Copyright Robert M. Ellis 2009

 Why academic philosophy needs to be turned upside down

An argument for change in the assessment of academic philosophy


Let us start with one basic assumption that I hope is widely shared: the goal of academic endeavour is to produce more objective understanding. We want our theories to be as close to truth as possible, and we check that truth by comparing it as closely as possible with evidence. The organisation of academic life should thus try to test and filter its activities in terms of their objective contribution.


So far, all subjects should concur. However, I want to argue that this overall value has quite different implications for philosophy than the implications it has for science, or for any other field where the field of investigation is empirical. In science, testing and judging activities for their objectivity creates a tendency towards conventionality, but in philosophy, a more objectively useful contribution is, on the contrary, more likely to be unconventional.


There are good reasons for the stringent avoidance of bad science. A scientist who, for example, does not take into account sampling bias, or cherry picks their data, may end up with eccentric conclusions only because their approach lacked objectivity. Their investigation was not rigorous because it was too subjective, and chose the evidence to fit the theory. There are therefore good reasons for the scrupulous peer review of scientific papers, the careful training of scientists into a rigorous scientific culture, and suspicion of cranks who become strongly attached to eccentric theories for which there is only highly selective or biased evidence.


However, the world of academic philosophy works in a very similar way to that of science, though to very different effect. As in science, new papers that are put forward, especially to the more prestigious journals, are scrupulously peer reviewed, and will be turned down if they are judged suspect. Academic advance, or even academic jobs, are only made available to those who put forward theories that relate to existing frameworks of discourse, offering arguments of a kind judged acceptable to those who have already gained the trust of their fellow academics in the philosophical community. Anyone who does not play this game will find themselves shut out from journals, book publishing, academic posts, or any other source of mainstream support or influence.


The justifications offered for these practices are similar to those offered in the case of science – philosophers want to maintain high “academic standards”, which one can read as high standards of objectivity. But do high standards of objectivity in philosophy coincide with adherence to convention to the same extent that they probably do in science? There are important reasons why they do not.


To start with, here, we need to define roughly what philosophy is, and what works differently in philosophy from other subjects. Philosophers put forward ways of understanding or interpreting experience, rather than theories about the world that lies behind that experience. For most people most of the time, those frameworks of interpretation are taken for granted. The value of philosophy thus consists in getting people to consider new frameworks which might lead them to consider the evidence they have differently, and thus recognise the possibility of reaching different conclusions. New frameworks of justifiable knowledge, ethics, or aesthetics, for example, could potentially help people to refine and improve their understanding of the world in important ways. However, it is the novelty of those frameworks that might lead to advances in objectivity.


This means that a philosopher who toes the line, and says the same sorts of things as other philosophers (perhaps with very minor variations) is a useless philosopher. Such a philosopher (at least in his/her philosophy) contributes nothing of any value to society, as the only way that philosophy can be of value to society is by challenging existing beliefs. People whose values are challenged by reading or hearing philosophical arguments have learnt something, and may potentially stretch themselves towards greater objectivity, even if those arguments turn out to have been mistaken. However, people who read or hear a philosopher reinforcing beliefs that they already have learn nothing, and if anything only become more complacent than they were before.


This is why the whole approach of analytic philosophy, which aims to tell us (with a little more precision, making a few more distinctions) what we already assume, is philosophically useless. It may provide a training in analytic precision, but such training could be done in lots of other ways. Analytic precision can provide one skill to help people be objective, but it is not a sufficient basis for research which helps create more objectivity. If the basis on which judgement is made is an appeal to common intuitions, which are merely stated more precisely than they were before, nothing has been gained through the pursuit of philosophy. Note this does not necessarily mean that what analytic philosophers argue is incorrect, only that it is useless because it does not add to anyone’s objectivity to study it.


Those who do the opposite, by putting forward unconventional philosophical theories, are also not necessarily correct, but their work at least has the merit of advancing the discussion. If their theories are incoherent, then when they are engaged in discussion this will quickly become apparent. Unfortunately those with wacky philosophical theories are rarely engaged in discussion, but more commonly ostracised by the mainstream academic philosophical community.


Unconventionality is not sufficient by itself for useful philosophy, but the point missed by the mainstream academic philosophical community at present is that it is necessary. It is only when they are taken seriously and engaged with that wacky philosophers will have the opportunity to refine their ideas and consider the full implications of their unconventional starting points.


A genuinely different philosophical position, which is really a different way of understanding, and/or of evaluating what we understand, is potentially of enormous creative value to the world. If the standpoint from which it is evaluated is simply its accordance with existing accepted views, such new philosophy will not be accepted nor its value appreciated. There is no other standpoint from which such genuinely new philosophy can be assessed but its own, and its value consists in the challenge it offers to existing understanding, regardless of its truth or falsehood.


The great original philosophers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries arose in a much looser academic context: but Hume, Kant, Schopenhauer or Nietzsche could not arise today. At best, the fate of any successors today whose relationships to the mainstream resembled theirs would be to remain cranks on the sidelines. The philosophers who are working most creatively today (like Parfit, Nagel, or MacIntyre, say) have done so only by establishing themselves in mainstream thought first and then by tinkering at its margins, but they are limited at the outset by the course of social acceptance they have had to run. The reason for the lack of creativity in modern philosophy is the increasing prevalence of a model inappropriately adopted from science for the assessment of new philosophy.


Instead, if we want philosophy to be creative again, we need to start doing topsy-turvy philosophy. That is, the initial acceptability of a new philosophical theory should be in inverse ratio to its conventional acceptability. The most prestigious journals should be those that publish the most outrageous material that questions every accepted belief in the book. The only rigour applied to the judging of new philosophical submissions should involve judgements of coherence, not of premises or of engagement in existing discourses. Journal reviewers, and philosophy postgraduates generally, should be much more rigorously trained into acceptance of arguments with very different premises from their own. The only people appointed to chairs in philosophy should be those that are truly barmy, not those that are well-adjusted conventional figures who happen to merely have sharp analytic minds.


This would not be the way for philosophy to gain respectability in wider society, but it would be the way to make it both relevant and progressive, and to allow it to contribute to the productive prodding of the rest of society. Objectivity is only increased in a debate about basic assumptions through a facility to switch between different possible positions and try them out for their pragmatic implications, not through the development of one position.


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