The End of Philosophy

Article excerpt

Contemporary philosophers have given up trying to address the public.

Imagine that American colleges and universities decide to shut down all graduate and undergraduate departments of philosophy. The first reaction of philosophers would understandably be to lament our lost jobs. Beyond lamenting our personal fate, we are left to ponder the fate of the discipline of philosophy itself. Without graduate departments of philosophy, no new philosophers would be trained. Without philosophers, conferences and journals devoted to a discussion of philosophical topics would gradually disappear. Of course, some individuals might persist in asking certain kinds of questions and invoking certain names which would seem to situate them by a family resemblance in what hitherto had been known as "philosophy." But philosophy would inevitably become as marginal to our future cultural enterprise as astrology is to our present cultural enterprise. It is absurd, you are thinking, to speak of philosophy and astrology in the same breath. Why has this thought experiment led to such an unpleasant and pr ovocative speculation?

The answer is deceptively simple: my thought experiment has starkly exposed the uncomfortable truth that "philosophy" in its present incarnation is in fact "academic philosophy" -- the adjective "academic" has become so redundant we need to be reminded that there is no philosophy outside of the academy. Philosophy has become a hothouse flower which can survive only in the artificial environment provided by institutions of higher education and which would wither and die if were to be removed from it.

We are forced to ask how philosophy in America has become totally dependent on the academic enterprise for its continued survival. After all, it was not always so. In pre-Civil War America, philosophy was a minor and ancillary presence in institutions of higher education. Religious concerns like inculcating piety and forming Christian character shaped the curricula of these colleges.

No special expertise was needed to teach in such institutions. Advanced degrees were not necessary, and if desired, could be obtained easily. For example, in the early nineteenth century, you could get a masters degree from Harvard if you had a BA degree, if you could demonstrate good moral character --i.e., if you had not been in jail -- and if you paid a five dollar fee in advance. The work of the instructor was to teach and to supervise students: you were expected to be a jack-of-all-trades, able to teach Latin eloquence in the morning and surveying in the afternoon, as well as to control the frequently unruly and often violent behavior of your students. Research and publication were not encouraged -- in fact, at many institutions were regarded with suspicion. An 1857 Columbia College report blamed the low state of the college on three professors who had the temerity to waste their time writing books! The president of Columbia also became enraged when the librarian asked that college funds be used to purc hase books. After all, the library was open for only two hours in the afternoon. But this was decidedly better than the situation at Princeton, where the library was open only once a week for an hour. Library research was otiose because teaching consisted primarily of recitation and drill.

The lot of the college teacher was precarious -- his salary could be docked if physical improvements like whitewashing the college fence were deemed necessary -- and his social status marginal. In nineteenth-century America, "professor" could refer to a music hall pianist, to the master of a flea circus, or to a weight lifter in a carnival, as well as to a college instructor.

In this milieu, philosophy was more a handmaiden to religion than an independent academic discipline. Philosophical speculation was by and large carried on by nonacademic amateurs like Emerson. But after the Civil War, higher education and the role of philosophy in higher education were dramatically transformed. …