Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Philosophers Don't Get No Respect (by guest blogger Bryan Van Norden)

(This is the second in a series of guest blog entries by Bryan.)

Eric wrote an interesting entry two months ago in which he noted how much higher the social status of philosophers is in Iran than in the U.S. I'd like to expand on that a bit.

I think that almost every civilization today or in recorded history has given philosophers (and humanists in general) more respect than does the contemporary US.

Abelard, the medieval philosopher, was greeted like visiting royalty wherever he went. The brilliant and well-born Heloise could have had any husband she wanted, but she famously said to him, "I would rather be your whore than another man's wife."

I knew a fellow graduate student who studied in Taiwan for a while. He came back with a Chinese wife from a wealthy and influential family. She knew that her new husband would never make a lot of money, but she was content because of the prestige that came with being a scholar (or a scholar's wife). When he got his first academic job, and she saw what the social status of professors in the US is, she divorced him and returned to Taiwan.

Jurgen Habermas is routinely consulted by European media for his views on current events, as were Derrida and Bertrand Russell. Here in the US, Larry King has interviewed Sean Penn about his views on the Iraq War, and Jenny McCarthy about the causes of autism. And Paris Hilton is a celebrity because she had the good fortune to be born rich, and the misfortune to appear in a sex tape.

If you look at representations of intellectuals in US media, they are almost always either arrogant and cruel (like Professor Kingsfield of The Paper Chase) or amusingly feckless (like Diane Chambers or Fraser Crane on Cheers). As Eric reminded me, there is a bit of an exception for scientists. Einstein posters still grace a few dorm rooms, and brilliant doctors like "House" are often pop-culture icons. But there is no social cachet for those of us who know that modern natural science would have been impossible without our own intellectual discipline.

I think that the American disdain for intellectuals grew out of a preference for populism and a rejection of what was seen as European elitism. But our country is in actuality very elitist. But it is not an elitism of intelligence and achievement. It is an elitism of wealth and celebrity.

33 comments:

MT said...

I suspect the special regard philosophers enjoy is quasi-religious. Traditionally in Europe colleges and philosophers were connected with the Church, and if the modern European regard for philosophers and other intellectuals has roots in history, then that regard is liable to be at least vestigially religious. Meanwhile, I've read that in Moslem religious tradition the contents of dreams are prophetic and/or have a divine significance. Also meditation of a sort has a religious significance at least among the Sufi's, and while most Islamic practice these days is a lot less mystical, I believe I read (in Karen Armstrong?) that mysticism was for awhile considerably more prevalent, so again vestigially people may be predisposed to regard the products of meditation as divinely inspired. Dreams and meditation being akin and occasionally identical to the reflective practices of early Christian and Islamic philosophers, philosophy might carry some of this cache and to enjoy a special regard as a a result. America's strongest, deepest roots, on the other hand, are Protestant and Enlightenment--at least based on frequency of citation in cocktail party conversation. So maybe we're all more Cartesian and neo-Platonic, tending to believe that the universe is mathematical and deeply susceptible to scientific inquiry; and traditionally having no need for priests maybe we feel no instinct to turn to the traditionally priestly profession of philosophy. The go-to guys left standing in our esteem then are the scientists, such as Einstein. [wide gesticulations of the hands] Q.E.D.

MT said...

To clarify--by "the special regard philosophers enjoy" I mean in Europe and still more in Iran, as Bryan's post was about. The first half of my ginormous paragraph is about these two cultures of high regard for philosophers. The second refers to the more low-brow tradition of the lower 48.

Stefan Ionescu said...

Perhaps the situation with US philosophers is due to the fact that analytic philosophy does not have that "depth" and "relevance to human concerns" that continental types BoaSt about. In Romania, the current president has three such "philosophers" as advisers—talented writers, it is true, but one is actually an art historian, another is into history of ideas, and the third, a Heideggerian phenomenology professor turned publisher. They have built a reputation as heirs of mid-20th-century Romanian historian of religions Mircea Eliade, essayist E.M. Cioran, and their less known likes, also revered as "philosophers" in the public sphere. You can imagine the confusions...

mt is right about the quasi-religious respect that they get from Romanians, since they have managed to blur any distinction between philosophy, on the one hand, and literature, history, and especially theology, on the other. They explicitly draw inspiration from the Church Fathers, and proclaim their faith wherever they go. Science is seen as a second-rate instrument (in any case, they wouldn't call it "Culture"), technology, as evil. Currently, evolutionism is under attack in some "cultural" magazines and it was excluded from the high school biology curricula last year.

