Professional Philosophy and the Normalized Intellectual.

An edgy essay by Z

For more than 35 years, I’ve been amazed, amused, bemused, and appalled by professional academic philosophy–my varying mental states cascading over one another, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, both in alternation and in combination.

A question that has always intrigued and worried me, right from the time I was an undergraduate student, intensely and even obsessively in love with philosophy, is: what counts as the most important philosophy of my era–roughly, the period from roughly 1970 to that present moment?

I wanted to know the answer to this question so that I could read, master, and critically reflect on this work, and then for the rest of my life try like hell to do something comparable to that in my own work.

OK. “My era” now extends from roughly 1970 to roughly 2020, so from here on in, let’s call that “our era.”

And let’s also assume, for the purposes of argument, that the most important philosophical work of our era is the same as what is awarded the most prestigious prizes of our era.

No philosophers have been awarded a Nobel Prize since Albert Camus won it in 1957 and Jean-Paul Sartre won it in 1964.

But in 2007, Charles Taylor won the 1 million dollar + Templeton Prize.

The citation says:

Charles Taylor, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at McGill University, argues that problems such as violence and bigotry can be solved only by considering both their secular and spiritual dimensions. He suggests that depending wholly on secularized viewpoints leads to fragmented reasoning and prevents crucial insights that might help a global community that is increasingly exposed to clashes of culture, morality, nationality, and religion.

In 2015, Charles Taylor shared the 1.5 million dollar John W. Kluge Prize with Jürgen Habermas.

The New York Times reported it this way:

The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas and the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor will share this year’s $1.5 million John W. Kluge Prize for Achievement in the Study of Humanity. The prize, inaugurated in 2003 and awarded by the Library of Congress, is intended to recognize work in disciplines not covered by the Nobel prizes.

Mr. Habermas, 86, is widely recognized as one of the most important German thinkers of the past half century, a defender of the Enlightenment tradition whose writings on human rights, citizenship, Germany’s Nazi past, terrorism and other subjects have often stirred public debate in his country and beyond.

Mr. Taylor, 83, is the author of several influential books questioning individualism and examining the enduring religious underpinnings of morality in the modern world, including “Sources of the Self” and “A Secular Age.”

James H. Billington, the outgoing Librarian of Congress, in a statement called the two men “brilliant philosophers and deeply engaged public intellectuals” whose work reaches beyond the confines of their discipline. They will receive the award at a ceremony in Washington on Sept. 29.

In 2016, Charles Taylor won the 1 million dollar Berggruen Prize.

The New York Times reported it this way:

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has been named the winner of the first Berggruen Prize, which is to be awarded annually for “a thinker whose ideas are of broad significance for shaping human self-understanding and the advancement of humanity.”

The prize, which carries a cash award of $1 million, will be given in a ceremony in New York City on Dec. 1. It is sponsored by the Berggruen Institute, a research organization based in Los Angeles and dedicated to improving governance and mutual understanding across different cultures, with particular emphasis on intellectual exchange between the West and Asia.

Mr. Taylor, 84, is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading philosophers, and a thinker whose ideas have been influential in the humanities, social sciences and public affairs. His many books include “Sources of the Self,” an exploration of how different ideas of selfhood helped define Western civilization, and “A Secular Age,” a study of the coexistence of religious and nonreligious people in an era dominated by secular ideas.

He was chosen for the prize by an independent nine-member jury, headed by the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah. The jury cited Mr. Taylor’s support for “political unity that respects cultural diversity,” and the influence of his work in “demonstrating that Western civilization is not simply unitary, but like all civilizations the product of diverse influences.”

And in 2017, Alvin Plantinga won the 1.4 million dollar Templeton Prize.

The Templeton Foundation described it this way:

Alvin Plantinga, an American scholar whose rigorous writings over a half century have made theism — the belief in a divine reality or god — a serious option within academic philosophy, was announced today as the 2017 Templeton Prize Laureate.

Plantinga’s pioneering work began in the late 1950s, a time when academic philosophers generally rejected religiously informed philosophy. In his early books, however, Plantinga considered a variety of arguments for the existence of God in ways that put theistic belief back on the philosophical agenda.

