A Mode of Doing or a Mode of Being? Philosophy at the Crossroads, Steve Fuller

SERRC —  March 29, 2016 — 4 Comments

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, S.W.Fuller@warwick.ac.uk

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-2OQ

Editor’s Note: Thanks to Steve Fuller, Scott Stephens, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and ABC Religion and Ethics for allowing us to repost this piece. The original post resides at: http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2016/03/29/4433563.htm

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Image credit: sylvaf, via flickr

Philosophy has never been comfortable with its status as a discipline in the academy. Even today, the philosophers who most students read were non-academics: Plato, Rene Descartes, David Hume, John Stuart Mill. 

In fact, Immanuel Kant had to dragoon philosophy to stop the squabbling of the doctors of theology, medicine and law, which was threatening to tear asunder the late eighteenth century university.

Kant’s famous essay from 1798, The Contest of the Faculties, set the stage in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for philosophy to define the terms on which all knowledge claims might be transacted. The philosopher would be, in effect, the intellectual underwriter for the academy.

Admittedly, the exact nature of this role underwent considerable change from the time of Kant’s immediate followers – the German idealists – to its final robust incarnation in the logical positivist movement.

What they all shared, however, was a commitment to the philosopher as someone who in his or her own person resolved the contradictory claims made by various academicians. Goethe was often cited as the exemplar who, in this sense, “lived philosophically.”

Of course, academic philosophers continue to pay tribute to this lineage in fields called “epistemology” and “philosophy of science.” But today’s versions are paler, more inward-looking versions of what had animated Kant. Indeed, Kant would be disappointed by the extent to which the institutionally dominant “analytic” school of philosophy appears to have been captured by the very academicians which he would have wanted philosophers to domesticate, if not dominate.

In their forthcoming book Socrates Tenured, Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle, two self-styled “field philosophers” (as in “field researchers”), argue that philosophy’s big sociological mistake was to become captive to the “research university” in the late nineteenth century. Implied is a critique of specialised doctoral-level training in philosophy as the benchmark of philosophical competence. This started the drive towards inwardness, which makes contemporary academic philosophy so difficult to fathom, even by interested and otherwise well-informed non-professionals.

But Frodeman and Briggle go further. For them, this inward turn spelled the end of philosophy as virtuous inquiry – and the philosopher as someone who by his or her own practice lived some version of a life worth living.

When Frodeman and Briggle debuted their argument earlier this year in The Stone, the philosophy column on the website of The New York Times, the noted historian of analytic philosophy Scott Soames reasserted that philosophy’s natural home is its current one – the academy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is a view widely shared by professional philosophers. Perhaps equally unsurprisingly, Soames argues from his own expertise – namely, the study of language, logic and science within analytic philosophy. That Soames’s glaring sampling bias alone has been so easily granted by his philosophical colleagues unwittingly supports Frodeman and Briggle’s point about the inward-looking nature of the field.

A striking move in Soames’s argument is his quick distinction between the theoretical side of philosophy – the concern with language, logic and science – and the practical side – the concern with goodness, justice and virtue – on the basis of which he judges the former to have been always more important than the latter to the development of philosophy. This move is a signature feature of just the sort of institutionalization that Frodeman and Briggle decry.

This appeal to the theoretical-practical distinction constitutes the “Neo-Kantian settlement,” after how Kant’s followers increasingly thought about philosophy as an academic subject in the nineteenth century. The basic Neo-Kantian idea is that philosophers cannot speak sensibly about the ends of things – the practical side – but they can say much of value about what follows from presuming certain ends and perhaps even what might facilitate those ends – the theoretical side.

Nevertheless, philosophy has tended to be socially destabilising precisely because it naturally roams over the whole of the human condition, blurring the theoretical-practical distinction. In contrast, the Neo-Kantian settlement would have philosophy lead from its theoretical side, thereby avoiding the moral, political and religious difficulties which regularly plagued previous philosophers. It was thus fit for a superordinate role in the academy.

This a familiar move from the seventeenth-century founding of the Royal Society in London, the first modern scientific institution. There is an even more charitable reading of this strategy, one promoted by Max Weber in the early twentieth century: academic neutrality on the ends of knowledge in the classroom creates a space that enables students to decide for themselves which knowledge claims are worth pursuing – and to what extent.

A good way to see the effect of Neo-Kantian settlement is in terms of the changing face of Socrates, for whom no philosopher nowadays has a bad word. However, it was only with philosophy’s academic domestication that the image of Socrates came to be seen as unequivocally positive. More to the point, it marked the domestication of the image of Socrates himself. Even in the Enlightenment, when one might have expected a uniformly receptive audience for Socrates, Voltaire and Rousseau were divided on his legacy – the former regarding Socrates much more favourably than the latter.

However, today’s academic Socrates is all about his technical prowess in argumentation rather than the seemingly mischievous and bloody-minded character of his interventions, something which had bothered Rousseau and many others. Today’s sanitized Socrates became possible once academics started reading Plato’s Dialogues quite literally and ignored the performative character of Socratic utterances — let alone any of the larger, often negative, motivational interpretations.

