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. [1]  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. [2]  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. [3] 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. [4]  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. [5]  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. [6] 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. [7] 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. [8]) 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.


[1] http://dailynous.com/2019/03/07/daily-nous-turns-five/

[2] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/12/21/martina-navratilova-transphobic-row-comments-womens-sport/


[3] https://theelectricagora.com/2019/02/12/adolescent-politics/

[4] Read the post if you don’t believe me.  It’s there.

[5] A point I made in my paper, “Knowledge, Wisdom, and the Philosopher” (2006).


[6] https://reason.com/archives/2000/12/01/the-pursuit-of-happiness-peter


[7] https://newrepublic.com/article/122264/iris-murdoch-novelist-and-philospher

[8] https://www.amazon.com/How-Be-Stoic-Ancient-Philosophy/dp/0465097952








88 responses to “A Very Philosophical Conceit”

  1. You sound as if you are in a rut.

    Maybe philosophy is in a rut. I’m looking from outside, but it does seem to be in a rut.

    It also looks to me as if physics is in a rut. Again, I’m looking from the outside. But Sabine Hossenfelder is looking from the inside and she seems to think that physics is in a rut.

    I guess I’ve been lucky. My life has been mostly interesting. But partly, that’s because I moved from mathematics to computer science in mid life. And the world of computing is still changing, so that kept things more interesting.

    I think it’s partly the students that helped me keep in touch with reality. It must get dreary to be in a research institute, with no teaching duties, in a subject area that is not seeing much change.

  2. In a rut? How do you figure?

    And yes, teaching is wonderful. But I published academic work for well over a decade, and I find myself at a point in my life where other types of writing seem to carry a greater significance and provide greater satisfaction.

  3. I think we need change, to keep life interesting. Or, at least, I need change. And perhaps that’s why you are finding greater satisfaction in other forms of writing.

    I do hope that The Electric Agora is one of the forms of writing that you find more satisfying.

  4. s. wallerstein

    I value self-awareness as highly as you do.

    Philosophers who are notably self-aware include Montaigne (if you consider him to be a philosopher), Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Simone de Beauvoir.

    As for Sartre, in spite of his political errors, he couldn’t have written the novels that he did without a high degree of self-awareness. Nausea and the Age of Reason, both of which seem to be mainly about a person like Sartre, are exercises in self-awareness. While not world class masterpieces, they and other works did win him a Nobel Prize for literature. Sartre became a Maoist in his old age, and it is notable that he did not write anything that anyone reads today after about age 60 when he wrote his autobiography, the Words. There seems to have been some cognitive decline in his old age, partially due to heavy use of amphetamines and alcohol.

  5. That’s the reason I started doing it! Indeed, it’s the reason I started doing all my public intellectual work. The academic writing simply wasn’t doing it for me anymore.

  6. I always thought Sartre by far the weakest literary existentialist. Camus was far superior: nothing Sartre wrote comes anywhere near The Plague or even, The Fall.

    The point is not whether he was smart. That is beyond all doubt. The question is self-awareness, and his pretentiousness suggests to me that he was not particularly self-aware. That someone goes on and on about his authenticity does not make him self aware. And it’s funny you mention the Age of Reason, whose main character strikes me as one of the most self-deluding, un-self aware people I can think of.

  7. Nussbaum’s essay on Murdoch (linked in the footnotes) is really good.

  8. The only thing I disliked was the cringey confession about how she had looked forward to making a female friend and instead found a predatory man. I thought that was rather pitiful. The rest was amazing though.

  9. s. wallerstein

    Camus wrote one almost perfect novel, the Stranger. Sartre never comes near that. I find the Plague and the Fall to be overly moralistic.

    As you say, the Age of Reason is about a self-deluding person. That’s the point of the novel: how Matthieu deludes himself into imagining that he is “free” when he is actually only afraid to commit himself. He ends up totally alone.
    I would not confuse the protagonist with the author.

  10. Fair enough! These are matters of taste. I won’t deny, however, that your feelings about The Plague hurt me deeply. Reading it was one of the most powerful, memorable experiences of my reading life.

    Of course, Kafka makes all of them look like amateurs. 😉

  11. s. wallerstein

    100% agreement about Kafka.

  12. I think one way to describe our situation is a swallowing up of the particular, local, individual by the universal, global, group. Here is an article from my sister’s husband on the decline of local reporting ( reporting from a small town in Dan’s home state).


    “While national outlets worry about a president who calls the press an enemy of the people, many Americans no longer have someone watching the city council for them, chronicling the soccer exploits of their children or reporting on the kindly neighbor who died of cancer.”

    We are defining ourselves, and attaching our identities ( I think superficially ), based on a relatively small class of globally defined issues which we respond to reflexively. A result is that our manner of attending, perceiving, imagining, lacks nuance and sensibility, and yes self-awareness.

  13. Kripkensteinsmonster303

    Dan, this piece prompted me to read your article on wisdom that you mention in footnote 7, and I must say I’m enjoying it tremendously!

  14. Thank you! I am very proud of that one.

  15. If you like Kafka, you really should give Heinrich von Kleist a try. If I remember correctly, Kafka admired him, and if you read “Michael Kohlhaus” or “The Marquise of O” you can understand why.

