political theory daily review
about | organizations | people | publications | scholarship | weblogs

[Editor's Note: The following essay by John Lachs, Centennial Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University, was published as a "Letter to the Editor" in the American Philosophical Association Newsletter. You can also read his interview on The Relevance of Philosophy to Life. I thank Prof. Lachs for allowing me to post his letter here. I would also like to take this opportunity to remind visitors that they are welcome to submit articles or essays to be considered for linking or providing space on our site.]

The Future of Philosophy
John Lachs

Philosophy is the only human enterprise that has created a field of study out of puzzlement over its method of operation. Nearly from the time of the earliest practitioners, philosophers wondered about how they could do what they were doing and frequently even about what they were doing in the first place. Of course, there always were unselfconscious souls who pursued what was of interest to them without concern for method or the arbitrary limits of fields of study. But such people tended to be labeled amateurs and dismissed as lacking technical sophistication. This left philosophy in the hands of professionals who crafted novel concepts, gloried in minute distinctions, and spoke in a torrent of neologisms.

Uncertainty about the nature, scope, and value of philosophy was, in the history of the discipline, often combined with arrogance based on its purported excellence. People supposed that since philosophy may accomplish nothing in particular, it must be good for doing everything in general—that is, for serving as the thought behind or the self-understanding of all human endeavors. In graduate school, I was taught that, as philosopher, I needed to learn no facts; I had only to think. The reason offered for this remarkable luxury was the sheer power of philosophical thought: by means of it, my professors seemed to agree, we can understand, criticize, and improve the meager cognitive output of everyone else.

This extraordinary combination of self-doubt and swagger played a central role in the social history of philosophy. Groundless haughtiness tended to suffuse the attitude of philosophers not only toward those who worked in other fields, but also toward fellow practitioners who used different methods of reflection or reached unfavored conclusions. The intellectual history of philosophy is, therefore, as much a story of summary dismissals as of respectful controversies. Lucretius dismissed Plato and was, in turn, disregarded by almost everyone in the Middle Ages. Hegel and his followers paid no heed to Schopenhauer, and many philosophers—including Heidegger—failed to take Spinoza seriously. Nearly all Twentieth Century analytic philosophers thought and wrote as if idealists from Hegel to Bradley and Hocking had never existed. By no means least, for a long time, Nietzsche was considered a literary figure unworthy of philosophical attention.

As if being overlooked were not enough, thinkers who do not take the starting point or fail to follow the procedures currently in vogue are denounced as not doing philosophy. There is hardly a greater insult to philosophers than to be denied the benefit of standing as a respected colleague. Yet exclusion has become standard in the profession in the Twentieth Century, supported by such movements as logical positivism that declare much of what philosophers say literally nonsensical. Even those who manage to move past such juvenile charges are quite prepared to relegate much philosophy to psychology or literature, and treat colleagues who think in those ways with condescension.

Philosophers who deride other philosophers typically believe that there is a royal road to insight and that that road is paved with the latest technical innovations. For decades, people believed that doing philosophy without the language of Principia Mathematica was futile; at the other end of the spectrum, phenomenologists maintained that only language descriptive of human experience enjoyed any warrant. Even postmodern thinkers who are closely attuned to the pains of exclusion refuse to take seriously philosophers who don’t use such words as “excess,” “normalize,” and “decenter” a sufficient number of times.

Minimal attention to the history of philosophy is enough to see that the hope for such a royal road is illusory. Platonic dialectic, Cartesian doubt, the geometrical method of Spinoza, Kant’s transcendental method, Hegel’s historical dialectic, and Nietzsche’s genealogies, among countless other preferred ways of embarking on the philosophical enterprise, hold out hope for incontestable results for a short time only; soon, relentless critique wilts the promise and proponents of the great new invention find themselves as but another party in factional disputes. There is not a single proposition of philosophical substance on which professional thinkers agree, and it is highly unlikely that such a proposition will surface anytime soon.

