Attendant Lords

“I said I never read anyone who takes philosophy personally or confuses philosophy with things that matter in their little lives”

– Philosopher cited in Wilshire, 2002, p. 1, explaining why he never read William James

Over the last several decades many books, often by insiders in the discipline, have have been written to argue that American philosophy is in trouble1. It has been argued that its dominant school, analytic philosophy, “has done its work” and that philosophy is thus left without tasks to accomplish. Some even argue that analytic philosophy ceased to exist at the very moment when it became institutionally dominant, by which time the analytic philosophers themselves had refuted most of the core principles of the school’s founders.

Brian Leiter claims that that this is all irrelevant and maybe even a good thing — “analytic philosophy” is no longer a restrictive term, and “analytic philosophy is just good philosophy”2. But this is unconvincing: contemporary academic philosophy is still dominated by the the supposedly non-existent analytic style, tendency, school, stance, paradigm, or whatever you want to call it, and academic philosophy still excludes philosophers who are too far removed from the analytic tradition. And despite all the books talking about a crisis of identity or the need to find a new direction, the rebellions have all been quashed, and the philosophy biz still proceeds imperturbably on its way, steadily continuing to train, certify, hire, promote, and tenure new analytic philosophers.

I basically agree with these criticisms, and in this piece I mostly aim to describe the analytic domination, show how it came to be, and give some indication of what I think is wrong with it. I do not think that analytic philosophy is worthless or that it should be extirpated root and branch. But I do not accept the narrowing of philosophy that has been enforced in the American university: the problem is the monopoly, the crowding-out, the opportunity cost. My piece is organized under five heads discussing the analytic paradigm in philosophy, a similar paradigm in economics, external influences on the American university after World War II, the significance of professionalization and paradigm-enforcement, and professionalized philosophers as lackeys.

The Analytic Paradigm

The gist of Aaron Preston’s new book Analytic Philosophy: The History of an Illusion (Continuum, 2007) is that analytic philosophy’s dominance is institutional rather than intellectual. Beyond that, not only does analytic philosophy not now have a core idea, it never did have one. The idea that contemporary analytic philosophy is now diverse and no longer has a core idea is mainstream, but Preston argues that Moore, Russell, the early Wittgenstein, and the logical positivists never had a common idea at all — that they were never more than a coalition of thinkers somewhat similar in style who had common adversaries. (While this part of the book helps me better understand internal arguments within the analytic tradition, the history of analytic philosophy is not intrinsically interesting to me, and I won’t go any farther with this question but merely use Preston’s conclusions as a starting point for my own argument).

According to Preston, analytic philosophy didn’t triumph because it was true, the way plate tectonics, for example, triumphed, but for sociological or political reasons: one philosophical tendency gained control of the profession and proceeded to enforce its paradigm on the whole field. Analytic philosophy is now defined, not by an arguable idea or arguable ideas (linguistic, scientistic, philosophical, or other) but by an enforced scientistic paradigm or style which is basically Newtonian (pp. 129-132, 151). This claim is not terribly far from Leiter’s conclusion that “analytic philosophy survives, if at all, as a certain style that emphasizes ‘logic’, ‘rigor’, and ‘argument’”. For Leiter, non-analytic philosophy is just philosophy which does not emphasize logic, rigor, and argument — i.e., bad philosophy. Non-analytic philosophy is non-philosophy, only a step up from Kahlil Gibran or Robert Fulghum: illogical, unrigorous, unargued, incoherent, false, silly, and probably harmful.3

Analytic philosophy sacrifices scope for rigor by a continual process of analysis into smaller and smaller questions until one is found that can be handled perfectly, and while there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but it is also should be philosophically acceptable to move in the other direction and sacrifice rigor for scope. Rigor has its cost, especially if it’s the sole rule: analytic philosophy’s defeatist perfectionism makes the resolution of any question whatsoever more or less impossible, and its penchant for formalization and hypotheticals tends to lead it away from the possibility of any realism at all, producing only tight arguments about nothings.

The problem with enforced paradigms (or research programs, in Lakatos’s formulation) is that they’re institutionally given and therefore not arguable: “the adoption of a paradigm puts an end to debate about fundamentals (p. 129) ….. one of the things true of paradigms but false of defining doctrines is that neither they nor the reasons for adopting them have to be explicitly recognized, used, and accepted in order to play their role” (p. 130). As a result, “a view might bear a systemic relationship to a community of inquiry without all or even any of its members so much as grasping it, let alone endorsing it” (p. 132). “Operating under a paradigm at all was a departure from traditional philosophical practice” (p. 129).