    It’ interesting to observe that in recent times in a country like France there was less of a divide between literature and philosophy. They have a long tradition to build upon (Voltaire, Diderot etc.) but is that the only explanation? Are there other cultures in which the same is true? Austria perhaps? (Robert Musil, Thomas Bernhard …)

  16. I am not familiar with von Kleist. Thank you!

  17. Bharath Vallabha

    Dan, I am not sure what your end game is in criticizing Justin as you do here. Is he self-deluded to some extent? No doubt. As you say, we all are. Might he have gotten a bit carried away in thinking things are better now than five years ago? Certainly.

    But as someone who thinks Daily Nous has been on the whole really good for academic philosophy, I don’t see your personalizing your criticisms of Justin as helpful. In your note that Leiter posted in January, you called him “a dirty player” and, to boot, he “isn’t very smart”. Can’t see how this moves us to more rational discourse.

    I am all for highlighting the limitations of the “new consensus”. I think it has big problems. And certainly a kind of conceit seems part of it. But to focus only on Justin and his friends’ conceit, but not the conceit of “the old guard” as they see it seems mistaken. I am not engaging in “what-about-ism”, as in “What about Leiter’s conceits?” and so on. I am not interested in that. Just about what rational discourse focused on ideas can look like.

    I am reminded of your exchange with Samir Chopra re Fodor. Samir’s point, I take it, is that what seemed funny to you about Fodor’s behavior seemed conceited and self-delusion to Samir.

    To be clear, I am not excusing Justin’s behavior towards you, as I have stated in the comments on his recent post. I think you will agree, even if it is hard for you personally, that Justin’s failures in particular instances don’t take away from broader merits he might have, just as that distinction also applies to Leiter, Fodor, or anyone else.

  18. As I said in a tweet announcing the piece, I am having a little fun with Justin and hoping to make a more serious point along the way. His post was almost a form of self-parody and great material for a little humor, and it provided the opportunity to talk about a weakness that is endemic in philosophers.

    Sorry you don’t see it as “helpful” or “interesting.” Not everyone likes the same things. I enjoyed writing it and from the numbers it’s getting, people are clearly interested in reading it. And it is as self-critical as it is critical of Justin,, who I’m sure is more than capable of taking a little ribbing.

  19. In your note that Leiter posted in January, you called him “a dirty player” and, to boot, he “isn’t very smart”. Can’t see how this moves us to more rational discourse.

    = = =

    As for this point, I’m afraid that’s what I think. The point wasn’t to say something helpful, but something true. And I do think he plays dirty: a kind of disingenuous, passive aggressive game, in which he pretends to be a good actor while being partisan as hell. Sorry, but that’s just my view of the man after several years of experience dealing with him.

  20. Bharath Vallabha

    Not sure one can have a little fun and do a little ribbing with someone one also thinks is a dirty player and disingenuous.

    Re just stating the truth, perhaps you mean that Justin tends to be a passive-aggressive bully. Maybe that’s true. I am open to that. In fact, I think a general issue with the new consensus folks is that by making “niceness” the main norm, they are turning niceness into a kind of weapon, and so undercutting more ordinary meaning of the term. “Niceness” then starts to mean something more loaded. All this seems open for analysis and description. And if Justin or anyone else feels bad about it, so be it. He is a public figure after all. So we don’t differ on whether Justin has faults.

    Where we might differ is re the broader context of how to evaluate Justin’s faults. It’s hard to think about Justin’s online behavior and his website without the counterpoint of Leiter and his online persona. Leiter constantly self-congratulates himself and his insight and his good work. Don’t see you mentioning that. Or in general addressing what you make of the concerns that are driving the new consensus folks. To me it seems like you might be taking the easy path in focusing in on Justin’s limitations as a way to hand way away the broader movement of those who want academic philosophy to be different than how it was culturally and intellectually than in the 80s and 90s.

    I am not interested in getting between you and Justin; it’s between you guys, whether in fun or not or whatever. But it seems like there is something you are angry about re the new consensus crowd. Fair enough. But many people, like the new consensus crowd and also people like me who are on the periphery of that, are angry about how academic philosophy used to be and still is in some ways. Do you care about that? Not that you need to. Just curious.

  21. Not sure one can have a little fun and do a little ribbing with someone one also thinks is a dirty player and disingenuous.

    = = =

    Don’t see why not. Better than real fighting, no?

    As for your question, I think the “new consensus crowd,” as you call them are significantly worse than than how academic philosophy used to be. For all it’s flaws, the discipline flourished over the course of the last century, producing a quality of work that hadn’t been seen since the Enlightenment. The discipline will not survive the new consensus crowd, of that I am sure.

  22. Bharath Vallabha

    “I think the “new consensus crowd,” as you call them are significantly worse than than how academic philosophy used to be.”

    Wow. I am surprised. Maybe I shouldn’t be. To me this is a little like the libertarians who say, “What the far left is doing now is the greatest threat against freedom in American history.” To me that is absurd, given that American history included slavery. And it’s absurd even though I agree the far left is nuts and a real threat to freedom. To say the far left is wrong, it’s no help to sugar coat the past.

