by Bharath Vallabha
In the coming decades academic philosophy is going to dwindle significantly. When I see philosophy departments shutting down, I feel bad for the people losing their jobs and for PhDs looking for jobs. But as someone who left academia, I also think: “Let’s go! There is a lot of work to do in the new era of philosophy outside academia!” The dwindling of academic philosophy can open the possibility for society to become more philosophical through new, better structures.
Society needs academic philosophy. But society also needs people who cultivate philosophy outside academia.
The shrinking of academic philosophy will be part of an overall downturn of liberal arts education in colleges. Right now the system of liberal arts education is under duress, with college and grad school becoming a continuous stream of professionalization. The threat to liberal arts education isn’t mainly because of the cultural relativism of the left or the neo-liberalism of the right. That kind of blaming of the other allows for the fantasy that if only they stopped being stupid, all would be better. Rather, the stress on the system is coming from a rupturing fault line within it. Modern liberal arts education has an intrinsic tension between its form and its aim.
The form of liberal art education is based on Plato’s Academy and the medieval universities. Back then it was mainly for aristocrats and monks, who were necessarily a small percentage of the population. The education they got is elitist in an obvious sense: it was seen to make them the most elite human beings in society. This was natural since societies back then had to be hierarchical to be functional, and universities were for educating the leaders. A knowledgeable person was a wiser person – someone who ideally could resist their impulses in a way the masses weren’t trained to do and so could focus on the larger needs of the society.
One of the main aims of modern liberal arts education, however, is universal education; the ideal that all people can go to college and partake in the great debates of the ages. Naturally, this pulls against elitism in the ancient sense. Geniuses aside, in modern liberal arts education, knowledge is more a reflection of one’s opportunities than of one’s nature. If you get a liberal arts education and I don’t, it isn’t because, as was assumed in pre-modern times, you are made of gold and I am made of bronze. Rather, on the modern view, we are all made of gold, and you are simply luckier than me in being able to cultivate it and have it recognized.
The ancient form of academia is now buckling under the weight of the aims of mass education. For two hundred years, from the middle of the 18th to the middle of the 20th centuries, the ancient form and the modern aim coexisted relatively harmoniously. But in the last fifty years, academia’s egalitarian aim has been pushing against and breaking its ancient form.
The recent history of academic philosophy bears this out.
The Harvard philosophy department in the 1960’s was exceptional: Quine, Putnam, Rawls, Nozick, Cavell, Goodman, Dreben, Kripke (Society of Fellows) and others. One of the golden ages of the department. In one sense, I would have loved to be there. The breadth and depth of these thinkers was immense. But in another sense, it would have been hard to be in that department. I would have felt it was deeply flawed: sexist, Eurocentric and narrowly analytic. Martha Nussbaum has described how even into the 1970’s, when she was there, sexual harassment was tolerated. B.K. Matilal, who helped bridge analytic and Indian philosophy, studied with Quine in the 1960’s, but the department itself taught little outside the European canon. There were exceptions. Rawls was famously supportive of female students, and later on, Nozick taught Indian philosophy, Cavell taught continental philosophy, etc. But structurally there were issues.
How can one think it was a golden age and yet feel it was deeply flawed? Because back then form took precedence over aim. These were elite philosophers: you could disagree with their views or philosophical priorities, but you couldn’t deny their excellence. It was a department of superstars. Each was free to pursue his talents without worrying about the new masses coming in. It was assumed that the mere greatness of the thinkers would suffice for fostering a liberal arts education for all.
Quine, Putnam, et al. were brilliant thinkers on the topics they addressed. But they had almost nothing to say about the philosophical problem of how the ancient form and the modern aim of academia might be reconciled. They assumed academia was infinitely expandable and that mass education would stretch the system they knew without breaking it.
But mass education broke it.
This was evident already by the end of the 1970’s, when the job market system was implemented through the American Philosophical Association. Before then, jobs were allocated mainly through personal connections. Cavell once said how he never had a job interview: as a graduate student at Harvard, he got a call from Berkeley (where he went to college) offering him an assistant professor’s job, and a few years later he got a call from Harvard offering him a tenured position. The new job market did away with this kind of privilege. There would be formal applications, interviews, openness to talent irrespective of gender, race, etc. Professionalization was the way the elite form and the egalitarian aim of academia were to be reconciled. A necessary, commendable change.
But as a grad student at Harvard in the 2000’s, I hated it. Or to be more precise, I hated its side effect.
When I started graduate school, a sea change was happening in the department. The old guard from the pre-professional days had retired or were retiring. A generation of younger philosophers who saw professionalized philosophy as the norm was ascendant. These younger philosophers were passionate about philosophy and also about making it more inclusive. But something was lost along the way. Inclusion through professionalization had come at a cost.
I felt the new professionalized generation was no less talented than previous generations. But the institutional changes required by mass education seeped into how one talked and wrote philosophy. To give up the old boys’ network, the job market was instituted, which led to a focus on areas of expertise, which meant that every paper you wrote and every comment you made was seen through the prism of whether you could speak confidently as an expert or had to speak deferentially as a non-expert. One’s thinking had to be circumscribed by the expertise reflected on one’s resume. To transgress these boundaries – to assume to speak on an issue that wasn’t on your resume – was seen as falling back on the habits of the bad old days.