On the other hand, the handful of people doing analytic philosophy in Romania are basically unknown outside the Philosophy Departments; they are never invited for TV shows, never consulted by the politicians, and very seldom publish in the cultural press. When I say I'm studying philosophy, people ask me about Hegel or Heidegger or Derrida, and no-one knows about Quine or Kripke. Analytic philosophy is equated with positivism and scientism, and considered a dead or dying "intellectual fashion". And so on.

So, in some parts of the European Union, "philosophers" get too much respect, while philosophers don't get none.

manyulim said...

I haven't really seen a lot of Continental philosophers in the limelight in the U.S. either. The U.S. is, as Bryan suggests, anti-intellectual in general, though historians seem to get a fair amount of attention--e.g. Doris Kearns Goodwin (despite a serious plagiarism scandal!), Michael Beschloss, ad a few others. And then there is William Bennett, which only confirms the anti-intellectualism...

I wonder if part of the problem is that academics can seem so argumentative, condescending, and/or dismissive, philosophers not excluded. That gives the impression that they are ill-mannered and difficult. So, as Confucius might say, perhaps we (philosophers) should look within for the blame--well, at least part of it.

manyulim said...

By the way, has anyone read Andrew Ross's "classic" 1989 discussion of the broader phenomenon in *No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture*? I haven't, but if someone has, please pipe in.

Paul Gowder said...

Some of this might reflect accurate judgment about specialization. Assuming (arguendo) that Derrida, say, was competent to comment on anything, it would be language rather than social issues, so we can say that the French media erred by consulting him.

And some academics in the U.S. do get consulted, albeit not often philosophers. You see certain law professors (not all of them media hounds by nature) in the press on policy issues all the time. What distinguishes law professors from philosophers is, I think, a) a greater policy orientation as such, and b) some kind of exposure to what it might mean to be a competent public speaker...

Bryan said...

Dear mt,

Dreams and meditation being akin and occasionally identical to the reflective practices of early Christian and Islamic philosophers...

That's a modernist stereotype. Philosophers like Augustine, Abelard, Aquinas, Avicenna and Averroes were as as good at tight rational argumentation as anyone today.

America's strongest, deepest roots, on the other hand, are Protestant and Enlightenment...

But Protestants can be as philosophical as anyone else, and the Enlightenment was inspired by philosophy as much as anything else. For example, the first great American philosopher was Jonathan Edwards, Calvinist minister and author of the philosophical tract, The Nature of True Virtue.

I think there IS currently a schism between religion and reason in the contemporary US, but that has a lot to do with the fact that so many contemporary intellectuals are dismissive of religion, thereby making religious people think they have to choose between "fides et ratio."

Bryan said...

Perhaps the situation with US philosophers is due to the fact that analytic philosophy does not have that "depth" and "relevance to human concerns" that continental types BoaSt about.

I think it is true that a lot of analytic philosophy is so far removed from human concerns that few people will be interested in it. For example, I think Quine, Davidson and Kripke are interesting, but I would never have recommended any for a semi-popular talk show.

But there is a lot more to Anglophone philosophy than the rarefied philosophy of language. Martha Nussbaum, Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor are all doing challenging and culturally relevant "big picture" philosophy, just to name three. And there are many figures in "applied ethics" who could be tapped for public forums -- IF audiences were interested.

Bryan said...

Oops! The lead quotation in my immediately preceding reply was from stefan ionescu's comment.

Bryan said...

Dear Manyul,

I wonder if part of the problem is that academics can seem so argumentative, condescending, and/or dismissive, philosophers not excluded.