    Similarly, the new consensus is misguided and doing real damage. I believe that. But to put on a rosy hued perspective on how academic phil used to be is bizarre to me. Seems to me when Justin is curt and dismissive of you, this is why I think. I don’t agree he should be like that. But your response to me, as someone who left academia because it was painful to me, is hilarious and a bit callous. As if you are telling me, “Bharath, suck it up. What the new consensus is doing is much worse than anything you experienced.” How are you in a position to know that? The greatness of 20th century analytic phil is not the point. I agree it’s great. But it was great on the backs of systems which were deeply wrong. It doesn’t make their philosophies racist, or the philosophers racist. I can get into a competition with you of who admires Wittgenstein, Anscombe, Strawson, Sellars, Putnam, Cavell, Lewis, etc. more. But that doesn’t mean the things they took for granted and didn’t bother thinking about was ok.

    Btw, academic phil is fucked, at least as it was in the 20th century. The new consensus is, or will be, the proximate cause. But there are much deeper causes, which have much more to do with how the great, and not so great, 20th century academic philosophers took their academic perches for granted.

  23. I didn’t put a rosy-hued perspective on anything. That’s just a flat-out misrepresentation of what I wrote. I said “for all its flaws…” That’s not a “rosy-hue.”

    And saying something is “significantly worse” is nothing like saying “the greatest threat against freedom in American history.”

    I’m not sure why you are so intent on misrepresenting what I wrote or making it seem extreme.

    And then there’s this:

    “But your response to me, as someone who left academia because it was painful to me, is hilarious and a bit callous. As if you are telling me, “Bharath, suck it up. What the new consensus is doing is much worse than anything you experienced.” ”

    I told you my honest opinion. If you want to translate it into some sort of insult that’s your prerogative, but it misrepresents what I wrote and what I think. You’ve published essays here in which you talk about what made you unhappy with academic philosophy. Does that mean I also have to agree with your estimation of the profession, past, present or future? And if I don’t that means I’m insulting you?

    Doesn’t seem to me like that’s how things go, but again, it’s your prerogative to feel as you wish. You asked me a question, and I simply told you what I think.

  24. I’ll say one more thing. I do not censor my writers’ views. They can express any view they like, here, whether I agree with it or not. But I reserve the same right for myself.

    I am, after all, a liberal. 😉

  25. Bharath Vallabha

    I don’t feel insulted by you. And we don’t have to agree. No worries from my side. 🙂 But I can also see why some people would be put off by what you think and how you express it. I don’t blame them.

    It’s not what you say that feels problematic. But what you don’t say. You are not saying anything about what was problematic about academic philosophy in the 20th century and how we can address that. I hear a lot from you about how awful the new consensus and the identitarians, etc are. I agree. Their error is they are not able to find a balance between criticism of the past and admiration of the past. So why don’t you show them how to be balanced? To do that would require also taking up the challenge of dealing with the problems more explicitly.

    We can read all of Wittgenstein, Quine, Anscombe, etc, but by itself it won’t help. They never told us how to find that balance re academic phil, because they never talked about academic philosophy itself in any systematic way. So simply appreciating them doesn’t tell us how to find the balance.

  26. “But I can also see why some people would be put off by what you think and how you express it. I don’t blame them.”

    = = =

    In my middle age, I have learned that you can’t please everyone.

    = = =

    “It’s not what you say that feels problematic. But what you don’t say. You are not saying anything about what was problematic about academic philosophy in the 20th century and how we can address that.”

    = = =

    I wasn’t asked that.

    = = =

    “Their error is they are not able to find a balance between criticism of the past and admiration of the past. So why don’t you show them how to be balanced? To do that would require also taking up the challenge of dealing with the problems more explicitly.”

    = = =

    a) I don’t accept their view of what the problems were; b) In my interactions with them, I have found them to be too intolerant and willing to go for the jugular to engage with productively; and c) I don’t agree with your characterization of what their error consists of. I think their errors are far more numerous and serious than that and go to fundamental questions regarding the purpose of education; the nature and values of a liberal society; the acceptable tactics in going about trying to advance one’s agenda.

  27. I should also say, I just published an entire article — quite lengthy and in-depth — in Philosophy Now, in which I address what I think philosophy’s main problems have been over the last 100 years or so, and what I think should be done about it.


  28. Bharath Vallabha

    All I can say is: good luck. You do your thing. I will do mine. The new consensus will do theirs. The alt right will do theirs. And so on for everyone.

  29. Uh…ok. Guess that conversation’s over.

  30. Bharath Vallabha

    I admired your piece in the Philosophy Now. But I don’t think it captures all “the main problems” with academic philosophy. You capture some of it, but, from my perspective, doesn’t address thorny issues of race, power, religion and much else. This is how I am not of the new consensus. I worry about eurocentrism and all that, but I also share the concerns of conservative Christians, who were pretty unhappy with academic phil well before the new consensus showed up. The scientism/professionalization is one aspect of the problems, but I don’t think it’s all of it. Again, happy to disagree. We don’t need to convince each other.

  31. s. wallerstein

    It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to “engage productively” (to use Dan K’s phase) with someone whose level of self-awareness is minimal, if you are a person with a fairly high degree of self-awareness. If that lack of self-awareness is coupled with a high degree of moralism and self-righteousness, the situation becomes even worse.

  32. Bharath Vallabha

    No, not shutting down the conversation. I am happy to continue. Wasn’t sure where to go, given your responses seemed to be mainly, “well, this is what I think. And I have to right to think it.”