I hasten to say that I do not think the world would be a better place if philosophers agreed in their views. Agreement is of value when its absence leads to bitter resentments, armed conflict or divorce, but it avails little when critical dialogue is the only vehicle on the road to truth. Philosophy deals with the most difficult of human problems; there is no reason to suppose that we can attain final insight or even general agreement on matters of such depth and significance. The point, however, is that absent that insight, no philosopher has a right to look down on the efforts of others. In philosophy, we are simply not in a position to be sure about who is closer to the truth. Every thesis has some arguments to support it, yet each is open to criticism and none can be established conclusively. Accordingly, the proper attitude of philosophers is to let a hundred flowers bloom and make only modest claims about their own achievements.

Such relative unproductivity does not compromise the value of philosophy. Physics and biology move cumulatively toward truth; their sidelined theories tend not to come back to life, and when they do, it is only because new evidence clearly supports them. Philosophy, by contrast, offers no compelling evidence for any of its captivating views. Its value lies in expanding our minds by developing imaginative new ways of looking at things and in sharpening our critical skills by offering rigorous objections to every theory. Examining the human condition suggests that we cannot give final or universal answers to questions about the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the nature of the good. This does not mean that such questions are meaningless and should be avoided, only that their function is to occupy and agitate us perennially, instead of leading us down a road to satisfied, harmonious belief.

Not all worthwhile activities yield results. Like playing cards and kissing, philosophy is intrinsically delightful. As part of the flower of life, it needs no product to justify its existence; partaking in its movement is a spontaneous joy. Understanding the conceptual moves of the great philosophers, discovering the connection between seemingly unrelated events and seeing through the bluster of human self-importance are permanent sources of satisfaction. Drawing distinctions and defending conclusions engage all the active parts of the mind. The dialectic of ideas offers exhilaration at every turn, and a vigorous argument over some philosophical claim constitutes, for those in the know, one of the finest experiences of life.

Although philosophy is not useful in the way of the physical sciences, it can nevertheless result in desirable consequences. Not all lines of inquiry yield the same sort of fruit: some establish bodies of knowledge, others create better inquirers. Philosophical work makes humans more skeptical, more conceptually nimble and therefore more discerning as thinkers. Generally, better thinking makes for better life. The benefits of intelligence are not only private and psychological; they are on display in hospitals and businesses, where philosophers lend their trained sensitivity to the cause of more responsible and more humane practices. The recent vast growth of applied ethics aptly demonstrates the value of philosophical education: the critical examination of proposed courses of action, the detection of dissembling, the unmasking of lived contradictions, and the presentation of alternative perspectives clarify our social decisions and move us closer to a world of caring.

That metaphysics and epistemology are unlikely to generate a flood of new truths is therefore perhaps not such a great loss, after all. Although there may be little progress in philosophy, philosophers can grow greatly as they learn from the mistakes of their predecessors and develop their conceptual sophistication, their perceptiveness, and their critical skills. This is one of the reasons why the consideration of past thought is vital for philosophical education. The remarkable history of philosophy, including its recent chapters, is a vast storehouse of ideas that provides rich material for the critic. Students raised on the thin diet of the latest controversies, by contrast, may actually suppose that they stand a chance of developing decisive arguments for some final truth. This denies them a sensible view of their activities, and their inevitable disappointment, later in life, may turn them into people who cynically live off a profession whose value they silently dismiss.

Alternatively, individuals devoted to a single way of doing philosophy tend to retain their partisan zeal and compensate for their lack of final results by a sense of superiority. As all things intellectual, this claim of transcendent excellence does not have a purely cognitive basis: the school of one’s training, the fame of one’s teachers, and the reputation of one’s university all contribute to the impression that some professionals and their methods are much better than others. The appearance is supported by the fact that the standards of the profession are approach-specific. If argumentative prowess and analytical ability determine the quality of philosophers, Continentalists do not even rate. If the practical import of ideas is not a proper interest of philosophers, whoever focuses on James and Dewey must be a charlatan. And in the opinion of those who start from Peirce’s way of making our ideas clear, analytic philosophers cannot avoid irrelevance.

