In my last few posts, I have been raising a contentious issue. Consider the CVs of philosophers in the United States working in the 1970s and 1980s publishing on core metaphysical and epistemological issues of the sort discussed by Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant, or issues in philosophical logic and philosophy of language of the sort discussed by Aristotle, Abelard, Ockham, Frege, Husserl, Brentano, and Russell. You will see that they had good success rates in national competitions for humanities fellowships. And why not? After all, philosophy is a distinctive human intellectual pursuit, and a core humanities subject. But if you look at, say, the past ten years, you will find that philosophers working on such issues have been particularly unsuccessful in similar competitions. The philosophers who do achieve some success have been those working primarily in ethics related topics, historians of philosophy, or philosophers who have related their work to art or literature. The latter are subjects which, since Plato’s time, have been traditionally opposing kinds of humanities disciplines to philosophy. Yet the only way for a philosopher working on skepticism or the nature of universals to obtain funding from an American humanities institute is to link her work with literary criticism, painting, or French cultural anthropology.
This is just an indication of a broader problem in the humanities in the United States. The problem is that we have a generation of humanities academics in this country who have no sense at all of what the discipline of philosophy is. They have no sense of what kinds of considerations have been advanced for and against skepticism, no sense of the traditional problem of universals, and no sense of the development of logic beyond the syllogism. Not only do they have no conception of what is happening now with such discussions, they have no understanding of the detailed intellectual work done by the great philosophers of the past; they simply don’t know how to read philosophy. Spending two months trying to figure out the argument in, say, Hume’s “Of Skepticism with Regard to the Senses”, or Kant’s Second Analogy, is a completely foreign pursuit. Far from being ashamed of this lack of knowledge, they seem to revel in it. One might wonder how a successful academic who has worked on T.S. Eliot could boast of their complete ignorance of (say) Bradley’s regress problem, when Eliot wrote his dissertation on Bradley (under the tutelage of Bertrand Russell, among others), but I have met in fact met such a person.
Ignorance breeds contempt. When I meet a philosopher who boasts of her ignorance of (say) Roman history, Wallace Stevens, or Emily Dickinson, I’m embarrassed for her. I’m similarly embarrassed for the professor of comparative literature who boasts of her ignorance of G.E. Moore or is proud that she has no idea what contributions Gottlob Frege has made to philosophy. Of course, it’s perfectly fine for a philosopher to confess that she doesn’t enjoy poetry, and it’s equally in order for a literary critic to confess that she doesn’t enjoy the topics discussed in Aristotle’s metaphysics, or Frege’s Foundations of Arithmetic. What would not be acceptable is for a philosopher who doesn’t enjoy poetry to mount a campaign against poetry. But that is exactly what is happening in the United States today; academics with no detailed knowledge or interest in the humanities discipline of philosophy are using whatever resources are at their disposal to delegitimize it. Just as it is embarrassing to be confronted by an American academic who scoffs at the study of Shakespeare or Chinese history, it’s equally embarrassing to be confronted by an American academic who scoffs at the study of vagueness, skepticism, or the problem of intentionality. Ignorance or disinterest in a subject is not something one should seek to legitimize by eliminating the study of the subject matter.
UPDATE: I was away from the internet all day, and checked back in to see a number of very interesting comments. Please scroll down for input from a number of philosophers.