For Preston the rule of the paradigm is just wrong and unphilosophical — if philosophy won’t examine and criticize paradigms, who will? — and his description fits the experience of most first year philosophy grad students. The paradigms enforced are presented as apodictic (as Michel Meyer would say) — beyond questioning or challenge: “Transmission of the paradigm to new members [= new grad students] takes place via a well-attested mechanism called ‘norm conformism’” (p. 131). (According to Hilary Putnam, one became an analytical philosopher in the 1950s by learning “what not to like and what not to consider philosophy…. I think that is a terrible thing, and that it should be stopped in all schools, movements, and philosophy departments.” [McCumber, p. 50]).4

Preston’s is a fair description of the process from the psychological perspective of a new student being introduced to his discipline and its standards, but it misses the institutional aspect. New graduate students are being inducted into an profession which hires and promotes according to certain standards. The grad school faculty have already been inducted and are already conforming, and any graduate student who rejects “norm conformism” will either leave the program, voluntarily or otherwise, or find himself with a devalued PhD, while the students who most effectively conformed get the grants, jobs, and careers. Even established philosophers have been marginalized or expelled (e.g., Hannah Arendt when the New School philosophy department was disaccredited in 1978), while others have left semi-voluntarily (including men like Toulmin, Rorty, and Gellner, all of whom were completely orthodox analytics in training, though not in their work.)

Philosophy used to be the most comprehensive form of questioning, but in its attempt to make itself into an expert special science, analytic philosophy has put it own principles out of question, becoming just another unthought form of habitual, enforced social behavior.5

(Much more below:
Economics: A Similar Case
External Influences
The Professionalization of Philosophy
Bosses and Workers)

Economics: A Similar Case

The discipline of economics provides another striking case of the paradigm-enforcement described by Preston, which is in fact characteristic of much of the modern university. In 1982 Nobelist Wassily Leontieff wrote “The methods used to maintain intellectual discipline in the country’s most influential economics departments can occasionally remind me of those employed by the marines to maintain discipline on Parris Island.” (q. Redman pp. 158-9: compare Putnam’s quote above.) As in philosophy, the training serves to drive out many or most potentially independent thinkers: “By the time that students are a couple of years into their studies, both these questions [about rationality of agents and about the validity of modeling] are forgotten. Those students that remain troubled by them have quit the field; those that remain have been socialized and no longer ask about such things” (John Sutton in Coyle, pp. 249-50). In economics, the dominance of the unnamed old boys network (“more club than profession”, according to Schumpeter: Redman, p. 166) is at least as strangling as in philosophy: “The leading journals are extraordinarily dominant and consequently receive many more submissions than they can publish” (Coyle, p. 250). The power of the old boy networks, in economics as in philosophy, is shown by the fact that their members are never named, not even by their opponents — survival within the profession depends on gaining their approval. Few or none of the critical books I’ve read about philosophy or economics have ever fingered any specific person as an oppressive influence on the profession.

The orthodoxy enforced in economics is methodological — specifically, mathematical modeling. “The reason why many economists think that Galbraith wasn’t one of us lies in his methodology…. many of us spurn Galbraith because he wasn’t a modeler.” (Coyle, p. 231 ) “Our argument is that modern mainstream economics is open to new approaches, as long as they demonstrate a careful understanding of the strengths of the recent orthodox approach and are pursued with a methodology acceptable to the mainstream…..our view is that the elite are relatively open-minded when it comes to new ideas but quite closed-minded when it comes to alternative methodologies. If it isn’t modeled, it isn’t economics, no matter how insightful. “(Rosser, p. 11) “[Mainstream economics’] content is not as focused as mainstream researchers would like, but it is connected by its methodology of technical model building…..Those economists who don’t [do highly technical work] are far less likely to influence the mainstream of the profession directly. They may, however do it indirectly by influencing others who then translate their work into more technical and acceptable methods” (Rosser pp. 17-18).

The economic paradigm is backed by a toxic stew of self-serving positivist philosophy. It began with Milton Friedman’s “Preface to Positive Economics”, which claimed that, since Newton used them, counterfactual presuppositions are perfectly acceptable as long as they lead to predictive theories. This idea was never quite right (Keen, pp. 148-164), but it got worse. Following Lakatos, the profession next rejected the very idea of falsifiability: “Lakatos recommends scientists to select certain of their hypotheses, christen them a ‘hard core’ and decide not to modify or renounce them in the face of empirical difficulties. He tells us little about how such hypotheses are to be selected. As it stands, therefore, his methodology gives carte blanche to any group who want to erect their pet notion into a dogma.” (Redman, pp. 146-7). Finally, it eventually became clear that the predictive powers of economics would always be much less than Friedman had hoped, thus knocking out one of the main legs of his argument and leaving orthodox economics in a dubious position, intellectually speaking, at about the same time when its institutional domination had become almost total.6

The outcome of all this was a hermetically sealed science impervious to the external world (albeit a hermetically-sealed science with enormous worldly power). The presuppositions could be as implausible as the economist wished, the “hard core” was invulnerable to criticism, and no realism was required as long as the modeling was sophisticated. The profession has a bias against anyone who tries to communicate with a nonspecialist audience (Rosser p. 21; Coyle p. 247) and often ignores economic realities even when they burst into the room: “….the willingness of the mainstream to accept these [new] ideas has varied with time. Sometimes it takes external events for work at the edge to be considered. For example, the more than 20 percent decline of the U.S. stock market on October 19, 1987 for no obvious reason led many economists to be more open to models that allowed such an aberration to occur (the standard models did not)” (Rosser p. 19, my emphasis).

