Why Most Philosophers Are Protestants

by Robert Gressis

Most philosophers of my acquaintance have said something of this sort: “most of the published philosophy I read is terrible.”[i] I don’t know what they mean by “most of”, but if you accept the Pareto principle (80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes), then let’s say that typical philosophers of my acquaintance think that 80% of the published philosophy they read is bad.

I assume that the philosophers of my acquaintance are not particularly unusual. I mean, I don’t have any reason to think that they, among all philosophers, have particularly high standards, so I’m going to baselessly generalize from my experience to the opinion of philosophers in general: 80% of philosophers think 80% of philosophy is crap.

On the face of it, this generalization is reminiscent of the oft-cited claim that 90% of drivers think they are above average drivers. (Jess Whittlestone provides a lot of studies that purport to show that most people think they are above average in most traits.) After all, I’m pretty sure the philosophers I know who say that most philosophy is garbage don’t think their philosophy is garbage. If anything, this complaint is usually followed by the lament that they—the philosophers who have noticed that most philosophical work is crap—aren’t published as much or in as high-profile venues as they should be. So, “most philosophy is crap” is really a protest rather than a lamentation. Thus, I’ll call these philosophers the Protestants.

Here’s the thing, though: I don’t think most philosophy is crap. I actually like and am impressed by most of the philosophy I read. And I doubt I’m alone, though I suspect I’m in the minority of philosophers. Call us relatively satisfied types who apparently think institutional philosophy is doing a good job Catholics. So, who’s right? The Catholics or the Protestants?

To answer this question, we have to look at our standards.

What is it for philosophy to be good in the first place? Here are nine criteria: for philosophy to be good, it should be (1) true (i.e., accurate); (2) rigorous (i.e., well-argued); (3) creative (i.e., does or tries to do things you wouldn’t have expected it to do or to try to do); (4) original (i.e., does something that no one else has done before – note that you can be creative but unoriginal; I see my students reinvent the wheel many a time, and when they do, I rate them as creative but unoriginal); (5) interesting (i.e., the project intrigues you, the reader, or lots of readers, even if not you in particular; note that you can creative or original without being interesting); (6) clear (i.e., understandable); (7) influential (i.e., like David Lewis, you affect the work of lots of other philosophers or, like Karl Popper, the work of lots of non-philosophers); (8) practicable (you can actually put your philosophy into practice), or (9) well-written (I mean to distinguish this from clear; I think Nietzsche is an excellent writer, but I wouldn’t call him clear).

I think the “or” preceding (9) is important; lots of philosophy that I and others like would be philosophy that we don’t think satisfies all nine of those criteria. I think Kant is a great and good philosopher, but I think must of what he writes is not true, rigorous, clear, or well-written. I think much of Peter van Inwagen’s oeuvre satisfies all of the criteria (save for practicability), and yet I think he’s a less great philosopher than Kant, Hume, Plato, or Aristotle. So, clearly, it’s important not only to satisfy some of these criteria, but a particular work or corpus can satisfy some of them more deeply than other works or corpuses.

Regardless, assuming that I’m right that these are the criteria we use to assess philosophy, there will obviously be a lot of disagreement about what philosophy is good, owing simply to our different outlooks on what it takes to satisfy the criteria. I think van Inwagen’s basic metaphysical outlook is plausible, whereas Alastair Norcross thinks it’s not only false, but so far off as to make some of what van Inwagen writes scandalously stupid. Iterate not only for each of the other criteria, but also for the degree to which a philosopher’s work satisfies each of them.

This explains why there is disagreement among philosophers about which philosophy is good, but it doesn’t explain why there would be Protestants and Catholics (assuming that Protestants and Catholics exist in large numbers – it could be that I simply suffer from confirmation bias or am misusing the availability heuristic: maybe the Protestants stand out to me because I’m a Catholic, whereas those who fall into neither camp—the nondenominational—don’t ping my radar). So: if philosophers fall predominantly into Protestants and Catholics, why mainly those two divisions? And if there are mainly those two divisions, why do Protestants outnumber the Catholics?

Here’s a theory: most Protestants are people who think that institutional philosophy does not work well, while most Catholics think it does. There are a number of reasons to doubt the ministrations of the central institutions of philosophy, but nepotism, servility, and ideological capture seem to me to cover most of the central objections. Take nepotism first. Nepotism covers things like telling only your personal acquaintances about upcoming job opportunities, favoring them with conference and publication opportunities, and giving them favorable book reviews against their merit or even your own personal judgment. Servility is mainly about giving favorable treatment to the powerful: you don’t criticize them, or subject their work to the same scrutiny, either from fear of their reprisals or hope for their indulgence. And ideological capture is when a particular view becomes regnant, not owing to the power of the reasons in its favor, but rather because it controls the most powerful philosophical institutions (top departments, top journals, the APA itself, and granting agencies).

