Academic Philosophy: Guilty as Charged

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I rejoice at Steve Yates’ piece on the cesspool known as academic philosophy.

I finished my PhD coursework in philosophy at the Catholic University of America in 1994. I am still writing my dissertation on Friedrich Hayek.

Everything Yates writes is true, and then some.

I have recently criticized American legal education, so I suppose it is only fair to criticize philosophy as well, in particular because the state of philosophy today deserves scorn.

I did my undergraduate work at the University of Notre Dame, graduating in 1992. I had no classes with Alvin Plantinga (who, as Yates mentions, is a good guy), but did my senior thesis under Ralph McInerny, who should be included in — if not placed at the top of — the list of 20th century philosophers who reject materialistic naturalism. If that sentence is confusing, let me stress that Ralph McInerny is one of the best philsophers alive today. He runs the Jacques Maritain Center at Notre Dame, and also writes mystery novels. His Father Dowling mysteries were adapted for television, but — as if you needed to be told — the television shows are not all that similar to the books. (If you think about religious matters, the Jacques Maritain Center web site is a veritable gold mine).

At Notre Dame, I also studied under Alasdair MacIntyre. Both McInerny and MacIntyre are still at Notre Dame (although MacIntyre went to Duke for a time). As one might guess, they are magnets for Notre Dame’s graduate program. They are a pair of number one starters of a pitching staff that is a shadow of its former self. Still, that has been enough to keep the Yankees in the World Series for the past few years.

My senior thesis at Notre Dame was a critique of Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. If you have not read the book, do not waste your time doing so. A copy of Superman or The Flash is a better use of your time. (That is not to be unfair to Superman or The Flash, which are objectively worth reading, as well as comparatively better than Rorty).

At any rate, Rorty claims that just as mankind now lives in a "post-theological age," we must move toward a "post-metaphysical age." Men must stop talking about "truth" just as they have stopped talking about "God."

(As an aside, it seems that Leftists like Rorty are the reason so many Christians feel excluded from contemporary society. By and large, the bigwigs, movie stars, and politicians simply do not care about Christianity any longer. There are, of course, exceptions to this generalization, which is why I write "by and large." Mel Gibson is nearly alone among film makers in his traditional values. John Ashcroft is being persecuted for his Christian beliefs. When the president of the United States rabidly cheats on his wife, lies under oath, and goes essentially unpunished, one has to wonder what the world is coming to. Despite the millions upon millions of Christians in the world today, Rorty calls ours a "post-theological age." What he means is that the people who matter to him are no longer under the sway of theology.)

Rorty claims that "liberals" (his former word for illiberal, totalitarian Leftists; his most recent book is entitled Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America believe that "cruelty is the worst thing human beings can do to one another," and that "there is no basis for this belief."

I am not making this up.

To restate: Rorty contends 1) cruelty is bad and 2) there is no basis for thinking cruelty is bad.

Thus, Rorty advocates writing novels about suffering, so that people will "feel" how bad cruelty is.

This is what Steve Yates is referring to in writing that philosophy today offers "exercises in [mostly trivial] linguistic analysis, nihilistic wails of angst or howls of rage against capitalism." Rorty has them all, and he is less interesting to read than a good comic book.

To Rorty, a reply: have a look at Rameau’s Nephew by Denis Diderot. In that classic work, a seducer pretends to be an honest instructor while corrupting young girls. Think of Bill Clinton, and you get the idea. What does Rorty have to say to such a fraud? Worse, what does Rorty have to say by way of justifying the war against Hitler?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

On Rorty’s own theory, he can only say that he doesn’t like Hitler, not that anything Hitler did was WRONG. The same goes for Bill Clinton. Hello relativism, good-bye morality and human civilization.

This is, of course, the height of idiocy. This is why I am now a lawyer. (Stop laughing, I will explain further).

