Is Philosophy a Con?

And is Western philosophy unpopular because it’s depressing?

Benjamin Cain
Jan 18 · 9 min read
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Image by Michael D Beckwith, from Unsplash

athering dust on a shelf in the Ivory Tower’s basement is a ragged tome about the trouble with Western philosophy.

Moreover, some philosophy graduate students, who had been seduced by the chance of speculating for a living and who discovered the dark secret too late have whispered of the horrors within that haunted tower.

But do their devastating reports about the state of academic philosophy show that philosophy itself is rotten?

The Fraud of Academic Philosophy

The dark secret, in short, is that in North America at least, academic philosophy is a con — and in more ways than one. Undergraduates who dip their toe in philosophy expand their minds but are treated mostly to a superficial history of ideas or are guided by their teacher’s assistant in a series of intellectual jamming sessions as they opine on the big questions that have no straightforward answers.

Philosophy majors eventually discover that Western philosophy has apparently reached two separate dead ends, the analytic and the literary, “continental” schools. As for the graduate students seeking to become tenure-track professors, almost all are sorely disappointed with their more realistic prospects.

For more on the latter, see Rachel Anne Williams’ gloomy indictment in which she recounts her dawning disenchantment with the business side of academic philosophy.

Hers is a miserable bill of particulars, from the old boys’ club of academic journals, to the threat of publishing or perishing, to the dearth of professorships compared to the ocean of hapless applicants, to the slave wages and unreliability of postdoc teaching jobs, to having to eschew the real philosophical problems to have any hope of acquiring a long-term academic appointment by chopping away at your dissertation’s minuscule pseudoproblems in which no one else is interested.

For the record, I can corroborate Williams’ report. After finishing my Ph.D. in philosophy I had no chance of becoming a professor. Most of my fellow graduate students and I were social outcasts or philosophy nerds who could write well and who loved to philosophize but who had no business sense and had effectively sought refuge in a playpen for adults.

The only one of those fellow students I’m aware of who went on to become a philosophy professor spent at least as much time engaging in the dirty business of filling up her C.V. with empty accomplishments as she did thinking through philosophical problems. For example, she ran for president of the graduate students’ association and was awarded that position, thanks to the total of roughly twelve persons who voted in the election. She currently specializes in the fashionable and dubious subject of gender issues.

Perhaps I have sour grapes, but I’m also relieved to know that because I fled academic philosophy, I’m not contributing to the fraud. And I say “fraud” because as Williams also points out, you typically don’t learn the dire truth about your academic prospects until it’s too late, which means that philosophy departments make their money in part by not being up-front about what happens to most of their graduate students who attempt to become professors.

Then again, the fraud is greater than that.

When doing my M.A. in philosophy, one of the professors urged the class to read The Ph.D. Trap, by Wilfred Cude. To quote from the Amazon blurb for a later edition of that book, “Cude revealed the Ph.D. program in most disciplines to be savage, mechanical, and cruel — an exploitative construct that often frustrates legitimate intellectual inquiry, shatters viable career expectations, and mangles personal and professional relations.”

And a summary from the back of the book: Cude “reveals a system paralyzed by intellectual conformity, anachronistic standards, corruption, and selfish careerism.”

I remember flipping through that book, but like the other students I proceeded with the graduate degrees as though I were a horse with blinders on, because the con is systemic, not perpetrated by any cabal of academics. The primary mismatch is between the pleasures of reading and writing philosophy, on the one hand, and the sordid reality of the philosophy profession, on the other, so it’s as though the former beguile you into ignoring the latter.

As I’ll suggest in a moment, though, even the pleasure of doing philosophy may be treacherous.

I recall that when I was teaching a class as a graduate student, one of the young undergraduates approached me after class in a wheelchair, asking for my advice on whether he should major in philosophy. Judging from his essays, he was no philosophical genius, so the question was whether he should waste his youth and job opportunities majoring in a bygone subject.

If I told him the truth about the sorry state of Western philosophy, what would become of my self-respect as a graduate student who had evidently been sucked into the morass? But even worse, suppose I’d won the lottery or were a cold-blooded Machiavellian and managed to secure a professorship. In that case, if I lied and encouraged him to study philosophy, I’d have been a full-fledged accomplice to the scam.

The most responsible advice would seem to be to study philosophy in your free time and to major in a more practical area such as engineering or computer science, the assumption being that philosophy itself is worthy whereas its institutional form is a wasteland.

But is that assumption true? This is the question to which I’ll now turn: Does the fraud of academic philosophy indicate that Western philosophy itself is somehow at fault?

Western Philosophy is Unpopular because it’s Disheartening

At first glance, the answer seems to be no because as Cude’s book shows, the academic problem is much broader, having to do with the professionalization of the humanities, not just with philosophy.

But that larger problem of the institution doesn’t obviate the need to ask about philosophy itself as an ancient discipline or human capacity, because philosophy has a special role to play in the humanities. Philosophy tackles foundational questions while the other humanities typically only presuppose answers to them. Thus, we shouldn’t overlook the possibility that the academic state of the humanities is rotten because their foundation in philosophy is flawed.

To track down that potential flaw, we should take note of how the professionalization occurred. In the Middle Ages, the ancient Roman idea of the liberal arts prevailed, which meant the trivium of logic, grammar, and rhetoric were thought of in practical terms as skills to be employed. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the vestige of that practicality meant also that the humanities were dogmatic, since the Aristotelian worldview came to dominate European education for a thousand years.

