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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.