After looking at this list, it’s hard to think that institutional philosophy works well. But it can be done, depending on your temperament. If you’re of a conservative bent, you may think the following: every institution is going to suffer from nepotism, servility, and ideological capture, so it’s not surprising that philosophy does as well. The question is, to what extent does philosophy suffer from these defects? And you may think that, even if philosophy suffers them to a worrisome degree, it does better on these fronts than many other disciplines. Moreover, it’s amazing that institutional philosophy, employing as it does thousands of philosophers, exists at all. (This is the institutional equivalent of the conservative talking point that poverty is humanity’s natural state; consequently, when you have a society that is not impoverished, you should be very careful about making far-reaching changes. Similarly, rampant corruption and barely being off the ground is every institution’s natural state. So, if you’re doing better than that, you should pat yourself on the back.)

This, then, is my explanations for why there are mainly Protestants and Catholics: because most people either think that institutional philosophy works poorly, or they think it works well. There isn’t much middle ground. But that still doesn’t answer this question: given that there are mainly Protestants and Catholics, why are there more Protestants than Catholics?

One answer is that the kind of person drawn to philosophy is generally of a radical rather than a conservative bent. While there are certainly ordinary language philosophers, Wittgensteinians, Burkeans, and the like, most philosophers, even those who fall accept philosophy’s remit as being what Strawson called “descriptive metaphysicians”, think that much is deeply wrong about society or about common sense. Even if you want to save the appearances, you have to do so in a way that the average person would find unrecognizable.

I have another answer, though. It starts by noting that philosophy can be and has been done in many different ways over its history. In his book, The Philosopher: A History in Six Types, the historian of philosophy Justin E. H. Smith provides a helpful taxonomy of six different conceptions of the philosopher:

  1. The Curiosa: “Curiosae and Curiosi believe that there is nothing shameful about knowledge of res singulars: singular things. These too can reveal the order of nature as a whole, and it is eminently the task of the philosopher, on their view, to discover this order.” (14) E.g., Aristotle, at least in his work on marine biology.
  2. The Sage: “The label here is to be understood in a broad sense, to include any socially revered figure who is held forth as a mediator between the immanent and transcendent realms, who is held to be able to speak for the gods or interpret what is going on beyond the realm of human experience.” (14) E.g., “the Brahminic commentators on the sacred scripture of India” (14).
  3. The Gadfly: the Gadfly “understands the social role of the philosopher not as mediating between the social and the divine, nor as renouncing the social, but rather as correcting, to the extent possible, the myopic views and misunderstandings of the members of his own society, to the extent possible.” (15) E.g., Socrates.
  4. The Ascetic: according to the Ascetic, the goal of philosophy is “first and foremost a conformation o the way one lives variously to nature, or to divine law, or to something beyond the illusory authority of society, the state, or the temple” (15). E.g., Nietzsche.
  5. The Mandarin: “The term comes from the examination system that produced the elite class of bureaucrats in Imperial China, and may be easily extended to the modern French system that produces normaliens, and also with only a bit more stretching to the system of elite education in the Anglo-American sphere out of which the great majority of successful careers in philosophy take shape. Mandarins have a vested interest in maintaining … ‘normal science’ and are typically jealous guardians of disciplinary boundaries” (16). E.g., your typical 21st-century American philosopher.
  6. The Courtier: the Courtier is someone who sells his philosophical services to wealthy powers – he pursues wealth and glory, and if that means supporting the powers that be, rather than criticizing them, then support them he will. Smith notes that it can be hard to tell the difference between Courtiers and Mandarins—both receive financial support for their work, after all. The thought is that the Courtier is more like a sophist rather than a philosopher, but given that Leibniz is the prototypical courtier, Smith thinks it far from obvious that being a Courtier is incompatible with being wise.

Though most contemporary philosophers are Mandarins or Courtiers, it doesn’t follow that most philosophers conceive of the goal of philosophy as Mandarins or Courtiers do. It could be, for instance, that many practicing philosophers, despite being Mandarins, idealize Gadflys, Ascetics, Sages, or even Curiosi as their ideals of how to do philosophy.

If that’s right, then, not only are there at least nine different criteria by which you can categorize philosophy, but there are also four (or more) different teloi[ii] that philosophers think philosophy has. You may think, with the Ascetic, that the goal of philosophy is to change yourself; you may think, with the Gadfly, that the goal of philosophy is to change the world; you may think, with the Curiosa, that the goal of philosophy is to understand a very small part of the world; or you may think, with the Sage, that you should pursue philosophy only because doing so makes you wise.

There are, then, criteria, and teloi, about which people differ. And that means that philosophers will assess each other’s work according to vastly different standards, resulting in vastly different judgments about the quality of a philosopher (witness Daniel Kaufman and Spencer Case’s different evaluations of Williams and Parfit).

I’m now finally positioned to explain why I think there are more Protestants than Catholics. The main reason is this: you tend to judge yourself by the standards you accept and think are good. However, in philosophy, the standards by which philosophers judge philosophical work are often fundamentally different. But since the standard you use is one you try to live up to, while you don’t try to live up to the ones that others employ, you’ll end up thinking that most people do really poor philosophy, at least by your standards. For instance, imagine you’re an Ascetic. If you are, you probably try to live like one. And you’ll probably judge others’ work by that standard. But since many other philosophers are Gadflies, it follows that you’ll think they’re doing a poor job of being Ascetics. So you’ll think almost all of what they do is crap. But even though you think most of philosophy is crap, you won’t think what you do is crap – after all, at least you have the right goal.