I think this is unlikely, given how current intellectual debate is conducted on shows like Crossfire (cancelled, but representative) or The McLaughlin Group.

So, as Confucius might say, perhaps we (philosophers) should look within for the blame--well, at least part of it.

One of my favorite quotations from "the Master" is The gentleman harmonizes, and does not merely agree. The petty person agrees, but does not harmonize (Edward Slingerland, trans., Analects with Selections from Traditional Commentaries [Hackett 2003], 13.23).

As Confucius points out, we must aim for "the mean" between extremes. The extremes in argumentation are (1) uncritically agreeing with everything someone says, and (2) uncharitably challenging whatever someone says. I suspect that every one of us is dispositionally predisposed to one extreme or the other, so the best strategy is to notice which is most true of us and try to compensate for it.

I'd add that I think either extreme leads to a sort of narcissism, since both fail to engage with the views of others in a way that leads to a productive development of the dialogue.

Bryan said...

Dear Paul,

Some of this might reflect accurate judgment about specialization.

True, and that is why I do not expect the intellectual heirs of Davidson to get any "air time." But that still doesn't explain or justify why in the US we interview actors and actresses on policy issues, but not specialists in applied ethics.

Anonymous said...

McLaughlin has a Ph.D in philosophy from Columbia.

MT said...

But Protestants can be as philosophical as anyone else, and the Enlightenment was inspired by philosophy as much as anything else. For example, the first great American philosopher was Jonathan Edwards, Calvinist minister and author of the philosophical tract, The Nature of True Virtue.

What I was cryptically trying to reference and/or suggest by invoking American Protestantism was the physical and intellectual separation the colonizers made between themselves and the ancient traditions of the Catholic Church, under the auspices of which the universities came into being and had operated everywhere in Europe almost until the Pilgrims arrived. I was speculating about affiliations, not spiritual bent. Also I was addressing the extent to which a society or culture at large admires people whose vocation is philosophy and what status such professionals enjoy. That's distinct from how popular philosophy might be among them as a pastime or bedtime reading, and it doesn't preclude individuals from taking up the profession. With regard to my Protestant hypothesis, what would interest me is not that John Edwards was protestant, but how widely he could "dine out," among Protestants, on the fact that he was a philosopher.


"Dreams and meditation being akin and occasionally identical to the reflective practices of early Christian and Islamic philosophers..."

That's a modernist stereotype.


Perhaps I should have said "very occasionally." I was imagining Maimonides, for example, engaged in some mystical prayer at times and that, even if those were not the same times at which he was engaged in philosophy, nevertheless he would be counted among medieval philosophers. I think this popular regard and social status of philosophers reflects something unconscious, and so I hypothesize that the mere kinship of meditation, loosely conceived, dreaming, "Islamically conceived," and philosophical reflection, conceived more or less as we do today, within some domain of contemplative activity could be enough to cause people to feel some of the same reverence that they feel for monks and theologians for academic philosophers. And I'm suggesting that even after this individual psychology largely disappears, the behavior of deference and respect for philosophers could remain, having been preserved as culture.

MT said...

I think there IS currently a schism between religion and reason in the contemporary US, but that has a lot to do with the fact that so many contemporary intellectuals are dismissive of religion, thereby making religious people think they have to choose between "fides et ratio."

If religious people observe a distinction between faith and reason it's bound to be by necessity, and not much if at all to do with intellectual attitudes toward religion. That is, assuming we're not counting "because the Bible told me so" or "because I trust my minister more than my biology teacher" as reason. I think I've heard Francis Collins draw the distinction, and as an eminent scientist presumably he has a strong tendency toward rationality.

Bryan said...

Dear anonymous,

McLaughlin has a Ph.D in philosophy from Columbia.

I did not know that. But the fact that McLaughlin has a background in philosophy just proves the point I was trying to make: the fact that philosophers are often combative is clearly not the reason they are seldom on TV.

Bryan said...

Dear mt,

What I was cryptically trying to reference and/or suggest by invoking American Protestantism was the physical and intellectual separation the colonizers made between themselves and the ancient traditions of the Catholic Church, under the auspices of which the universities came into being and had operated everywhere in Europe almost until the Pilgrims arrived.

