Academic Philosophy Today: Thanks, But No Thanks

by Steven Yates

"When regard for truth has been broken down, or even slightly weakened, all things will remain doubtful."

~ St. Augustine

"Morally, a philosopher who uses his professional competence for anything except a disinterested search for truth is guilty of a kind of treachery."

~ Bertrand Russell

"Funny. I never thought of it as a game."

~ Inspector Harry Callahan Sudden Impact

Recently I received a final notice from a professional organization I have belonged to for 15 years, the American Philosophical Association (APA), the largest organization of professional philosophers in the country. It made sense that I would receive it: I am a trained philosopher with a doctorate in the field, had been a member in good standing for all except one of those years (even though I only taught the subject full time for seven of them), but didn't send in my dues for the 2000-01 academic year.

And this year I have to reply, "Thanks, but no thanks." My reasons boil down to one basic claim: some time ago the University of Delaware-based APA ceased to be a philosophical organization and became just one more club of career academics, rife with factions and driven by compulsory conformity to all the politically correct fads. Last October I received a mass emailing from APA headquarters announcing this year as the organization's 100th anniversary. It called on philosophers to write op-eds, articles, etc., communicating the value of philosophy to those outside the field. Let this be one philosopher's contribution to this project – though I doubt this is what the club's 100th anniversary celebrants had in mind.

As to the value of philosophy as I understand the term, I've no doubt. Regarding the value of academic philosophy in its present condition, I've grave doubts.

I joined the APA back in 1985 as an enthusiastic but naïve graduate student – having just seen the appearance of my first article in a refereed journal. A couple of years later, I got my first taste of things seriously amiss with academic philosophy. I was in Boston, at the annual meeting of the APA's huge Eastern Division meeting between Christmas and New Years Day of 1987, a newly minted Ph.D. with his first full-time job (a sabbatical leave replacement position). I was there to present a paper, and I had what turned out to be a half-hour job interview. While passing by a conference room with one door standing open and an overflow crowd spilling into the hall, I chanced to hear raised female voices. Curious, I inched forward until I was able to see inside the room. I watched as a slightly diminutive woman at a lectern was verbally assaulted by other panelists and an audience of mostly women, for reasons I was not to discover until months later.

The woman was Christina Hoff Sommers, and she had read a paper critical of what so-called feminist philosophers had to say about the family. Of course, what they had to say, in essence, was that the traditional American family is an institution created by men to oppress women and ought to be done away with. Sommers apparently hadn't realized that so-called feminist philosophers can't stand to have their Marxist view of the world criticized. For a woman, it is even worse: Sommers was a traitor to her gender. To so-called feminist philosophers, having anyone stand up and do what Sommers did, at a national meeting, no less, was literally a new experience. As a result, the meeting disintegrated into chaos. I could barely believe what I had seen. Silly me. I had thought that professional people eschewed outraged gasps, catcalls and efforts to shout down those they disagreed with. I wondered about the physical safety of the woman whose name I didn't yet know but would go on to write a blistering indictment entitled Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women (1994) This important book would be among the first to blow the whistle on the kind of rubbish that passes for scholarship in academic feminist circles.

A couple of hours later that same day, I had a conversation with a fellow I'd met at a graduate-student conference at a Midwestern campus. (Graduate-student conferences are held to encourage enthusiastic but naïve graduate students.) I had applied for a position in his department, and he informed me – his voice lowered to just above a whisper – that the hiring committee was under severe pressure to hire a woman. I, with my publications, presentations and other credentials, very likely had no chance whatsoever. A woman was indeed hired, I learned later. This was my first encounter – one of many – with the academic non-search, in which committees, often under marching orders from deans or other higher-ups, decide in advance of looking at applications to consider women and minorities first.

The sort of women who would disrupt a presentation they didn't agree with were the ones obtaining the jobs. Moreover, this was not communicated to job applicants. As sociologist Frederick R. Lynch put it in his groundbreaking Invisible Victims: White Males and the Crisis of Affirmative Action (1989) "word comes down but does not go out." The marching orders are limited to internal memos and various enticements. At one university where I taught for a few years, the administration had a standing offer of a new permanent appointment to any department who could recruit a black. So much for the idea of "institutionalized discrimination" against blacks by universities. It struck me then that the leftists who claim that universities discriminate against women and blacks either just don't know what they were talking about or are part of a massive deception.

By 1989, I had become aware of – and increasingly horrified by – the clout wielded by race/gender special interest groups in academe. One such group in academic philosophy, calling itself the Committee for the Status of Women in Philosophy, is by any measure the most aggressive leftist organization in the discipline. Those involved masquerade as "victims" despite the absence of visible opposition to their agenda. A few other whispered conversations plus a handful of internal documents I had obtained led me to affirmative action as the main culprit explaining how these people got so much clout. Two years later, we began hearing about political correctness. I was not surprised. After all, I and quite a few others had begun inveighing against affirmative action in both articles and letters to the editor in fairly prominent periodicals like The Chronicle of Higher Education. Ripples of discontent, usually by white students, older white male faculty members or young job seekers such as myself, were growing. Moreover, a number of recent Supreme Court decisions (Croson and Ward's Cove, for example) held out hope that affirmative action would be rolled back. Political correctness was a natural step in efforts to block the slowly mounting criticisms of race/gender preferences and the victimology worldview. It was a means by which cadres of tenured radicals would secure their rapid march to the centers of power in universities.