To which I can only ask: Why was it “many” and not “all”? And for an economist, what is “external” about an stock market collapse? Isn’t a stock market collapse a kind of data? Given the feeble response of the economics profession to the 1987 crash, and the 2000 crash, can we hope that economics will learn anything form the most recent crash of our recession-proof economy?7

There are many who believe that economics, despite its self-serving methodological principles, is corrigible. This belief strikes me as wishful: like some of the nobility of the French ancien regime, some of the old boys might be nice people, and selectively open to new ideas if approached deferentially enough, but with economics as with philosophy, we’re dealing with sociology, not ideas. Personal reputations, networks of friendships, career competition, and (in contrast to philosophy) political power and wealth are at stake, and we cannot be sure that the old boys will not succeed in cloning themselves when they die off. (Redman’s book ends on a hopeful note, but twenty years later Coyle, Colander, Holt, and Rosser are still hoping).

The advice Colander, Holt, and Rosser give to economists hoping to do original work tells them how to approach the always-nameless old boy network: “The dynamic approach to change that we are introducing here involves stealth changes….The change, however, is so gradual that the profession often does not notice that it has occurred (Rosser, p. 5) ….Heterodox economists are highly unlikely to get funding through normal channels such as the National Science foundation….(Rosser, p. 9) “Whether that work at the edge is considered heterodox or mainstream is primarily a matter of the individual’s proclivity to fit within the existing mainstream and the degree to which he or she directly attacks rather than softly criticizes…. Working at the edge has its problems, especially for those whose proclivity is toward attacking, rather than working within, the existing field and hence finding themselves in heterodoxy….. economists considered heterodox often find it difficult to gain funding for their work, and they likely will be squeezed out of the decision-making process in their universities”. (Rosser, p. 14)

Even the progress that is made doesn’t filter down; besides being an old-boy network, economics is scholastic. Since the main product of the econ biz is Econ 101 students, this is very significant, or at least it would be if economists cared about the human world. In point of fact, Econ 101 tends to lead beginning students toward a fallacious, antiquated form of free market dogma, and even the reformers don’t expect this to change. “This process from conception of an idea to graduate textbooks can take up to ten years. Intermediate and upper-level undergraduate textbooks usually take another five to ten years to include the idea…. Principles books take another five to ten years to actually incorporate the idea as a central element….. The more central the idea, the less likely it is to be included in a central way in the texts….. Such major changes are unlikely to show up even with the long lags discussed.” (Rosser, pp. 12-13) “[M]ost of the work discussed in this book has been done by the leading economists, many of them winners of the Nobel memorial prize, and by no means all of this work has reached current textbooks even at the graduate level” (Coyle, p. 5). 8

External Influences

An extensive, well-developed literature on the political factors in the development of the American university exists, and I don’t intend to summarize it. My general conclusion, which I will develop below, is that methodologization, paridigmatization, enforced value neutrality, enforced objectivity, positivism, scientism, etc., have made American scholars, in their depoliticized scholarly work, into passive supporters and advocates of corporate administrative liberalism: politically timid, null, and (above all) reluctant to address the public.

Rightwing McCarthyist attacks on the university are a well-recognized part of this story. From June 22, 1941 to September 2, 1945 the US was allied to the USSR, and some liberals and Democrats also had had friendly relations with Communists during the pre-war New Deal era. When the Truman Administration switched from an anti-fascist crusade in alliance with Communists to an anti-Communist crusade in alliance with fascists (“We have always been at war with Eastasia”), many American liberals found themselves in a delicate situation, and simultaneously, anti-Communist Americans (some of them pre-WWII isolationists) turned mean. The new Democratic anti-Communism turned out not to be vicious enough, and free-lance anti-Communists started attacking the university, where many of the refugee Communists, indigenous Communists, and not-anti-Communist-enough liberals were employed. Almost all university administrations cooperated with these investigations and purges, and while no one was killed and only a few were jailed, a fair number of careers were ended, university radicals were rather quickly silenced, and the university was pacified — remaining hostile to the far right, but unwilling to involve itself in anything leftist. Academics still tended to be Democrats and liberals, but the Democratic Party had lost both its left wing and its populist wing to become a centrist administrative-liberal party.9

There’s also another, much less familiar side to the story, however, as seen in Mirowski and Hargittai, and this side is more important to my argument. During the Roosevelt Administration, and above all during World War II, academic experts and the university did very well for themselves: “Scientists don’t cause war, but war causes scientists”. The university became more closely tied to government than it ever had been before, and government money helped many fields flourish — not just nuclear physics (as told in Hargittai and also Schmitt) but linguistics, foreign languages, anthropology, psychology, economics, and even philosophy and English10. (The pacifist Kenneth Rexroth called this “the gravy train of human blood”). This governmental intrusion in the university was not completely new and was easily justifiable on national defense grounds, and it was welcomed because it brought cash, but along with the money came bureaucratization, hierarchy, and interference from external (non-scientific) players — often military men. Furthermore, a lot of the non-government money going into the university from non-profits such as the Ford Foundation or the Cowles Foundation was driven by wartime needs or other political agendas and came with strings attached. Philosophers and economists with the right style found themselves getting grants and jobs, and philosophers and economists with the wrong style found themselves doing much less well.11

