A Very Philosophical Conceit
by Daniel A. Kaufman
Over at the Daily Nous, an influential philosophy-insider’s blog, editor Justin Weinberg kicks off a celebration of its five year anniversary by congratulating himself.  He says that he is proud that he and the Nous have played a role in “breaking up a toxic concentration of power in our profession” and ushering in a “new consensus,” which he explains is “a set of attitudes that rejects acquiescence to abuses of power in philosophy, one that seeks to overturn rather than turn away from the profession’s problems, one that seeks to support rather than silence the vulnerable.”
That Weinberg is proud is something I wouldn’t dare contest, but I am somewhat more skeptical about the “new consensus” he alleges to have helped build. After all, ours is the profession that put the shiv in junior scholar, Rebecca Tuvel, for publishing an essay comparing transgenderism and transracialism (with two of the shiv-handlers having served on Tuvel’s dissertation committee). Ours is the profession that hounded Kathleen Stock across the pages of the American Philosophical Association’s blog and even on the proud pages of the Daily Nous, for her advocacy of gender critical positions in the UK. And ours is the profession that is home to Rachel McKinnon, of the College of Charleston, whose preferred tactic in dealing with her opponents is to go after their sponsors and other sources of livelihood, as she has done with tennis legend Martina Navratilova and Olympic champion, Dame Kelly Holmes, for expressing concerns about trans-women athletes competing in women’s sports.  In the words of one of the commenters in the discussion-thread following the celebratory posting at the Nous, “politically speaking, this discipline is pure cancer.”
But never mind. The wonderfulness or lack thereof of the philosophical profession isn’t really my point. Rather, it’s this: Whether Weinberg has ever done great philosophy or great things for philosophy or any other great things for that matter, it likely isn’t because he’s such a great guy. To think so is to misunderstand how and why things happen and even more importantly, it is to misunderstand us. We’re really not such great people. Indeed, it’s common for us to be quite rotten, even when we are doing great things. I recently devoted an entire essay to exploring the idea that our noblest political activities may be nothing more than expressions of our adolescent Id, using myself as the chief example and enlisting the services of Joan Didion, who was more aware than most of the way in which our “moral activity” is typically the expression of less than admirable inclinations.  In this regard, it is worth noting that Weinberg couldn’t even make it to the end of his uplifting tale of the Nous’s wonderfulness without delivering a backhand to Brian Leiter, his chief competitor in the philosophy blogosphere, which obviously raises questions about his motives, the wonderful results of Weinbergism notwithstanding.
This kind of conceit is often concealed beneath a false humility that is obvious to everyone, except for the person expressing it. My freshmen, introductory-level students catch it right away in Socrates’ repeated protestations of ignorance, as he eviscerates and humiliates his opponents by way of what are clearly premeditated questions, posed with a clearly preconceived end in mind. They find it smarmy and manipulative, and it is a challenge to explain why they should pay attention to what he says, nonetheless. Weinberg is in the finest company, then, when he piously confesses his “privilege” as an “economically secure white man,” while expressing humble bewilderment at the attention he and his blog have received, punctuating it all with an image of himself, photographed in ennobling shadow, sitting cross-legged on a beach.  Indeed, on reflection, this may be one rare instance in which even Socrates finds himself outclassed.
I raise the example of Socrates, because philosophers seem particularly prone to this kind of conceit, which itself is the result of a deeper fault, namely, a catastrophic lack of self-awareness. This may seem counter-intuitive on first consideration, given philosophy’s connection with wisdom – it’s in the very name – and philosophers’ reputation for being deep thinkers. But most philosophers are not particularly deep thinkers, nor are we especially wise.  Rather, we are careful, precise, sometimes intricate thinkers, employing a complex array of logical and analytical tools, all of which is entirely consistent with believing one’s own bullshit, something that philosophers seem to do better than almost anyone. It’s part of the reason why I have so little confidence in the capacity of so-called “critical thinking” courses to help students avoid being taken in by propaganda and advertising, as philosophers are as self-deluding as they come and can hardly be relied upon to recognize when someone else is trying to delude them. Weinberg’s clumsy exercise in self-congratulation may have been my initial exhibit of this sort of philosophical lack of self-awareness, but there’s no reason to single him out. Peter Singer has built an entire career on campaigning for personal austerity and charitable sacrifice and even utility-inspired euthanasia, while maintaining cushy digs in Princeton and Manhattan and spending thousands of dollars on his own mother’s Alzheimer’s care, and Heidegger and Sartre fell for the bullshit being peddled by goose-stepping Nazis and black-pajama clad Maoists.  It is the rare philosopher who is self-aware enough to recognize his or her own selfishness, predatoriness, and other assorted vices, and even rarer is the one who will eschew preening and posturing and instead work through their faults publicly, as Iris Murdoch did in her philosophical and literary work.  Indeed, people such as her are so rare that one can count them on one hand, a fact to which Murdoch’s astonishing corpus, almost unique in philosophical history in involving work of the highest quality across two disciplines, stands as an enduring testament.
The rest of us far more mediocre folk simply have to muddle along in our shittiness, and the best we can hope for is to do some good things and develop a bit clearer and more honest a picture of ourselves as we do it. In my own case, whatever of the latter I am managing has come not from philosophical research or reflection, but from the intimate quarters of life, which is why it has taken so damned long for me even to realize what an asshole I am, let alone do anything about it. For it is only now, in middle age, that I find myself confronted with serious emotional and existential challenges: my aged parents’ mortality; the prospect of my own old age and death; my daughter’s impending departure from our home, as she embarks upon her adult life; the ongoing, never-ending, sometimes seemingly impossible challenge of maintaining a marriage, over the course of a lifetime. All of these things are forcing their way through my well-maintained, long-sustained illusions and delusions, and it is only the pain they cause that is forcing me to look at them, rather than go on fooling myself. (If there was a blue pill, a la The Matrix, I’d fucking take it.) The only thing that brings some relief and stirrings of self-understanding is writing, which is why I’m increasingly more inclined to pen essays like “Middle-Aged Punk,” “Nothing Applies,” and “Adolescent Politics” than to do hard philosophy, in which I find little by way either of consolation or wisdom (unlike my friend, Massimo Pigliucci, who seems to have found both in the work of the ancient Stoics. ) If I had Murdoch’s talent, I’d have taken up literature by now, but as things are, this is the best I can do.
 Read the post if you don’t believe me. It’s there.
 A point I made in my paper, “Knowledge, Wisdom, and the Philosopher” (2006).