So that’s why I think most philosophers are Protestants: most of the time, the people doing philosophy don’t have conservative temperaments (so they’re not Catholics), but the way in which they’re radical will differ radically from philosopher to philosopher, so they’ll think most philosophy is garbage. The real question is why any philosopher is a Catholic. To be honest, though, I’m the only Catholic I know, so maybe it’s not something I need to spend time figuring out.


[i] How many philosophers constitute “most philosophers”? I don’t know, I haven’t done a survey. So, for all you’ve said, you may be remembering the opinions of three philosophers and then generalizing to ‘most philosophers of my acquaintance’? Yup. If your experience is quite different, then I’d like to know!

[ii] Whereas Curiosi, Sages, Gadflies, and Ascetics all pursue obvious and different teloi, it’s not clear to me that being a Mandarin or Courtier lends itself to thinking of philosophy as having a particular telos. In fact, I think it doesn’t.






33 responses to “Why Most Philosophers Are Protestants”

  1. Carol Bensick

    Wonderful piece! And I am undoubtedly a Catholic, although only arguably a philosopher

  2. In an earlier essay, you wrote: “Lately, I’ve been wondering whether it’s OK for me to be a philosophy professor.”

    The answer to that is clearly YES, and your current essay demonstrates that.

    In your current essay, you say:

    it should be (1) true (i.e., accurate);

    I don’t think you can have that one. You could perhaps settle for the weaker “it should not be false”. But I think you also want it to be persuasive.

    The problem here, is that a lot of good philosophy falls outside of the criteria by which we judge truth. And sometimes the role of the philosophy is to propose such criteria.

  3. s. wallerstein

    Couldn’t this just be normal professional competitivity? Have you ever had a plumber come to your home who didn’t criticize the work of the previous plumber? Have you had a computer technician come to fix your computer who didn’t criticize the work of the previous computer technician?

    Now this competitivity is more marked in fields where people work on their own as in philosophy or plumbing than in fields where they work in teams as with doctors or nurses. Still, if you get to know a doctor well, you’ll see that the solidarity among doctors is fairly superficial and when you become more friendly with them, they begin to criticize other doctors.

  4. Thanks for mentioning Karl Popper, and you are right that he appeals to a lot of non-philosophers. I measure philosophers by whether what they say is understandable and makes a difference to the world. Popper warned that philosophy should never become so narrowly specialized that non-philosophers couldn’t understand it. He was in the minority on that one, but I think he was right. What I see now, is a lot of philosophy bubbles where all the denizens understand each other but not “those other guys”. Metaphysics, Meta-ethics, Philosophy of mind, AI, Post-Modernism, Philosophy of language: These are scary subspecialties in philosophy that have gone overboard on knit-picking and irrelevance. I’m constantly buying used philosophy books that have been thrown out of college libraries because nobody reads them anymore. The vast majority of philosophy books that were written more than twenty years ago suffer this fate. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is the same for journal articles. (except for Quine!)

  5. Regarding your first remark, you’re too kind!

    Regarding your second remark, I think your criticism misses the mark. I’m not saying that all philosophers think that all philosophy should be true to count as good. Indeed, I would say that most philosophers would say that goodness is not a necessary condition for philosophy’s being good. That said, I think that most analytic philosophers, at least, think that a philosophical view’s being true makes it better, and I think many analytic philosophers claim to know that certain controversial philosophical positions are true.

    As for “persuasive”, are you suggesting it as an additional criterion for philosophy’s being good, or are you suggesting that when philosophers say that they think true philosophy is better than false philosophy, that they really mean persuasive philosophy is better than unpersuasive philosophy?

  6. I’m actually suggesting that some philosophy might not have a determinate truth value. So I don’t see it as a case of true vs. false. My comment about “persuasive” was meant to suggest a hope that it might be true.

  7. davidlduffy

    Given you have included truth and originality among your criteria, I think we are back to “is there philosophical progress?”. Chalmers thinks one (imperfect) measure is convergence of opinions in the profession.

    The PhilPapers survey did not publish enough data to see how many clusters there were in their factor-analytic 7 dimensional space, but the pairwise tables for things like, say, Platonism v. Rationalism imply a broad spread. One is then left with the question about whether one can (or should) respect the thinking of someone who accepts a wildly different basic stance (ie how widespread are examples like Norcross and van Inwagen).

  8. Nice essay!

    Your first criterion, that “for philosophy to be good, it should be true” would (should), in my opinion not be part of a good philosopher’s credo. But I would say that, wouldn’t I, since I don’t subscribe to the possibility of truth (of the absolute/objective) kind in respect to anything. The closest one can get to truth (with or without a capital letter) is approximate truth, which may be as far from truth as false truth.

