Susan Haack on the Current State of Professional Philosophy

Richard Carrier interviewed the philosopher Susan Haack, the author of Philosophy of Logics, Evidence and Inquiry: A Pragmatist Reconstruction of Epistemology, Defending Science-Within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism, Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate: Unfashionable Essays, and Putting Philosophy to Work: Inquiry and Its Place in Culture. Here are her answers to the last two questions of Richard’s interview to whet your appetite for the whole (long) discussion:

S.H.: I had begun to express concern about the condition of professional philosophy well before 2001;[37] and I’m sorry to say that our profession seems to me in even worse shape now than it did then. It has become terribly hermetic and self-absorbed; bogged down in pretentious and pseudo-technical jargon; in the thrall of those dreadful “rankings”; and splintered into narrow specialisms and—even worse—cliques identified, not by a specialty, but by a shared view on a specialized issue. A friend of mine put it in a nutshell when she described professional philosophy as “in a nose-dive.”

The reasons for the over-specialization are no doubt very complicated. But one relevant factor, I’m sure, is departmental rankings by area; and another is the ever-increasing pressure to publish, now extending even to graduate students. And behind this, there’s that ever-growing class of professional university administrators who have long ago put their academic work on permanent hold and, unable to judge a person’s work themselves, can only rely on surrogate measures like rankings, “productivity,” grant money brought in, citations, and such. Inevitably, many professors and would-be professors soon internalize the same distorted values; and many soon realize that a relatively easy way to publish a lot, fast, is to associate yourself with some clique, to join a citation cartel, to split your work into minimally publishable units, and of course to repeat yourself.

This fragmentation is counter-productive, because philosophical questions so often spill over from one “area” into others. But I don’t believe the solution is for everyone in philosophy to try to develop his or her comprehensive “world-view”—a proposal that strikes me as most likely to produce a lot of pretentious and self-important rubbish. No: the solution is for people to learn to disregard the boundaries of this or that artificial “area” (or, indeed, this or that discipline) and simply follow the questions they are trying to answer wherever they lead.

The difficulty, of course, is that doing this may well be contrary to one’s professional interests—in, as Mill would say, the vulgar sense of “interests.” Nevertheless, this is what I have long done. Only a few weeks ago, for example, at a conference in Bonn on the “New Realism,” I found myself describing my work over the least decades as a huge but still only partially-completed crossword, in which the metaphysical entries characterizing my Innocent Realism intersect with many others in philosophy of language, the philosophy of the natural sciences, the philosophy of the social sciences, and the philosophy of law—and was struck by the way new interconnections came into view as I prepared my talk.

R.C: Indeed, that’s one of the reasons I’ve loved your work over the years. And I’ve had the same impressions of the “nose dive” the field is taking, as your friend aptly put it.

As to the other concern, of worldview building being “most likely to produce a lot of pretentious and self-important rubbish,” on the one hand, in my opinion, that’s what the field already consists of, so it wouldn’t be a net loss; whereas, though most philosophy even now is “pretentious and self-important rubbish,” a percentage of quality and important work nevertheless emerges from it (yours, for example). It’s a lot like television and film in that way: if it wasn’t for the 99% rubbish, we wouldn’t have the 1% brilliance. I even think one of the differences between science and philosophy is that 99% of the bad ideas scientists have they never publish (recall, I think, Einstein, who said something like that for every right idea he had, he had entertained a hundred wrong ones); most philosophers, not being able to tell the difference, publish it all. So I think if they started turning their attention to worldview building we’d see the same, and we would be able to make use of (and build upon or perfect) the 1% that was actually not rubbish.

For example, I think you could, in principle, “connect all the dots” that you are already seeing, interconnecting all your work, and spell it out systematically as the complete, coherent worldview it already is. The parts of it you are less sure of or haven’t worked out you can state as such, and argue are areas that further progress is needed on, and others could take up that torch, while yet others test and correct any of the rest. A collaborative effort on making progress toward the most honestly defensible worldview is thus achievable, even amidst a sea of rubbish alternatives.

