Richard Carrier does a fascinating interview with Susan Haack

Read it here. What I especially found interesting were her comments on the “what’s wrong with philosophy?” issue:

I had begun to express concern about the condition of professional philosophy well before 2001; 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.


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. 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—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.” 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.

Her mention of “cliques” and “cartels” is especially interesting. In my post “Philosophy is dysfunctional,” written in July of last year, I noted the cliquishness of philosophy and proposed a couple possible explanations:

While philosophers pride themselves on caring about producing good arguments and getting at the truth, if they don’t agree what arguments are good or what the truth is, they can’t reward each other for doing either of those things. So philosophers aren’t under any pressure to get anything important right, and I don’t think they’re under any significant pressure to actually produce good arguments. What they are under pressure to demonstrate cleverness, and demonstrate being in tune with philosophical fads and cliques.


Though I’m less sure about this, I suspect the lack of any real consensus among philosophers explains some of the cliquishness of contemporary academic philosophy. Lack of agreement creates a vacuum to be filled by cliques that seem to think only their own opinion counts when determining the verdict of enlightened philosophical opinion. That, and showing you’re hip to this fad or that clique’s shibboleth is another way of showing cleverness.

I don’t know exactly what Haack means by a “citation cartel,” but I get the impression it’s something like, “A group of authors with an implicit agreement to all cite each other, in order to boost each other’s academic prestige.” This strikes me as an even more base explanation for philosophical cliquishness than the one I proposed, and I suspect it’s at least part of the story.

What do people think of Haack’s suggestions on how the culture of philosophy needs to change?

"Atomsk - Yes, I think the way I feel about it is normal. I think ..."

Let’s talk about violent pornography
"The Scientific Method works by testing a hypothesis for implications, contradictions, and ridiculous/false results. You ..."

Pulling some devastating punches: a review ..."
"A bit OT: Found this article and it is imo closely related to the issue ..."

Let’s talk about violent pornography
"Just one thing for now, because it takes quite a bit of time to think ..."

Let’s talk about violent pornography

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment