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.


Here’s some unsolicited advice for the Clinton camp. Hillary should pledge to serve but one term. She should pick Senator Elizabeth Warren as her running mate & pledge to disarm her neoliberal PACS in any future race. Finally she should announce that she has been legally separated from Bill for months & the divorce will be final by Inauguration Day.

I still wouldn’t vote for her of course, but my daughter might.

The Zombies Among Us

Philosophers like zombies. Usually they show up in gedankenexperiments having to do with consciousness or identity. A classic philosophical zombie (p-zombie) is a person who appears completely normal to an observer but lacks self-awareness and the qualia that support it. The p-zombie would function as well as any other person according to its talents and so forth, but would have no internal life. It is the flesh and blood version of a Turing-test passing robot.

But what if we are actually surrounded by millions of these creatures all the time? Allow me to modulate the definition slightly. What if consciousness is not a binary feature of a living creature, but rather a continuum of some kind? Human beings remain alive when they are unconscious. Perhaps there are people who are quite competent and exceptional but who are less self-aware than others. (I think we all would agree that this is almost certainly the case). So taking it a bit further, we can imagine that there are people who may have only a rudimentary, or stunted apprehension of qualia. Their responses to the external world are generally appropriate and well adapted, but if we could peer into their internal world the experience would add little or nothing to our knowledge of the behavior since there would be little additional phenomena to experience.

If this is the case, then how would we know about it? One possible hint as to the existence of such creatures might be psychological profiles. Certain profiles could allow an observer to make inferences about the internal state of the subject. Setting aside the “problem of other minds” we can now speculate as to what the possible behaviors of this type of zombie might be.

(To put this in Heideggerian terms, the p-zombie I am imagining is lacking something that is characteristic of Dasein: Care. While it is physically in the world, it is not being-in-the-world the way Heidegger describes).

What’s the point, you ask? Well I have been wondering whether self-awareness (let’s use this term instead of consciousness) is such a good thing. What if rather than being an evolutionary success it actually ends up being a disastrous failure? And if that is the case, perhaps we have among us the future of the species: a version of homo sapiens that will survive after the rest of us have turned to ash.

Imagine a creature like yourself unburdened by self-doubt. This version of yourself does not wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat worrying about how he is going to pay the mortgage. This person is not burdened by regret or even concerned about the future. This person is a machine. He is not Superman, but he might be Nietzsche’s Übermensch.

Although there is no conceivable test that could prove that any individual specimen fit the criteria, my theory is that the most likely markers that would point to such an individual would be very similar to the traits of sociopathy. (Apparently, this is not a recognized disorder in psychiatry. They prefer Antisocial Personality Disorder. But I suspect there are lots of good old fashioned sociopaths living among us who are not antisocial and would not be considered “disordered”).

I call this hypothetical creature an s-zombie.

Where would we find one? Try the corner office of a corporation, or a sales manager’s office at a car lot, or the top of the ticket in a political campaign. Both Trump and Clinton are on my suspected list. Trump displays more obvious characteristics of an s-zombie but looks can be deceiving. The s-zombie cannot lie. What is said, is said for effect. What is done, is done for effect. Success is when what is said or done results in a favorable outcome. An s-zombie is an exceptional salesperson.

There is a race going on right now. I’m not talking about the presidential race, I’m talking about the race to succeed the human species. There are lots of very smart and talented people who believe that Artificial Intelligence in some form or another will be the next great leap forward. But what if it’s already here? Silicon or carbon, the rest of us will survive only so long as we remain useful.

Grieving for a life yet to be lived…

I can’t let the passing of the great Merle Haggard go by without at least a small appreciation. I have been a devoted fan of the great old timers of country music for most of my life (excluding my teenage years when it was unacceptable for a middle-class white boy to listen to country music). Haggard was my soundtrack during my early adulthood and my ascent from a melancholy teenager to a melancholy adult. Whereas my angst was aroused by groups like Pink Floyd in my early teens, Merle took over once I’d settled into the role of “working man” and daily drinker. The emotional deep bruises of lost love of adolescence were being replaced by the scar tissue of actual romantic debacles. Haggard fit the bill perfectly and helped me grieve–not only for the losses of the moment but for the inevitable accumulated losses of a future that grew dimmer. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but I would say that “Misery and Gin” is one of the greatest tear in your beer songs ever written, and it comforted me to relate to that imaginary person at the bar “sitting with all my friends and talking to myself.” I’m that guy.

Last night I listened to Back to the Barrooms all the way through two or three times late in the night and remembered how great it was to commiserate with his voice on a lonely night with a glass of gin.