According to Reisch (p 350) Quine, Tarski, Carnap, Davidson, and Reichenbach among the philosophers were all employed at some point by the RAND Corporation, a military consulting group. (Note that this is not a left-right question, and at least one of those named was a Communist: during WWII and before McCarthy, radical views were not necessarily a problem — at that time J. Edgar Hoover was looking for Nazis, not Communists). The best description of how the university was penetrated by the state and the military is in Mirowski (2001), who tells how, under the direction of the Cowles Foundation and others, economics was transformed by the combined forces of systems theory, game theory, operations research, strategic planning, and strategically distributed funding to produce a formalistic, disembedded, acultural, psychologically impossible, value-neutral form of mad-dog rationality12.

The story in analytic philosophy is known in less detail, but the outcomes were similar and some of what we know about the processes leading up to them also is similar.13 With the McCarthyist purges of the university, which struck philosophy harder than almost any other department, the political engagement disappeared while the scientistic, formalistic, ethically-neutral aspects remained, and philosophy became dominated by its politically null specializations: metaphysics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, analytic ethics (Healy, “Specialization and Status in Philosophy”).

In philosophy, the nullity is the message: analytic philosophy’s role is mostly to preempt other forms of philosophy. (By contrast, economics has an actual positive function in the greater world). Analytic philosophy’s compulsive-obsessive insistence on rigorous argument, combined with its antinomian laxness about hypotheticals and arbitrary methodological stipulations, unsuit it for participation in persuasive, “normative” and constructive discourse. As Inwagen says (The Problem of Evil, Oxford, 2006, p. 55), analytic argument never convinces anyone — indeed, analytic philosophy has renounced persuasion, which is intrinsic to political and ethical discourse, and basically wants every debate to last forever. Bertrand Russell’s solution (which disgusted Wittgenstein) was to divide his work into unphilosophical political journalism and apolitical philosophy, and given the analytic methodology he had helped create, he really had no other choice.14

The Professionalization of Philosophy

Decades ago when I worked for McDonald’s we were told about the importance of professionalism, which meant appropriate grooming, dress, and behavior toward customers. It wasn’t enough to get the hamburgers cooked and sold; while on the job, each employee had to represent McDonald’s to the rest of the world. Since our training period was half an hour and we were paid minimum wage, I didn’t then understand how we could be expected to act as professionals, but two recent publications on professional training answer my questions. Professionalism means the suppression of personal preferences in the service of an institution.

Duncan Kennedy’s “Legal Education as Training for Hierarchy” (in Kairys’ The Politics of Law) and Jeff Schmidt’s Disciplined Minds describe professional education in law and physics respectively. Both take a left, somewhat Marxist point of view, but their points are relevant to any professional (right, left, or center) who is trying to understand the relationships between professional behavior, personal commitments, citizenship, and participation in the human community. Professionals are still thought to be more autonomous than laborers, and images of the gentlemanly small town lawyer or doctor still lurk in the professional’s subconscious, but most professionals nowadays are cogs in a wheel. They spend their time negotiating the differences between their professional responsibilities and the demands of their employers, with their own political or other views hardly being a factor at all during their work life.

The difference between laborers and professionals, according to Schmidt, is just that (in contrast to workers) professionals are self-supervising: their intensive training has restructured their personalities to the extent that whenever they’re in a situation where improvisation, choice, or creativity is required, they can be counted upon to act professionally with an eye to the needs of their institution. In the pursuit of success and professional status, trainees turn themselves into different persons and jettison their own previous attitudes about large areas of reality in order to “think like a lawyer / economist / philosopher / etc.”15

Professionals work in hierarchies and perform assigned tasks. They have autonomy in performing these tasks only to the extent that they follow professional standards and meet the employer’s needs. (If both can’t be done, the professional faces a major career choice: unprofessional or unethical behavior may or may not have negative long-term consequences, but fighting management usually has immediate negative consequences). The professional’s own personal (“subjective”) ideas are completely irrelevant, and the “big picture” is not the business of the professional, but of management. The managers might also have be professionals originally, but often enough they weren’t. Managers are fundamentally different than professionals: they’re in charge of the big picture. The manager-professional relationship is a version of the boss-worker relationship.16

Neither Kennedy nor Schmidt discusses the history of professionalism much, but the transformation of most professionals into docile bureaucrats is rather recent — though the case with academics is somewhat different, since academics always did work for large organizations and once were entirely at the mercy of boards of regents and state legislatures. For academics, professionalization initially had the effect of protecting them from extra-professional interference and increasing their autonomy. At the same time, individual academics became subject to professional standards — a process which could be, and was, abused in a way constricting the range of permissible thought. (The purging of Arendt et. al. mentioned above and the purging of pragmatism discussed by McCumber and Rorty are two cases.) Furthermore, as Schrecker and McCarthy have shown, when the chips were down during the McCarthy era, by and large the professional organizations failed to protect the professionals under attack, but instead remained passive and deferential in the face of power.