  33. I think the problems I describe in the piece are one major part of the problem. I think the ideology of the new consensus is a second major part of the problem. And I think the various “isms” were a general problem, across Western societies, but were by means the main problem for philosophy per se.

  34. I’m happy to discuss any of the points you raise. As always. 🙂

  35. Bharath Vallabha

    I would say the main problem was that Western academic philosophy in the 20th century didn’t deal with trying to come up with philosophy from a global perspective; as a remnant of the colonialist perspective which was dominant for half the century, they conflated Western philosophy with global philosophy. Instead, many Western academic philosophers took a short cut of treating philosophy as a science, as if a global perspective re philosophy can happen just as it does in science. The great counterpush to this scientism by Wittgenstein, et al showed the limits of the scientism, but that still leaves wide open the positive project of what a global perspective looks like.

    The new consensus is trying to take a short cut from a different direction, as if being against the old structures, and being critical of all the isms constitutes a global perspective – or, relatedly, means being diverse. But their own intolerance shows the limits of this view.

    The challenge remains: if philosophy is not science, but it is also not simply culturally defined such that every culture has its own philosophy and it is not identity politics, what is philosophy? Yes, it is like art. But one has do the art, make the art relevant for our time. We need our own philosophical revolution and new creativity akin to the Enlightenment.

  36. Bharath Vallabha

    Cool. I might have misread one of your comments. Also maybe became a bit self-conscious re continuing back and forth, so was an attempt to wrap up. But always happy to discuss as well.

  37. I would say the main problem was that Western academic philosophy in the 20th century didn’t deal with trying to come up with philosophy from a global perspective; as a remnant of the colonialist perspective which was dominant for half the century, they conflated Western philosophy with global philosophy.

    = = =

    Yes, this clearly is the point on which we disagree. I would place this pretty low on my list of main problems.

  38. Bharath Vallabha

    Right, that’s where we disagree. I think placing the issue of global philosophy low on the list of problems is the main thing that is going to doom academic philosophy. The new consensus is trying to address the problem, but in a way which makes undermines academia more.

    So, as I see it, academia right is stuck between you and Justin: between those who think global phil is not a problem and those who think it is a problem but have an identity politics approach to it. This is one reason I left. Academia for sometime is just going to go in circles between these two camps and not get anywhere, and the new insights will come at least partly from outside academia.

  39. I understand. I just don’t find the analysis persuasive. I mean, I agree that philosophy is going to go down the tubes, but not for the reason you suggest.

  40. Bharath Vallabha

    Actually, I think academic philosophy in the West will take a dive for some time in the coming decades. But philosophy will thrive and flourish. And so go back more to the mode of cultural engagement from outside academia as it was in earlier times, as you say in your Philosophy Now article. In that article, you envision the rebirth of philosophy within academia. But I would say that the internal logic of your essays suggests that the rebirth will happen first outside academia. Can’t save academia only from within. To save academic philosophy, one has to rekindle the passion for philosophy outside academia, so that most non-academics will feel the need to have academic phil.

  41. I wish I shared your optimism. My perception of the popular culture and of general literacy leads me to think pretty much the opposite.

  42. Bharath Vallabha

    Well, culture and literacy were way worse before, and yet Socrates, Montaigne and Kierkegaard, and hundreds of other greats around world, found audiences and inspired people. The need for philosophy of a broader, humanistic kind is greatest when society seems on the edge of a precipice (which is probably most of the time!). The great philosophers find the frameworks which help create new ways forward. Don’t see why our time should be any different.

  43. “The rest of us far more mediocre folk simply have to muddle along in our shittiness”

    This might be one way of looking at life. It’s a very common view, but it may not be the only one. In the world of power and politics (and philosophy) there is indeed such a hierarchy of the exulted, the mediocre and the inferior. This view has been around since ancient times regarding the structure of society and each one’s placed in it. Things are evaluated from a cultural perspective. Fame and fortune are entangled. Achieving elite status is the goal.

    Viewing life from the perspective of the individual is another approach, possibly even more powerful, but much less appreciated. All of our entire, massively complex global culture can only be evaluated and analyzed inside of an individual person. Hence, one cannot function without a theory of culture. The amount of information that is processed by every individual is mind boggling. And here lies the problem. Each individual must have knowledge and understanding of an incredible range of subjects, disciplines and skills. However, there is not a single human being in existence that has a mastery of even a small fraction of the whole. So, there is no authority anywhere that fully understands what they are talking about, especially when it relates to the activities of groups of people. The standard recourse is to fill in the gaps with bullshit. Politicians, and to a lesser extent philosophers, are very good at this. So much so, that we believe them even when we know we shouldn’t.

    I will therefore disagree a little bit. I am not full of shittiness. Rather the humble tasks that I engage in are vitally important for society as a whole. I try to be kind and loving to family and friends. I tease those that I disagree with politically. The irony of it all is delicious

  44. That’s not the sense in which I mean “literacy.” And I don’t think we are on the edge of a precipice.

    We are in a Brave New World scenario, about which Huxley said: “No one will have to ban a book, because no one will want to read one.”

    Our elites are philistines, and our masses are addicted to the moving image. And I don’t think it will change anytime soon, but in fact, will get worse. I’m seeing the return of anything like a rich philosophical culture — or rich culture of any sort — in Harry Seldonesque time at this point.