Eventually, Thomism, which was Thomas Aquinas’s synthesis of Aristotelian philosophy and Christianity, was overthrown by the Scientific Revolution, at which point the humanities were opened up as deeper areas of inquiry. As progressive mistrust of traditions arose and more and more questions were asked, the humanities became increasingly specialized.

Philosophy as we know it broke from “natural philosophy,” or from protoscience, since scientists followed Isaac Newton, Galileo and others in applying the experimental method. Philosophers became those who ponder the most general questions that can’t be answered by testing hypotheses with careful observations.

Early-modern philosophers duly recapitulated the various speculative options left open by the humanistic standpoint that takes no traditions for granted, and these options — materialism, idealism, dualism, empiricism, rationalism, skepticism, and so on — are comparable to those arrived at by the ancient philosophers of Greece, India, and China, especially after the Axial Revolution in the first millennium BCE. In all of those ancient cases, radical doubt provoked existential insights and ingenuity in reconstructing rational justifications for a viable way of life.

The difference in modern Europe, however, was that the philosophers had to accommodate the anomalous progress of science, technology, and capitalistic enterprise.

By twists and turns, Western philosophy came to its present division between the “analytic” task of clarifying the conceptual implications of scientific knowledge, and the more literary one of brooding about those same implications. The former is supposed to be rigorous and objective while the latter is meant to spur insights with often obscure rhetoric, and to oppose individualism in Britain and North America — even after the collapse of communism in the twentieth century.

Taking their cues from Nietzsche and Heidegger, late-modern literary philosophers such as Georges Bataille and Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard and Michel Foucault are often radically pessimistic as they take skepticism to the limit, showing how individuals are cogs in one or another inhuman system. With the existentialists, literary philosophers oscillate between issuing mystical, prophetic, totalitarian pronouncements about the futility of philosophy, and slipping in denunciations of so-called modern progress, especially in so far as that progress is thought to be American.

And that last point may be a clue to how Western philosophy relates to its academic condition.

After all, analytic philosophy is more neutral and therefore less pessimistic than the literary kind, and the analytic philosophers or “analysts” happen to be based in the United States, which has been the powerhouse of capitalism for a century; likewise, many of the early analysts (Moore, Russell, Whitehead, Austin, Ryle) were based in Britain, which had been central to the Industrial Revolution.

That seems important, because the obvious explanation for the problems with academic philosophy is the economic one: there aren’t enough jobs in philosophy since there’s a shortage of demand. Most people in Western societies aren’t interested in what philosophers are selling.

The reason for that unpopularity seems to be that the upshot of Western philosophy, the message we’re left with after all the conceptual explorations and reformulations is something like the dire, depressing pessimism of the literary philosophers as expressed in their relativism, skepticism, atheism, nihilism, and social radicalism. Most people would rather not face those debilitating doubts.

Mind you, that pessimism is less clear in the analytic tradition partly because the analysts hide behind their methodical neutrality as a result of their conceit of scientism: the analysts are so impressed with science that they need philosophy to appear respectable in scientific terms, which means they exclude the big questions that don’t fit into the scientific picture, questions such as whether the technoscientific, capitalistic, “progressive” enterprise as a whole ought to be celebrated or condemned.

Neutrality may work in favour of American-centered analytic philosophy also for a more cynical reason, which is that the neutrality subdues the doubts fostered by modern philosophy — including doubts about capitalism and the heart of American culture. Those philosophy departments thus avoid scaring off the American undergraduates, whose tuitions support the business of academic philosophy.

The full scope of the fraud, then, comes into view. At the practical level in North America, studying philosophy professionally becomes a nightmare and a dead end for the majority of the committed students, because the pseudoscientific style of the analytic school conceals the brutal upshot of modern philosophical inquiry.

Philosophical doubts — about truth, reality, God, freewill, justice, morality, progress, and modern Western culture — are debilitating and therefore are unlikely to become popular, because most people would rather be comfortable in ignorance. Due to that lack of economic demand for philosophy, the intrepid or foolish few who are tempted to study the lead-up to those all-encompassing doubts are gulled by the benign presentations of analytic philosophy.

More substantively, philosophy or rather liberated reason in general bewitches us into acquiring knowledge which isn’t conducive to primates that are preoccupied with fulfilling their biological life cycle. That grievous result of knowledge has been suspected in the West at least since the biblical myth of the loss of innocence in Eden and since Plato’s ominous account of Socrates’ trial and execution for his having corrupted the youth by implanting in them the self-destructive taste for philosophical doubts.

However, to blame philosophy for this impasse would be like blaming the messenger. With reason we can judge ourselves harshly in light of the far-flung imagined alternatives; we come away from philosophy humbled by our lack of collective wisdom and estranged from the world that’s rationally understood.

If reason perpetrates a fraud — close to what Thomas Ligotti calls the “conspiracy against the human race” — there’s no one to blame, because ultimately this talk of “fraud” or “conspiracy” is figurative. Reason and self-consciousness evolved mindlessly and our prehistoric ancestors couldn’t have foreseen the consequences of their explorations.

Naively, they trusted not just in reason and in their curiosity and imagination, but in the enchantments of nature. In the final analysis, what lets us down is the inhumanity and godlessness of those enchantments.

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in…

Benjamin Cain

Written by

Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in society, culture, philosophy, and more.

Benjamin Cain

Written by

Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in society, culture, philosophy, and more.

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