Has Academic Philosophy Outlived its Usefulness?


The recently (and unjustly) un-tenured Crispin Sartwell questions whether the current crop of philosophers is up to snuff. Maybe so. I’m not in a position to judge since I keep reading the same old dead guys over and over. But it makes sense. American philosophers that peaked mid to late century last have mostly gone to their rest. There were some very good thinkers in that group and they certainly kept the conversation going at a very high level.

It seems unlikely that there are less brilliant people now than there were in any other period of history (although it feels like it sometimes). So that means there must be another reason why the philosophers of today are not making the kind of impression that their professors did. Crispy’s view is that the academy has become more rigid, bureaucratic and sclerotic. If you want to know why there aren’t more fundamentally important philosophers these days you should

… focus on the nature of academic training and institutions, where there is much less tolerance for eccentrics and oddballs than there once was and much less relish for disagreement. basically these are bureaucracies now of a very similar sort as the dmv or microsoft in which you rise by representing or embodying the regulations and norms.

That all sounds about right.

And given the above, maybe people who would otherwise have chosen to focus on philosophy “thought better of it” (as the guys at Partially Examined Life say in their podcasts) and chose a different career. Maybe after suffering through two or three years studying the history of philosophy the brightest and best realized that this was no way for a grown up to spend the rest of his or her life.

Philosophy, at its best anyway, is true to its name. It starts with the love of wisdom. It is born of the desire to get to the bottom of [fill in the blank]. This separates the discipline from virtually all other intellectual activity. It was meta before meta was cool.

And yet for all of its beauty and power, professional philosophy does not have a reputation for adding much value to most people’s lives. People are mocked for choosing the arts but at least the painter or actor adds something to the world, even if it’s not good enough for the Guggenheim or Broadway. The professional philosopher’s need to publish relegates her to writing footnotes to footnotes to footnotes.

So let us liberate the philosopher from the academy altogether. Leave a few talented teachers behind to cover Plato, Descartes and Wittgenstein (as historical oddities) but set the philosophers free to nurture their love of wisdom somewhere where it is more suited.

The academy is failing to provide an environment suitable for future philosophers to thrive. The phony authority that is bestowed upon philosophers by the academic industrial complex is a scam. It is wasteful, insular and destructive. There will be great philosophers again. But they will probably emerge from other disciplines or from no discipline at all.

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