Bryan Register
Bryan Register

Foul Philosophy?

Some of Cameron Pritchard's complaints about academic philosophy ("The Fouling of Philosophy," TFR 45) are exaggerated, and some of them are wrong. All of them betray the alienation endemic to Objectivists in academia, an alienation which need not and should not obtain.

Pritchard suggests that having only taken a semester's worth of introductory philosophy classes, "far from making me unqualified to comment, ...means that I am exactly the sort of person who should be speaking out against modern philosophy's nihilism." There is a distinction which Pritchard has not observed: that between persons who have an interest in something and those qualified to remark on that thing. I have a strong interest in environmental concerns: if they are true, I have an interest in living in an unpolluted environment; if they are false, I have an interest in living in an unregulated market. But I have never studied environmentalism in any depth, and am thus unqualified to remark on the wisdom of environmentalists' demands and the verity of their claims. Likewise for Pritchard: he is as surely right to say that he has an interest in philosophy as he is wrong to say that he is in a position to comment on it wisely.

For Pritchard, that paragraph probably looks like routine academic babble; typical victim/practitioner of modern philosophy, I have been "taught by example to indulge in the most hair-splitting mind games possible..." and now, as a graduate student in philosophy, am the sort of person who "lives his intellectual life in a process of constant refutation and rejection." My hair-splitting distinction between having an interest in something and being qualified to talk about it is my nasty nihilism showing through. But it is academic philosophers, not Objectivists, who are given to the dictum "A difference, in order to be a difference, must make a difference." The fact that Pritchard's first-semester education has ill-prepared him to grasp the import of philosophical distinctions does not mean that the distinctions are invalid.

Pritchard notes (rightly) that philosophers, in teaching introductory philosophy classes, often teach in a dialectical format: we teach philosophical claims in relation to one another, presenting some of them as responses to or elucidations of others, some of them as involving refutations or extensions of others, and so forth. We also do not instruct the students in the correct answers to philosophical questions. For Pritchard, though, "nihilism is inherent, albeit in a subtle manner" in this approach. Why? Because he understands this way of teaching as going like this: "Examine an idea, tear it down with a refutation. Examine that refutation then tear that down also!" Note that if we tear down the refutation of an idea, we recognize that the idea wasn't really refuted in the first place. But is such an approach nihilistic? Surely, a teacher could conclude class with his pet theory and disallow criticism, but this hardly seems like a good way to go about things. Pritchard would not prefer a class in which he was forbidden to criticize, for instance, the ethical theories that he mentions. But were we to fail to present ideas in a critical way, such a chilling atmosphere is precisely what he would get.

For Pritchard, this reign of open discussion seems to be an effect of academic scepticism: "'s teachers are more interested in argumentation as an end in itself, like a game of chess or cards, rather than as a means to the pursuit of philosophic truth - which, they hold, is an unattainable goal." It is not the case that contemporary philosophers argue for the sake of arguing. We often teach argument without too much concern for the particular topics under discussion because our concern in these classes is with method, not content. Students who cannot follow basic reasoning - the majority - are simply not ready for the attainment of philosophic truth. We could tell our students what we believe, but we could not present them with arguments for those convictions until they could grasp the arguments. Having students who utter words which, in the mouth of the competent, are a truth, is not a benefit to those students.

But moreover, it is not the case that contemporary philosophers think that philosophic truth is impossible. Hence Wittgenstein, prefacing his first book: "...the truth of the thoughts that are here communicated seems to me unassailable and definitive." Within the text, he claims that, "Scepticism is not irrefutable, but obviously nonsensical..." Donald Davidson has more recently remarked that, "...we share a picture of the world that must, in its large features, be true." Hilary Putnam once said, concluding an argument, that "...this is not to deny that we can rationally and correctly think that some of our beliefs are irrational. It is to say that there are limits to how far this insistence that we are all intellectually damned can go without becoming unintelligible." The dominant view among Anglo-American philosophers, at least, is that scepticism is not just false but obviously so. I challenge anyone to find a single sceptic among the big names of analytic philosophy: Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, Moore, Carnap, Quine, Davidson, Kripke, Putnam, and so forth.

But a consideration of the views of such people shows us that Pritchard is also wrong to say that philosophers nowadays think that, "One should not attempt to seek systematic understanding of universal principles and apply them across the board!" To the contrary, most of these thinkers have developed their entire work as the studied consequences of a small group of major insights. Davidson, for instance, employs multiple applications of a single argument to establish a sizeable chunk of his conclusions, and so his system - it is a system - might well be seen as the systematic understanding of a single universal principle applied across the board. Frege is largely moved by anti-psychologism, applied in a number of areas. Moore systematically applies common sense. And so forth.