    It stands to reason – mine, at least – that however large or small the percentage of philosophers who accept the notion of “truth” as a given, those philosophers would not be good philosophers. All I now need to do is to decide if those who believe in approximate truth are approximately good philosophers.

  9. Animal Symbolicum

    I’m a Catholic when it comes to most of the philosophy from our tradition but a Protestant when it comes to most of the philosophy nowadays. The question of whether a philosopher’s view is true is, to my mind, the least interesting, least edifying philosophical question there is. I read philosophy as a way of encountering and thinking along with interesting casts of mind. Which at least partly explains why I’m a Protestant when it comes to most of the philosophy nowadays: few interesting casts of mind can be found when high journal style is de rigueur.

    To my sensibilities, far too many journal articles read as though they’re trying to be Good Philosophy. It’s like a teen trying to pass as an adult by wearing all the Adult things, making all the Adult gestures, etc. The teen doesn’t realize that adults look the way they do because they’re adults; it’s not that they’re adults because they look the way they do. Similarly, I see too many journal articles as trying, for example, to pass as clear by making all the Clarity gestures.

    I don’t want to go on too long here, so to illustrate what I mean I’ll just point to one part of almost every journal article we’re all familiar with. It’s the part at the beginning where we all pretend that it’s clarifying for me to tell you what I’m about to do in the paper. But it’s not actually clarifying, because the significance of crucial ideas I mention here is necessarily left hidden. Besides, you can already tell that this is a lifeless imitation of every other lifeless imitation of . . . every other paper, so you already know how I’m going to proceed. But it’s important I do this anyway, because all Good Philosophy Papers do it, and because I’ve heard that this is what it means to be clear and transparent, right?

  10. Animal Symbolicum

    This is also why I deeply appreciate Electric Agora: a panoply of interesting casts of mind, from contributors to commenters.

  11. Thanks for your compliment, and interesting to know that there are other Catholics out there.

  12. My doctorate is in English, but I studied philosophy a full year afterward, at UNM and Duquesne, because questions that had begun to rattle in my brain when I had read Heidegger and Aquinas in the early ’80s were raised anew, in different ways, during the Literary Theory Wars that went on while I was studying for my doctorate. I note that because I think your analysis, while broad, is certainly cogent – but somewhat limited to professional academic philosophy.

    It is notable that some of the philosophers you mention in the article were not ‘technically’ (i.e., degreed or employed) philosophers at all. Nietzsche was a philologist, Hume made his money largely by writing histories, and Socrates apparently lived off some family assets – I don’t remember any employment being mentioned; I could be wrong. Anyway none of the Greeks ‘did’ philosophy, they simply ‘philo-ed’ ‘sophia’ so to speak (permitting the crudity).

    That’s important, I think, because while some non-professionals fit comfortably in Smith’s categories, I think some do not. This is clearly the case with some of the ‘classics’ – for instance, Voltaire claimed the mantel of ‘philosopher,’ but much of what he wrote is too context-bound to fit comfortably as a ‘Gadfly.’ He lived off family funds, some shrewd investments, and patronage of the well-to-do.

    But it is probably even more to the point with those who never write or publish, who never attract notice, who are not remembered. We only really remember Emerson, but when Transcendentalism was ‘hot’ philosophical and theological discussions of it raged from public lecture halls to private dining-rooms. Something similar happened during the Hegel revival among educators in the late 19th Century. The people engaged in those discussions are now only memorialized on their tombstones – but in research, you can occasionally stumble on their magazine articles or letters-to-the-editors in what were their local newspapers of the time. One of the more important positive phenomena of the education boom of the late ’60s, early ’70s was that for a brief time literally thousands of bright young students were debating Marx or Nietzsche, or even Kant in cafeterias or dorm rooms – even if they were smoking weed or guzzling brew at the same time (do we forget that the Symposium was a drinking party?)

    Of course such moments are long gone, and will never recur. Digital media culture is not strictly illiterate, but, one might say, a-literate. The written text is now trivial, just another ‘communication of information,’ and books mean nothing to it. While Socrates distrusted writing, as begun by Plato in the West, what we are calling philosophy, for both the professional or non-professional, is a function of hard-copy text literacy – the culture of the book.

    While the culture of the book was a living culture, it should be remembered, among those who studied or thought seriously about philosophy, the goals of professionals were very different from those of non-professionals, and remain so among the remnants of that culture today. The decisive difference is of course tenure, and the necessity of publishing to accomplish that. But there are other issues, such as achieving some respect, even repute, among some communities, and the differences between the various communities where such might be pursued. There are also issues concerning whatever knowledge might be sought, whatever questions might be asked, or whatever resolution one might find to such questions. Among non-professionals we find those who hope to find the Answer to Everything, and even those who think they’ve found that, and wish to teach the world so that Everything Is Made Right, and we can all agree and move on. And of course there are the playful pyrrhonians who doubt every word, idea, or possible existence. But I think for most non-professionals what is searched for is what I would call ‘satisfaction.’ We seek a philosophy, or some set of ideas that seem to hang together well, that resolve those questions that rattle around in the brain. And the surprising thing is that this can be accomplished.

    I sometimes, somewhat self-consciously, identify myself as a Pragmatist. I do that to suggest that there is a set of ideas that have been developed that have largely settled certain questions for me. It is notable that of the Pragmatists who most helped me achieve this satisfaction, only Peirce was determined to be a philosopher in the grand, classical sense; James, Dewey and Meade were all trained in psychology; Holmes was a lawyer, and Eco and Peckham literary theorists. In broader contexts, I might also profess my adherence to a secular Buddhism for similar reasons, study in Buddhism helped settle certain questions for me, and resolved certain problems. Such labels are really only shorthand references to the books I’ve read, and the influences these have had on me. Having started out with Heidegger and Aquinas, I might well have ended up elsewhere, but I doubt it. Somethings in the texts of Pragmatism and those of Buddhism made such sense to me, that any new difficulty could be resolved through refinement, and many disagreements could be settled or simply forgiven by acknowledging that the authors of these texts were surely as human as I. Aquinas, of course, was a saint, but I did not remain a Catholic, nor did I become a Protestant (either actually or metaphorically). Like Ronald Green, I value ‘approximate truth’ more highly than truth, though I agree with Bernard Williams that truthfulness is a necessary virtue. Perhaps it is best to say, then, that truth is a practice, not a goal.

    At any rate, my recent efforts have been to practice the approximate truths I hope I’ve found – and that’s so much harder than the search for them was.

  13. Robert A Gressis

    There are a lot of good comments in this thread that I haven’t gotten to. I will start responding tomorrow, now that my teaching week is done.

  14. There are a lot of good comments in this thread. I hope to respond to them tomorrow.

    (Sorry if this is a double post.)

  15. I will say at least this much by way of response: Smith is clear that he doesn’t mean these six types of philosopher to exhaust all the types there are. I don’t recall him mentioning any other types that he decided not to include, but he’s explicitly open to there being other types; perhaps he would see Voltaire as one such other type (though maybe he’d simply classify him as a Courtier). Unfortunately, he doesn’t discuss Voltaire at all in his (somewhat short) book.

  16. s. wallerstein

    Since I’ve often disagreed with you and probably will continue to disagree with you frequently in the future, let me just say that I found what you wrote above to be very insightful and even moving at times.

    I recall years ago when working as a journalist, I went to interview a feminist activist early in the morning and she remarked when greeting me that I was the first person she had come in contact with that day. How can that be, I asked, when you’ve traveled across town in crowded public transportation? I didn’t say the “first human being”, she replied, but the “first person”. Well, you’re the first person I’ve come in contact with today, be it online or off, and I already left my apartment to go shopping as well as greeted several neighbors.

  17. These days I mark a good philosophy article, or for that matter a good essay with a philosophical bent, to be one which illuminates something in a different way that I am used to considering it, providing it has the aroma of truth within it. We all, well most of usa, know when the fragrance is detected, without any need for reliance upon any analytical defining of the same.

  18. Let me say a word about the nine criteria.

    How did I arrive at these nine criteria? I arrived at them by thinking of the kinds of things I’ve heard philosophers say to explain why they’re praising a piece of philosophy, or in answer to the question, “what makes some philosophy good and other philosophy not good?”

    I do not think that every philosopher accepts that all nine of the criteria can make philosophy good. There may be some philosopher who thinks that only a couple of the criteria matter, and the rest are irrelevant. My list of nine is, instead, the most expansive list I could think of. So, yes, I agree, some philosophy might not even qualify as true or false, but it may still be good because it may satisfy some of the rest of the criteria. And, to answer Ronald Green’s point below, some philosophers may think that truth is not a criterion that makes for good philosophy, and so they never evaluate philosophy for its truth.

    But the list stopped at nine because I couldn’t think of any other criteria to add that I’ve heard philosophers invoke to explain why they think a piece of philosophy is good.

  19. I don’t think it’s simply professional competitiveness. Honestly, that possibility didn’t occur to me because, even if philosophers are competitive, I’m not sure that’s how their competitiveness would manifest.

    For instance, if I have a plumber in my home, and he said that the previous plumber’s work was bad, I see that mainly as justifying why he’s about to sock me with a big expense, but also to talk himself up as a good plumber. The thing is, I’m his customer, so he has a clear financial incentive that explains his behavior.

    As for professional competitiveness among philosophers, when they tell me these things, it’s never because I’m in a position to decide anything. It’s not like they’re trying to talk up themselves in order to convince me to purchase their philosophy and newsletter. It’s one professional talking to another, lamenting the abilities of other professionals.

    But maybe I’m missing something here.

  20. Elijah Milgram has written a book that touches on these themes called _The Great Endarkenment_. it may be worth checking out.

  21. To me, the proper response in such cases is one of puzzlement rather than contemptuous dismissal, but maybe that’s because of *my* particular worldview.

  22. Hi Ronald,

    I have a response to Neil Rickert above wherein I respond to your comment.

