Author Information: Luke Maring, Northern Arizona University, firstname.lastname@example.org
Maring, Luke. “Abandoning the Academy is the Single Worst Thing Philosophers Could Do: A Reply to Frodeman and Briggle.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 3 (2016): 54-58.
Please refer to:
- Frodeman, Robert and Adam Briggle. “When Philosophy Lost Its Way.” New York Times: January 11, 2016. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/01/11/when-philosophy-lost-its-way/.
- Soames, Scott. “Philosophy’s True Home.” New York Times: March 7, 2016. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/03/07/philosophys-true-home/.
Image credit: Sunny_mjx, via flickr
Philosophy is no stranger to criticism. Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle’s article is remarkable because of how they explain the discipline’s shortcomings: philosophy lost its way when it became an academic discipline. The problem is that philosophers ply their trade in colleges and universities, not, like their hero Socrates, out in the everyday world and among the hoi polloi.
Scott Soames responded to Frodeman and Briggle’s article by pointing out examples of fruitful collaboration between philosophy, on the one hand, and mathematics, science, and linguistics on the other. His examples show that Frodeman and Briggle have badly misrepresented the history of philosophy (a point I return to below). But Soames does not get to the heart of Frodeman and Briggle’s concern. Their primary concern is not that philosophy has lost touch with other branches of the academy, but that philosophy has lost touch with the everyday world.
A more careful analysis will show that Frodeman and Briggle are wrong. If our aim is to impact the everyday world, abandoning colleges and universities is the single worst thing we could do. Worse, their main argument rests upon an anti-philosophical ideal.
How Philosophy (Allegedly) Lost its Way
Why is it a problem that philosophers ply their trade in the academy? Frodeman and Briggle advance two arguments. The content argument holds that whereas philosophers used to work side-by-side with laborers, technicians, politicians, and the like, we are now quarantined in ivory towers.: We have washed our hands of everyday concerns, but, unfortunately, the philosopher’s hands “were never meant to be [clean].” Worse, moving into the academy meant that philosophy had to stake out its own disciplinary territory. Science had its distinctive problems and methods; to survive in colleges and universities, we needed our own. So we have not only washed our hands of everyday concerns, we have refocused on esoteric, distinctively ‘philosophical’ topics.
But Frodeman and Briggle are even more concerned that the academy has stripped philosophers of authority. The authority argument claims that academic philosophers, like the scientists we “ape,” develop technical theories about increasingly narrow subjects. By focusing on narrow, technical theory, we have lost sight of the philosopher’s true calling: to become morally good. Frodeman and Briggle’s complaint is not the (false) claim that philosophers no longer think or theorize about moral goodness; it is that becoming good is not an academic philosopher’s chief concern. They approvingly cite Joseph Priestly, who wrote that, “a Philosopher ought to be something greater and better than another man.”
What does any of this have to do with authority? Frodeman and Briggle’s idea is that a morally “superior character” would lend authority to our claims about what should be done. They hearken back to a time when philosophy was (they say) not so much a profession as a vocation on a par with “priesthood.” The philosopher-priests they envision would, by dint of moral goodness, have a capacity that many religious leaders have claimed: a privileged ability to say what ought to be done. Stripped of the philosopher-priest’s authority, an academic philosopher’s conclusions have to rest on an “impersonal” foundation, such as soundness of argument.
The Content Argument Analyzed
Is it true that philosophy used to be more firmly rooted in everyday concerns? The adage that ‘all of philosophy is a footnote to Plato’ exaggerates, but the truth it exaggerates is that Plato worked on many of the same problems that occupy us today. Like contemporary metaethicists, Plato developed a theory of the Good and thought about moral nihilism. Like contemporary epistemologists, he wondered about the nature of knowledge and developed an account of how we can acquire it. Like contemporary political philosophers, he argued about political obligation and the requirements of justice. And like contemporary metaphysicians, Plato developed a theory of fundamental ontology. The overlap between Plato’s problems and ours is not perfect; but the idea that his work is radically discontinuous with ours is simply false. I cannot find the alleged discontinuity in Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Rousseau, Hume, Kant, or Mill either. An argument that traces history’s arc will inevitably make a few simplifications. But Frodeman and Briggle’s content argument badly misrepresents the history of philosophy.
This is not to say that philosophy stands unchanged in all these years. There are now subfields that did not exist a thousand, a hundred, or even fifty years ago. The problem for Frodeman and Briggle, however, is that many of these new subfields are inspired precisely by everyday concerns. The whole field of applied ethics (or, at least, some substantial portion of it) stands as a counterexample to the claim that philosophers have lost touch with the everyday. So does most feminist philosophy, a majority of critical race theory, environmental ethics, a good deal of social philosophy, and just about all of bioethics. Discourse in these subfields routinely proceeds from an everyday concern—May I get this abortion? What are the forces that oppress me and how do they work? How should the burdens of fighting climate change be distributed? Is it permissible for nation-states to restrict immigration? And so on.
But perhaps Frodeman and Briggle have a rejoinder. They might say: “Philosophy might be as connected to the everyday as it ever was, but the public doesn’t have access to the fruits of our labor. Philosophers write articles and books for each other. They have left the public out of the loop.”
There is some truth in this complaint. But for three reasons, it is overblown.
First, and most significantly, philosophers teach. Most of us spend most of our professional lives working with students who will become lawyers, business owners, accountants, or engineers. Our students become the very public we allegedly fail to reach. So if we want to make a bigger public impact, we should try to make philosophy a bigger part of college curriculums. We should try to make undergraduate education more affordable. We should bring philosophy to more students by creating interdisciplinary programs with a substantial philosophical core. Colleges and universities are probably the most effective delivery mechanism for philosophy in history. Frodeman and Briggle are welcome to supplement, or even challenge, the academy by developing field philosophy. But if our aim is to impact the public, abandoning colleges and universities is the single worst thing we could do.