  45. alandtapper1950

    An anecdote: in London back in the late 1970s the mother of a now-famous female philosopher told me she could always tell when philosophers were visiting by the amount of laughter coming from her daughter’s rooms. It’s a good index, I think.


  46. I try to be kind and loving to family and friends.

    = = =

    So, do I. I am talking about what’s underneath.

  47. Bharath Vallabha

    I wonder how much your lack of optimism is tied to your not being religious. From your perspective perhaps most people are lost in mythologies, and the elites who know better are more and more lost in identity politics. But I believe in religions as a great power to move people. For example, I believe in God and I love Christian music. It makes me feel really connected to many Americans who are Christians. That kind of a link can create new possibilities. In any case, don’t want to now take the conversation down that track – though I think that’s the natural next step of the dialogue we have been having. In fact, this is related to the piece I owe you about an alternate liberal vision to classical liberalism.

  48. Maybe. I certainly don’t believe in God. And most of what I see of peoples’ religion is rather repugnant. I live in the middle of one of the most intensely religious, Christian areas in the country. It is commonly referred to as the “Buckle of the Bible Belt” and is the home of one of the major Pentecostal denominations.

    Not only do I think that nothing coming from religion is going to help us with the problems we face, I think religion constitutes a concrete obstacle to facing them. And the version of religion that doesn’t is too weak, politically and otherwise, to serve as a counterweight. Liberal churches are dying, and fundamentalist ones are thriving.

  49. Bharath Vallabha

    Unfortunately, all true about religion most of the time. But I believe God is good, and He will show a way. I could make the same point without any mention of God, and just with a humanistic optimism. In any case, or I am just feeling more optimistic right now. 🙂

  50. Bharath Vallabha

    By the way, in our earlier exchange I didn’t mean to over emphasize that academic philosophy is going to go down. It will if people who disagree as you and Justin do don’t talk to each other. But if you guys and others talk and hash out your disagreements, then maybe academic phil can have a lot of hope.

    I still look forward to the next installment of the dialogue between you guys. If you guys can talk, even to be clearer about your disagreement, that would go a long way.

  51. I don’t think philosophy’s fortunes have anything to do with that, honestly. And there is no chance at this point, in any event. He’s just done too many shitty things since I offered my hand and had him on my program. At a certain point, after the second, third, fourth time, I just have to conclude that a person isn’t worth it and wash my hands of him.

  52. On the larger historical question that underscores this immediate discussion, It has long been my belief that Western philosophy – that is Modernist philosophy, arising as it did as as addressing problematics of both the new sciences and the new social orders developing out from the 16th/17tyh centuries – is simply exhausted. All of the major questions are known, all of the possible answers to those questions, from all possible perspectives, have been forwarded and argued. Due to the proliferation of researchers in the academic profession of philosophy, most of the details have also been worked over and fine-tuned.

    I first noticed this in Derrida. Deconstruction really depends on a Kantian epistemology of the written text, dragged through Hegel’s phenomenology, then loaded with the major Continental movements of the 20th Century. Once this is recognized, however, deconstruction is also recognized as an endgame – an epistemology of the text eats the texts it derives from. To his credit, Derrida understood this; his followers, not so much. (This exhaustion can be seen in other ways in the Analytic tradion – not just Rorty’s relativism, but in Kripke in a different way as well. I think Kripke a wonderful writer of his genre, but when we get to the point of debating the realism of proper names, we’ve actually come to a cross-roads we weren’t expecting.. .Because ultimately that *is* the Realist-Nominalist debate of the late Middle ages.

    We are taught, as undergraduates, that philosophy deals with perennial questions. History tells a different story, I once asked a literature professor of mine why there seemed to be few “classics” in the canon from the 15th Century. “Well, nothing happened in the 15th Century” (ie., nothing of literary importance). He wasn’t wrong. By about 1400, the philosophy (which also meant the theology) of the Church was exhausted – all the questions had been raised in debate, all possible answers had been argued, The reason the early Modern philosophers snubbed their noses at the Scholastics, is because by then the Scholastics could only teach and recycle the same old arguments. Every philosophy is of its time and context. Nothing the Scholastics had debated seemed to address the world opening up to the early Moderns. (This was also true of literature, as my professor remarked. Literature inevitably expresses the philosophical outlook, the world-view, of its day. By the 15th century, the great works deriving from the theology/ philosophy of Catholicism had all been written.)

    With the ugly, difficult transition to a ‘post-Modern’ era (which history will call something else once it congeals), Modernist problematics and their offered solutions seem either unsatisfying or unacceptable. Or simply out of date. The decline of a sophisticated literacy and the rise of media not dependent on literacy is a component of that transition; but not the only component. Some philosophers think they can foresee the questions this new context will raise and try to provide answers to these questions – thus the extreme scientism of Rosenberg, or the ‘new consensus’ of indentitarianism. There is an embedded arrogance in such agendas. Peter Singer was a very good reader of Hegel’s once; he should have learned the lesson Hegel himself learned (having witnessed the failure of the French Revolution he supported) – “The owl of Minerva flies at dusk.” Part of the function of philosophy is to explain the past – it can never prophesy. For philosophy to survive, it must preserve its own history. I knew, that if my suspicion that Modern Philosophy was exhausted – and my sense that philosophy is, after all, a certain non-fiction literary genre – were even in the right ball-park, that the task of philosophy in this early post-Modern era is the preservation of the history of philosophy.