  23. s. wallerstein

    I assume that the same psychological mechanisms govern our behavior, whether one is a philosopher or a plumber.

    Philosophy is a field where people compete for scarce job possibilities and as in other fields, where people compete for scarce jobs, a spirit of competitivity reigns. The need to beat the other person to get a job is so overwhelming in the case of recent philosophy PhD’s, that it is very possible that the spirit of rivalry stays with philosophers even after they gain tenure and job security.

    That spirit of competitivity is not necessarily always conscious. Most of us tend to attribute lofty motives to ourselves even when our basic motives are not so noble. We lie to ourselves a lot about our motives: we all do. Here’s an example from my own biography: if you had asked me my opinion about jocks and competitive sports when I was in high school or in the university, I would have given a long ethical and political discourse against them, which would embarrass me to repeat now if I could remember it. However, when I analyze my younger self with over 50 years of distance, I see that my complete inability to compete at sports and my wanting to compete with jocks for available women were the root of my “theoretical” repudiation of jocks and competitive sports. I was not conscious of that at the time or perhaps only semi-unconscious. I lied to myself a lot about the nobility of my motives back then, and I’m sure that I still do.

    I in no way want to imply that you or that philosophers in general lie to themselves more than others do, only that they are human, all too human.

  24. davidlduffy

    It’s always easy to find philosophers being snarky, but I enjoyed Laudan [1978]:

    Arguments are expected to be rigorous, but no demand is made that there must be evidence for the premisses. Terminology is expected to be precise, but its appropriateness to the subject matter under discussion can be left unexplored…Ad argumentum mingles indiscriminately with ad hominem: and above all, the evidential warrant for one’s philosophical claims is, like the topics of sex and religion to the less enlightened, one of those delicate issues never to be discussed in mixed company,

    After this, he goes on to explain how his critics did not understand Progress and its Problems.

  25. I’m a big believer that self-deception and dissimulation are way more widespread than most people think (at least, that’s what I tell myself), so I’m not at all averse to the idea that philosophers lie to themselves or don’t know their own motives. The question is, when should you attribute self-deception or preference falsification to someone? E.g., if my wife says “I’m hungry” and then makes herself dinner, it would be silly to say that she just thinks she’s hungry but something else is motivating her eating behavior. If she says “I’m open-minded” but always seems to end up agreeing with whatever the Democratic party is saying, then there’s good reason to think she’s deceiving herself, or at least doesn’t understand herself.

    So the question is, when should you treat philosophers’ judgments of other philosophers’ work as stemming from competitivity (I’ve never seen that word before, but I’m developing a sense of what it means)? Here’s one scenario: Smith and Jones are both metaphysicians who both work in the Lewisian tradition. They reach different judgments about, say, the existence of God. Smith think Jones’s arguments are bad, and Jones thinks that Smith’s arguments are bad. The fact that Smith and Jones are competing is good reason to entertain the possibility that this partly explains their opposing judgments.

    But if Smith is, say, a Leibniz scholar and Jones does, say, Rawlsian political philosophy, then it’s hard to see them as competing, or even to see the spirit of competitivity playing much of a role. So, if Smith thinks Jones’s work is bad, and vice versa, it seems to me a bit odd to attribute that to competitivity, as opposed to having different philosophical standards (or, perhaps, one of them really is doing bad work).

    Now, of course, it’s still possible that competitivity explains their judgments. But I think you want to be careful here; you don’t want to just say that all of our judgments about goodness and badness are due solely to our subconsciously perceived judgment of how a work relates to our professional fortunes (e.g., I judge Plato to be good only because if I don’t I’ll be judged negatively by my peers). Alternatively, the claim might just be that competitivity means only that first instinct is to criticize rather than to praise. That may be, but some of us still end up praising something as good (try as we might to criticize) and reach different judgments about what is good and bad from our peers (even though all of us have criticism as our first instincts).

  26. I’m one of those philosophers who takes truth to be important. E.g., if I read an article that presumes at the outset that, say, white supremacy (undefined) explains MOST of why the institutions, culture, and people of the United States are the way they are, then I find it hard to take the rest seriously. It still may be quite interesting (although that point of view is now so widespread that it will also be boring), but I’ll feel like I’m wasting my time and so will lose motivation to read it.

    As for your point about the introduction of philosophy papers, I find that quite interesting. I recall teaching my students to write their introductions this way, and then I noticed that many, many philosophy papers do NOT do this. I also noticed that when my students would start their papers that way, I would find reading them very boring. By contrast, when the students started with a more personal starting point, I would be more engaged.

    That said, you wrote that such introductions are “not actually clarifying, because the significance of crucial ideas I mention here is necessarily left hidden.” Could you elaborate upon what you mean there?

  27. I agree you don’t need an analytical framework to know whether you think a piece of philosophy is good, any more than you need such a framework to know whether you think a piece of music is good. But sometimes specifying the framework is helpful, because it allows you to appreciate things in greater depth than you could before specifying the framework.

