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).