The contempt philosophers feel for colleagues who do not share their values and techniques is nothing short of bizarre and has served to undermine the honor and integrity of the discipline. In serving on National Endowment for the Humanities committees, I noted that members of the panel from English and history and anthropology tended to support applicants from their fields. Philosophers, by contrast, couldn’t wait to light into their colleagues; they tore research proposals apart, presenting their authors as fools or as championing out-of-date, inferior ideas and methods. As a result, scholars from other fields garnered much of the money that would, under normal circumstances, have gone to philosophy. These gatekeepers to our profession thought their actions were justified by the imperative to maintain high standards; in fact, they often undertook to judge work they did not understand, and condemned styles of thought and topics of investigation simply because they had no sympathy with them.

Something similar was occurring in the American Philosophical Association prior to the pluralist revolt that started in 1978. In the Association’s dominant Eastern Division, disciplinary exclusivity was wedded to institutional nepotism in such a way that it became nearly impossible for philosophers who were not analytic in orientation and who did not serve in Eastern seaboard graduate schools to break into the power circle or even into the program. As if there had been a dearth of talent in the Division, the same person from the University of North Carolina was tapped to chair the Program Committee twice within 5 years; the second time, he found room for no less than 17 individuals connected with his university on the notoriously small and limited program in December. The system of exclusion worked perfectly with regard to the presidency and the other offices of the Division, as well; one by one, the senior members of the Harvard and Princeton departments took turns in leading the Division, leaving room for one or two colleagues from Pittsburgh only as an accommodation to the provinces.

The stranglehold on elective offices was made nearly unbreakable by the voting procedure. Officers were elected at the Eastern Division business meeting in northeastern cities. Home institutions defrayed the cost of attending these meetings only if their faculty gained a slot on the program. Since members of the Association from colleges, from inland schools, and especially from the South rarely found themselves on the program, they were effectively disenfranchised. A tiny minority, consisting largely of those the leadership put on the program, determined the next set of leaders year by year. The Pacific Division operates its elections by this procedure to this day.

The astonishing thing is that people some of whom contributed to the development of political philosophy and who were therefore sensitive to the nuances of democratic participation never saw anything wrong with this system. The uncritical assumption of these acutely critical thinkers was that all and only philosophers distinguished enough to be elected president could lead the Association effectively. It didn’t seem to matter that there was not a shred of evidence for this view; the untenable conflation of philosophical excellence with practical sense and institutional savvy was never challenged and remains an operating principle of the Association even today. At least a part of the reason for the persistence of this illusion was the absence of a clear idea of what the APA was to do beyond organizing three divisional meetings a year and responding to issues in the life of the profession that it could not skillfully dodge. There was no agreed understanding then, as there is none even now, of how the Association might advance the good of the profession. Its committees rarely escaped being ineffectual, its national office staff was skeletal, and its Board seemed for the most part satisfied with the celebration rather than the active encouragement of philosophical achievement. As a result, it lagged far behind its sister organizations serving other academic fields in the effective promotion of the discipline. There is no better indication of the enduring power of philosophy than that it managed to survive these decades of institutional neglect.

Yet the power of philosophy was not so great as to penetrate the personal lives and professional behavior of many distinguished thinkers. In 1981, a collection of well-known Eastern Division presidents circulated a nasty letter accusing the pluralists of attempting to gain office in the APA by political means rather than on the basis of their philosophical accomplishments. Quine was one of the signatories. One would have expected him to form his opinion of the worth of pluralist publications on the basis of careful study. Yet when a reporter for the New York Times asked him if some of the pluralists might not deserve office after all, he replied: “I don’t know their work.”

At least since the 1970s, the APA fancied itself the guardian of philosophical standards, which rendered it so conservative that it lost contact with new developments in the field. The explosive growth of the group meeting program connected with the Eastern Division, for example, took the APA leadership altogether by surprise; the widespread interest in historical figures, practical issues, Continental thinkers, American philosophy, and interdisciplinary topics could not have been predicted on the basis of the papers featured on the “official” program.