Soames’s defence of academic philosophy against Frodeman and Briggle proceeds by showing the many ways – mainly in the twentieth century – in which philosophy and the special sciences have worked in a mutually enriching fashion. This is supposed to show that, far from indulging in academic navel-gazing, philosophers have been both receptive and contributory to the work of other disciplines. Yet, in all the cases cited by Soames, philosophy is operating in what John Locke (cited by Soames approvingly) called an “underlabouring” capacity: the other disciplines provide the ends, and philosophy then supplies or refines the means.

Such is the Neo-Kantian settlement in action. Even when Soames cites philosophers who revolutionized other disciplines, his examples are limited to the philosopher-mathematicians Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell and Kurt Gödel, as if to suggest that philosophy had some natural affinity with pure thought, detached from human ends, which might make it especially well-suited to the mathematical disciplines.

By way of counterpoint, I would offer three other philosopher-mathematicians of roughly the same vintage of Frege, Russell and Gödel: Charles Sanders Peirce, Edmund Husserl and Henri Bergson. They too engaged in revolutionary thought of at least equal philosophical import, but their effects have been distributed more widely, both within and without the academy. Whereas Frege, Russell and Gödel are respected in academic philosophy largely for quite specific and technical contributions which show what philosophers can do to push forward the frontiers of knowledge, Peirce, Husserl and Bergson made broader contributions of more general human significance which show the sort of people that philosophers invite us to be. Their philosophical projects of – respectively – pragmatism, phenomenology and vitalism remain part of the cultural landscape today, even if not housed specifically in philosophy departments.

To be sure, Bertrand Russell was certainly someone who did not merely do philosophy well but also lived a philosophical life. This more practically oriented aspect of Russell’s philosophical career – most of it, as measured in years and pages – is typically passed over in relative silence by academic philosophers such as Soames. Yet, it is precisely the sort of philosophical agency exemplified by Russell – his philosophical personality, if you will, which marks him as a genuine “philosopher” in Frodeman and Briggle’s sense. Russell was comfortable making the same argument in the public square as in the seminar room. And I mean here more than simply Russell’s famed ability to translate complex ideas for popular audiences. More importantly, Russell’s moral stature was evidenced in his willingness to speak his mind on a wide range of issues with “insulting clarity” to people not inclined to believe him – and accept the consequences, including jail time. In this respect, Russell was very much like the academically unexpurgated Socrates.

Academic philosophers take too much pride in being able to discuss matters in seminar rooms that would cause riots if taken seriously in public. They regard the public very much as Plato did – namely, as mentally unprepared to think deeply and broadly about matters of existential import. But the cost of requiring such “mental preparation” is that academic philosophers end up with a semi-detached, gamesman-like attitude towards the vital matters with which they are putatively concerned. The relevant sense of “mental preparation” amounts to attaching the warning, “Don’t try this at home!” to any radical argument or thought experiment which upends our intuitions about reality.

This is not good enough for Frodeman and Briggle, who would have philosophers “walk the walk” as well as “talk the talk.” To be sure, this injunction still involves a strong sense of “discipline,” but it is one that is perhaps more familiar in the religious than in the academic sphere.

4 responses to A Mode of Doing or a Mode of Being? Philosophy at the Crossroads, Steve Fuller


    I often times think about how philosophy may be able to have a better name–a better public perception, if you will–if only it had it’s own version of a Neil deGrasse Tyson. You know, someone to turn their proverbial chair backwards, and just talk with the people about what it is philosophers talk about. I’m sure that there are and have been small efforts here and there, but if none of them are even memorable to ME (who did philosophy in the academy for a while), it’s unlikely the public knows any of them.


    I have only two brief points of reply.

    First, you say:
    “Perhaps equally unsurprisingly, Soames argues from his own expertise – namely, the study of language, logic and science within analytic philosophy. That Soames’s glaring sampling bias alone has been so easily granted by his philosophical colleagues unwittingly supports Frodeman and Briggle’s point about the inward-looking nature of the field.”

    But of course this sampling bias cuts both ways in the present analysis. The very features of Soames’s analysis that limits the scope of his account of what is of value in philosophy also limits your ability to draw inferences from his analysis about the state of the field as a whole. See Section II of my reply, linked above, for a more wide ranging characterization of the field – a sampling that draws primarily on philosophers working in the “analytic” tradition (so long as we read that term in a broad enough sense that it can sensibly be called the “dominant” tradition).

    Second, I agree with your point that many contemporary philosophers are all too ready to “sanitize” Socrates. But you should notice that Frodeman and Briggle are as guilty of this as anyone. Only a highly domesticated version of Socrates could serve as the model for their “field philosophy.” For the reasons I discussed in Section I of my reply, a true Socratic gadfly would never be invited to consult with European Commission (see “Is Anyone Still Reading?” linked above). Nor would he be likely to accept such an invitation.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

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  2. Rhetoric and Philosophy: Socrates and the Sophists, W. Derek Bowman « Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective - April 5, 2016

    […] “A Mode of Doing or a Mode of Being? Philosophy at the Crossroads,” Steve Fuller […]

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