July 01, 2005


I get mail from one of my favorite academic correspondents re: this post:

...On the whole though, I'm with your detractors in the comments. 1) Philosophy is worthwhile 2) You aren't in a position, apparently, to judge whether it's worthwhile 3) While I think Leiter is wrong that anything like a 'brain drain' is underway, it certainly would be a bad thing if there were and 4) You might recall that political attitudes don't correspond to academic ability or accomplishment, and so you can't conclude that these characters are no loss to the U.S. just because their politics are extreme. (For what it's worth, I can attest that they are a loss, at least the names I recognize, even if the losses aren't in numbers should cause worry). 5) Because of assumptions like this, that someone's politics is a good indication of their academic accomplishment or value, your post and its less enlightened commenters do in fact make life more difficult for beleaguered conservative academics. As if we didn't have enough trouble. If all the various right-wing movements to regulate professor's political statements (cf, the horrific Academic Bill of Rights) and to abolish tenure win out, I won't have a job worth protecting from left-wing political bias.

That said, the faux dissidents are hilarious. I met a professor last year who had moved from the US to Canada. He mentioned as a reason for the move that he was "a potential victim of the Patriot Act". Not just that he didn't like the PA: he thought that he might be singled out. When I gently questioned this, he crowed that he was "an unreconstructed Communist". [emphasis in original]

I think people read a bit too much into my critique. I was really just poking some fun at Leiter and Co. for insinuating hyperbolically that the ranks of certain segments of U.S.-based academia were dangerously at risk of thinning out because of the horrors inflicted on the polity by the Bush 'regime'. Still, I take some of my correspondent's points. Just for the record, and truth be told, I consider philosophy tremendously important. Indeed Nietzsche, for instance, had a profound effect on my worldview. It was really the amazing self-contentness of Leiter's echo chamber-- linked to their so comme il faut anti-Americanism ("After Bush was reelected several of my UK colleagues as well as non-academic friends expressed amazement at the stupidity of Americans. I could not offer any defense!)--and finally coupled with the financial, er, motivations for some of the moving about 'cross the sea...well, it all served to smell quite heavily of "faux dissident" to me...

More thoughtful criticism here and here.

Posted by Gregory at July 1, 2005 02:30 PM | TrackBack (3)

While you are not a philistine, I apparently am since I am much more of the 'Philosophy, Who needs it?' variety.

General philosophy, that is, how to live a good life, does not seem to have advanced in recent years. Perhaps I missed it but I have not heard of any new reasons why its bad to rape plunder and kill or to why its good to seek knowledge and self improvement, yadda yadda. All I needed to know on that score, I learned in kindergarten.

Political or economic philosophy on the other hand, does have value to me. But there is where I think that you are right with your 'no great loss' statement. Whereas a physicist like Oppenheimer could be a commie symp and still build the atom bomb and win the war against Japan, a political or economic philosopher whose beliefs are wrong is just wrong and a dead-loss or worse. I think that losing any philosopher still teaching collectivism and statism, after all the evidence of the last century, evidence seen with our own eyes, is, indeed, no great loss.

My 2 cents but I am just a blood-and-soil peasant at heart. I often feel Like the yokel in Swift, after hearing the sophisticated arguments of the skeptic, summed it up like this: "If what you say be true, then I may drink and whore and defy the parson".


Posted by: Toby928 at July 1, 2005 03:27 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Frederick the Great once said that if he wants to punish a provence, he assigns its administration to philosphers.

I agree with Toby928. Philosophy is important, but that doesn't mean your typical philosopher is important. I'm not sure what purpose they serve today other than confusing college students. Just because they can be pompous and dismissive in defense of their vocation doesn't mean they have anything to be pompous and dismissive about.

Posted by: byrd at July 1, 2005 03:49 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The great philosophers (the one's we've heard of) are ones who've described (more-or-less systematic) worldviews -- here's what humans are, here's what's right and wrong about them, here's how things should be. These philosophers created systems to analyze, and implictly or explicitly, to fix humanity. They are interesting and often instructive, but don't provide a useable blueprint for human society.

So their greatness is also their flaw: the reason so many philosophers are called "harmful" or "dangerous" is that their interesting-but-not-so-practical systems are used by tyrants and fools for their own aggrandizement.

So if the BIG IDEA -- the universal-system-in-a-book -- isn't within the grasp of man, what do philosophers do? Well, they create their own little system, with its own language, referring to each other in a never-ending cycle that step-by-step separates them from the real world, until the point that nothing they write is relevant (or even comprehensible) to anyone outside their community.

Posted by: Andrew Steele at July 1, 2005 10:29 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Sorry fellows (per Nietzsche)-there is no escape from the labyrinth. To deny philosophy has value is itself a philosophical value.

Posted by: martin at July 1, 2005 11:00 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


You're exactly correct. That's why I despise these characters, they contribute to misology (the hatred of reason and argument) by discrediting thinking due to their casuistic sophistry.

Posted by: Ernest Brown at July 2, 2005 05:34 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

For the record: few or none of the 'brain-drain' philosophers teach moral or political philosophy.

Secondly, it is a good for a country to have good universities. Good universities are partly constituted by good professors. For a country to retain good faculty is important because educating undergraduates is important. This is not to say that the loss of any particular person in a field like philosophy matters, and of course this particular 'brain drain' doesn't seem to really exist. But saying such a thing wouldn't matter is essentially saying that philosophy departments and hence, teaching and research in philosophy, can be seriously weakened or abolished without harm to anyone.

Posted by: Zena at July 3, 2005 04:43 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The brain drain theory is pretty thin, but the non-brain influx theory has a bit going for it, notably Strauss to Chicago.

Posted by: AlanDownUnder at July 4, 2005 06:01 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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