Professional Academic Philosophy’s Blind Spots

A few years ago, I read an email–or a post on an online forum, I am not sure–written by a very accomplished senior philosopher (a logician to be precise.)  In his argument, the logician–adept at providing mathematically elegant proofs of recondite logical problems–seemed to have committed at least two logical fallacies in the first paragraph of his ostensible argument. The topic of the discussion: women’s place in academia.

It was not the first or the last time I noticed the Ironic Absence of Argumentative Rigor in Professional Philosophy When it Comes to Women (or indeed, Any Topic That Threatens Male Privilege.) This observation of mine can be made more general, perhaps even cast as an exception-free law of sorts: professional training in philosophy is no bar to, and indeed might even increase the probability of, sloppy argumentation on topics of personal and political interest.

There is now, once again, in the world of professional academic philosophy, a renewed debate about sexual harassment and sexism (here; here; here; here); once again, many of my academic colleagues–especially the female ones–are dismayed by the plentiful display of very unphilosophical and unsympathetic prejudice by many accomplished  and senior male philosophers. They are right to be dismayed; but they should not be surprised.

For as long as I’ve been a member of this discipline, it has bred a very particular sort of arrogance. This is manifest in many ways: sometimes it is the resolute conviction that philosophy alone–and sometimes only its analytic, science-worshipping component–provides the royal road to Truth; sometimes it is the assertion that no other discipline engages with philosophical problems; sometimes it is the implicit claim that its students and practitioners are the best equipped with argumentative dialectic and clarity and rigor in written and oral expression. The philosopher stands above all, best equipped to provide lofty judgments on all matters of human endeavor and thought. His education, his methods, his intellectual tradition has outfitted him admirably and ideally for this task.

The contrast between this confident, narcissistic self-assessment is only heightened by the actual, empirical manifestation of these supposed capacities: all too many professional philosophers reveal themselves to be narrow-minded pedants whose conception of human inquiry and motivation is remarkably impoverished. And all too many travelers on the Royal Road to What There Really Is are rapidly undone when arguing about political issues that might possess an emotional or sexual dimension. Keep matters confined to a closely specified and formally clarified sphere; you might see rigor on display. But let matters spill out into an issue in which positions are often underwritten by prejudice and you will suddenly observe philosophical acumen take its leave.

I do not doubt pedants and hypocrites are plentiful in other academic disciplines; I have had the misfortune of encountering many of them myself. But the gap between the self-image, between the professed claims to loftier things, and actual ground realities makes philosophy’s situation just a tad more sordid.

Cleaning up the muck takes much longer when those entrusted with the task continue to screw-up, all the while convinced they can do no wrong.

One thought on “Professional Academic Philosophy’s Blind Spots

  1. oh man, I graduated from and now work at Northwestern, and the Ludlow catastrophe is incredible. It’s amazing to me that sexual harassment claims aren’t processed by an independent body. Instead, Northwestern has the responsibility to “punish” professors as they see fit. It’s eerily similar to the U.S.’s refusal to honor the International Criminal Court treaty.

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