The “life of the mind” or some such was clearly not what motivates these people. As Gramscians in the sense I wrote about two weeks ago, their endeavor was transformative, and they had begun to bend academic disciplines, philosophy included, to fit their agenda. For example, “feminist critiques of science” become all the rage in the early 1990s – one of the fads I alluded to above. While established scholars paid this sort of thing no attention whatsoever, newcomers such as myself were expected to confront the “issues” raised and participate as true believers.

The "issues," however, were utterly and totally nuts. To a rational person, they invited ridicule, not serious evaluation. The basic idea behind a "feminist critique of science" is that science is fundamentally sexist, exhibiting a skewed "masculine view of the world" because its founders and most of its practitioners have been men. This goes all the way down to the basic Western way of conceiving laws of physical nature. One radical feminist actually used the phrase rape manual to refer to Isaac Newton's writings because he and Sir Francis Bacon spoke of "penetrating" nature's secrets. (Masculine science. Feminine nature. Get it?) Part of the feminist agenda for scholarship and education was to critique "masculine science" and set the stage for replacing it with a more "female friendly" enterprise.

Marguerite Levin, a woman philosopher of the old school, responded to this by wondering sarcastically (in an article entitled "Caring New World: Science and Feminism," published in The American Scholar in 1992) if feminist airplanes would stay aloft for feminist engineers. Others simply pointed out that the books and articles appearing in a steady stream by radical feminists would not have been considered publishable as recently as ten years before.

The world of academic publishing, however, is also in the special-favors business, as academic presses and journal editorial boards have filled up with sympathizers to radical-left causes. At one point I prepared a detailed critique of the very idea of a "feminist critique of science." A journal rejected it on the basis of a referee's report two sentences long. When I phoned the editor to complain about the obvious bias, she openly told me that critics were held to a higher standard than believers.

Today, of course, the situation is worse. We do not have scholars, we have "superstars." The radicals' march to the centers of power is complete. Their mindset is in control. Victimology rules academe; its critics, either vanquished or reduced to frustrated impotence. Many have been forced out, taken early retirement or resigned in disgust. Administrations have been co-opted. Support for "diversity" is now written into the job descriptions for high-level administrators in all major universities. All one need do to verify this is check the jobs section in any recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. As for academic philosophy, there are sessions, committees, APA-sponsored newsletters, and even full-fledged academic journals, dedicated to every alleged victim group imaginable: blacks (some of whom are now being paid six figure salaries at places like Harvard – real class of victims, there!), Hispanics, Asians, gays and lesbians, and so on. With the public attacks on the Boy Scouts, one wonders when philosophy-for-pedophiles will emerge from this sordid closet.

All is presented in the intellectual ambience of "postmodernism" which rejects the objective truth of which St. Augustine and Bertrand Russell spoke of in two of my three lead quotations in favor of a mixture of historical relativism, cultural Marxism and cynicism about academe's former self. Objective truth, we learn from postmodernist writings, is a "white, male, Eurocentric social construct" and therefore oppressive and evil. The "disinterested search" for it is a bad-faith exercise in self-deception, since it doesn't recognize the dominance of straight white males. Intellectual relativism makes it possible to portray all groups and lifestyles as, in some sense, equal; actually existing inequalities, therefore, result from "oppression." Cultural Marxism continues the attacks on capitalism because it is so unegalitarian. What results are bizarre proposals such as that of Peter Singer, Princeton's latest "star." He argues that the United States should immediately, on "moral" grounds, transfer massive amounts of wealth to third world nations to alleviate their poverty. Singer, also a veteran of the nutty animal-rights movement, is the kind of "professional philosopher" that makes one want to dissociate himself completely from the enterprise.

In sum: well over ten years have passed since the first warnings were sounded, and I have to say: folks, you were warned! Over ten years ago, we younger scholars began to write about what affirmative action was doing to higher education. We were ignored, denounced as racists, and then excommunicated from your churches of "diversity." I still recall the hate blast from a black professor – writing from a tenured chair at a certain Ivy League university, naturally – replying to a letter to the editor I had written in The Chronicle of Higher Education about affirmative action. He compared yours truly to Dan Quayle and David Duke because "I see no difference between any of you." I also received letters from hostile readers – always with secure academic employment – that had a distinct tone of fear in them. These people were actually afraid that points of view other than the far left-liberal one would gain currency. I had to retort (and did, on occasion), what are you afraid of?

