Academic Ideals

Academia doesn't live up to its noble image. Philosopher Peter Fosl: 

Although academics will hardly raise an eyebrow about this "open secret," it comes as a surprise to many others to learn that many philosophers … are little devoted to the love of wisdom. In only a merely "academic" way do they aspire to intellectual virtue. Even less often do they exhibit qualities of moral excellence. On the contrary, many philosophers, or what pass as philosophers, are, sadly, better described as petty social climbers, meretricious snobs, and acquisitive consumerists.  I blush a bit now to confess that part of what drove me into philosophy in the first place was the naive conviction that among those who call themselves lovers of wisdom I would find something different in kind from the repugnant and shallow brutalism of the worlds of finance, business, and the law.  …

Having read the repudiations of wealth in Plato, the Epicureans, and Augustine; having read about moderation and restraint in Cicero, Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein; and having accepted the low pay rates of the academy, philosophers ought to be, I concluded, the sort of people whose contempt for money and status would be matched only by the purity and passion of their engagement with reasoning, theorising, contemplation, and speculation. Alas.  Instead, I've found that the secret lives of philosophers are more often than not pre-occupied with status and acquisition. … Like debutantes at the ball, philosophers now often spend much of their time dropping names, gossiping, promoting their connections, hawking their publications. … Like a member of the admissions committee to a fancy country club, a colleague … told me [his department] wouldn't even consider hiring a newly minted PhD who hadn't graduated from a program "ranked" in at least the top fifteen;… applications from candidates not in the top fifteen aren't even read. …

Philosophers seem to pepper their conversations more and more with remarks about the perks or bonuses they 
receive – how much money they have available for travel, what sort of computer allowances, how big their research grants are. … Academic conferences increasingly offer sumptuous banquets, musical entertainment, guided tours of local attractions, and well-stocked bars. … Even as they preach tiresome denunciations of privilege and power formulated in the language of Foucault and critical theory, academics now flee or aspire to flee to institutions where status and money pool.  Finding philosophers devoted principally to the love of wisdom and to sharing it broadly has become, as Spinoza said of all excellent things, as difficult as it is rare.

Of course athletes, actors, authors, artists, musicians, preachers, activists, and politicians often similarly fail to live up to their ideal images.  But such communities do try somewhat to coordinate to discourage overly-obvious contradictions between image and reality.  Which suggests many questions.

Do some of these groups try harder than others to live up to their images, and if so why?  If these contradictions were somehow made more obvious to the public, how far would these communities be go to reduce them?  If they did nothing, would they be displaced by substitutes?

I suspect most who support and affiliate with academia only care a little about academia's aspiring to intellectual virtue, and little would change if we had more obvious image-reality contradictions.  But I'd like to be wrong.  Or are we somehow better off under hypocrisy?  Hat tip to Richard Chappell.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,
Trackback URL:
  • weastsall

    Does he blush because he’s embarrassed to have once thought that academics would be otherworldly beings, above everyday material concerns and indifferent to the opinion of others, or does he blush because he once thought that the worlds of business, finance and law could be described by “repugnant and shallow brutalism”? Or both?

  • Grant

    If academia became subject to more image-reality contradictions, it would have to change to preserve its (as well as its affiliate’s and supporter’s) status in the eyes of laymen. If it did not, another institution would fill the void of respected truth-seeking and become the new academia.

    If PhDs were thought of in the same manner as used car salesmen, and colleges thought of as massive wastes of time and money, how long would the tuitions and subsidies which support academia last?

  • Emile

    I wonder if there are any interesting comparisons with the evolution of the image of the priesthood in European history. Would we have had the reformation and the enlightenment if the priests had lived up to their ideals, or at least if they had kept a good reputation?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    weastsall, most likely the latter.

    Grant, how many would choose a lower ranked college because profs at the higher ranked one don’t seem truth-seeking? How many would prefer to buy a used car from someone who does seem truth-seeking?

    Emile, good question.

