The betrayal of Socrates

According to this article, in ten years the number of colleges offering undergraduate philosophy programs rose by fifty-two; in some schools the number of majors in existing programs has doubled in that same time period. Is this really a good thing?

From queen to maidservant: The university administrators and APA representatives interviewed were unanimous in extolling the “relevance” of philosophy: people can (and often do) double-major in philosophy (and some other more useful and, let’s face it, financially stable area of study) and “go on to become doctors, lawyers, writers, investment bankers and even commodities traders”. This is because philosophy “emphasizes verbal and logical skills” and “gives [majors] strong skills in writing, analysis and critical thinking”. Philosophy is justified because it is instrumental: “philosophy has attracted students with little interest in contemplating the classical texts, or what is known as armchair philosophy” (more on this in a moment). And that is not all. The article closes with yet another use for philosophy: one female major is quoted as saying “she found many male philosophy majors interesting and sensitive. ‘That whole deep existential torment,’ she said. ‘It’s good for getting girlfriends.’” One wonders (1) where the so-called “life examined” is (from the title of the article); or, even if the examined life really is the value of philosophy, why philosophy’s value is limited to the illumination or edification of an individual life insofar as this life is considered irreducible. This is the double bind: if the value of philosophy is the examined life, we lose the legitimacy of a concrete practice (institution, history, etc) of philosophy (this is the ideology that tells us that “we are all philosophers”); on the other hand, if the value of philosophy is its (instrumental) ability to service the field of cultural and economic production, then we have surrendered the proper name of philosophy (particularly insofar as philosophy operates at the (reflective) limit of thinking).

From philosophy to sophistry: Having thus abstracted the value of philosophy into “critical thinking”, quite independent of any concrete practice of philosophy (could a Marxist really go on and become an investment banker?), the article tells the story of one student who, having switched to philosophy from pre-med, won over her mother’s concerns about a philosophy degree, having “persuaded her with [her] argumentative skills”.

Quite aside from the other problems associated with the popularization of philosophy (see, e.g., 13 and 18 November 2007 posts), such an operation is intrinsically opposed to any real concrete practice. The attempt to make philosophy interesting and relevant to everyone and everything necessarily empties it. Once philosophy is “sutured” to its objects (as Badiou would say), then philosophy loses the critical capacity that is supposedly its greatest value. Philosophy, in other words, devolves into logic; and if there is anything the continentals were right to oppose, it was precisely this temptation and ideology according to which philosophy has no need of its history (or, more precisely, its histories) and its textuality. Literary theory learned this lesson long ago: the lack of a theory is still a theory—it’s just a naïve one. Similarly, the lack of a hermeneutic is still a hermeneutic, except under the pernicious ideology of an abstract universalism that otherwise goes by the name of “humanism” while at the same time endorsing (or at least complicit with) the most vulgar forms of positivism and technology that have apparently penetrated even into that institution whose very existence had until now been precisely to resist the doxastic tendencies of techne. If philosophy is the remembrance of Socrates, it seems that he has now been forgotten.

The result is philosophy majors who think they are being original and creative by discussing the “metaphysics behind the movie “The Matrix” or think that it is in any way appropriate to call Plato an “idiot” for thinking that language is iconic (presuming that majors even read Plato at all since, after all, the point of philosophy is not to know the classic texts but to “think intelligently” about anything at all). Or perhaps the result here is philosophy majors who think that they are not being dogmatic in turning a deaf ear to metaphysics tout court (as “nonsense” dispelled by proper linguistic analysis) or who think it is possible to talk about epistemology and any of its subfields without reading the first Critique (or, alternatively, that epistemology is all philosophy should care about)—and, moreover, that it is fruitful to do so. This is the same ideology and hermeneutic that produces the normally stupid “standard readings” of any particular philosopher under the name of a “progress” that thinks we build on the work of our predecessors either by proving them wrong or by otherwise moving “beyond” them (in good continental—or, let’s face it, Hegelian—terms, this is a logic that refuses repetition).

If it is possible to fight for the name of philosophy, it cannot be done under the name of its “popularization”. The future of philosophy does not depend on having “more majors”. It does not, of course, follow that the future of philosophy requires having fewer majors. The point, rather, is to change the question: from thinking the future of philosophy means more philosophers to thinking that the future of philosophy means a better practice. This is, simply, the question of what it means for philosophy to be an institution. Bourdieu has already opened important and challenging lines here. But the point must be more than the wedding of philosophy to the capacity for critique if—a big if—the essence of philosophy is, as Aristotle said, thinking on thinking (or, more precisely the erotic imitation of thinking on thinking).


3 thoughts on “The betrayal of Socrates

  1. see, my first reaction to that article was “the word existentialism is cool at rutgers!?” she must not take many philosophy classes — interestingly i just met this dude who was an undergrad there a few years back, and apparently all he took was logic classes.(btw, being myself has never been good for getting girlfriends. Either i am/was too existential, or not enough, whatever that might mean)I don’t have much to offer. I am wondering how “critical thinking” is a suturing to philosophy’s objects, though. Just because philosophy is only necessary only insofar as it critiques given objects?I think we should reaffirm the formula “the examined life is not worth living” into capitalist/economic terms. That might keep kids (and the nytimes) off of our turf.