The professionalization of academia began decades earlier and has been described in part by Rorty, but during WWII the process was escalated. Academics working in the war effort or for foundation grants ended up working on team projects, often directed by non-academic managers, and according to Schmidt physics still is organized in a quasi-military manner and responsive to military needs. In professionalized academia, including philosophy, “subjective personal opinions” are excluded and “politics” has become a dirty word, but the reasons why politics became a dirty word were blatantly political.

Bosses and Workers

    1. An nescis, mi fili, quantilla prudentia mundus regatur.
        –Axel Oxenstierna

The paradigms of academic philosophy are the institutional rules of specifically philosophical professionalism. As Preston says, they are not ideas but enforced apodictic assumptions, and because they are institutional rules and have consequences for institutional and personal interests, they have been and will continue to prove to be unassailable by argument.

Beyond that, some of the basic principles of analytic philosophy are (albeit tacitly) especially in harmony to the specific kind of anti-popular expert administrative liberalism we live under today. Philosophy’s enforced neutrality, general opposition to “subjectivism”, anti-synthetic analyticism and defeatist perfectionism are perfectly attuned to producing obedient professionals who (like most other professionals) let their bosses make the big, synthetic, holistic, normative real-world decisions.

Paradigms tell you what to think and — above all — what not to think. They can be a justification for laziness and bias (also called “trained incapacity”, “institutional blindness”, or “occupational psychosis”). In many respects academic paradigms are like creeds, national loyalties, ideologies, or any other corporate principle: specialists with conflicting paradigms which bracket out different aspects of reality cannot talk to one other, but can only fight. (In a very genteel way, of course, with political power and public money at stake. It is to be noted, for example, that economics always defeats sociology in these struggles.) Paradigms are no more true or false than papal infallibility, state sovereignty, habeas corpus, limited government, the goaltending rule in basketball, or any other substantive enforced convention.

The one thing that no professional thinks is the whole. The whole isn’t just larger than any of its parts. The actual real-world unit of anything is its whole. The whole is the sum of what you need to know if you plan to deal effectively with a given reality. Any whole will be perfectly understood in some aspects, less well understood in others, and might even be mysterious in some ways. While any given question might be end up being perfectly answered, questions will always remain in the world — some of them problems to be solved, and some of them still mysteries. (This distinction comes from Chomsky: “problems” are questions a science is working on and expects to be able to answer; “mysteries” are valid questions about the subject matter which a science at a given state of development is not able to say much of anything about. Chomsky’s example of a linguistic mystery was the origin of language).
The broader your scope, the more problems and mysteries you will encounter, and there’s no finite stock of questions which will one day all be answered — answers (e.g., relativity) frequently raise new questions.

The expert managerial Utopia assumes a finite number of problems, each with its own expert. This is not possible; some problems have no expert, and there can be no expert of experts who is expert on everything.

Real-world people (e.g. managers) must be generalists, holists, and eclectics, and they must work with the epistemological materials at hand. If the truth tolerances are set too fine — which is what analytic philosophers systematically do — the process seizes and cannot operate. Managers are often experts in something or another, but they make their decisions based on everything they know or don’t know, everything they think, and everything they want — with a hodgepodge of unexamined prejudices always included in the mix. (Think Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Alan Greenspan, and George W. Bush….. but also remind yourself that their Democratic equivalents are unlikely to be deeper thinkers. This is a formal problem. The problem with the Bush administration was not that it was not run by experts.)

Professionalism produces lackeys and attendant lords at the service of the real movers and shakers. “As a philosopher / lawyer / economist …. I have nothing to say about that question.” Preston declares that since analytic philosophy has no expertise about anything specific and has no specialty, its worship of expertise and specialization makes it self-refuting. To that I add that if philosophy did have a specialty, it would be at risk of becoming subordinate, blind, and destructive (like economics).

I propose an alternative definition of philosophy: along with history and literature, philosophy should be a generalist (and eclectic) discourse rather than a specialist discourse. It would be adjacent to (though distinguishable from) worldly wisdom, aphorisms, maxims, reflections, meditations, utopias, pamphlets, social criticism, historical judgment, fiction, and so on. It would take into account all of the expert professional knowledge available, but would put this knowledge usably into the larger wholes to which it belongs. This could be done at the highest, most careful, most responsible level: philosophers would not necessarily become, as defenders of the status quo suggest, inspirational speakers, self-help gurus, issue de jour advocates, or millenarian prophets.


The Sociology of Philosophy

A formal sociological study of the philosophy biz wouldn’t be hard to do. There already exists a Philosophy Lineage Report showing who taught whom, and the Leiter Report tells who gets hired and promoted. It would seem that the hiring cartel’s feedback loops wouldn’t be hard to graph.