  • Mikko

    Philosophers have negative incentives for clarifying truth and wisdom for us. If they succeeded in explaining these concisely, they would be out of job.

    You could also argue that this has already happened, and the philosophers are just trying to cover the fact.

  • http://www.metacafe.com/watch/1800814/tropic_thunder_tom_cruise/ J

    I think seeking the truth is very noble.

    It would be nice, if there was some kind of hidden truth that could be found. Maybe the truth is, that there is no absolute truth, but only the now (t=0)? If there is no absolute truth, then seeking truth could only be accomplished by sharing and learning in interaction with others.

    Searching for philosophers devoted principally to the love of wisdom, but at the same time not reading all applications from candidates does not seem like the “best” strategy to me. Maybe Academia was never meant to live up to its noble image?

    “Man has to awaken to wonder – and so perhaps do peoples. Science is a way of sending him to sleep again.” (Wittgenstein)

  • Grant

    Grant, how many would choose a lower ranked college because profs at the higher ranked one don’t seem truth-seeking?

    Few people, I agree. But if it was obvious to all that the profs at a higher-ranked institutions were hacks, this would seem to lower the status of those institutions, which would in turn lower the desirability of going to that college. There does seem to be a feedback mechanism at work, even if its very flawed.

    How many would prefer to buy a used car from someone who does seem truth-seeking?

    All other things being equal, nearly everyone would because they’d reap the material benefits of buying from an honest salesman.

  • http://occludedsun.wordpress.com Caledonian

    “You could also argue that this has already happened, and the philosophers are just trying to cover the fact.”

    Philosophers are trying very hard to distract people from the truth: that the types of philosophy that were productive and meaningful became the sciences, and the only things left in ‘pure’ philosophy were the dregs and the dross.

    ‘Philosophy’ was invented so that a distinction could be made between the sophists and actual seekers of wisdom. But the sophists quickly adopted the term for themselves, as a kind of rebranding or protective coloration. The field is now dominated by people seeking only status and who publish nothing but commentaries on commentaries on commentaries. It’s an intellectual disease.

  • Thomas

    I don’t see a contradiction between aspiring for a good material life (good pay, sumptuous food, etc.) and being a good academic. To me a good academic is someone who does good research, whether in philosophy, science or humanities. Who cares if the academic is producing good work, advancing his field, while lamenting their low pay?

  • Virtuous Philosopher

    Aren’t self promoting philosophers just awful? The worst are the ones who write wikipedia entries on themselves while pumping out weak-minded popular philosophy.

  • Alan

    Robin has asked an intriguing question, “Do some of these groups try harder than others to live up to their images, and if so why?”

    Might construal level theory, referred to in an earlier post, offer some insight? Academic intellectuals in general and philosophers in particular, are sometimes referred to as residing in their ivory towers–a term suggesting perceived social or intellectual distance–removed from everyday context. From a greater distance, we perceive less detail, and consequently are left to project image-based assumptions, positive or negative, which may prove resistant to change. Unlike professional sophists–dare one say, lawyers–who are bound to conduct their professional lives in accordance with explicit codes of ethics, philosophers–the very lovers of wisdom–perhaps ironically, are bound by no such constraints. Might it be the case, then, that the more context-driven groups, e.g., doctors, lawyers, clergy, have to work relatively harder to live up to their images than those whose work is more purely theoretical, all the more so because the acts or omissions of the former carry context-based consequences?

  • frelkins

    @Robin:

    Do some of these groups try harder than others to live up to their images, and if so why? If these contradictions were somehow made more obvious to the public, how far would these communities be go to reduce them? If they did nothing, would they be displaced by substitutes?

    Certainly, actors and athletes try, because the their careers are bound up in how the public perceives them. Athletes have to be “good role models” for youth and act out behaviors of “good sportsmanship” for adults, so we as a society are *shocked, shocked, shocked* when they take drugs, gamble, or cheat.

    For example, the performance-enhancing drug scandal in baseball actually resulted in Congressional hearings – that’s how important this social effect considered to be. Keeping “the image of the sport clean” has driven all kinds of new rules and financial penalties within the leagues, so the institutions themselves responded when the image was degraded.

