Brian Leiter’s “State of the Vocation”

Professor Leiter of Philosophical Gourmet fame has posted his evaluation of philosophy as a discipline here.

Some highlights:

  • “In scholarship on the history of modern and ancient philosophy, the interpenetration of scholarly cultures among the Anglophone, German, French, and Italian philosophical communities is now essentially complete.” Thank God.
  • He acknowledges that the sociology of successful philosophical research involves a high-degree of social networking and group loyalty. He concludes “[t]his brute sociological fact about contemporary philosophy – about hierarchies of prestige and influence – is what makes rankings of philosophy departments, and information about job placement, so essential to those entering the field.”
  • He contrasts Weber on specialization in Wissenschaft with Dennet on chmess. The implicit quesiton: “Are -you- studying chmess?”

My first reaction: great essay, well-written, thoughtful, self-aware, crowned with a title suggesting the hubris necessary for the task: after all, if it’s generally the President’s job to announce the “State of the Nation,” then what does that make Professor Leiter?

His comments on the sociology of knowledge seem to accurately represent the problem, but I’d suggest we ought to be unsatisfied with the situation, not embrace it. If it is truly the case that philosophers now point to their cherished beliefs and say, “I only think this because the the contingent events that brought me to study with so-and-so, not because it is actually true,” then I guess we’re not in the truth-tracking business anymore. But I don’t think that’s the case.

Of course, in part I make this argument because of the professors with whom I studied, but I can also offer non-biographical reasons to defend the position: namely, that having reasons to believe X is a prerequisite for believing X, and no one can seriously suggest that they believe X despite the fact that the best available reasons support not-X. Moreover, believing that one holds X to be true for the best available reasons entails the willingness to exchange reasons with those who disagree with me, to determine whether that disagreement might offer better reasons than those I currently hold.

For all the disdain he aims at Rorty, he seems to be fundamentally in sympathy with the claim that philosophers don’t have much, if any, work left to do, because most questions of truth are now left to one of the variety of natural or social scientist.

Professor Leiter seems to subscribe to what Jerry Fodor has called the “masochistic metatheory, that philosophical issues are the ones that nobody else cares about.” Yet it is clear to me at least that there is work that philosophers remain uniquely suited to do, that there are live debates and worthy discussions aplenty, and that they are “more chess than chmess” because there are substantial numbers of non-specialists taking a crack at them every day. In contrast with Leiter’s view that our work will have little to do with the public demand for “philosophies of life,” I would suggest that philosophy can be most useful when it is parsing and criticizing the ideas and arguments that seep into public discourse without reflection.

  • Perhaps the biggest fight is the one brewing around evolutionary psychology and natural selection that Fodor himself started in the London Review of Books earlier this year. It’s happened quite slowly, but somewhere, somehow the public conception of evolution has granted nature intentionality with regard to adaption. What scientists mean by natural selection now increasingly resembles something with which an intelligent design proponent might identify: Nature, in her infinite wisdom, ‘selects’ traits to pass on to the next generation. As if ordained as Nature’s clergy, the public ‘intellectuals’ responsible for evolutionary psychology have proceeded to hang the responsibility for racism, sexism, and inequality on Nature’s ethereal head.
  • Another problem of philosophical scope is the one Rawls couldn’t quite solve: how to work out a theory of justice without denying the fact of reasonable pluralism. There’s plenty of fertile ground for philosophical workon the ways that religious and ideological citizens should interact in a secular state, the status of secularity and laïcité, or the conflict between matters of conscience and the requirements of public deliberation.
  • Global justice activists still need serious philosophers to parse collective responsibility and make sense of the ontology of human rights.
  • On a personal note, I think there’s still plenty of field to hoe after Bernard Williams‘ death, especially in his criticism of utilitarianism and ethical system-building
  • In the spirit of Analytic/Continental interprenetration, we’re in the midst of a new debate on coercion and power, with economists, legal scholars, and political theorists squaring off against Marxists and Foucaultians over “choice architecture,” normative legal economics, and civic republican ideals of freedom. Philosophers had better not duck out of the fight just because it might involve some math.

Obviously, I’m a political philosopher so my list is pretty heavily weighted towards those concerns. However, even this is more than just a contingent and undefendable fact about me. I work in political philosophy (and ethics) because I believe that we have an obligation to keep this exchange of reasons, particularly on matters relevant to the public, at the forefront of our vocation.

Professor Leiter would likely reply that while I’ve outlined some valuable research avenues, I haven’t identified the world-historical question that troubles us all and will revolutionize the practice of philosophy. Nothing I’ve said here is as game-changing as Michael Dummett’s challenge to redefine all philosophical work in terms of realist and anti-realist semantic theories. Welladay – I make no claim to genius. He’s certainly right that the old guard is dying off and the new guard has yet to fully reveal itself. Unfortunately, it seems to him that this is a diminishment, that the young ones are but shadows of the giants who passed before. To this, I can only offer a small consolation: I suspect this is what every generation thinks.

Now let’s all get off Professor Leiter’s lawn before we ruin the landscaping.

2 thoughts on “Brian Leiter’s “State of the Vocation””

  1. Very nicely written esssay, J.

    "In philosophy, you have to reckon with the implicit level of an accumulated reserve, and thus with a very great number of relays, with the shared responsibility of these relays."

    –Jacques Derrida

  2. Thanks, Dr. J.

    "Is it so wrong to take account of a past trajectory, of a writing that has in part sealed itself, little by little?"


Second Opinions