Furthermore, while it may well be true, as claimed, that analytic philosophy is terribly plural, it can still be externally defined by its exclusions. (For a time, at least — past a certain not terribly distant point in time the contrasting schools will all have disappeared, like the Avars or the Albigensians, and this seems already to have happened to process philosophy.) The last sixty years or so of philosophical history seems to have been a fairly typical case of decimation followed by proliferation, and whatever recent proliferation there has been does not prove that the decimation didn’t take place or that the restoration has been at all satisfactory. Analytic philosophy’s final triumph came with the defeat of the pluralism revolt around 1978 or 1980, so it’s unlikely that anyone in the biz who’s younger than 45 or 50 even knows that anything happened at all.

Philosophical Feedback Processes


A. Good grad schools (as recommended in Leiter) place graduates in good teaching jobs
B. Tenured and tenure-track philosophers, graduates of good grad schools (as recommended in Leiter), rate grad schools for the Leiter report
C. Tenured and tenure-track graduates of good grad schools (as recommended in Leiter) recommend students for admission to good grad schools recommended in Leiter.
D. Good, ambitious college graduates choose good grad schools recommended in Leiter.
F. Graduates of good undergrad schools (connected to good grad schools) get into good grad schools recommended in Leiter.
G. Graduates of bad undergrad schools (not attached to grad schools recommended in Leiter) hope and pray to get into good grad schools recommended in Leiter.
E. PhDs from bad schools not recommended by Leiter ask themselves why they went to grad school at all.


A. Grad departments recommended in Leiter specialize in certain philosophical tendencies and certain topics.
B. Ambitious, savvy students choose to study these tendencies and topics.
C. New teachers from good grad departments are hired to teach these tendencies and topics.
D. Disfavored tendencies and topics dwindle and eventually cease to be part of philosophy.

The above would describe a healthy meritocratic system only if it worked perfectly at every level, all of the objectively best philosophical tendencies flourishing and only the worst ones dwindling and disappearing, and with all of the best prospective students getting into the best undergrad schools and proceeding to the best grad schools, and all of the best graduates of these being hired and later promoted according their merit. But perfection is rare in this world — an old-boy network is a more probable outcome, and that seems to have been the actual one. The Philosophy Gourmet Report is “an engine, not a camera” — it helps define and produce the orthodoxy and the hierarchy, rather than merely describing it.

The sociological study of philosophy has begun, notably at Crooked Timber:

Kieran Healy, “Specializations and Status in Philosophy”
Kieran Healy, “University Wealth and Academic Reputation”
Brian Weatherson, “Academic Placement”


1. Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, 1981; John Rajchman and Cornell West, eds., Post-Analytic Philosophy, 1985; Hao Wang, Beyond Analytic Philosophy, 1986; Baynes, Bohman, and McCarthy, eds., After Philosophy: End or Transformation?, 1987; Bernard Williams, Making Sense of Humanity, 1995, and Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline, 2006; (especially “What Might Philosophy Become”, 1997, and “Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline”, 2000); John McCumber, Time in the Ditch, 2001; Bruce Wilshire, Fashionable Nihilism, 2002 and The Moral Collapse of the University, 1990; Hilary Putnam, Renewing Philosophy, 1995, The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy, 2004, and Ethics Without Ontology, 2005.
I am motivated especially by the suppression of pragmatism and process philosophy, and more generally of the kinds of “big philosophy” represented by Dewey, Whitehead, Sartre, Arendt, and even such proto-analytics as Popper and Gellner. To me the philosophical debate of 1950 is far more interesting than the debate of today. I would welcome more attention to continental philosophy or post-modernism, but my own affiliation is with the “practical philosophy” of Stephen Toulmin, Michel Meyer, Chaim Perelman, and Pierre Bourdieu, along with many ex-philosophers and scientists writing for a general audience.

2. Leiter: Philsophical Gourmet report

3. This is not an exaggeration of the way professional philosophers argue when non-professionals dare criticize their work.

4. McCumber (2001, pp. 51-3 and 61-75) and Wilshire (1990, pp. 52-64); give some particulars about the methods used to control philosophy. On pp. 60-63 McCumber tells of his difficulties between 1992 and 1998 getting permission to present his own critical work at a conference. Wilshire (cited in McCumber, p. 72) thinks that an old boy network of about 60 well-placed people controls the APA. McCumber describes the centralization of selection of conference papers (p. 73), domination of conventions and unresponsive central control of nominations to committees (52-3, 74-5), cronyism, and blackballing.

5. More Preston:

P. 133: “Thus, at the individual level, the fossilization of the paradigm will be reinforced by what Van Fraassen calls ‘a “stance’: ‘a cluster of attitudes, including propositional attitudes (which may include some factual beliefs) as well as others, and especially certain intentions, commitments, and values.’” P. 154: “But, although the linguistic thesis was no longer needed, the name ‘analytic philosophy’ was…. By that time AP had carved out a valuable social space in the Anglo-American academy, and the preservation of that space required the preservation of the name, which by that time was firmly established as the unique designator for the analysts as a group.”

P. 156: “So it is that analytic philosophy exists now mainly as a set of stances, habits, and tendencies occupying a certain social space within the structure of the academy and of the philosophical profession…..”

