by Miroslav Imbrišević
At the age of sixteen, I found the idea of being a philosopher very attractive. Much later in life, I asked myself why that was and decided that my chaotic family was to blame. Philosophy allowed me to shut out the world, but at the same time I could figure out what to do about it.
Religious education was compulsory in school up to year ten. After that we had options and could choose between religious education and philosophy. I chose the latter (choosing nothing was not an option). Until the age of thirteen, I had been a believer. Once, after class, I approached the parish priest who taught religious education and asked about a line in the Our Father: “Why would God, who is good, lead us into temptation? That doesn’t make sense.” His answer didn’t convince me [I don’t actually remember what he said], and from then on, my faith dissipated.
Now I know that my problem with the Our Father depended on how you translate the sixth petition from ancient Greek into your particular language. I was pleased to see that Pope Francis recently raised just this problem. In Argentina, before he became Pope, he used to pray: “No nos dejes caer en la tentación.” (“Do not let us fall in/into temptation.”) Pope Francis explained: “I am the one who falls. But it’s not Him [God] who pushes me into temptation to then see how I have fallen.”
My parish priest took my objection seriously. He recognised an early aptitude for philosophy/theology in me and suggested that in a couple of years I should join a seminary and become a priest. If I had known about Pope Francis’ interpretation, I might have gone that route. After all, in the seminary I would have studied both theology and philosophy. Instead, I became a philosopher. But philosophy of religion is still an area that interests me. (My first – and in my view best – published paper was on St. Anselm’s ontological proof.)
Three years later, in a different school, we had our first proper philosophy classes. Our teacher was also a Catholic priest, and we started with the pre-Socratics. Some of it went over my head, but I still enjoyed it (this feeling of intellectual inadequacy has never gone away). When it was time to decide on a subject to study at university my teacher advised against philosophy, saying: “You won’t get a job, studying philosophy.”
Oddly, I didn’t take his advice (the Force must have been strong in me) and at the age of eighteen, I enrolled as a philosophy student at the Johannes-Gutenberg-Universität in Mainz.
At that time, I thought very highly of philosophers. Just like Plato describes it in the Republic I thought that philosophers were intellectually and morally fit to be rulers. They had the required knowledge, and they did not desire power, but had to be compelled to rule. But my idealism about philosophers received a considerable dent when I read about a philosophy professor at (if I remember rightly) Columbia University who had traded grades for sex. My eighteen-year-old self was shocked by this.
Of course, we had more sex scandals in philosophy throughout the 2000’s. I don’t know what happened in the intervening years. Maybe it was all swept under the carpet.
So, Plato was wrong, philosophers are not always best placed to be in positions of power. They may have the required knowledge, but their conduct may be just as bad as that of non-philosophers. Power can corrupt anyone. Perhaps this is why philosophers don’t want to rule. They know they might “fall into temptation.”
As my studies in Mainz progressed, I noticed other moral shortcomings among philosophers. One of the big guns in the department often lectured on Kant. Although professors would solicit questions during lectures, it was a mere formality. On one occasion, a visiting student from Bonn ably challenged the professor’s interpretation of Kant. An exchange ensued, during which the professor became heated, and he finally said: “If you can’t understand this point, then you should not come to my lectures.” The student got up and left.
Much later, when I lived in London, I heard similar things about Karl Popper. When he lectured at the London School of Economics, his students would joke that it was actually Popper who was the greatest enemy of the open society, because he would not tolerate any dissent from his students. Popper was born in Vienna, and for a while I thought that this inability to deal with criticism might be something you mostly encounter at German-speaking universities.
But a few years ago, I met a British academic who also belongs in this category. It was at a workshop in Edinburgh (on normative ethics, of all things). A doctoral student presented some interesting and original ideas, but in the question and answer period, she was shot down by a senior scholar. I liked her innovative approach and supported her position by offering some “ammunition” to her defense. Later that day, the senior scholar gave the keynote. I didn’t like the overall argument and was first to raise an objection. The speaker was civil in his reply, but I still wasn’t convinced. At the dinner, I found myself sitting next to our keynote speaker. I said “Hello” and tried to engage him in conversation, but he turned away and refused to talk to me, despite engaging in animated conversation with others. At the time, I just thought he was a strange character. But a couple of days later, after I had told others about his rudeness, I was able to connect the dots: the man simply would tolerate no criticism, and I had both supported the doctoral student who had questioned him and challenged him during his keynote speech. Hegel’s dictum about some of his professorial colleagues comes to mind: “They live off philosophy, not for philosophy.”
So far, most of the unpleasant characters I’ve mentioned have been male, but there are also philosopher queens who are not exactly living up to the ideal. A couple of years ago, a philosopher from Sheffield, working in epistemology, highlighted an upcoming workshop in Brazil about Platonism (on her influential feminist blog), which allegedly featured male philosophers only: a “manel,” rather than a panel. I clicked on the workshop link and noticed one first name ending in ‘a’. Female names in Romance languages often end with an ‘a’ ( Maria, Teresa, Romina, etc.), and as it turned out this was a female professor from Brazil. True, there was an imbalance among the speakers, but it was hardly a “manel.” I pointed this out on the blog, explaining that there was a female presenter after all. I received no reply. Three days later I wrote to the blog owner again, after which the post was taken down, still without any acknowledgement or even a “thank you.” She had failed in just those two respects that Plato had highlighted: she hadn’t checked the facts (a failure of knowledge), and she couldn’t bring herself to admit that she had been wrong (a failure of justice). And by then the damage was done, with the poor conference organizer expressing bewilderment at all the negative comments he suddenly was receiving.
Recently, there was a significant example of both epistemic and moral failure among my colleagues. Hundreds of philosophers signed an open letter, condemning a fellow philosopher, without checking the facts [https://sites.google.com/view/trans-phil-letter/]. The letter misrepresented said philosopher’s position, and the letter’s organizer (who hadn’t checked the facts either) had to add an erratum. The actual views held by the vilified philosopher in question are perfectly reasonable and within the scope of what philosophers are supposed to do, which includes challenging received opinion. Apparently, the letter’s organizers and signatories no longer remember Socrates.
It appears, then, that philosophers are just like everybody else in not checking their facts and being prone to moral failure. Nonetheless, I don’t regret my career decision and still enjoy being a philosopher. I just pray that I won’t fall into temptation.
 Popper is known for his critique of Plato in The Open Society and its Enemies. (1945)
 The alliteration gets lost in translation: “Sie leben von der Philosophie, nicht für die Philosophie.”