by Daniel A. Kaufman
I haven’t written anything ill-tempered about philosophers in a while. Those who read me regularly will know that for the last two years, I have been managing an ongoing and increasingly bleak situation with my elderly and infirm parents, so the antics of philosophy’s Bright Young Things haven’t seemed very important. The latest attacks on Kathleen Stock, of the University of Sussex (which have led to her having to withdraw from public events and receive police protection) have made me change my mind, however. I won’t summarize what’s going on, as one can read about the unfolding situation here and here, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t already sick to death of the people in my profession. Maybe this is a good thing; a normal thing; the kind of thing that makes the prospect of closing a major chapter in one’s life easier. But whatever the truth is in this regard, the fact remains that I am finding many of my fellow philosophers – and those in academia more generally – difficult to take. Retirement — thankfully, imminent — cannot come soon enough.
For brevity’s sake, I’ve organized my subjects under several broad categories.
The Woke Brigade
The nadir, of course, are those who engage in or enable or cheerlead the kind of things being done to poor Kathleen. To de-platform, harass, villainize and intimidate, attack the employment of or violently threaten a middle-aged woman (or celebrate, promote, or make excuses for others doing so) places one firmly among the ranks of the cowards and moral reprobates, but to do this because of the books and articles she’s written also demonstrates that you are unfit for intellectual and academic life. I’ve talked about this gang before: the Ichies and Scratchies, the Kuklas, Frans, and Ollies, the Stanleys, Mannesplainers and Weinbergs, and the rest of what I’ve called “Philosophy’s Woke Brigade.”  They are among the worst people in our profession and are the only ones I will mention by name, as no negative exposure I could give them would add anything to that which they’ve already given themselves through their public behavior, much of which I’ve chronicled.  They are one of the reasons that I despair for the future of academic philosophy and want to leave it as soon as possible (another being the discipline’s pedantry, scientism, and overproduction).
I thought it important to deal with this group first and separately, as the rest really are just harmless neurotics, nerds, and assorted weirdos. Not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but definitely not my kind of peeps.
Dispatches from my quirky, genius wunderkinder
This is the person who likes to recount the amazing, hilarious, brilliant, “crazy” (usually all at once) exchanges they have had with their (usually very young) children. The precocious progeny of these people apparently have endless, devilishly clever things to say about Cartesian geometry, free will, metaphysical antirealism, non-bivalent logic, the mind/body problem, Plotinus, the is/ought gap, Donald Trump, global warming, and any number of other things, starting as early as breakfast and carrying on strong through lunch, dinner, and up until bedtime.
That this is intended as a kind of showing off is obvious and fair enough (I mean, who doesn’t brag about their kids?), but the trouble is that what this kind of bragging mainly does is broadcast to everyone on the planet that you and your kid are likely insufferable and best avoided. (Or that you’re a terrible fabulist.) If I’m in the mood, I might observe that when my daughter was that young, she used to tie a stuffed lion around her neck and shout the entire Lion King soundtrack while marching around the house and that while cute the first time, by the thirty-seventh, I’d had enough of it. If I’m not in the mood, I just mute these people, so I never need to see the stuff again.
A variation on this type is the person who offers us dispatches from my own, wacky, crazy, genius, life. While this may involve the sorts of anecdotes that raise suspicions and concerns of the kind we’ve just seen with the wunderkinder, more often than not they instead seem to involve displays of the person’s catastrophically bad sense of style (“I’m such a wacky, crazy genius that I even make myself ugly on purpose!”), bizarre public performances (I recall a very excitable sort giving an intense, ten bullet point lecture on how people should drink coffee), selfies in which the subject makes imbecile faces like a 4-year-old, and the like. I’m pretty much never in the mood for this sort of thing, so muting is the only option.
Check out my latest lunatic take!
I’ve bemoaned how philosophy seems to have lurched in the direction of crazier and crazier positions: everything is conscious (panpsychism); nothing is conscious (illusionism); some women have penises, and men can menstruate (gender self-ID); a plate of linguine con vongole is a moral catastrophe (ethical veganism); everyone is an automaton (hard determinism). The list goes on and on.
I know, philosophers have always held crazy positions. But back in the day, beyond what you might have had to read for a class here or there, you could avoid them for the most part. You didn’t have to be crazy yourself, and you could keep clear of the areas in which crazy tended to cluster and thrive. And as most of your crazy contemporaries would likely be outside of your personal orbit anyway, you’d never even know who they were, let alone what they thought about anything. Today, alas, you know exactly who every crazy person in your profession is, as well as every crazy thought he or she has and has had, thanks to online communications.
Now, there are some in this group of whom I am very fond and who otherwise seem excellent philosophers and fine people, so I endeavor mightily to avoid talking about the crazy stuff in our interactions. (I do the same with smart, interesting, excellent people with whom I have very serious political disagreements.) The rest – you guessed it – get muted.
Lastly, there are the people who wax poetically and impassionedly about philosophy – and usually Classics too – with a combination of earnestness, romanticism, and hyperbole that manages to be simultaneously naïve, elitist, clueless, and grating. These are the people who insist that Great Works should never be read in translation or that philosophy and humanities lie at the heart of all civilized and benevolent life and are as essential as food and water or that students must only read original sources and faculty should eschew textbooks and all manner of learning aids. They’re the ones dropping the Great Quotations, without comment (as their meaning and significance should just be obvious to anyone … or at least, anyone who isn’t a philistine or prole). Some are Christian – High Church, of course – while others are not.
If you make the mistake of engaging with these types, you’ll inevitably discover that they are almost always at tony institutions, with self-selecting, well educated, highly motivated students and luxurious teaching loads. If you point out the challenges of teaching large numbers of non-elite, non-self-selecting, poorly educated, poorly motivated (and poor) students in this manner (pre-Covid, it was not unusual for me to have 200+ students in a semester, with no graduate student or other teaching support), don’t expect to receive any sort of serious, well-considered recommendations as to how one might try. Instead, you’ll be treated to even more romanticizing, as well as the discursive equivalent of knowing looks and lofty expressions. If you question whether it really is as essential that every accountant and pharmacist and restaurant manager receive a philosophy and Classics education as The Romantic says it is, you’ll likely get incredulous, “gasp!” style responses. For myself, if I haven’t dropped out of the conversation and muted by this point, I’m contemplating shoving my head through the drywall in my office or, if at home, jumping off the roof.
The upshot of all of this is that I’m thinking it’s time for me to go. The profession really is no longer for someone like me, and maybe it never was. Perhaps I was just extraordinarily lucky in the people with whom I surrounded myself in graduate school in the 1990’s and in my early career, who were a lot cooler, smarter (in the grounded rather than savantish sense lionized today), savvier, and well-adjusted than the characters I run into nowadays. Maybe it’s partly the times. Certainly, it’s partly me. The older I’ve gotten and the more I’ve had to swim through sickness and disintegration and misery and death, the less I find myself inclined to do or even to tolerate things that I don’t want or like. But that, of course, is on me, not others.
I suspect some in the discipline will be more than glad to bid me adieu, and that’s just fine. (Most, I’m sure, have no idea who I am.) Those whose academic lives still lie mostly in the future should get the profession they want. Just leave me out of it, and please, don’t tell me how it goes. I’ll be living on an undisclosed beach in Miami or San Diego, puttering away with The Electric Agora, listening to Van Halen, and perfecting my linguine con vongole.
 I wish I could take credit for “Mannesplain,” but it’s taken from the title of a piece by Oliver Traldi.