After writing my senior thesis on Rorty, who by the way is a professor of "humanities" (no specific discipline, you note) at the University of Virginia (Jefferson must be rolling in his grave), I struggled to decide between pursuing a PhD in Philosophy, working as a sports writer, or going to law school.

This was a hard choice. I enjoyed sports and sports writing, but you had to deal with all sorts of pretentious athletes and coaches. Additionally, most people thought of sports writers as losers. I wanted no part of that aspect of the job. (The typical picture of a sports writer is, I must add, unfair. I interned at the South Bend Tribune, and they were a wonderful bunch of people to work with. They were serious about their jobs, covering high school sports with the same devotion as they covered Notre Dame football).

I had worked at a law firm during the summers of my college years (except for one year mowing grass, which was hot and sweaty but paid very well). Walking around a building delivering pieces of paper, however, had not given much insight into the practice of law. It looked like men in suits, grumpy and grouchy, and stressed out housewives typing to beat the Devil. I opted for philosophy.

I spoke with Ralph McInerny, David Solomon, and MacIntyre. I did not speak to them early and often enough, too much in awe of their positions as renowned faculty members. What I wanted was to be like them: reading Greek and Latin, knowing the history of philosophy from A to Z, backward and forward.

After much deliberation, I went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Within weeks, I wanted out. Rather then begin at the beginning, with Plato and the Greeks, the classes at Illinois started with 20th-century "superstars" (to borrow Steve Yates’ term) such as Michel Foucault, Jurgen Habermas, and other assorted nitwits. This is the level of intellectualism in the USA today — rather than read books containing challenging arguments, it is easier for administrators and micromanagers to give permission for professors to assign books by "big names," even if the books are less informative than five hours at a zoo watching capybaras chew grass.

Seminars started day one asking what people thought about things, without striving to develop any sort of foundation. In short, my master’s degree consisted of large group therapy sessions. As nearly the only religious person (I am a Roman Catholic) and nearly the only classical liberal (lots of socialists there), I tried to keep my mouth shut and just get through with things. I nearly left after the first semester, but stayed when I realized how easily one could obtain the MA.

The day when two lesbian students returned from a gay pride rally in New York with a bag full of gay pride buttons for everyone to share was an eye opener. In at least one "seminar," which was less informative than Perry Mason (I used to skip the last five minutes of Perry Mason to make it to class no more than five minutes late), I simply decided to stop reading. Well, I stopped reading the class materials. I read philosophy I liked and found challenging, and read as much as I could. I played Nintendo. I read Tom Clancy novels. I went to the Kentucky Derby when I had a thirty page final paper due the next day, and I made more than a few trips to Cubs games in Chicago.

In short, academic philosophy today is a joke. I was nauseated by the fact that, if I "earned" a PhD at Illinois, I would have no respect for myself. I was sickened by the fact that someone’s tax dollars were paying for this festering petri dish of malcontents who would go on…to teach the children of Illinois.

After much struggling, I decided to give philosophy one last try before jumping to law school. I went to Catholic University, and am very glad that I did. Whole classes devoted to one dialogue of Plato! Reading multiple versions of Plato’s dialogues, as well as commentaries, and picking them apart line by line! Catholic University’s School of Philosophy offered (and still offers) real philosophy, not the pale imitation of philosophy found at Illinois. The entire School of Philosophy is stocked with superstars. If philosophy had its own version of "break up the Yankees," CUA would be the Yankees.

(Note: This is not some cheap attempt to curry favor with my doctoral committee. Also, there are good people at Illinois. James Wallace, in particular, was an oasis in that intellectual wasteland. Also note, if you are wondering why CUA is not on any magazine’s list of "best graduate programs," education is about brand names, which are only sometimes equal to their reputations, and even then not very often. CUA is devoted to actual learning, and not to fads, and is therefore largely unknown).

Since I enjoyed Catholic University so much, and continue to love philosophy, one may wonder why I am now a practicing attorney writing a dissertation, instead of just writing a dissertation.

The answer is simple: I taught for a while.