  2. I shall vie with thee for overstatement, but in partial dissent. 🙂 To the extent that the motivation of these & other students *really does* begin and end at the level that Ms. Hu’s article suggests, of course I’m entirely nauseated. You can apply from memory, no doubt, the expletives that I’ve reserved in especial for our local instrumentalizers of the dialectic, so there’s no need for me to clutter your blog with repeated obscenities. 😉But, fortunately, I can see no reason to take this lazy article at face value. Is there any research here? I mean research at a level that we’d expect from the Times in, say, political reporting as a matter of course? I see only 1) a few striking statistics to the effect that enrollment is up, and 2) Ms. Hu’s own suggestions (from what depth of background?) as to cause. These suggestions extrapolate from a few rather pandering quotes (possibly in the final case deliberately ironic? (I can hope!)) that offer to explain the phenomenon in terms that are apparently commonsensical (i.e., familiar) enough to Hu to be accepted without question as conversation-stoppers. A quick search suggests that Hu is an “education reporter”. I guess since the phenomenon in question takes place inside the walls of schools, the NYT’s readers are to presume that the task of explaining a growing attraction of 21st century students to philosophy classes falls within her expertise? If so, I can only say that the Times expects far less of its readers and itself here than I would have hoped. *We* at least, have no reason to accept even her competence. Which is good news for us, given our revulsion for the sketch of an explanation offered — that the trivializers are succeeding in eradicating the difference between philosophy and a consumer-friendly play with the names of ideas. So while I’ll cheerfully stipulate that the phenomenon is statistically real, I just don’t see any respectable attempts in the article at providing an explanatory hypothesis for it that should exult or pain us. I’m not counting as research either the usual hand-outs from APA or students’ inadequate attempts spontaneously to theorize their own erotic attraction to thought (no more reliable here than in any other test of introspective psychology). On the second of these non-evidences: Aside from my suspicion that the typical undergraduate would be less self-conscious detailing his/her sex life than speaking non-ironically about a passion for thought, I simply wonder: at what point of hard-earned metaphilosophical sophistication would one be ready to explain one’s eros for philosophy in two lines to a stranger with a notepad (not to mention one who seems a bit deaf herself to the siren call of the Ideas)?) In fact, maybe that shouldn’t have been an aside…. Consider the article in light of this hypothesis: that its squeamishness, complete credulity, and overall giggly-ness represent a sort of reversal between the attitudes that we still think of ourselves as having w/r/t talking about sex publicly (but in fact don’t) and frank talk about an eros for the eidetic… Implications of this… Anyway, if the article has no intelligible content beyond its statistics, then we need not react with jubilation or despair to the proffered *meaning* of the phenomenon; we should, rather, raise the *question* of its meaning (apparently for the first time in a thoughtful way): “Why are the undergraduates of the 21st Century turning to philosophy courses in record numbers?” I’m not sure what the best cocktail of research methods would be for writing *that* article. Here’s an offhand suggestion for a start. One should first sit in on a respectable number of different classes, and ask students, as they’re on their way out, to talk about what enthused them about *that class*. Then do some real interviews, leading from the specific class toward their motivation in general. More intelligent responses at a general level should be forthcoming if one doesn’t pose the question in isolation. (“Why philosophy?”) In other words, one should conduct this research the way that one would conduct research on any topic about which people cared whether or not the information and analysis they were reading was sound! But apparently philosophy is either such a novel mystery or a strange embarrassment that the readers of the NYT are not to expect to be exposed to a careful presentation of the subject in its own element, by people who can speak its language. Or perhaps it’s just that such research would take time, effort, and money and the Times’ editorial staff lags behind our contemporary undergraduates in determining what’s worth spending these on. Again, I’m interested in the following principle, w/r/t interpreting the student responses: While obviously some undergrads are just floundering around in philosophy classes (and good for them, for putting up with the frustration of doing so, when they could be praised for mastery in some other place!) the more significant interpretive principle, I think, is that the point at which being able to speak spontaneously about philosophy itself as a category comes comparatively late in even sincere and fruitful philosophical engagement – if it comes at all. Certainly it is not what is to be looked for up front as the sign of such engagement. To answer the question “Why philosophy” *even/especially to oneself* requires philosophizing. I’d go so far as to say that for a given individual, an answer is only provided by an original philosophical synthesis, so that the strong answers offered so far are equinumerous with the great systems (and nonsystems), just as poetry’s only acceptable, non-instrumental justification is found in the great instances of ars poetica. If this special application of philosophy’s inner reflexivity is right, is there a good reason for us to expect better answers to the reflexive question applied to philosophy students than applied to students of poetry? They haven’t written their Duino Elegies yet; don’t ask them to talk about their passion, but rather to bring it forth on some occasion. Ask them what they are thinking about, and why *that* matters, to them, i.e., about something *within* their thinking, and bear respectful and quiet witness to their passion for yourself. So we have the obvious answer to the riddle – and for free we see why it goes unavailed of. the riddle: Other than identifying (& commodifying) the word “philosophy” as the topic, how is a reporter to get students to talk about it? It’s clear! A reporter would have to expose him/herself to the risks of speaking *philosophically* about *something* with students, in order to understand their decisions about how to spend their time. Much riskier than speaking (stupidly) “about” “philosophy”. Would this be reportage any longer? Would the reporter be a reporter any longer, i.e., could the stipulated asymmetry of the discursive positions be maintained? Perhaps not…but it’s therefore the more worth doing – and even worth doing for a newspaper, since it would also show something rather interesting about a particular reflexive limit structure: the limit of reportage. A newspaper is supposed to try to ‘cover’ everything, right? And this ‘covering’, like an algebraic mapping, presupposes the transcendental structures that we’ve just said couldn’t be preserved in the situation of interviewing students about their attraction to philosophy. What could be more honest and exploratory than to ‘cover’ the limits of coverage in this way, to call attention to it, rather than falsifying it. At that point, if one wrote a series of articles in this way, one would have succeeded in producing exactly one genuine and new (and of course negative) philosophical proposition from the standpoint of reportage, namely that philosophy is invisible to reportage. Of course, this is just a special case of the problem of the non-existence of metaknowledge that Plato identifies in the Charmides. For if it *were* actually possible for a reporter to provide information *about* thinking without being sucked into thinking (and ceasing to be a reporter), then meta-knowledge would be possible; philosophy would then be the kind of thing that would be reported about, and there would be straight-up second-order facts, whose totality would be knowledge of knowledge and ignorance. Since you and I, I think, concur on the disastrous consequences of such an actuality, we should thank Goodness, perhaps, that this article, while it does not rise to the sublimity of *showing its inability to show* (the diagonal theorem for a reporter), it is at least startlingly stupid. It thereby accomplishes the second-best thing, which, after all, is something: it recommends reading Plato rather than itself. Any real student of philosophy who receives this article, would surely be further dissuaded – dispositionally at least, and perhaps even reflectively – from thinking that there can be an external account of thinking, or that a true reflection would consist in giving such an account; the very stupidity of the piece would then help to refer them back to the *task* of thinking. If the article can’t be sublime, at least it’s not deceptively clever. Silver medal! (It’s your fault that I’m not sleeping tonight…)