The growing distance between the Association and many of its members was one of the reasons for the revolt that culminated in the election of John E. Smith as Vice President and President-elect of the Eastern Division in 1980. There were, of course, many other reasons, including social, political, economic, and geographical ones. The vast majority of APA members felt that paying dues earned them no say in the affairs of the organization. A Northeastern graduate school power elite held the keys to advancement in the profession by nearly exclusive control over grants, publications, and program participation. National Defense Education Act fellowships swelled the number of excellent graduate students in philosophy; since job creation in central graduate schools did not keep pace with the production of Ph.D.s, many fine young scholars had to take jobs in small colleges and provincial universities. This upgraded the quality of philosophy teaching across the land, but left students from even top-named schools abandoned by their teachers and stranded in forgotten small departments.

At the same time, a number of universities began offering new doctoral degree programs. Avenues to distinction were largely closed to faculty and students in these schools; judgment of the very legitimacy of the programs was left in the hands of reviewers from long-established departments. Small colleges from the South were particularly hard hit by haughty neglect: when it came time for committee assignments, Eastern Division Executive Committees could hardly ever think of anyone in the South capable of rendering worthy service. The revolt of 1978 offered an outlet for these and other frustrations. There was talk of founding an alternative organization, but it quickly became clear that taking over the existing structure would be easier and more efficient.

To be sure, there was also an ideological element in the revolt, though its significance can be overstated. The departments with a stranglehold on the profession were analytically-minded and professional or technical in their approach. The anger of those wanting reform, however, was directed not so much at the analytic style of doing philosophy as at the arrogance of declaring analysis the only proper method of thought. This exclusivity represented a danger to the small but quickly growing band of Continentalists, as well as to those serving in Catholic institutions committed to speculative metaphysics and the history of philosophy. The revolt aimed not at defeating or eliminating analytic philosophy but at establishing the legitimacy of alter native methods. It wanted to introduce a wholesome pluralism into the profession, and a look at philosophical activity today shows that in this it clearly succeeded.

Two additional developments chipped away at the hegemony of analytic philosophy. By the time of the revolt, its research program in epistemology—its central discipline—was nearly played out. Rorty announced its demise in 1976, and for this he was reluctantly honored with the presidency of the Eastern Division. Further, philosophers found that they could not fill their classrooms and retain the attention of their students in small colleges and provincial schools by presenting the abstract topics and dry distinctions of analytic thought. They responded by reaching back to the humanly more interesting figures in the history of the discipline and by tackling pressing moral concerns. The history of how much of the current boom in applied ethics is due to the necessity to fill classes and the opportunity to publish in journals not under the control of narrow professionals is yet to be written.

The success of efforts at institutional reform is notoriously difficult to assess. The pluralist revolt elected some presidents of the Eastern Division and placed a stream of individuals on the Executive Committee. Most important, it called the attention of the APA leadership to the level of disaffection of its membership and to the luxuriant growth of interest among philosophers in new fields, new topics, and new methods. The organization is more open now than it was twenty-five years ago, but each liberalizing concession had to be wrung out of it. For this reason, it is fair to say that it neither led the profession nor served it well; instead of stimulating or at least welcoming new sorts of work, it made room for them only grudgingly and when the pressure became too great to resist. That the pluralization of philosophy was accomplished by the spontaneous activity of thousands of practitioners who lacked organized institutional support constitutes convincing additional evidence of the vitality of philosophy. The pluralist revolt served as the voice of thinkers who were experimenting with the new.

Many of the narrow political goals of the pluralists were never achieved. The hold of rich and established graduate departments on the Board of the APA has been weakened but not eliminated, APA divisional presidencies are still viewed as rewards for excellence unconnected to practical sense or the ability to lead, and elections continue largely as popularity contests based on name recognition and current assessments of technical publications. Yet it is clear that academic philosophy is profoundly different today from what it was a couple of decades ago, and of this change ongoing pluralist agitation was both symptom and part cause.