Of course, there were a lot of bad privileges in the old days. But there were good privileges too. Main among these was that professors could pursue philosophy in a holistic way without worrying about sub-disciplinary boundaries. This was true not only at famous places like Harvard and Oxford, but at smaller departments across the country. In fact, it was essential for any professor providing a liberal arts education. A professor could pass on to an undergrad how to reflect holistically, because reflecting that way was the professor’s job. Sellars, Strawson or Foot could read whatever they wanted, in whatever area, slowly process it and synthesize it in their writing without worrying about what their resume entitled them to say. If an undergraduate liberal arts education was a privilege for four years, being a professor was that privilege for life. It was not a mere luxury but the foundation of a liberal arts education.
Normally the threat to liberal arts education is seen as students not signing up for humanities classes. But the threat is much deeper: most professors teaching the classes no longer have the privilege to be liberal scholars. This is not due to nefarious reasons of scientism or neo-liberalism or identity politics. Those are symptoms exacerbated by the simple – and now irreversible – fact of mass college education, and the pressure that puts on how jobs are allocated.
The situation will get worse over time. In order to bridge deep disagreements, the kind of holistic vision that liberal scholars provide is needed. But professionalization pulls exactly in the opposite direction. Instead of reconciling disagreements, it reinforces them by legitimizing boundary policing.
If Sally Haslanger, as an expert in feminism, says the APA’s latest initiatives are great for addressing sexism in the profession, should a non-expert in feminism like Brian Leiter defer to her? After all, how is that different from Haslanger deferring to Leiter on Neitzsche scholarship? But taken to its extreme, this line of argument does away with thinking for oneself, replacing civic engagement in the profession with a narrow adherence to specialization. Leiter is admired by many because he is resisting this. I respect that.
Then again, a reputational ranking like the Gourmet Report prioritizes expertise over thinking for oneself from a different direction. To trust it is to defer to the expertise of the people filling out the surveys, and to their sense of which departments, sub-fields and professional trends are to be emulated. The ranking divides the profession into the best and the rest, and treats the vast advantages this affords the ranked departments as entirely natural. Haslanger is admired by many, because she is resisting this institutional elitism. I respect that too.
The debate between Haslanger’s and Leiter’s visions for philosophy is genuinely interesting. It would be great if they and their supporters debated each other to move the discussion forward. The dearth of such public debates in the profession is telling. The focus is not on the ideas themselves, but on which kind of expertise should be deferred to: the kind Leiter has as a philosopher of law or the kind Haslanger has as an epistemologist; the kind he has as the creator of the Gourmet Report, or the kind she has as a professor at MIT. Professionalization has made it hard for professors to debate each other just as thinkers, as liberal scholars. But professionalization on its own, without holistic thinking, can’t determine how competing forms of expertise should be reconciled. The result is instead of debating ideas, a lot of effort goes into positioning oneself as the right kind of expert and the other as the wrong kind of expert.
This means that as society struggles with questions of expertise vs democracy, academia is not able to stand above the fray. Conservatives who want to shut down humanities departments or don’t believe in climate change support their views by saying, “Some experts agree with us!” the implication being that reason itself is partisan. Academics claim they are not partisan and can lead the way. But it’s unclear how they can lead the way when professionalization has splintered even philosophy into dozens of competing sub-specialties.
What is the alternative for academics? Give up professionalization? Not possible, since there is no other method for divvying up jobs. To have at least some academics be liberal scholars and so aim beyond specialization? This is the inevitable future. As more and more teaching is done by adjunct professors, and as public universities and small colleges are under increased economic and social pressures, it will be mainly the faculty at rich, private universities who will have the luxury to be undergraduates for life.
Society needs liberal scholars. People who think big and write big, who look for large patterns across whole fields of knowledge and the human condition. Who might fall on their faces and get a lot wrong, but whose risks might also pay off big or just be thought provoking. As academia becomes more professionalized, people struggling or unhappy in academia have a choice. They can leave to continue a life of liberal arts reflection outside academia, and so contribute in a grass roots way to creating a more reflective society.
If being in academia means so much to people that they are willing to teach five courses a semester for minimum wage and no benefits, or are satisfied with being on the job market for the fourth straight year, more power to them. But there are alternatives. Not just for one’s career, but for having a philosophically rich life and making a difference. Compared to the oasis of libraries, classes and conferences in academia, the world outside can feel like a desert. But contributing to new structures has its own rewards, including the potential of new ideas, new forms of communication and new communities.
The coming digital age won’t accommodate the habits of the medieval or the industrial age university. It will disrupt them in unpredictable and far reaching ways, changing both academia and society in the process. If the disruption to academia ends up being very great and if we don’t prepare for that future by creating new possibilities outside, future generations will wonder how we could have been so complacent.