But philosophers would have to want to do that. And yet philosophers aren’t even defending any standard of progress in their field. To touch on this, let me ask a naive question. I assume anyone committed to logic should agree that a conclusion reached by logically valid argument from premisses whose truth is highly probable should be agreed upon as probably the correct conclusion. Shouldn’t there be a website that catalogs philosophical progress of this kind as “established philosophy” so philosophers can build on that?

S.H: Goodness—what a tangle! I hardly know where to begin …

Let me start with the one point on which I think I agree with you—at least, if I understand the rather curious first sentence of your question correctly: that philosophy doesn’t seem to be making progress in anything like the way the natural sciences have done. Of course, this is hardly a new thought; more than a century ago Peirce was hoping aloud that, while in his day metaphysics was a “puny, rickety, and scrofulous science,”[38] a time might come when it became more like the special sciences, in which each can stand on others’ shoulders—so that philosophy could finally make progress.[39] But that day seems, if anything, even further off now than when Peirce wrote—think, for example, of the way dusty old problems get recycled by each new generation that has to publish something, as with the recent revival of Gettier-ology.

That said, I’m afraid your diagnosis of the problem, and your proposed solution, strike me as completely wrong-headed. To be sure, the conclusion of a deductively valid argument with true premises is true; that’s what “valid” means. But what you say—that the conclusion of a deductively valid argument with premises that are (in some unspecified sense) probably true should be agreed upon as probably true, doesn’t follow from this, but introduces a whole raft of unacknowledged epistemological complications. And, more importantly, the idea that philosophical arguments are, or should be, simple deductions is a gross over-simplification.

As Peirce wrote in his justly celebrated critique of Cartesianism, philosophical arguments should form, not a chain, which can be no stronger than its weakest link, but a cable of many fibers, some of which will hold even if others fail.[40] This was a crucially important insight. Moreover, I would add (as Peirce was well aware), serious philosophical work often requires inventing new terminology, for example to escape false dichotomies; and is often a matter less of arguments than of painstaking articulation of ideas—requiring constant checking for mutual consistency, to be sure, but also constant checking for faithfulness to the phenomena.

As for the suggestion that a website cataloguing philosophical progress might help solve the problem—well, to say that I very much doubt it would be putting it mildly. Think about it: who, exactly, would determine what problems have been resolved, and on what basis? What, exactly, would ensure that philosophers then build on these purportedly established claims, rather than contest them? Etc., etc. No; this is at best a very superficial response to a very deep problem, and likely to do more harm than good.

If philosophy is ever to get beyond those seemingly endless, fruitless disputes, it will require far more of us than this—a radical change in the culture of our profession. Constructive philosophical work is, at least usually, harder and slower than scoring points off some else’s mistakes; and the present culture, with its pressing demands for more and faster results, systematically undervalues this kind of work.

I can only suggest some relatively small changes that might, cumulatively, do some good. Maybe we should start by dumping those hundreds of “critical thinking” books, with their over-emphasis on identifying fallacies, and encouraging teachers and students to read John Locke’s extraordinary essay on The Conduct of the Understanding[41]—which all of us should probably re-read every year or so anyway, so we never forget its remarkable insights into human cognitive weaknesses: for example, that marvelous passage about those who read only one kind of book, and talk only to one kind of person, and so enjoy “a pretty traffic with known correspondents in some little creek,” but never venture into “the great ocean of knowledge.”[42] We could encourage students, when they see a problem with something they read, to ask themselves whether it could be fixed; and when they learn something from what they read, to ask themselves whether it might be applied elsewhere—and make a habit of doing the same thing ourselves.

The difficulty, of course, is that this too may run contrary to one’s professional interests, in the vulgar sense. Nevertheless, this is what I tried to do, for example, in developing the foundherentism of E&I, accommodating the strong points of both foundationalism and coherentism but avoiding their weaknesses; in developing the Critical Common-sensist philosophy of Defending Science, acknowledging that scientific inquiry is a rational enterprise, but also that true rationality requires a kind of cognitive flexibility that cannot be captured in formal-logical models of scientific reasoning; and again in developing my Innocent Realism, where I try to accommodate the grains of truth in various anti-realist positions—and to keep my own, modest metaphysical claims free of unnecessary and indefensible epistemological accretions.

Having read the ending, go back to the beginning and see how she answers Richard’s inquiries about atheism and women in philosophy, and read her survey of some of the highlights of her impressive career.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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