The question of how pluralistic philosophy should be is easily answered: as pluralistic as its practitioners want it. There are, of course, limits to pluralism in the curriculum. Since faculty salaries are paid largely out of undergraduate tuition, instructional offerings must attract a sufficient number of students. Although the correlation between offerings and enrollments is loose, no department can afford to devote the bulk of its efforts to teaching marginal, arcane, or highly specialized courses. This does not mean, however, that the research programs of instructors must be restricted to what they are asked to teach; they are and should remain free to pursue any line of philosophical investigation and use any appropriate method in doing so. This leaves room for the intellectual development of tenured faculty members, who can—at least in principle—determine what they read and think and write.

Obstacles to pluralism often arise, however, in the hiring practices of departments. During the early stage of the pluralist revolt, Professor Burt Dreben spoke to an audience concerned about the openness of the profession and allowed that he was puzzled why the Harvard Department was considered narrow. “We have both Quine and Rawls, “ he said. “Isn’t that pluralistic enough?” Even though this comment is mind-numbingly naive, it points to the fact that pluralism is a matter of degree. A department that features Quine and Putnam is clearly pluralistic in one way: the two of them hold divergent opinions concerning at least some shared issues. Having Quine and Rawls introduces greater pluralism by diversifying the issues, though not nearly as much as adding Rorty would. Yet Rorty, Rawls, and Quine agree with each other on topics and modes of thought far more than any of them does with Derrida, John McDermott, or Irigaray. A department in which American, Continental, and analytic approaches to problems coexist, moreover, is not nearly as pluralistic as one that also features some of the concerns and techniques of Native American, Chinese, and Indian thought.

The tendency of departments is to diversify within the range of their interests. Communities largely analytic in orientation may insist on having someone who covers the early Wittgenstein, while departments of Continentalists feel satisfied only when they can add a specialist in the late Heidegger. In places where ethics is the center of gravity, emotivism and moral realism are thought to require separate champions; if the stress is on political philosophy, liberals, communitarians, and adherents of the Frankfurt School all need representation. Such hiring priorities have their ground and justification in value judgments about what is of significance in the profession. For the most part, these judgments are unconscious or have not withstood challenge, yet they serve to exclude large numbers of talented and highly trained philosophers from even consideration for employment.

A more vicious form of the same sort of selectivity occurs when members of a department agree that what some professionals in the field do is not philosophy or at least not philosophy of a type that deserves to be done or taught. Those who derive their inspiration from the great philosophers of the past may be dismissed as mere historians, thinkers who read Plato or Kant from a Continental perspective may be declared incoherent and individuals with a pragmatist streak may be thought to have made a poor choice of occupation. As a result, departments tend to hire young people closely similar to those already on staff and thereby perpetuate a narrow and stagnant culture. Philosophy is not like physics in which a research paradigm is firmly in place; we live in a sea of criticism and can progress perhaps only by permitting our deepest assumptions to be challenged.

No department can, of course, make room for every fashion of doing philosophy. But every department can avoid a monolithic orientation that makes for the cozy agreement about approach and method of all or most of its members. We are also well advised to avoid tokenism of the sort I observed in one distinguished department, in which a large staff covered a collection of then-urgent analytic topics, leaving the history of philosophy, aesthetics, and all of Continental thought to a single unproductive and overworked pariah. What may appear as institutional obstacles to pluralism in philosophy are in fact roadblocks constructed by philosophers in deciding not to hire, retain, reward, and promote professionals whose philosophical convictions fail to match favored or established patterns. The tendency to exclude the different is widespread and affects Continental departments no less than analytic ones. It is fed by the suspicion that if one or two individuals of another persuasion gain a foothold, they will want to turn the entire department into a partisan enclave.