    For a long time actors who played handsome leading love interests shunned playing roles that required them to look or act unattractive, villainous, or gay. In the golden age of the studio system, “stars” actually had the studios’ PR folks arrange every aspect of their lives – their houses, wardrobes, vacations, hobbies, even dating life – to enhance their glamorous images. Movie moguls definitely believed that stars had to be idealized in every way to drive audiences to bond to them and thus go see their films.

    In both of these cases, of course, large corporations – pro sporting leagues, international media conglomerates – manipulate social bonding rituals and signals on a mass scale for profit. And the scale of the profits are large enough to induce systems of internal punishment and reward Robin, as you know. So both the movie and sporting communities will go very far to reduce such contradictions.

    Musicians are a little different – jazz, rock-n-roll, & hip-hop sell rebellion, so likewise performers are incented and compelled to act in that image. UK soul singer Amy Winehouse developed a serious drug habit and made a fortune singing “No no no” she wouldn’t go to rehab.

    Altho’ she was hospitalized several times and nearly died at least once, is anyone surprised that her record company failed to intervene earlier? Didn’t they let her walk up to the edge of death knowing it only helped her rebel image sell more CDs and concert tickets?

    If Amy went to rehab, came completely clean, and became born-again, you bet her audience would lose her and move on to another troubled soul. And thus you see Amy’s record company cynically enabling her float from crisis to crisis even as its spokespeople mouth their “concern.” So yes, substitutes would arise – not only within the same industry, but also in the creation of new sports and new media.

    As for the academy, I do believe that has largely been swallowed by the think-tank, K Street, TV pundit and revolving government plum-book seat-warmer in the public mind.

  • http://diogenes42.blogspot.com Jor

    Emile — thats a very interesting question. Medicine is going through something similar — where there is a notion that it is loosing its esteem in the community.

    Frelkins, on the winehouse thing — addicts are hard to treat — even a multi-billion dollar organization can’t save you from yourself.

  • Yvain

    Far be it from me to defend philosophers, but this particular criticism misses the mark. Or, at least, it’s only a symptom of a much larger problem and of a difference between the philosophical community and what people expect it to be.

    Of the philosophers I know, rather few of them are actually concerned in a professional capacity with the grand question of “What makes life meaningful?” Most of them are more likely to be constantly writing papers on “The Role of Reason in Kant’s Aesthetic Theories” or “A Critical Analysis Of Plato’s Word Choice in Euthypro” or something trivial like that. Even most interesting original research is in comparatively sober academic fields, like how exactly language can refer to things. There’s no reason any of these people should be expected to live more virtuous or meaningful lives than anyone else.

    And although there are lots of moral philosophers, most of the moral philosophy I’ve read is in depth academic debate on specific details, or wildly implausible stories involving trolleys. I wouldn’t expect an average philosopher who studies that all day to be moral any more than I’d expect the biologist who studies the chemical pathways by which fat leads to heart attacks to be especially healthy.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/andrewgelman/ Andrew

    “Guided tours of local attractions”! “Well-stocked bars”! I’m scandalized. Doesn’t it say somewhere in the Philosopher’s Code of Ethics that it is required to abstain from alcohol (or, if you must drink, you should avoid the good stuff) and, of course, never, ever, ever pay a local person to show you around?

  • Yvain

    An addendum, having changed my mind and decided to seriously start ranting:

    Philosophy has devolved from a search for truth into something more akin to literary criticism. Most philosophers I know would be aghast at the possibility that any of the Great Philosophical Questions would ever be *answered*. The point isn’t to do something as simple and bourgeois as find some answer, it’s to have an endless discussion (sometimes one that pushes certain political ideas). This I think is one reason why, for example, there are Philosophy of Mind people who have never even bothered to glance at a cognitive science textbook.

    But this means there’s no real objective standard on which a “good” philosopher can be judged. Even if you’re one of the few philosophers who are doing genuinely good work, you need someone at least as smart and clear-thinking as you are to recognize that your work is good, and realistically you won’t get one who’s in a position to help you.