P. 160, citing Ian Jarvie: “key ideas are never stated, rather insinuated by attacking disapproved ideas, and… there is a systematic denial of all attempts by outsiders to state those ideas…..”; “the tactics were to deny that there was a movement or school….” This familiar two-step is only possible for those whose institutional position is impregnable.

6. Kuhn himself rejected the self-serving, authoritarian use of the “paradigm” paradigm: “If, as Mr. Feyerabend suggests, some social scientists take from me the view that they can improve the status of their field by first legislating agreement on fundamentals and then turning to puzzle solving, they are badly mistaken….” (Redman, pp. 146-7).

In pragmatist formulations, and I think in Kuhn’s, scientific power is the test of a method or a paradigm: a paradigm is an exemplary model because it is successful– “by their fruits shall you know them.” A lot of philosophy of science seems to have been terribly distorted by the wish of the social sciences to be awarded the Holy Grail of Science, and the success (cash value) criterion has been entirely replaced by a methodological-correctness criterion, so that all that has to be shown is that the paradigm chosen and enforced by a discipline is analogous to a paradigm successfully used in a more successful science somewhere else. Likewise, discovery and inquiry have often been relegated to the garbage heap of “psychology” and ignored, with the justification that finished science is the main focus of study. “Success” is indeed a tricky idea, but has the advantage of insisting that science remain connected to actuality — the “success” or “power” of science relate it to its outside. The stress on justification and Truth within arbitrarily chosen formal paradigms puts science in the place of the anti-empirical, invulnerable metaphysical authorities it once tried to destroy.

Coyle (p. 137) seems oddly unconcerned about how self-serving the following seems (especially to an outsider who mistrusts the efficient market hypothesis): “One of the reasons for the kind of unrealistic assumption that [economics] makes about individual behavior is that if everybody is a rational, self-regarding, utility-maximizing clone with stable and constant preferences (and some other conditions hold too) then it is possible to prove a lot of neat conclusions, one of which is that the competitive market outcome is efficient. …. this is a powerful conclusion, and almost worth an array of unrealistic assumptions”.

7. This this all reminds me of hard-core Marxism-Leninism. Granted the dialectic (where anything can be its opposite), false consciousness, the vanguard party, and democratic centralism, you end up with an authoritarian elite impervious to any reality. If you add Freud, structuralism, and post-modernism to the mix, you end up with a universal solvent proving that everyone else is wrong and that only you are right — if only someone could understand you. It’s not just the mainstream or conservative disciplines which have granted themselves disciplinary invulnerability. Disciplines often behave like monopolists, churches, ideologies or interest groups.

8. For the record, the two most problematic aspects of economics itself, besides its evasiveness about normativity and application and its systematic exclusions, are (in my opinion) its garbled mess of ideas about rationality, and its tendency to bracket out, misunderstand, and exclude historicity, real contingency, and the open future (on which see Mirowski 1989, Mandelbrot, Georgescu-Roegen, Hodgson.) When Samuelson ridiculed the idea that anything like entropy could be found in economics he revealed his own weak understanding of science in general.

9. On this, see Reisch, McCumber, and Schrecker. It has been conjectured that the neutering of the university was a factor leading to the nihilist tendencies of the anti-Vietnam-War movement — when the crisis came, the respectable mainstream leadership needed was not there — and that was my own experience. Certainly the commitment to the Cold War and neutral administrative liberalism has damaged the Democratic Party.

10. It might be noted that among the intellectuals recruited into the OSS (the precursor to the CIA) were Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown, later to become prophets of rebellion (Reisch, p. 351). Other spooks included Julia Child and Dr. Seuss.

11. Hargittai’s account is amusing because of his five scientists, at least three of whom were of Nobelist or near-Nobelist stature, only one, Szilard, felt any real discomfort about working under the direction of non-scientist military men in the service of shifting, homicidal, and sometimes unknown government policies. In the archaic and aggressively reactionary Austro-Hungarian world where they had spent their early lives, this kind of situation would have been quite normal, so in America they had no adjustments to make.

In Language and Solitude Ernest Gellner has proposed the Austria-Hungarian (Holy Roman) Empire as a model for world government. The Austro-Hungarian intelligentsia was famously cynical, hopeless and apolitical, and may have finally achieved cultural dominance in the Western world:

The Holy Romans gave us gave us Freud and psychoanalysis; Kafka, Rilke, Trakl, Musil, Svevo, Saba, Hoffmansthal, Čapek, Hašek, and Joyce in literature; Schoenberg, Berg, Bartok, Janacek, Bruckner, and Mahler in music; Mach, Brentano, Meinong, Husserl, Popper, Wittgenstein, Lukács and the logical positivists in philosophy; Hayek, Schumpeter and von Mises in economics; Boltzman, Goedel, Schroedinger, Mach, Mendel, Szent-Györgyi, Szilard, and Pauli in the sciences — and so on. (The list could easily be expanded). The “Vienna Schools” of economics, music, philosophy and psychoanalysis lead the world.