    The eclecticism I see developing in some departments (such as U. New Mexico, where I studied under Fred Gillette Sturm) is a welcome sign, since those committed to eclecticism tend to spend considerable energy on historiography. But an emphasis on history also calls us to emphasize teaching over research (how many more essays on Kant can we endure?).. However given the traditional biases of the professional Academy, I’m not sure how such an emphasis can be propagated.

    As to the immediate issues raised by the OP – well, as I say, there will always be thinkers attempting to get around the curve of history before it happens; and that will always produce a certain arrogance. People who think they are “ahead of their time” grow outdated within two decades.

    “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.” This is where reality begins; all *professional* philosophies have worked to obscure it; yet the richest philosophical thought oft comes from confronting it.

  53. Kripkensteinsmonster303

    Bharath, I’d be very interested to hear more about your views on religion. They sounds to me a lot like John Hick’s pluralism. Don’t want to make the current discussion go off on a tangent, but it might be cool for you to write an essay about it sometime 🙂

  54. Bharath Vallabha

    It seems like you want to cut off Justin the way many want to do with Leiter. If so, I can understand.

    Still, issue of getting dialogues going so people don’t get stuck in their siloes remains. Academic phil is just an instance of broader cultural problem. Agree none of this depends on if you and Justin talk, or if Jenkins and Leiter talk, etc. The individuals disagreements can’t all be resolved. But if too many of them perpetuate, that does build up.

  55. Damn, this is good stuff, EJ.

  56. As a matter of general principle, you are of course correct.

  57. Bharath Vallabha

    Fantastic comment!

    I would say, as you put it, the exhaustion of modern philosophy, is the deep cause of academic philosophy’s troubles. The modern stuff of Descartes through Kant, and all the post-Kantian responses and how that played out through analytic and continental tradition, feels exhausted. There is a need for new philosophical frameworks which build on modern philosophy without being entirely defined by it.

    This also highlights a main problem with new consensus crowd. For all the uproar they create and their talk of change, for the most part their philosophies are stuck in the older depleted categories. Hence they get focused for the new in things like how we talk to each other, how nice someone’s tone is, etc.

    Modern academic philosophy is a product of modernity. The open question is whether the structures of academic philosophy will survive our getting beyond the exhaustion of modern philosophy. I am not sure. But at least this much seems clear: it’s not going to survive the way it was 50 years ago.

  58. Bharath Vallabha

    Thanks! Yes, my views on religion are very close to John Hick’s pluralism. With some Wittgenstein, Tillich and Rorty thrown in. This is also related to question of what kind of a secular society we should strive for.

    I have been meaning to write a post on why I believe that Christ was resurrected, and what that means, and more generally the issue of faith and miracles. I hope to get to it in the coming weeks.

  59. This is part of the reason why I like the linguistic approach so much. It is adaptable to any subject philosophy chooses to address.

  60. Kripkensteinsmonster303

    That sounds very interesting! Looking forward to it. I once watched a really I terstint debate between atheist philosopher Evan Fales, and Christian New Testament scholar Michael Licona, where the former defended a meataphorical interpretation of Paul’s view of the risen Jesus. Perhaps there’s some overlap between that and your own view.

  61. Kripkensteinsmonster303

    I also think that the ordinary language approach is that it is by its nature dealing with something ever-changing, and something who’s changes reflect changes in our practical concerns and our way of life, so there will always be new things we can get out of it, things which are relevant to what we care about. Abstract theorising strikes me as something which much more inevitably goes stagnant.

  62. That’s primarily what I meant by the linguistic approach. Ordinary Language philosophy and the later Wittgenstein. With some G.E. Moore and others thrown in.

  63. Kripkensteinsmonster303

    Yeah, I figured. I was just trying to expand on your point about how much less exhaustible that approach to philosophy is.

  64. Bharath Vallabha

    Very much agree re Wittgenstein, Moore, Austin, Ryle, etc. Exciting to hear mid 20th analytic phil being revived! Also phenomenology and pragmatism.

    When I was in grad school there was a general story I heard, often from people who were happy to have Harvard Wittgensteinism of Cavell, Putnam, Goldfarb, Moran, etc. be left behind, that somehow Grice’s discussion of implicature, and the rise of semantics and pragmatics, put the nail in the coffin of ordinary language philosophy. This was part of the broader story that the Chomskyian revolution of the 60s and the rise of contemporary cognitive science ended the prospects of mid century Cambridge philosophy.

    This always struck me as wrong. Whatever problems there were with later Wittgenstein’s philosophy, it wasn’t a matter of being superseded by better science. Traditions ebbs and flow for many reasons. A revival of Wittgenstein aligned with a focus on humanistic philosophy would be great.

  65. Bharath Vallabha

    Don’t disagree with you. Small point: I don’t know if ordinary language philosophy is less exhaustible, but as a tradition it is much less exhausted than debates about empiricism vs rationalism, utilitarianism vs deontology, dualism vs materialism, etc. The life arc of ordinary language philosophy was cut short by mainly sociological reasons, main among them, the expansion of universities in America in the 60s (and so the need to teach lots of intro classes, etc.) and the rise of cognitive sciences. The philosophical value of Wittengein, et al is still waiting to be tapped into.