    Once you uncouple a field from objective criteria of what’s good or bad, all you’ve got left is the simple surface-level stuff. Thus, if a school wants to say they have good philosophers, the best they can do is say they have Harvard-trained philosophers. Almost no one’s going to be able to call them on it and say “Actually, the philosophy they’ve done is pretty poor”. Likewise, it makes it easy for social climbers and status seekers to get in. If a status-seeking biologist tried to gain a prestigious position by shmoozing with the college president, someone coukd point out “Well, he’s never actually discovered anything important” and people would have to admit that was true; if a status-seeking philosopher tries it, it’s much harder to call him out.

    This is by no means all philosophy, but it’s enough that the field as a whole is in pretty bad shape.

  • virtuous philosopher

    Yvain,
    You haven’t a clue what’s going on in contemporary philosophy.
    Clearly you had a bad experience with post-modernist bullshit, but most philosophers believe that there are objective standards for judging arguments.

  • http://www.philosophyetc.net Richard

    As I noted in my post (and Thomas echoes above), it’s actually not at all clear that Fosl’s complaints imply that most philosophers aren’t living up to their “academic ideals”. A genuine concern for truth is compatible with having other aims in addition. The mere fact that one would rather conference in pleasant places than unpleasant places (etc.) does not imply that one has no interest in honest inquiry.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    In case it is not obvious, I don’t endorse Peter’s particular ideal of what philosophers should be like. I’m more interested in the idea that there are some ideals, and what does or doesn’t happen when the public becomes aware that such ideals are not being realized. If actors and athletes try harder to seem to meet their ideals, is that because we expect less of academics?

  • dr kill

    Yes, we expect less from academics, and less is what they deliver. Remember ‘those that can, do’? Still applicable.

    It’s simple economics. Anything subsidized above the price of production becomes a surplus. A pox on all their theoretical houses of the humanities.

  • http://www.philosophyetc.net Richard

    Robin – it’s not clear what you mean by “their ideals”. Are you talking about academics’ own endorsed ideals? Or ideals that the general public have about what academics should be like? Or mere common stereotypes (‘images’) — giving rise to the ‘ought’ of prediction, not prescription?

    A few factors relating to whether one lives up to (some aspects of) some ‘ideal’ include:
    – Whether one personally shares or endorses the ‘ideal’ in question
    – How demanding (an aspect of) the ideal is
    – How important (an aspect of) the ideal is

    All three factors may contribute to why most academics don’t much care to pursue ascetic ideals (and I’d deny that academics — at least those I know — don’t try to pursue genuine intellectual ideals). I’m not sure what corresponding ideals you have in mind for actors or athletes, nor whether they “try harder”, etc., but it surely makes a difference what the precise ideals in question are.

  • Douglas Knight

    Re: the use of academia.
    Much of the use of academia is to rank things. Partly this is to attach real information, but part of it is just to reinforce the system, to reassure people who make use of it. These goals are at odds. When the job committee refuses to consider candidates from school #16, they are failing to contribute information to the sorting, but they are helping solidify faith in the established ranks.

    On the other hand, bragging about the judgement of the newly-minted philosophers admits that there is not much of an established ordering at Fosl’s level.

  • billswift

    It’s no accident that “It’s academic” is used to describe meaningless hair-splitting.

    Those that can, do; those that can’t go to school.
    Academics are those that have spent their lives in and on schools.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    What do philosophers need research budgets for? What expenses does philosophizing entail?

  • jesus cortes

    billswift: you must believe that the vast majority of 20th century physics (i.e., all the physics developed by academics rather than private industry) is without merit.

  • http://macroethics.blogspot.com nazgulnarsil

    *Philosophy has devolved from a search for truth into something more akin to literary criticism.*

    It’s more general than that. The social sciences used to be about making useful observations about the human condition. This has slowly changed due to the fact that the majority of grants come from the same place, the Government. Well pleasing the government enough to get fat grants comes in many flavors but one of them is what was described in the quote: schmoozing to find connections. Another is scientism as we see with the anthropogenic global warming uproar. A third is confirming that which people already want to hear. etc.