But there were (and are) many Protestant nations in Europe where philosophy was (and is) taken more seriously than in the US, e.g. Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands. Surely these countries did not reject Catholicism less thoroughly than did the US.

If religious people observe a distinction between faith and reason it's bound to be by necessity, and not much if at all to do with intellectual attitudes toward religion.

As philosophers from Augustine through James (and beyond) make clear, the relationship between "faith" and "reason" is complex. It's possible that they are all wrong, of course, but their views suggest that there is not a simple dichotomy between the two.

Bryan said...

He who chases dragons must beware lest he become one himself. -- Nietzsche

I wanted to add a general comment about some of the issues raised by my two guest posts.

I think it is important that, in the fight against dogmatism, we not become dogmatic ourselves. And one of the most dangerous ingredients of dogmatism is caricaturing one's interlocutors.

Here is an interesting link illustrating dogmatism in the name of science and objectivity. (I hasten to add that I am NOT endorsing the substantive views of the author of the linked article. But I am endorsing his statement about what counts as a productive and open-minded dialogue.)

MT said...

But there were (and are) many Protestant nations in Europe where philosophy was (and is) taken more seriously than in the US...

All of them belonging to the "One True Church," if not under the direct rule of the Holy Roman Emperor or Pope, over most of their history since emerging from the Dark Ages and until the Reformation , which was still raging when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. I believe it's widely accepted that American Protestant culture was something made more from scratch and with more of a free hand than the cultures of European nations converting by decree to Protestantism. Cortez and the conquistadors would be a different story. Better to look to Latin America for support or evidence against my speculative theory. How do they like philosophers in Mexico, Cuba and Colombia?

The Financial Philosopher said...

Ask the average person what they think about philosophy and you'll understand more fully why "philosophers don't get no respect."

Just use some of the words used here in the comments, such as cyrptically, phenomenology, schism, dogmatism, Heideggerism, intellectualism, positivism, and other "isms" with a random person on the street and see what kind of looks you get.

Don't get me wrong. I'm an enormous fan of philosophy and like to consider myself a philosopher, although not in the generally-accepted scholarly sense. Just don't overestimate the capacity of mainstream human thought.

It certainly comes as no surprise that the simple yet profound wisdom of ancient eastern philosophy, such as Taoism, is much more popular today than the modern philosophers discussed on this board, such as Heidegger and Nietzsche.

Once again, I appreciate all levels of philosophy. I will say, however, that philosophers often speak in a language that only they can understand. Saying more with less words and delivering them in an easily digestible way does not seem to be an aspiration of the modern scholarly philosopher.

I get the sense that most scholarly philosophers, that will proudly call themselves a philosopher, would be embarrassed to use language that is anything beneath the graduate level.

With all due respect to the massive intellect represented on this post, "talking smart" does not mean wisdom. It only increases the odds of reducing the size of the audience...

If, as Heidegger said, "language is the master of man," then I believe we could become the master of language if we communicate in a way that people can understand...

colin said...

TO Paul Gowder: Derrida was probably the most famous philosopher in the world for the last twenty years of his life (or there abouts) and he published on a wide range of philosophical issues including language, ethics, aesthetics, politics, etc. THAT you disagree with him (assuming that you know his positions) does NOT mean that it was incorrect for him to have been consulted.

Also, Leiter has a link up to the 100 most influential public intellectuals. It includes several philosophers of varying stripes along with lawyers, scientists, etc.

http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=4262

Anonymous said...

"It certainly comes as no surprise that the simple yet profound wisdom of ancient eastern philosophy, such as Taoism, is much more popular today than the modern philosophers discussed on this board, such as Heidegger and Nietzsche."

Actually, I think that the popularity comes more from the fact that most people's understanding of Taoism is vey poor, and so they feel comfortable attributing all sorts of things that seem cool to the Taoists. You can't do that with Rawls or Kant. It is not that Taoism is "simple" while Kant is "difficult," it's just that we have a simplistic understanding of Taoism.