Pritchard makes two complaints which are closer to the mark. The first of these is that philosophy is taught ahistorically, and this is to be both admitted and regretted. But many philosophers, especially Continental-minded ones, are aware of this and criticize their colleagues for their insufficient attention to history. Thus Pritchard's complaint is one about a tendency of some significance in some parts of academic philosophy, not the whole of it. Moreover, he exaggerates the severity of the problem even where it exists. For instance, he claims that a woman was able to take a degree in philosophy from Massey University without ever having heard of Plato or Aristotle. There's not a chance that this occurred; as anyone can find out by asking the advisor at Massey, that department gives light coverage to Plato and Aristotle in many lower-division classes, focuses on them more intensely in several upper-division classes, and teaches several classes which are just about one or the other of these two figures. While it would be possible to evade heavy exposure, the odds of never taking a class in which either of the figures are discussed at all are very low and the chances of never hearing of them at all are zero. It seems to me that that department should have greater required coverage in this area, but the problem is one of degree. As for teaching Kant or Hegel in first-semester classes - well, one day Pritchard may realize how funny that proposal is. My students sometimes have difficulty following one-step syllogisms in plain English; teaching them Hegel would be flatly impossible.

Pritchard's second plausible-sounding complaint has to do with the teaching of ethics. He remarks - and this is all too often the case - that the only ethical theories taught in his class were deontology and utilitarianism. It is correct that these two theories should not monopolize, as they often do, undergraduate education. Also, as interpreted in the ordinary introductory ethics class, both approaches, especially the deontological, are pretty implausible. But Pritchard bundles this otherwise reasonable complaint with some errors.

First, he complains that social contract theory, which was taught as the preferred theory in his class (in which, recall, nothing was left standing at the end of the term), "...holds that morality is the product of social consensus. We abide by moral rules because we agree to live in a society. Not because we want to live." This is not correct, unless Pritchard thinks that living without society is a live option. The goal of social contract theory is to design a society in which one can live with the greatest realm of autonomy. Such a theory is actually compatible with egoism , as Objectivists use the word. Hobbes, perhaps the founder of social contract theory, writes that without some form of government, "...the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." It's to avoid that state - one in which we die - that we agree to the contract. Hobbes also grounds the decision to form the contract on natural laws which we ought to govern our moral decisions by. The ever-vilified John Rawls establishes his contractarian theory on the basis that it would be chosen by persons with certain features, one of which is that they "are mutually disinterested: they are not willing to have their interests sacrificed to ... others." Rawls is not, it would appear, proposing an orgy of self-sacrificing. The application of the social contract approach in ethics proper, as distinct from politics, is perhaps a chancy affair, but when Kant does it we end up with an ethic in which one is to treat both self and others as ends in themselves.

Pritchard is roughly right to note that much contemporary ethical theory, especially as taught to lower-division students, "has nothing to offer you if you are yearning for proper values and goals in life." There is a difference, though, between what is taught in introductory classes and what is at the cutting edge of research. For the past twenty years, the hottest area in ethics has been what's called virtue ethics. This style of ethical philosophy, often done in the spirit of Aristotle by such major figures as Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor, is rich with personal significance and reflection, not on artificial thought experiments, but on the nature of the good life. It is largely a response to just the irrelevant rationalism which Pritchard complains of. But virtue ethics is increasingly taught to lower-division students and will be taught more frequently in the future as more work is done in the area. Again, Pritchard's complaint makes sense, but against a certain segment of academic philosophy, rather than the whole.

Many Objectivists seem to come to academic studies in philosophy with one false conviction and one complete distortion. (At least I had them, and I know that they slowed, and sometimes still slow, my philosophical development.) The first is that academic philosophers are nihilistically dedicated to the destruction of their students' minds. The second is the preposterous misreading of philosophy and its history foisted on us by Rand, which would be comical were it not presented through such compelling rhetoric.

The first is false. We do not hate our students, but we do have a better sense of their limitations - having once been similarly limited ourselves - than they do. In trying to meet their actual needs as well as we can, we sometimes do not give them what they want - or at least what Pritchard wants. Sometimes we are wrong, as when we fail to attend sufficiently to history or to those needs people have for ethical guidance which are not met by Kant or Mill. But often it is the student's preferences which are mistaken. We would be deeply remiss were we to teach as Pritchard would have us teach, and we would either be rejected by our students as irrelevant dogmatists or else - much worse - help to turn out degree-holders with no capacity to reason.

The second is false as well. But the Objectivist who begins his formal studies in philosophy will approach the texts expecting them to 'preach' some sort of noxious evil. Such apprehension alienates the student from his work, making what could have been a deeply rewarding course of study into a progression of nihilistic rejections of whatever is presented.

Loathing of teachers combined with loathing of texts yields a profoundly miserable experience which is not to be encouraged - it is, bluntly, immoral for such figures as Rand and Peikoff to so badly misrepresent the academy and trick people into making themselves unhappy. And it is unfortunate that Pritchard, like many other talented students, has accepted their errors. But it remains up to us to rethink our commitments and reject those which are unwise; it remains possible to bring ourselves into better harmony with a world which is not so awful as we have been led to believe.

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