  • Yvain

    Virtuous Philosopher,

    “Yvain, You haven’t a clue what’s going on in contemporary philosophy.
    Clearly you had a bad experience with post-modernist bullshit, but most philosophers believe that there are objective standards for judging arguments.”

    Yes, part of my problem is the post-modernist bullshit, and I did say it was by no means all philosophers, but I’m aware of the more rationalistic Anglo-American side of philosophy. I’m not claiming that they literally say “there’s no objective answer to this question”. I’d claiming that (some) philosophers approach their issues the same way people arguing about abortion treat that issue, with about the same results. They think that they can solve them by taking the answer that sounds best and then arguing for it (usually informally). And when they don’t eventually settle anything, this doesn’t keep them up at night.

    I didn’t really understand this problem until I started reading Overcoming Bias, after which it became obvious that of course a lot of smart people coming up with arguments for their point of view would have trouble coming to any conclusion. And by “conclusion”, I don’t mean I want everyone to agree about the qualia issue after a month. I just mean that there are still smart, credentialled people who think Plato was right about most things, or support some of the weirder ontological arguments, or so on. Can you give me an example of a formerly difficult question that philosophy has settled to the same degree that science has settled its questions?

    I’ve found more good philosophy on Overcoming Bias than I have elsewhere, and I think it’s because a lot of the people here (Eliezer especially) have an objective standard they’re measuring themselves to – the ability to at least as a thought experiment create an AI using their ideas.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/SoullessAutomaton/ a soulless automaton

    nazgulnarsil: “Another is scientism as we see with the anthropogenic global warming uproar.”

    I’m not entirely sure how mentioning a well-supported scientific conclusion fits in with the rest of your point, unless you’re referring to the Creationist-like tactics of many global warming opponents.

  • Virtuous Philosopher

    Yvain,
    Yes, overcoming bias is an awesome blog. If you like the stuff here than you should pay attention to work in formal epistemology. There are many philosophers working (and making progress) on the kinds of questions that are addressed on this blog. Notice how many of the insights discussed here are the result of debates in contemporary formal philosophy and philosophy of psychology.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Formal_epistemology

  • billswift

    billswift: you must believe that the vast majority of 20th century physics (i.e., all the physics developed by academics rather than private industry) is without merit.

    Not quite. First, the sciences are rather different, and off the main “path” of academia. I’ve even seen a few things that consider science and engineering to be trade schools, not really academic. Second, the few academics who actually made advances rather than just teaching or writing forgetable articles in journals are a small group of outliers, who quite likely could have done as well (or better) outside academia.

    Anyone who considers academia essential for research should read Kealey’s “The Economics of Scientific Research” for an alternative view.

  • http://www.philosophyetc.net Richard

    Can you give me an example of a formerly difficult question that philosophy has settled to the same degree that science has settled its questions?

    Examples of Solved Philosophy

  • http://macroethics.blogspot.com nazgulnarsil

    note the word “uproar” automaton. There is no dispute that the levels of C02 in the atmosphere are increasing. There is also little dispute that humans are directly responsible. However, because we are directly responsible we are vastly overestimating how much of an impact it will have due to a bias our culture seems to have towards human tampering.
    Let’s look at a non-hysterical interpretation of the data:
    1) Temperature increase corresponds to the logarithm of C02 increase. This means a doubling of C02 levels produces a constant temperature increase.
    2) An extrapolation of the rise in C02 from 1900 to now indicates that it will double by 2200 if nothing is done to curb use. Let’s be pessimistic and say it will double by 2100.
    3) Doubling C02 increases the radiation absorption of by about 3.8W/m^2 over the present value of 1366 W/m^2, or about 0.3%.

    how much does that radiation increase correspond to a temperature increase? This is called climate sensitivity and there is no legitimate scientific consensus on it because NO ONE KNOWS. We have no control earth to test it on. In order to know this we would need an accurate model of the earth’s atmosphere.