  28. s. wallerstein

    Although English is my native language, I don’t speak it very much in daily life and haven’t for many years, so sometimes I use strange words. Glancing at Google, I realize that “competitiveness” is more usual than “competitivity”, although both words are synonyms and acceptable English usage.

    I’m not claiming that all philosophical disagreements are due to professional competitiveness in a tight job market, but that it’s a factor that should be considered. Some people are more competitive than others independent of the circumstances.

    Not all people deceive themselves all the time obviously, and when someone says that they are hungry or thirsty, they are most often being honest. I tend to follow Nietzsche in suspecting lofty moral discourses as being products of or rationalizations of more basic drives especially when those lofty moral discourses become very insistent or vehement as is often the case with philosophers. Dan K. cites Pete Singer in the article from the Electric Agora he links to above, and Singer might be a good example of someone whose moral loftiness “doth protest too much”.

    So we might use the Hamlet criterion: that’s when someone “doth protest too much” about some lofty moral issue, we might suspect that something is fishy in the state of Denmark.

  29. Hi EJ,

    Let me list your two points, as I understand them, then respond to them.

    1. Smith’s taxonomy leaves out some important non-credentialed philosophers, e.g., Voltaire.

    RESPONSE: This is probably true, but two questions: (1) why not think of Voltaire as a Gadfly who was also a Courtier? (2) Assuming there are good reasons for thinking that Voltaire didn’t fit Smith’s taxonomy, can you think of another category to put on the list that would include Voltaire (and maybe some others, like the philosophes in general)? [Here’s my attempt to start doing (2): the Gadfly is someone who wants to change society for the better, but are there philosophers who want to keep society in the way it is? Maybe Burke or Confucius would fit that latter category. The Ascetic is someone who wants to change himself for the better, but maybe there are philosophers who want us to accept ourselves for who we are? Montaigne comes to mind here. The Sage is someone who wants to achieve wisdom, but maybe there are philosophers who think philosophy should focus on the acquisition of a different virtue, like courage? Agnes Callard is one such philosopher.]

    2. The way philosophy is done now, as an academic discipline, is fairly recent. For much of philosophy’s history, the people who came to be known as great philosophers weren’t university professors. Moreover, and more important, the people who took philosophy seriously, and who aren’t remembered anymore, were people who were not studying it in college or hoping to become professors. Instead, these people took philosophy seriously because there was a culture of the book, and so for them, philosophy was very much an existential enterprise. You didn’t say this, but it could be that their relationship to philosophy was very similar to many contemporary people’s relationship to politics or (to perhaps vulgarize it) to any kind of fandom. Unfortunately, the academicization of philosophy, in combination with the replacement of book culture with Internet culture, has changed philosophy from its historical form. No longer is it something that flourishes by speaking to people’s real concerns, but it is instead something that is primarily a set of logical games among players whose primary concern is either to win the game (by beating their competitors) or to figure out the logic of the game.

    RESPONSE: I don’t know much about the culture of the book; what I know about it comes from Walter Ong by way of Nicholas Carr. As I understand the culture of the book, though, it, compared to oral culture, allowed us to off-load things we formerly had to remember onto a page. This had two main consequences: first, we no longer needed to have as much memorial capacity. So, people of the book don’t have as good memories as people of the tongue. The second consequence, though, was that, by allowing us to place our presumptions in front of our eyes, we no longer had to put our thinking into the form of stories. Instead, we could arrange our thinking into abstract propositions, and, to the extent we still used stories, those stories could have richer and ever-expanding vocabularies. So, people of the book had worse memories than people of the tongue, but were more able to make progress in knowledge. How do things change when you have people of the screen?

    Well, people of the screen no longer read the same as people of the book. We power-browse — our expansive and ever-present options are always competing, silently or explicitly, with whatever it is we’re currently focusing on, making “focus” itself something of a joke-term. So, we spend, on average, 20 seconds or so on a page, reading the first few lines from left to right, but then gradually reading from up to down. We get the gist, and we get only the gist. Moreover, our memories are significantly worse than those of people from literary cultures, to say nothing of those of people from oral cultures. Consequently, we are more manipulable: who can remember anything from a week ago, to say nothing of years ago? If the president said that we’ve always been at war with Oceania, well, that seems plausible enough.

    On the other hand, though our memories are worse, though our focus is gone, our ability to find information is improving. Would a typewriter-gate have felled Dan Rather in the 1980s? Who would have believed some anonymous nobody in the 1980s compared to the great Dan Rather? So, not only can we find stuff more easily, everyone can be an expert. The old hierarchies are breaking down (though new ones arise in their place). And, though millennials won’t read because they can’t (even my 400-level philosophy majors can’t read Philip Tetlock’s _Superforecasting_, despite the fact that this is just a trade book written for businessmen in airports), they are very good at being comfortable with an ever-shifting focus.

    So it may be that philosophy can’t flourish at all in this environment.


    But I suspect that philosophy will shift its form. It will probably become one of many fandoms–you like comic books and turn to them to answer your existential needs, I turn to the Existentialists–but even that fandom will have interesting features in comparison to past philosophical eruptions. Academia is probably, and hopefully, doomed, and that might be good for philosophy.

