A potted history:
I believe Peter Sloterdijk is right that the Enlightenment has been followed by philosophical cynicism, or an impressive array of natural knowledge unaccompanied by any faith in providence. The U.S., which became the dominant intellectual and cultural force in the course of the 20th century, was well-suited to put this cynicism to work: for America was built upon a pragmatic, “can do” attitude, and seemed ready to let expediency drive ideology . (There are probably interesting connections here to Protestantism and Holland of the 17th century.) And so there arose on American shores the fulfillment of the German idea of a research university, with its faculty as a specialized workforce and its students as Model-Ts rumbling down an assembly line on which three credits of this and three credits of that are bolted on to each chassis.
Each academic discipline became a guild or union, where membership is tightly controlled and guild members insist on their indispensability to the general curriculum. New disciplines created their own means of controlling membership and making cases for their newfound indispensability.
As unions generally lost power and new models of management were developed in the last third of the 20th century, the university also experienced a shift in authority from the faculty to the administration. In the names of efficiency and accountability, administrators deployed numerous measures for evaluating faculty “productivity”; and the nature of these measures encouraged faculty to entrench themselves more firmly in their respective guilds.
In the case of philosophy, this meant (1) more attention devoted to narrow problem-solving activity rather then efforts to deepen philosophical wonder; (2) increasingly narrow specialization and less general knowledge of the discipline itself and its history; (3) less engagement with anyone outside the professional guild; and (4) development of various cants and shibboleths to patrol membership in the guild.
What to do? (Provided, that is, that one is inclined to see these results as problems!)
Most academic philosophy departments see themselves primarily as housing a specialized academic discipline, and contributing only incidentally here or there to a university’s general education curriculum. The priority needs to be reversed. Frankly, there is little or no need for specialized academic philosophy; if it disappeared overnight, the only ones who would notice would be the practitioners themselves. But on the other hand, despite the occasional iconoclastic polemic saying otherwise, there is a widespread recognition that philosophy provides a valuable contribution to the mind of an educated person, even if the person is not working toward a degree in the field. Philosophy professors need to see their primary job as enriching the mental lives, values, and discourses of non-philosophers. For almost everyone, we should be a side dish rather than the main course. That is where our societal value lies.
Now it can be argued that in order to do this well, philosophers also need opportunities to continue to learn and grow: they too need the chance to “geek out” with fellow philosophers through publications and conferences. And, where there is both talent and motivation, some philosophers will manage to advance our very old and rich discipline. But genuine advances in philosophy will not happen with the frequency of advances in younger and more technological disciplines, like computer science and chemistry. Genuine advances in philosophy are as few and far between as are the geniuses of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. For most of us most of the time, our primary job is to enlighten masses.
If philosophy reconceived itself along these lines, graduate training in philosophy would look very different. Right now, the usual aim is to equip each student for intensely critical interaction with a vanishingly narrow band of specialists. (Typically, these PhDs are then hired to teach very broad undergraduate classes – an assignment for which, of course, they are wholly unprepared.) But if my proposal were adopted, these candidates would be trained to engage meaningfully, fruitfully, and philosophically with a wide range of people lacking expertise in philosophy. They would be required to write not dissertations, but books that could meaningfully inform the lives of their fellow citizens. This would be the norm rather than the now-celebrated exception. Philosophy would move out of the tower and back into the agora.
I can hear the complaint: “But there are many really smart people who are now attracted to philosophy’s narrow and difficult questions, and wouldn’t go into the discipline at all if they instead had to ‘dumb down’ their efforts for bigger audiences.” I grant the objection, and have three responses:
- First, it seems to me that these smart people might be able to find as much enjoyment working through equally difficult abstract problems in other fields – fields in which solving the problems would have more impact on more people. Smart problem-solvers are in demand all over the place.
- Second, there would still be room in the discipline for some really smart, narrow specialists, even if most of the room were given over to the broader task I’m recommending. Right now, of course, all of the room is reserved for narrow specialists – and that just doesn’t seem sensible, especially given the nature of the great majority of teaching jobs that exist.
- And third, I bet that for every person who is drawn into philosophy because of an inordinate enthusiasm for tight and narrow problems, there are ten really smart people who turn away from the discipline because there is no current opportunity for tackling broad and deep questions, and bringing them to the attention of wider audiences.
It would take some courage for philosophy as a discipline to make this move and “demean itself” by talking to broader audiences. It might seem like some sort of admission of defeat. But in reality, I think this move would be greeted very enthusiastically by a lot of educated people who have become increasingly disappointed in academic philosophers’ refusal to connect with people other than themselves. Moreover, it might encourage other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences to follow our lead, and recall their original purpose: to enlighten, deepen, enrich, and complicate the minds of human beings from all walks of life.