  66. s. wallerstein

    Isn’t Wittgenstein a one man act much as, say, Nietzsche is? That is, no one else but Wittgenstein could write the Philosophical Investigations just as no one else besides Nietzsche could write the Genealogy of Morals. You have to be a incredible genius to write works like that. If you try to imitate a genius, you always fail. On the other hand, there are great philosophers who put forth a method that others can follow: you can be a Marxism or a pragmatist or a liberal without looking like a bad imitation of a genius.

  67. Bharath Vallabha

    Wasn’t saying we should emulate Wittgenstein’s writing style. As you say, he was a writer of genius like Nietsche. Just that there is a worldview – especially a certain self-criticalness about the nature of philosophy – in Wittgenstein’s works and related thinkers that we can expand upon in confronting our issues now. It’s a pity Wittgenstein himself, as well as someone like Austin in a different way, thought what they were doing was so different from ancient greats. I would say instead they were rejuvinating philosophy in a more ancient mode as a way to get out of the bogs of modern philosophy and its contemporary versions of scienticism, etc.

  68. Kripkensteinsmonster303

    I agree that the reasons were largely sociological. In the same way that the positivists felt as though science was on their side with the rise of Einsteinian relativity, the Cartesians (not dualists, but those who accept dualism’s basic explanatory structure) felt that Chomsky’s devastating critique of Skinner, etc. meant that science was on their side; and the fact that Wittgenstein and also Ryle were sometimes unfairly lumped in with the behaviourists allowed them to be swept aside.
    However, I do think there is something about ordinary language philosophy itself that makes it less exhaustible, and it seems to me to relate to the fact that it’s object of analysis is something dynamic and ever changing. As long as our forms of life keep changing and our language keeps changing, it will always be relevant. The search for general, necessary metaphysical truths isn’t like that at all IMHO.

  69. Bharath Vallabha

    You make a very interesting point. My worry is one could in principle say the same about philosophy as finding general truths, as in: it is always relevant since the truth is the truth and is always so. But perhaps that is nit picking. I certainly feel the force of your point, as I understand it, that as opposed to claims about Forms or Things in Themselves or sense data, which presuppose a lot of theoretical and contingent frameworks, analysis of our concepts and how we use words is not so beholden to particular frameworks.

  70. Kripkensteinsmonster303

    Yeah, fair point. I suppose that one of the big takeaways of the philosophy of Wittgenstein and Ryle in particular is that metaphysical truth isn’t particularly relevant to our lives and hence our language. But that’s precisely what defenders of metaphysical inquiry will dispute.

  71. Kripkensteinsmonster303

    I happen to think that the ordinary language philosophers are right, here. In fact, even in natural science, I think that heavy use is made of fiction, and truth isn’t as singlemindedly pursued as is often thought.

  72. I see that some commentator going under the name “Thrasymachus” is lying about me over at the DN in the discussion thread of the 5th anniversary post. According to him, I “participated — gleefully — in Leiter’s mobbing attack against Oseroff.”

    Besides being a liar and a coward who attacks people from behind a pseudonym, poor old Thrasymachus apparently suffers from a serious reading comprehension problem. And seems not to realize that anyone can go and check what I actually did, which was simply describe my own unpleasant dealings with Nathan Oseroff, over at the APA Blog.


    But then again, that whole discussion thread at DN is full of liars who don’t like being called on their shit. Hence, my observation that Weinberg’s “new consensus” is a big pile of crap. After all, he knows very well what the truth is, but allows people to go on his blog and slander others nonetheless. So long as they are people whom he doesn’t like, of course.

  73. Oh, and one more thing. There was no “mobbing attack.” Nathan Oseroff, in his position as an editor at the APA Blog, took the opportunity to go after Kathleen Stock as well as abuse his position in other ways. Here are all the posts that Brian Leiter did on the subject. None constitutes a “mobbing attack” unless one is cynical and disingenuous … or deranged.





  74. s. wallerstein

    Dan K.

    All my solidarity.

    It’s horrid to be slandered and still worse when the slanderer uses a pseudonym.

  75. Ah, no biggie. Just want to make sure the public record is straight.

  76. Bharath Vallabha

    I get Dan trying to clear the record, given what Thrasymachus said. And perhaps others will, but I am not going through all these links to figure out what “the truth” here is. I doubt there is any such thing as “the truth” is. There is, as I see it, mainly people not listening to each other on all sides. Fixating on the umpteen controversies and who is on which side, and who sided with whom when, and against whom, and which act was bullying and which was lying is not really productive.

    To the people involved, whose reputation gets put on the line, of course “the truth” of these exchanges, and who is right and who is wrong, matters. I feel for them as individuals. But I don’t see there is anything to be gained from generalizing from the particular disputes to statements of the form, “X people are the problem”, which then gets in the way of respectful debate.

  77. Whatever you may “see” it is not the case that I “gleefully participated in the mobbing” of anyone. Furthermore, no one was “mobbed.”

    “Respectful debate” ends, when people lie and slander other people.

  78. Bharath Vallabha

    Lying, slandering, bullying…it’s hard to keep up with the complaints on all sides.

    As someone who hasn’t been following most of this stuff, I am mainly left scratching my head why such smart people are focusing on first order issues of who is right and wrong rather than the second order issues of polarization, and as I said at Daily Nous, of Leiter’s and Justin’s blogs functioning like MSNBC and Fox News.