Second, we do not need to abandon the academy to achieve Frodeman and Briggle’s aims. There is within the academy a growing commitment to writing for non-philosophers. Here is a small, but representative, sample: Jason Stanley has written high-profile op-eds on propaganda; George Yancey’s recent piece on implicit bias and racism made a splash (to put it mildly); philosophers in my department routinely moderate public discussions of timely issues; and the APA is developing initiatives to promote public philosophy. I think we could, and should, do more. The point—and the problem for Frodeman and Briggle—is that we are increasing public engagement without abandoning the academy.
Third, the thought that every (or even most) philosophical articles or books should directly impact the public misunderstands the nature of academic research. It is rare, in any academic field, for the individual researcher to make a huge public impact. But that does not mean our small individual efforts are pointless: we create the milieu that makes really impactful work possible. John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice has influenced economists, policy makers, and politicians; Rawls was able to write his book only because he was immersed in an academic back-and-forth, most of which did not directly affect the public. Just as importantly—and this point builds on the point about teaching—the milieu sometimes produces books or articles that make an important impact on our students. Our research efforts can be important for the public even if we cannot always draw a straight line from one to the other.
So the content argument is weak. Philosophy has always dealt with abstract, theoretical problems—even in what Frodeman and Briggle identify as its pre-institutional Golden Age. New subfields are often closely tied to everyday concerns. And, most significantly, modern colleges and universities can be an excellent way for philosophers to reach the public. We will need a much better reason to abandon our academic posts.
The Authority Argument Analyzed
Can the authority argument supply the needed reason? I am skeptical. The ideal at its core—the philosopher-priest who is “better than another man,” and whose authority flows from a morally “superior character”—seems downright anti-philosophical.
Philosophy is notoriously hard to define, but it centrally involves critical thinking. We do not accept an interesting or controversial claim simply because someone, however virtuous, assures us of its truth. Insofar as we are committed to philosophy, we wouldn’t want people to accept something interesting or controversial just because we said it either. A committed philosopher, in other words, does not aspire to be the authoritative philosopher-priest. Frodeman and Briggle are on this score notably out of step with their hero: Socrates was forever badgering people to figure out why they thought what they did and admonishing those who were so uncurious as to accept something just because he did.
Moral goodness can be a philosophical asset. Morally sensitive people—with the imagination and empathy to view a familiar practice from another’s perspective—are often the first to notice problems the rest of us overlook. But Frodeman and Briggle want more: they lament that philosophers are not a priesthood whose good character implies a privileged authority to say what should be done. The sober truth is that philosophers (and priests, for that matter) are not, and have never been, something greater than “another man [or woman, or…].” It is, and has always been, entirely appropriate that our conclusions rest upon impersonal considerations like soundness of argument.
I am not an uncritical defender of the academy—I think we should diversify the professoriate, expand the philosophical canon, embrace empirically-minded methods, and I would happy to see Frodeman and Briggle’s field philosophy succeed. But the claim that we can fix philosophy only by abandoning the academy altogether is not plausible. The content argument is not merely weak, but would abandon the very public Frodeman and Briggle seek to reach. And the ideal at the core of the authority argument is anti-philosophical.
Frodeman, Robert and Adam Briggle. “When Philosophy Lost Its Way.” New York Times: January 11, 2016. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/01/11/when-philosophy-lost-its-way/.
Little, Margaret, “Abortion, Intimacy, and the Duty to Gestate.” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 2 (1999): 295-312.
Soames, Scott. “Philosophy’s True Home.” New York Times: March 7, 2016. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/03/07/philosophys-true-home/.
Stanley, Jason. “Democracy and the Demagogue.” New York Times: October 12, 2015. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/author/jason-stanley/.
Yancey, George. “Dear White America.” New York Times: December 24, 2015. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/12/24/dear-white-america/.
 All citations, unless otherwise indicated, are from Frodeman and Briggle 2016.
 Soames 2016.
 To be clear, Frodeman and Briggle do claim that philosophy has become insular, but they worry about insularity primarily because it would mean that we are cut off from the everyday, not from other branches of the academy.
 They identify the authority argument as “the heart of our undoing.”
 As Soames rightly notes, goodness and virtue are still widely studied philosophical topics.
 See especially Socrates’s exchange with Thrasymachus in the Republic.
 The doctrine of recollection is found most prominently in the Meno.
 Plato’s Apology contains an account of political obligation. The Republic contains an account of justice.
 Plato’s theory of the forms shows up in several places, but mostly in the Phaedo and the Republic.
 These observations about Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, et al. build upon Soames’s observations about Bertrand Russell, Alan Turing, Rudolf Carnap, Saul Kripke et al.
 I think Politics, Philosophy, and Economics (called Politics, Philosophy, and Law in some institutions, including my own) provides a nice template. Politics, Philosophy, and Economics is an interdisciplinary major that gives students a variety of tools (including philosophical theory) for both understanding and critiquing political systems. I would like to see similar cross-pollinations between philosophy and business, and between philosophy and the hard sciences.
 Stanley 2015.
 Yancey 2015.
 Here, for example, is a newspaper write-up of a public discussion I moderated: http://azdailysun.com/news/opinion/columnists/can-gun-ownership-be-made-responsible/article_e30a2224-e584-53cc-9100-7716ac932ac3.html
 Little 1999 is my favorite example of such an article.