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Fr. 575

October 20, 2014

To come back to Leiter for a moment, we can perhaps crudely map Neumann’s archetypes onto Leiter’s terms in the following ways: philosophy journalists (rhetoric or mostly rhetoric); professional philosophers (rhetoric and discursive hygiene in roughly equal amounts); academic philosophers (discursive hygiene or mostly discursive hygiene). The middle case of professional philosophers who nonetheless appeal to rhetoric would seem to account neatly enough for the puzzling case of Peter Singer, evoked in Leiter’s presentation. Moreover, this categorization does provide some indication as to further ways in which to grow the discipline and expands its reach without necessitating the dominance of discursive hygiene in all its fields. In sum, Leiter and Neumann might concur on this much.

In the final paragraphs, Neumann comes back to the situation of “devitalized” academic philosophy with the aim of suggesting a way forward. For his intention is not so much to sound the death knell of academic philosophy as to remind it of its origins and its potential:

The philosophical beast of Socrates’s time walked the streets, held court all night at drinking parties, debated playwrights and otherwise actively engaged with the public. And while the vitality of that activity is mostly lacking today, there are exceptions. In addition to podcasts, blogs, and articles for popular consumption, there are even more tangible ways of making philosophy vibrant and relevant again. For Grace Robinson, the director of Thinking Space, this means spending time in art organizations, secondary schools, businesses, community groups and charities with people “who want to think and talk together for all kinds of reasons.”

Nonetheless, Robinson, like Neumann, is cognizant of the difficulties confronting academic philosophy today, as well as just how far the current situation is from the idealization above:

But Robinson […] observes that the discipline of philosophy is very top-heavy: “Most philosophers are clustered at the top end of the spectrum and consequently tend to show one another what is possible, making contributions that inspire and challenge their colleagues and advancing a discipline that has already left most people behind.”

The “top-heavy” nature of the discipline is perhaps the single most important contributor to philosophy’s diminishing reach among the public. When philosophers seek to engage other philosophers before all others, they close themselves off to a public who might otherwise be interested. Yet this top-heaviness cuts both ways. Namely, this dialogue, this give-and-take, between philosophers accounts for the considerable innovation and progress seen in contemporary philosophy. For this reason, it is important to retain a role for academic philosophy all the while recognizing the limits of the way the discipline is currently practiced:

None of this is meant to dismiss the work of academic philosophy out of hand. As Robinson puts it, “If every academic spent most of their time in the sandpit philosophizing with 5-year-olds, the great teaching, debating and writing that drives philosophy forward would stall.” And just as we don’t criticize the field of genetics, for example, because the details of its mechanisms aren’t easily summarized in an article in Discover or The New York Times, I don’t intend to do the same for philosophy.

It remains to be seen how these sub-classes (philosophy journalist, outside professional philosopher, academic philosopher) might interact among themselves, particularly with the different idioms peculiar to their ways of doing philosophy. Even if we allow that all three practice philosophy under some form, it remains clear that their philosophies diverge in certain aspects and, for “results” to cross-apply, some work of translation would be required. Accordingly, it may be useful to see how the sciences have themselves handled this of work translation as regards the diffusion of scientific results.

However, the analogy between science and philosophy can only be taken so far as regards both this work of translation between sub-classes and, perhaps more importantly, the division of labor between these same sub-classes. Neumann’s presentation concludes with the remark:

But I think the key difference between science and philosophy is that we need the results of science more than we need everyone in the body politic “doing science.” By contrast, we need everyone “doing philosophy” more than we need the results of philosophy. In other words, we don’t need to know or understand how the scientist has gone from the minute molecular intricacies of DNA to a public good like genetic counseling. On the other hand, the emulation of the critical thinking and logical argument of a philosopher is a virtue that can be applied to any area of life — from where you stand on the most important social and political issues of the day to how best to spend the rest of your days on this planet.

Though admirable for its sentiment and analysis, his conclusions perhaps fall short of Leiter’s in one respect: Leiter is somewhat more cautious when it comes to the applicability of “critical thinking and logical argument” (discursive hygiene) as a virtue to be practiced by the public. On this count, Leiter’s careful consideration of empirical evidence on “sentimentalism” serves as a limit to Neumann’s optimism. Yet this may be to miss the point of the foregoing remarks in the sense, first, that Leiter concurs in principle with Neumann’s sentiment and, second, that a philosophy journalist need not concern herself so much with the nuts and bolts of the argument as the public effect that rhetoric may bring.

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