I taught at a diocesan Catholic university which shall remain nameless. It was there that I realized the emperor has no clothes. Politics ruled the day at Illinois, but I was blind to this until I taught. Six years of dealing with politically correct administrators and intolerant feminists still had not convinced me that there was simply no way to get along with such persons short of letting them control your life. Attempting to teach — and attempting to teach philosophy properly, rather than as told to do by persons who knew nothing about philosophy — showed me that there could be no compromise with such persons, if I wanted to keep my self-respect.

Teaching was the worst job I have ever had. My summer cooking biscuits at 4 am at McDonald’s was better. At McDonald’s, you got to run your own area (within reason). A certain number of cheeseburgers (the smell comes back to me) needed to be ready every two minutes, then blasted with condiments, wrapped, and time to mop the floor or make McNuggets.

In contrast, I had no freedom as a teacher. My syllabus needed to be approved, not by anyone with a philosophy degree, but by the dean of humanities, who may have been a political science guy. This was, of course, an easily-met formality. As long as nothing looked too objectionable on its face, not much investigation appears to have been done.

Teaching was a different story. Plagiarism? Not to be punished. University claiming to "prepare students for the global marketplace"? No foreign languages required.

My favorite episode involved a student who came to me after an exam. My exams never required students to answer all the questions. Essays, multiple choice, and true-false questions all were "answer eight out of ten," and so on. This gave the student a chance to pick a question they could handle.

One mid-term featured three essay choices. A student chose to answer "Compare and contrast the Aristotelian and Epicurean views of pleasure." The essay proceeded to say nothing about Aristotle, a little about Epicurus (which was only half right), and made no comparisons or contrasts. I still awarded half the points. When the student asked me to explain the grade, I gave the above explanation: you didn’t answer the question. To which the reply was "I didn’t know anything about it."

Professor: "Then why did you choose to answer that one?"

Student: "Because I didn’t know anything about the other ones."

By this point, I hope you get the picture. Teaching, even at a Catholic university, which allegedly cares particularly about justice, is close to slavery. This is why teaching is a labor of love. Those who teach must truly love what they do.

If you want to be treated like garbage, paid minimum wage, and told how to do your job, teach at a university. To those who teach, I salute you. You are better men than I.

So why be a lawyer? It is honest work — at least it can be, if the lawyer is honest. This is not always the case, as the suspension of Bill Clinton’s law license by the Arkansas Bar demonstrates.

What to do about philosophy? I will not abandon Dame Philosophy. There is a human need to understand God and creation (the self, of such importance to empty-headed contemporary "thinkers," of course falls within the scope of creation). Only philosophy — with the occasional aid of theology — can fulfill that need with reasoning, instead of mere opinion and sound bites. (Note: if you think that law and philosophy are in bad shape, let me tell you about theology….)

Steve Yates is thus correct in calling for the rejection of academic philosophy today. Philosophy is now where literary studies was 12 years ago: in the hands of maniacs. Literary studies, which treats such all-important topics as fin-de-siecle (it is all fin-de siecle) visions of genitalia, has finally brought philosophy down into the dirt and mugged philosophy.

For that reason, being younger than Steve Yates, I never joined the APA, which was clearly an insane asylum in 1992. I have been a member of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, which, although solid, is not untainted by post-modernity.

In part, the collapse of academic philosophy may be unavoidable. As new and old ideas are considered, tested, and rejected, a degree of confusion must be expected. The nearly lifeless moonscape of philosophy today, however, is more correctly seen as a sign of the times. The ranks of professors are filled with old hippies. Professors, like all other persons, come to their jobs from the general population. Today’s academic circus therefore is a mirror of Western civilization.

Philosophy must die a well-deserved death and be reborn. It should be allowed to wither on the vine. Private seminars, taught by professors in their homes or at the Mises Institute (or via the Internet), perhaps for no official credit, must keep the flame alive through these genuine Dark Ages.

Mr. Dieteman is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.

© 2001 David Dieteman

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