Bryan said...

Dear "Financial,"

It certainly comes as no surprise that the simple yet profound wisdom of ancient eastern philosophy, such as Taoism, is much more popular today than the modern philosophers discussed on this board, such as Heidegger and Nietzsche.

I have to agree with the reply of "anonymous." There are many stereotypes about Daoism, and among the most pervasive is that it is "simple." Here is a passage from Zhuangzi, perhaps the greatest Daoist philosopher:

Making a point to show that a point is not a point is not as good as making a nonpoint to show that a point is not a point. Using a horse to show that a horse is not a horse is not as good as using a nonhorse to show that a horse is not a horse. Heaven and earth are one point, the ten thousand things are one horse. -- Ivanhoe and Van Norden, eds., Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, p. 218.

Profound? Possibly. Simple? Not at all. *smile*

And even if Western philosophy is too hard for the average American to stomach, that does not explain the greater respect accorded philosophy in other cultures. Are people smarter in Iran, China, and Europe?

Hagop said...

Great discussion! I'll chime in with a couple of thoughts, coming from two different directions.

First, I think financial philosopher brings up something relevant--the accessibility of philosophical discourse. It seems to me that whenever a philosopher produces a book that is easily digestible for a mainstream audience, or writes for magazines, or makes appearances on the radio or on television, he or she is looked at with mild derision by his or her peers, perhaps even taken less seriously as a philosopher. (I'd like to hear what others have to say about this, as this is just my impression.) More generally, I don't see a lot of attempts by philosophers to engage a broader audience. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that most philosophers just don't care at all about reaching any audience outside of peers in their narrow specialties. (Philosophers are obviously not unique in this regard.)

Second (and I say this with some hesitation, as it is based mostly on reports in the mainstream media), I'm under the impression that the public education system in the US (at the primary and secondary level) is just not up to scratch. To find engage in intellectual debates engaging you need to have a curiosity that is backed up by a lot of knowledge about... stuff. Basic things like historical and geographical facts, current events, knowledge about different cultures and traditions, etc. How can a poor public education system even produce individuals who can engage with intellectual discourse, let alone come to respect intellectuals?

MT said...

is an interesting link illustrating dogmatism in the name of science and objectivity....I am NOT endorsing the substantive views of the author ....But I am endorsing his statement about what counts as a productive and open-minded dialogue.

I see that it suggests what you think it illustrates, yet I strongly doubt it actually illustrates what you think it does. The author purports to be somebody who has found evidence that people have an at least partial ability to anticipate phone calls. In his post he introduces Dawkins as a "strong supporter of James Randi." Near the end he writes:

I made it clear from the outset that I wasn’t interested in taking part in another low grade debunking exercise.”

Richard said, “It’s not a low grade debunking exercise; it’s a high grade debunking exercise.”

In that case, I replied, there had been a serious misunderstanding, because I had been led to believe that this was to be a balanced scientific discussion about evidence.


By "balanced scientific discussion" the posts' therefore the author seems to mean one in which the discussants assume a high competence and credibility of one another, no matter what the other actually says. By "balanced" and "scientific," in other words, he means "don't come in like James Randii looking to debunk my experimental interpretation on the supposition that I'm a rube or a liar." But who's to say the man isn't a rube or a liar? In my experience, those possibilities are more likely than that people have an ability such as he claims to have documented. The more extraordinary the claim, the more likely the claimant is a rube or a liar, and a real scientist submits to this presumption without even requiring others to demonstrate that they hold it. That's what makes the public discourse of science so gentlemanly, despite its actual dog-eat-dogness and what actually gets said over bagels around the journal-club table. The post author seems to protest too much in this regard--and his choice of the phrase "balanced scientific discussion" suggests an attempt at slyness in doing so. If he were more believable and were he actually a scientist, I'd want to say he gives science a bad name. But he seems more like a culture-war crank to me.

MT said...

Here's a favorite science-religion conversation of mine.

Anibal said...