    Forget states taking away funding. A more immediate problem for academic phil is it is breaking into pieces. When there was the analytic vs continental divide, these was still the sense that particular departments or ecosystems were one or the other. But now even within analytic phil, there is splintering, and not based on philosophical debate, but on character assasinations and personal distrust.

  79. Stop trying to keep up. I spend over 95% of my time writing about other issues, including the ones that you rightly think are far more important. So you can cease your head-scratching, at least with respect to me. And Leiter and DN hardly spend most of their energies on these sorts of squabbles either.

    But when people posture and preen and straight up lie — especially, when it concerns me — I’ll call them out on it. No need for you to listen or read about it, if it doesn’t interest you.

  80. Bharath Vallabha

    Fair enough. Point well taken.

    But am curious: are you worried that what is happening in society at large re siloes is happening in academic philosophy? If so, what do you see as a way of brining people together? I guess I don’t see you, Justin and Leiter using your 95% writing to address this issue of siloes, so I read more into these 5%.

  81. Look, everyone can’t address every problem. Do I think siloes are a problem? Yes. Do I think they are a problem in academic philosophy? Yes. Are they the only problem? No. Are they the most significant problem? Maybe, that will depend on the person. Do I think I am particularly well suited to address this particular problem? Not especially. I think someone with your temperament would be much more suited for that sort of task. I wasn’t joking in my characterization of myself in the essay. Unlike Justin, I don’t think I’m a particularly nice guy. I get a little too much pleasure out of a well-crafted, articulate literary laceration.

  82. Bharath Vallabha

    Makes sense. Perhaps I unconsciously thought you are actually very well placed to tackle the siloes issue, since you seem culturally liberal, but also have long standing conservative credentials and knowledge (unlike me). But yes, not everyone has to do everything and people have different interests and skills.

    For what it is worth, I think you are a nice guy. 🙂

  83. That’s kind of you. I try to be pretty scrupulously fair in my dealings, but many people find me quite abrasive.

  84. Bharath Vallabha

    I can see that. I myself in earlier exchange on this page said I can see why people might be annoyed by how you communicate.

    But it’s a pity if we as a society can’t hold nice and abrasive together. As it happens, I like how Justin is nice too. But that is a different sense of nice. We need an ordinary language analysis of “nice” so we are not beholden to any one picture of it!

  85. Bharath Vallabha

    I meant to add “sometimes” to the end of first paragraph in last comment.

  86. alandtapper1950

    The essay by Nussbaum on Iris Murdoch is excellent, thanks Dan.

    On whether Socrates should be regarded as “smarmy and manipulative” or as a hero and saint of philosophy, George Rudebusch’s “Socrates” deserves a mention. Rudebusch reconstructs Socrates’s arguments very succinctly and with originality. He also places Socrates in the context of other cultures and religions, citing Confucius, the Gita, Jesus and others, so his book links to the interests of Bharat above.

    A perceptive reviewer on Amazon says this:

    This is a remarkable book in the distinguished Blackwell Great Minds series by a first-rate Plato scholar. The author provides careful analysis of key arguments in the dialogues, and offers an interpretation of them that persuasively shows the validity of even Socrates’s most extraordinary claims, e.g., that human beings are living their lives “upside down” and doing the opposite of what they ought; that no harm can befall a good man; or, as the author restates it, “single-minded devotion to righteousness, done as a holy sacrament, is ideal life.” He takes Socrates’ hearing of a divine voice and consequent divine mission seriously, and says his goal is “to lead philosophers to religion, to lead the religious to philosophy, and to lead those who are neither to both.” Occasionally, and increasingly toward the end of the book, he illustrates Socrates’ point by quoting Jesus as well as great spiritual teachers from other traditions. But there is nothing tendentious, no apologetics here, just well-founded exegesis and argumentation. Recommended for the serious student of philosophy.

  87. Sure. What is ‘underneath’ is the problem – a netherworld. Perhaps it is the work of the devil. We cannot avoid dealing with it since Adam and Eve foolishly decided to eat of the fruit of knowledge. Peering into this never-ending abyss has kept us occupied: goals, purposes, meaning, selfishness, charity, true or false, good and evil, etc, etc, ad infinitum., From personal experience I can say that doing too much plumbing of the dark recesses exacts a toll. I have noticed over the years that if I don’t pay attention to my inner state I can become exhausted. Thinking is actually physical work, but that is a whole other subject.

    I suspect that dealing with what is underneath is a slow cultural journey. Each member of society struggles with it, but only with very limited success, if at all. Individual failure is to be expected, societal or cultural failure has been catastrophic. Every individual needs to realize that they have a role in keeping the cultural ship afloat. It would be nice if we were better at eliminating cultural waste and toxins.

    So, I am simply saying that the heavy lifting is done by individuals. Those consensus builders and movement creators often delude themselves. They can’t resist thinking that they must be right because so many agree with them. It is therefore OK to attack others. These thought ‘leaders’ are mostly deluding themselves. (The worst of the worst are the Marxists, but that is also a whole other subject.) Still, we need the support of our fellow humans, but it is best when we rely on those that we know and trust – friends and family.

  88. J. Bogart

    So more laughter or less?