Plantinga’s 1984 paper, “Advice to Christian Philosophers,” challenged Christian philosophers to let their religious commitments shape their academic agenda and to pursue rigorous work based on a specifically Christian philosophical vision. At the same time, he was developing an account of knowledge, most fully expressed in the “Warrant Trilogy” published by Oxford University Press (1993 and 2000), making the case that religious beliefs are proper starting points for human reasoning and do not have to be defended or justified based on other beliefs. These arguments have now influenced three generations of professional philosophers.

Indeed, more than 50 years after this remarkable journey began, university philosophy departments around the world now include thousands of professors who bring their religious commitments to bear on their work, including Buddhist, Jewish, and Muslim philosophers.

Sometimes ideas come along that revolutionize the way we think, and those who create such breakthrough discoveries are the people we honor with the Templeton Prize,” said Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation, which awards the Prize. “Alvin Plantinga recognized that not only did religious belief not conflict with serious philosophical work, but that it could make crucial contributions to addressing perennial problems in philosophy.”

The Templeton Prize, valued at £1.1 million (about $1.4 million or €1.3 million), is one of the world’s largest annual awards given to an individual and honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works. The announcement was made online at today by the Foundation, based in West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania….

One philosopher who nominated Plantinga for the Prize wrote: “Alvin Plantinga’s intellectual discoveries have initiated novel inquiry into spiritual dimensions. His precise and carefully developed insights have opened up intellectual-spiritual space. In the 1950s there was not a single published defense of religious belief by a prominent philosopher; by the 1990s there were literally hundreds of books and articles… defending and developing the spiritual dimension. The difference between 1950 and 1990 is, quite simply, Alvin Plantinga.”

In accordance with my initial assumption to the effect that the most important philosophical work of our era is the same as what is awarded the most prestigious prizes of our era, then Taylor, Habermas, and Plantinga are the most important philosophers of our era.

And I’m also prepared to assume, for the purposes of argument, that all three are brilliant thinkers and fully deserved their highly lucrative, highly prestigious prizes.

But when we consider the material in boldface above, what do we find?

1. Liberal democratic capitalist thinking in the classical Enlightenment tradition, extended to multicultural communitarianism, and the equally classical Enlightenment liberal democratic capitalist tolerant acceptance of spiritual values (Taylor and Habermas).

2. Christian theology backed up by contemporary Analytic epistemology and modal metaphysics (Plantinga).

That being so, my worry is simply that what has passed for the most important philosophy of our era is, in fact, nothing but the works of what Axel Honneth aptly calls “normalized intellectuals” (Pathologies of Reason, appendix), who have carefully adjusted and whittled down the scope of their brilliant intellects to the professional academic and political status quo in two fundamental ways:

first, by never radically challenging the liberal (and nowadays, neoliberal or conservative) democratic capitalist political status quo outside the academy, and

second, by always smoothly conforming their work to the politically correct identity politics, multiculturalism, diversity, inclusiveness, etc., etc., inside what Richard Rorty aptly called the “unpatriotic academy.”

In other words, as per my assumptions, the most important philosophers of our era have absolutely failed to criticize the political and professional ideologies and norms governing the social institutions that have so richly rewarded them.

Disciplined minds, all the way.

Even more insidiously, the institutions that awarded these prizes are saying, more or less subliminally, to all young and not-so-young philosophers:

Normalize your critical intellect, and succeed!

Argue as much as you like, but obey!

–And now discharging my assumptions, for what it’s worth, my own alternative choice for the most important un-normalized philosopher of our era would be Noam Chomsky.

Indeed, my citation for Z’s Prize for the World’s Most Important Un-Normalized Philosopher of Our Era, bringing with it a fabulous cash prize consisting of my entire APP fund, $185.25 USD, would read:

Noam Chomsky almost single-handedly moved linguistics and empirical psychology, together with the philosophy of language and mind, from Behaviorism to Cognitivism, relentlessly spoke critical truth to political power, and also had the serious advantage, over and above being exceptionally brilliant and productive, of NOT having been a professional philosopher.


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, and Z, Monday 1 May 2017.

Against Professional Philosophy is a sub-project of the online mega-project Philosophy Without Borders, which is home-based on Patreon here.

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