Imagine the following mental experiment for the sake of my argument about how to determine respect by the general public toward philosphers or whichever profession: eliminate or exterminate physically one by one every profession or actvity, including philosophy, and see how the world change as a consecuence of it. This is the measure of respect to an activity or profession.
The greater the impact or change as a consecuence of elimination of an activity, the greater the respect or value people have to it.

Anibal said...

When philosophy is already eliminated: what is left and what is lost.

Bryan said...

Dear anibal,

The greater the impact or change as a consecuence of elimination of an activity, the greater the respect or value people have to it.

By this criterion, our society ascribes the most respect and value to garbage men and farmers. Our society would collapse in a manner of months without either one, let alone losing both.

Bryan said...

Dear hagop,

It seems to me that whenever a philosopher produces a book that is easily digestible for a mainstream audience, or writes for magazines, or makes appearances on the radio or on television, he or she is looked at with mild derision by his or her peers, perhaps even taken less seriously as a philosopher.

I think this is true as well. I wonder if there is also some subconscious sour grapes involved in this derision? ("How come SHE got interviewed and I didn't??")

I'm under the impression that the public education system in the US (at the primary and secondary level) is just not up to scratch.

My own (purely anecdotal) sense is that the US system is very uneven. There are clearly lots of very bad schools, but then again I'm still meeting brilliant colleagues who went to average, suburban public schools.

I think that all any mass education system can do is teach students basic skills and basic knowledge. What they do with it, and whether they go beyond it, depends to a great extent on the influence of their surrounding society. Does their environment value and encourage intellectual pursuits like philosophy?

Anibal said...

Well, excluding the issue of biodregadation of some particular types of garbage etc. i think the criterion is very plausible, and probably i think that garbage collectors or other dust jobs no ussually estimated by the public are more necessary, and tereby in terms of my criterion more respectfull that for example being a celebrity.

The name used by the spaniard philsopher Miguel de Unamuno for those jobs that are not visible but without them a society could collapse is "intrahistory" and garbage collectors are the intrahistory without doubt. For me philosophy its not exactly introhistory but without it life won´t be the same. Philosphy is also necessary and deserves respect.

Alexus McLeod said...

This all might lead one to ask the question: why are we so concerned about attention or respect anyway? Remember another useful quote from Confucius (in Analects 4.14): 不患莫己知,求為可知也 "don't be concerned that no one knows you, rather seek to be worthy of being known."

Sure, the number of people watching one single episode of American Idol will be greater than the combined number of people who ever read any of our work (for the rest of time, probably), but so what? We could have gained much more respect (and wealth) if we'd gone into more glamorous fields than philosophy (and Chinese philosophy at that!), but we shouldn't envy them because they have the respect we don't.

I, for one, enjoy not being in the limelight--it makes me a less nervous, vain, and self-conscious person, and thus a better philosopher than I would be if philosophers were rock stars (can you imagine "American Cogitator" or "Dancing With The Distinguished Faculty"...Lord help us!). I think it makes all of us better philosophers, because we've got to take solace in the quality of our work, rather than in the adulation of our peers.

Matt Brown said...

I think there is a historical dimension to this that is important. In the 1920's and 1930's, and perhaps before, philosophers like John Dewey were consulted as much by the American media as Habermas in Europe today (at least, relative to the quantity of the media of the time). And it isn't the case that analytic philosophers, as Stefan suggests, were always left out. Bryan points out Russell in the post, but Russell also received a lot of attention in American media (check out the online archives of the New York Times, for example), as did logical positivists like Otto Neurath and Philipp Frank.

I agree with George Reisch's argument in his book, that McCarthyism in America had a big impact on the marginalization of American academics. Hard to say what the impact was exactly, but given that countries which didn't have the same reaction to communism that the US did don't have the same marginalization of philosophers from public discourse, it's not all that unlikely.

Hagop said...

I was going through my podcast backlog recently and heard this great interview with the philosopher Mary Warnock on the topic of 'philosophy and public life' (something she's eminently qualified to discuss). It may be of interest to those thinking about the issues Bryan raised. You can listen to it at the link below:

Philosophy Bites interview with Mary Warnock