, in both technical and personal senses, can be quite low. Given my experience, it surprises me that intelligent people can still think that academic philosophy could be of value to anyone. The convoluted thinking that you have to go through just to make sense of it would drive most people mad.

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