    But let’s go with the party-line for a moment. Say the radiation increase corresponds to a 2 degree centigrade average temperature increase. Is this a bad thing? Is anyone doing research on the potential benefits? I doubt it because no one thinks that way.

    Put it another way: If you were declared grand emperor of Earth right now and someone came to you and said that over the next 100 years the amount of radiation absorbed by the earth will increase by .3% would preventing it be at the top of your priority list? Especially when the proposed solutions are exorbitantly expensive and their effectiveness is totally unknown?

    I’m not saying it’s not a potential problem. But for the amount of resources we are devoting to it we could be solving much more pressing issues.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    This isn’t the place to argue about global warming.

    Professional philosophers know a lot, and the average philosophy journal article contains substantial insight.

  • Yvain

    Richard: Examples of Solved Philosophy

    Okay. I retract my belief in this being true of all philosophy, although I still think it’s a problem in some of it.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/6p01053686432e970c/ Gwern Branwen

    > What do philosophers need research budgets for? What expenses does philosophizing entail?

    Travel expenses to conferences & debates & appearances etc. Publication fees for open-access journals. Paying for grad students and TAs. The professor’s own salary and the administrative costs pertaining to him. Basic office supplies. Extensive libraries and periodical subscriptions and inter-library loan requests.* Web hosting. And so on; I’m sure I’ve forgotten some. Philosophy certainly has very minimal capital requirements, but it’s not zero, and for some areas like experimental philosophy the expenses could be comparable to psychology.

    But at least it’s not billions and billions for a single particle accelerator. 🙂

    * I once asked a librarian friend how much some of my harder ILL requests cost, and was a little shocked to learn that they could go up to 50$

  • http://profile.typekey.com/riemannzeta/ Michael Martin

    Maybe it’s just my sample, but I’ve found the “brutal” worlds of finance, business, and law to include more people who are sincerely focused on their work than I have in the halls of academia. Academic goals are so abstract that even really smart people seem more interested in status fights than in focused goal-pursuit. My favorite people, of course, are the ones who can’t help getting interested in other goals despite the tangible ones in front of them in their day jobs. How can academics get distracted in an equivalent way?

  • Douglas Knight

    Richard,
    Most of your examples are pathetic. In the comments, you say that many are failings of the “untutored.” I would say the opposite: that they are almost entirely the fault of philosophers. Aside from straw men, some were taken by philosophers because of institutional incentives to be controversial or to take simple positions. Others are the result badgering laymen to take precise positions, but are much worse than the effective beliefs of said laymen, even if the effective beliefs are largely incoherent.

    Maybe “institutional incentives to be simple” is not so different from “badgering laymen to be precise.”

  • Zac

    While I do agree there are many “solved” issues in philosophy in much the same way as there are in the sciences, the Examples of Solved Philsophy referenced here contains few. Some highlights of the list of supposedly “solved” issues are: “rational egoism is false” ; “capitalism is not intrinsically just: libertarianism must be defended on consequentialist grounds” … Is this guy disingenuous or just very deluded?

  • http://www.philosophyetc.net Richard

    For a so-called “rationalist” community, some who comment here seem lamentably more fond of name-calling than rational argument.

    As a general rule, asserting one’s mere disagreement is not very interesting. (Add name-calling into the mix and one probably qualifies as a ‘troll’.) If one were to offer counterarguments, or reasons to support one’s contrary assertions, then one might actually be worth reading.

  • Barbar

    Well, if someone actually debated Richard on a philosophy issue he thought he had been resolved for good, that might throw some cold water on the “academic philosophy debates are purely manufactured by the Big Philosophy Lobby” thesis.

    Has anyone ever wondered how their own beliefs are caused by the truth, while the existence of differing beliefs is caused by institutional incentives, blind self-interest, wishful thinking, and other pathologies? It’s an interesting phenomenon.

  • Pingback: Overcoming Bias : Academia’s Function