Pluralism in philosophy, as elsewhere, is possible only if people approach each other with trust and show themselves worthy of it. Above all, it requires a fallibilistic attitude committed to the idea that since we may well be wrong, others can legitimately disregard our efforts and pursue their own. Philosophy is not alone among academic disciplines in suffering, or profiting, from lack of a single method; literary criticism, political science, and psychology are, to different extents and in differing ways, in the same situation. But no field of study shares the ambition, scope, and consequent uncertainty of philosophy. Making room for widely divergent approaches is, therefore, even more important in philosophy than in other contested disciplines.

The argument that the quality of methods other than one’s own is not high enough to warrant representation in one’s department does not stand scrutiny. Without extensive acquaintance with philosophical methods, it is impossible to judge their power. The frequently heard analytic objection to Continental thought that it is unclear cannot be taken seriously unless it is the outcome of long and sympathetic study. Kant is unclear to those who have not spent time examining his aims and technical terms, and Principia Mathematica remains obscure to people who refuse to attend to the details of its elegant structure. Even the claim that philosophers must present arguments in support of their views is unworthy of attention unless made on the basis of thorough familiarity with the works of religious thinkers and those who write interestingly and persuasively in the wisdom tradition.

Such casual arguments supporting a dismissive attitude toward alien or novel forms of thought do not do their proponents proud. Instead of succumbing to them, departments need to ask themselves if they do all they can to serve their discipline and their students so long as they refuse to make room for the out-of-fashion and the new. The image of merely accepting the different is, however, far too passive. Departments have an obligation to seek out not only promising young people, but also promising new lines of thought, no matter how strange they may at first appear. Only in that way can we be sure that philosophy remains vital and fertile, and that we escape the ossification resulting from narrow and unchallenged programs of research.

The APA must play a central role in opening philosophy to a variety of fructifying influences. It must welcome diversity in the profession and throw the gates of service and acknowledgement open to all its members, regardless of their philosophical method or position. This requires elimination of the attitude, still prevalent today, that some professionals do serious philosophy, while others play in the sandbox. It also demands expansion of the program of the Eastern Division, whose traditionally limited size makes inclusiveness difficult to attain. Program committees need to be large enough to accommodate people knowledgeable about and sympathetic with all major contemporary trends. By no means the least, instead of the yearly ritual of passively waiting for committee nominations, the National Office should aggressively seek out members highly qualified to promote the Association’s purposes.

Most important, the APA should at last devote itself to engaging the broader public that is the ultimate employer of its members. The personal value and social usefulness of philosophy are not widely known in this country, even though our daily choices, our social customs, and our public policy debates are in desperate need of intelligent critique. In spite of this need, and of the benefits to our profession of meeting it, distinguished thinkers subscribe to the preposterous view that philosophers get attention when they do good philosophy. They do, indeed, among the few dozen people who work in their narrow fields, but they and their writings remain unknown beyond the choking confines of the academic world.

There is no reason and no justification for restricting philosophical education to young people enrolled in classes; the out-of-school public is, if anything, more anxious to obtain it and more likely to make immediate use of it. As the premier national organization of philosophers, the APA must shoulder the task of fostering this audience and encouraging the profession to address it. Historians are untiring in their drive to educate the adult public; economists have persuaded the president to appoint a Council of Economic Advisors; half the world beats a path to the door of psychologists to gain self-understanding or at least some useful advice. Only philosophers seem satisfied with the safety of academic isolation, abandoning a historic mission of the discipline and surrendering its only means to increased influence and appreciation.

Pluralism in philosophy does not imply the elimination of standards. On the contrary, it means, as it does in social life, the structuring presence and legitimacy of multiple standards, each appropriate to a different method of inquiry in the field. A discipline as modestly endowed with generally accepted results as philosophy must be open to divergent approaches. Without such wholesome pluralism, we will continue to suffer the sequential hegemonies that dragged philosophy in the past century from Hegelian idealisms to positivist games and, beyond that, to a variety of failed analytic experiments. Philosophy is perhaps more pluralistic now than it has been at any time since the founding of the APA. Our task is to secure respect and toleration for this bounty of energetically different investigations and to help philosophy overflow its academic banks so that it may become a full participant in the intellectual life of our country.