    Still, I don’t see anything about that that changes the nine criteria as the criteria for good philosophy, nor do I see any seventh type from that. Maybe I’m missing something, though. That always may be true.

  30. Animal Symbolicum

    Thanks for replying, Professor Gressis.

    I take your point that in some cases, one’s instinctive, antecedent, or provisional assignment of a truth value to an implicit or explicit claim in a paper — be that claim a presupposition, premise, conclusion, whatever — makes it difficult for one to go on and find anything of intellectual value in (reading) the paper. In such a case, the question of whether the claim is true has, as it were, hijacked the whole experience. I’ve had that experience, for sure. This is indeed evidence that the question about truth can capture attention — that it can be interesting. Whether it should, I’m less sure: on the whole, I’m inclined to say, knowing whether a philosophical theory is true is of less intellectual value than knowing other things about a theory.

    The question of whether a philosophical claim or theory is true (including the ones I’m making here) is less interesting, to my mind, not just because of the “truth” part but also because of the “claim” or “theory” part. What I find interesting or uninteresting are not just the claims philosophers make but, as I called it, their casts of mind.

    The way I see it, the philosophy that ends up embodied in a paper is not exhausted by the paper’s claims, “moves,” or arguments. I see a paper also as an embodiment of an outlook, a sensibility, a voice — a cast of mind. It’s these things that really quicken my mind and that I learn most from, by inhabiting or trying to inhabit them. They’re funny things, I know: they don’t — can’t? — get crisply articulated in propositions whose truth value we can argue about or in arguments whose validity we can argue about. But we know they exist. They’re the kinds of thing that students and apprentices pick up by hanging around and working with their teachers. And they’re important. They can prevent a meeting of the minds that no argument can repair. (The closest contemporary philosophy comes to appreciating them is the metaphilosophical discussion about intuitions. But, here again, the content of these intuitions is thought to be exhaustively representable in propositions whose truth value we can write lots of clever professional papers attacking or defending.)

    All of this also has to do with my remark you asked about, though I don’t have the space to explain how. So let me take a different tack: As philosophy has professionalized, it has modeled itself on the sciences. Among other things, this has the unfortunate consequence of lulling philosophers into thinking that philosophy articles are like scientific ones. And this, in turn, and again among other things, lulls philosophers into thinking we’re all using an agreed-upon vocabulary in which we “report results.” But we don’t have such a thing, as evidenced by rampant misunderstanding, deliberate and otherwise. So when a philosopher writes that paragraph saying what he will be doing, almost invariably he will use terms and phrases whose significance in the particular context can only be usefully grasped by reading the whole paper, at the very least. And that’s just to mention those terms we’re all already familiar with. The here’s-what-I’m-doing paragraph is even more pointless when the author uses new terms whose significance can’t but be explained only later.
    Btw, I read in the comments thread on Sophia that you think you’re a mediocre philosopher. Your assessment seems to be based on your publications and citations. This to me is evidence that we’re using the wrong criteria for “good philosopher” or “good philosophy,” for I find you to be a wonderful thinker with fascinating sensibilities and an impressive cast of mind. You’re a model of fair-mindedness, and you’re rigorous and principled without getting drunk on technicalities or abstractions. The way you frame problems, and the problems you frame, merit interest, and I have learned a lot by following you to points that you consider the heart of the matter but that I would’ve never thought were so. 

  31. Thanks for your remarks about mediocrity. I’ve been thinking about what mediocrity is, and it’s, of course, a very context-sensitive concept. Any number of NBA players may think they’re mediocre basketball players and, relative to the rest of the NBA, they’d be right. Whether you’re a mediocrity or not depends on whom you’re comparing yourself to, and also on what version of the person you’re comparing yourself to. For instance, I suspect many philosophers could write as well and as provocatively as I can, but just choose not to, either because they’d rather work on their teaching, their research, their boat, what have you. But also, whether you’re a mediocrity depends on what you think the teloi of philosophy are, and how well you think you’ve reached them — compared either to some absolute standard or to some peer group. So, it’s easy to make the case that I’m mediocre (compared to Kant) or that I’m great (compared to a random undergraduate). When I call myself a mediocrity, I’m usually comparing myself to the top people in the field, and the way I’m comparing myself is not by insight, but rather by how seriously others in the profession take them and me. In my experience, most professional philosophers who read my work find it either boring, silly, or unmotivated. And that’s totally fine with me (it used not to be, but it is now). I think it does mean that, in terms of my impact on the field, at least, I’m a mediocrity. But you’re right, in other ways I’m not.

    As for your remarks about introductions, I see more clearly what you’re getting at. Every philosopher has his own personality, and the “here’s-what-I’m-going-to-say” model tries to elide that. But it doesn’t really, it just sweeps it under the rug, and it’s going to come out later, albeit in an unpleasant, distorted way, thanks to the Procrustean form everyone tries to fit.

  32. […] to Robert Gressis’s most recent essay, a “Protestant” philosopher is one who thinks that professional philosophy today is crap, while […]