  3. For the record, noble, being ‘too existential’ probably just means ’emo’ (or insane, I suppose).And my accusation went the other way: when philosophy is sutured to its objects or to its conditions, then its only value and practice becomes the abstraction known as “critical thinking” which, to any philosopher, is not critical at all (i.e., there is no such thing as a purely formal “critical attitude”).And I want to hitch onto the last sentence noble wrote, jb, to out-Platonize the Platonist (ok, maybe not, because that would be damn near impossible, I think–how about I’ll Hellenize the Platonist :P). “To answer the question ‘Why philosophy’ <>even/especially to oneself<> requires philosophizing.”–Yes, exactly! (This is, of course, the ubiquitous pedagogical problem of those blasted intro courses.) But this is also precisely the difficulty: that “there is no external account of thinking”. (I think this is not controversial, although I will be interested in the future to see how your structural notion of reflection maps onto what I think will be for me a ‘mimetic’ structure. More later.) I would almost go even father in my attempts at overstatement and say that the <>only<> answer to the question “why philosophy?” is Plato’s (hence my suggestion that philosophy tries to remember Socrates the way Augustine tries to remember God, which is exactly their respective eros).That being said, you’re also right, jb, insofar as this article is not a problem for “we philosophers”. <>But<> I don’t think I’m as sanguine about its failure (i.e., I think it’s not a good failure) insofar as it perpetuates the ideology–which is both internal and external to philosophy–according to which philosophy becomes enmeshed in self-apologetic begging for its right to exist, which manifests itself (among other ways) by the commodification of its content in the form of journal articles, book reviews, APA addresses, <>Il Principe<>, etc.It would not be so troubling if the ideology manifested in the NY Times article were simply internal to philosophy. So in one sense the article is not a problem <>for us<>. Yet: the real metaphilosophical question is, as you say, jb, “why are undergraduates of the 21st century turning to philosophy in record numbers?” Since I don’t have any real qualms about evidence, I think this article presents quite adequate research precisely because it does not contain anything that is non-commonsensical. In other words, precisely because everything the article says is banal does it serve as a sign (I mean this word technically) of ‘philosophy’ in current discourse. The answer to your question jb, I think, is precisely there on the surface. I think neither existentialism nor Marxism are of service here: I don’t see that undergraduates are turning to philosophy in search of “meaning” in a secular, disenchanted, technologically alienating world or business or pre-law majors driven to critical reflection by the conceptual and practical contradictions of their respective practices. Undergraduates are turning to philosophy because philosophy has managed to market itself as ‘relevant’ (sorry, noble, not in the Heideggerean sense), whether in statistics about majors who proceed into professional degrees or in Irwin’s Pop Philosophy books, etc.So, in sum, I think you are absolutely right, jb, about the (im)possibility of a philosophical account of philosophy. But it is also because of this that I find this article pernicious on account of its very banality.

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