So where do we go from here? First, one has to admit that despite academic philosophy's near-collapse during the political correctness era, much of what came before wasn't exactly setting the world on fire. Much of 20th century philosophy had been the scene of a cleavage between the "analytic" philosophy done in the English speaking world and that of the French and German "Continental" approach. The former focused on the analysis of language and the production of, for example, close studies of inductive reasoning in science. Some of these, I hasten to point out, displayed considerable logical skill. The latter was either an existentialism that focused on the individual acting in a meaningless world, or a reconstructed Marxism setting out to change it. This, then, is what the philosophical community offered: exercises in (mostly trivial, however skillful) linguistic analysis, nihilistic wails of angst or howls of rage against "capitalism." Typically, too, 20th century "scientific" philosophers took materialistic naturalism for granted (although there are important exceptions such as the University of Notre Dame's Alvin Plantinga and the remaining devotees of Alfred North Whitehead's philosophy of organism).

Small wonder academic radicals found a haven in academic philosophy! They rushed in to fill the intellectual vacuum that academic philosophy had largely become. Academic philosophy had become a kind of decoration – little more than a game played by career academics trying to impress each other and win tenure. Funny thing. Rather like Clint Eastwood's character also quoted at the outset, I never thought of it as a game. To my mind, serious people – including at least some university undergraduates – had serious questions, and some of them they brought to professional philosophers expecting that those Ph.D.s, large corner offices and long lists of publications meant something. Many of these undergraduates were very troubled kids. They didn't look all that hot, with their shaved heads or dyed hair and black clothing, but some of these kids were surprisingly bright. Their questions, when they opened up, were often the right ones. They sought answers, and the philosophers – indeed, the entire academic enterprise influenced by materialism, cultural relativism and moral nihilism, was telling them that there are no answers and they might as well "do their own thing." I had come to care about some of those lost kids; because of this, I cannot forgive academic philosophers their abdication.

Sorting out how 20th century philosophy got into this state would take an article much longer than this. (I can almost hear the sighs of relief!) Suffice it to say, one sees none of the kind of discussion that is needed today – usually, because there is no one with both the will and the resources to carry it on. Academic searches might as well be labeled, "No white males or conservatives or paleolibertarians need apply." The kind of hate the Southern Poverty Law Center doesn't mind has become the hallmark of our time, and the most that white males can do to succeed is acknowledge their role as history's villains and work within that.

I refuse! I would much rather produce analyses "deconstructing" the uses of the very expression affirmative action, showing how the original legal texts (a favorite term of the deconstructionist crowd) left the term undefined. It took on meaning when the courts gave it meaning – as preferential treatment for some at the expense of others. I would like to see analyses of how diversity means a diversity of faces but not of ideas. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that the purveyors of diversity are scared stiff of the open discussion of ideas.

I would also like to see blowhards like Peter Singer cut down to size, using arguments that should not be too difficult to produce. They would show how proposals such as his would not only fail to bring third world nations with no tradition of liberty up to our status, but turn the United States into a third world nation.

Also, I would like to see more philosophical examination of ideas such as secession in the light of our own Declaration of Independence and of the ideas of a Constitutional republic. What merits does this idea have? Should it be advocated, just in case it turns out (as some have reasonably argued) that reforming the bloated Washington empire in the direction of Constitutionally limited government is no longer possible at the voting booth. What drawbacks does the idea have? Does the South's attempted secession back in 1860 have any bearing on similar movements afoot today, and if so, why? (Nobody today is advocating bringing back slavery, for crying out loud!) Such discussions exist, but mostly on the Internet and well off the radar screens of the dominant voices in academe.

Finally, I would like to see the question raised, somewhere within the halls of Ivy, just what is so great about the materialist view of the universe, which many philosophers who ought to know better practically equate with science. Why is it that a few other brave scholars who choose to explore the possibility of intelligent design, are run out of their jobs on a rail instead of answered with arguments?

Of course, carrying this kind of project forward will mean rejecting much of what passes for scholarship in academic philosophy today. In particular, it will mean rejecting the Gramscian intellectual left. This will be a tall order, given the number of folks who have built comfortable careers around the preservation of its fantasy world. It may take another generation to recover real scholarship; because of the tenure system, we may have little choice but to wait until the politically correct generation retires. At the rate things are going, it will leave a wrecked, intellectual wasteland behind. This wasteland is already a place where, for example, Christians can be kidnapped by administrators and hauled against their will to campus psycho wards for protesting plays depicted Jesus Christ as a homosexual; or where feminist lunatics declare snowmen to be sexist and racist. (I guess the kids building them should have looked around for some affirmative action snow). An environment that is the laughingstock of any person of genuine learning and taste.

The APA's statement on nondiscrimination is well known to its members – a morass of contradictions which “rejects as unethical all forms of discrimination” but then turns right around and denies that it should be interpreted as “preclud[ing] explicitly stated affirmative action initiatives.” These convenient lapses in logic have become typical of academic clubs. If the APA becomes a philosophical organization again, its members discussing the big questions and rejecting such nonsense as that produced by radical feminists without fear, I will rejoin.

Steven Yates has a Ph.D. in Philosophy and is the author of Civil Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action (ICS Press, 1994). He is presently compiling selected essays into a single volume tentatively entitled View From the Gallery and a work on a second book, The Paradox of Liberty. He also writes for the Edgefield Journal, and is available for lectures. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina.

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