12. On mad dog rationality, see Mirowski (2001, p. 336) and Amartya Sen. Mirowski has noted (2001, p. 424) the individualist paranoia of game theoretic rationality, at least in some of its forms, and also notes that of the great formalizing thinkers, Zermelo, Goedel, Nash, Turing, Alain Lewis, and perhaps others were at one point or another sufficiently mad to require hospitalization. (When Hofstadter wrote about the paranoid style in American politics, he failed to mention that some of the paranoids had actually been clinically diagnosed, and were helping plan nuclear strategy).

13. Reisch’s book was a revelation to me when it showed that the logical positivists were originally on the left or center-left and politically engaged, and merely proposed the elimination of normative and traditionalist discourse on political topics in favor of scientific and logical discourse. Their approach was certainly antipopular and tended toward the advocacy of expert administrative policy-making, but even among the positivists, Neurath engaged in rather sophisticated popular outreach.

14. I suppose I should say something sometime about Rawls, Nozick, Singer, and their heirs, but this piece is already long. For the moment I’ll just cite John Gunnell (The Descent of Political Theory, Chicago, 1993, pp. 272-3):

“Although John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (1971), as well as what many consider to be its ideological and philosophical counterpart, Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), could be construed as alluding to or reflecting, or in some way speaking to or about, politics, they were distinctly contextless works written by professional philosophers which lifted the perennial debates about liberalism and the ground of values to a new level of abstraction while apparently allowing academic commentators to believe that they were actually saying something about politics”

15. Ch. 13, pp. 203-214 (“Subordination”) and Chs. 1 and 2, pp. 1-42 (“Timid Professionals” and “Ideological Discipline”) present the gist of Schmidt’s argument as it applies to philosophy:

“The people who showed the greatest diversity in their dress, behavior, and thought — the non-professionals — would be asked to do the least creative work, while the most regimented people would be assigned the creative tasks” (p. 10).“Professionals, on the other hand, are required to be creative in their work — but within strict political limits….Professionals are licensed to think on the job, but they are obedient thinkers” (p. 40).

“This ideological discipline is characteristic of all rank-and-file professionals, who, unlike the nonprofessionals below them in status, are trusted to understand and use the ideology, but who, unlike the elite above them, are not employed to formulate or question the ideology” (p. 87).

“[The physicists’] employers define the big picture and they innovate safely within it, and …. attempting to alter the picture is not a legitimate on the job activity. If the individual professional did have an independent political agenda, it would undermine the ideological discipline and assignable curiosity that assure that he works in his employer’s interest” (p. 203).

16. I have heard it said that for Max Weber around a century ago bureaucracy, the market, and professionalism were the three forms of large-scale organization in developed modern societies. But it’s hard for me today to see professionalism as anything but one of the forms of bureaucracy.


Baynes, Bohman, and McCarthy, eds., After Philosophy: End or Transformation?, MIT, 1987;

Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, Harvard, 1971.

Istvan Hargittai, Martians of Science, Oxford, 2006.

Geoffrey Hodgson, How Economics Forgot History, Routledge, 2001.

Peter van Inwagen, The Problem of Evil, Oxford, 2006.

Duncan Kennedy, “Legal Training as Training for Hierarchy”, pp. 38-59 in Kairys, David, ed., The Politics of Law, Pantheon, 1990.

Steve Keen, Debunking Economics, Zed, 2005.

Brian Leiter, The Future for Philosophy, Oxford, 2004.

Brian Leiter, two posts and a debate:


Benoit Mandelbrot, The Misbehavior of Markets, Basic Books, 2004.

John McCumber, Time in the Ditch: American Philosophy and the McCarthy Era, Northwestern, 2001.

Philip Mirowski, Machine Dreams, Cambridge, 2001.

Philip Mirowski, More Heat Than Light, Cambridge, 1989.

Aaron Preston, Analytic Philosophy: The History of an Illusion, Continuum, 2007.

Hilary Putnam, Renewing Philosophy, Harvard, 1995; The Collapse of the Fact / Value Dichotomy, Harvard, 2004; and Ethics Without Ontology, Harvard, 2005.

John Rajchman and Cornell West, eds., Post-Analytic Philosophy, Columbia, 1985.

Deborah Redman, Economics and the Philosophy of Science, Oxford, 1993.

George Reisch, How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science, Cambridge, 2005.

Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Princeton, 1981.

J. Barkley Rosser, David Colander, Richard P. F. Holt, eds., The Changing Face Of Economics, Michigan, 2004.

Jeff Schmidt, Disciplined Minds, Rowman and Littlefield, 2000.

Sen, Amartya, Rationality and Freedom, Harvard, 2004.

Ellen Schrecker, No Ivory Tower, Oxford, 1986.

Hao Wang, Beyond Analytic Philosophy, MIT, 1986.

Bernard Williams, “What Might Philosophy Become?” (1997) and “Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline” (2000) in Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline, Princeton, 2006.

Bruce Wilshire, Fashionable Nihilism, SUNY, 2002 and The Moral Collapse of the University, SUNY, 1990.

Published on May 23, 2014 at 1:45 am  Leave a Comment  

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