Friday, May 21, 2010

Beating a dead horse...

I was out recently at a bar where I met up with a friend and met some friends of that friend. There was the usual chatting, and then it came to light that I am a professional philosopher. One of the friends of the friend seriously asked me if I'd read the "What is a Philosopher?" piece from the NYT blog, and what I thought about it. I told her I hadn't read it, probably wouldn't bother, and had never read any of the author's professional work.

She replied, "Well, I took some Philosophy in college, and liked it. When I read the piece, I was struck by how amateur it seemed. It reminded me of an 18 year-old boy's attempt to describe what his rock band sounds like: [in a dumb stoner voice] 'We're a mix of early-Metallica and Korn, but with melodies like REM,' in other words, self-important, immature, bullshit. There's nothing worse than a old man trying to sound cool."

I've now read the piece. "An 18 year-old boy's attempt to describe what his rock band sounds like" captures it perfectly.

36 comments:

Anonymous said...

honestly, i read it, and it came off like the canned spiel i used to drop on 101 students at the beginning of class to feel them out in terms of what they'd respond to, pedagogically. you can't really introduce philosophy into a non-philosophical pool without coming off like a schmuck/old guy trying too hard, anyway. Or at least, only the great ones can.

I would like to say, however, that i disagree/dislike Leiter's criticism of the Critchley blog.

Mostly I disagree with the inference 'he is a hack philosopher (maybe true), therefore he should not be a vehicle for public discussion/bringing people into the fold'. Last I checked, most people's first exposure, even all of us jerk philosophers, was from a 101 TA, who are notorious hack philosophers and often sound like the proverbial 18 year old in a band. But perhaps Critchley's professional career and corpus warrants such criticism. Maybe having him in the public sphere will do irrevocable damage to public interest/perception of philosophy.

Word Verification: Platiger. all blog comments are a series of footnotes to Platiger.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, Plato was such a punk. All those silly little stories and myths. Soooooooo immature! They don't describe what I do in my cubicle all day here at the University. We need a more respectable spokesperson for our "business" than Critchley to explain to the world that philosophy is just a job like any other. Maybe if he had explained mereology it would have been a better column.

Anonymous said...

Anyone complaining about a philosophy series in the NYT being "pop philosophy" is a moron. Of course it's pop philosophy; that's the whole point! Anonymous 12:01 is right; a blog series about S knows that P epistemology or mereology would bore just about everyone except "real" philosophers. It strikes me as incredibly myopic for academic philosophers to throw a bitch fit when someone tries to make philosophy sound "cool", even if that does involve "immaturity". But immature compared to what? Bullshit compared to what? In light of recent administrative narratives about the usefulness of philosophy in the real world, Leiter and his "real philosopher" friends should be thankful that NYT even has a philosophy series.

Anonymous said...

I guess I don't quite understand the qualifications for being a real philosopher rather than a hack. Critchley has edited, co-edited, or personally authored multiple books with Oxford, Routledge, and Cambridge. Does this not elevate you above "hack" status?

Klytemnestre said...

1:08, it's not a matter of 'qualifications' but of competence. Critchley is incompetent, his credentials notwithstanding.

I happen to agree with Leiter about that. If you disagree, fine, but it's not a matter of the guy's credentials.

12:52,
Bullshit compared to what?
Not bullshit compared to anything. Just bullshit, absolutely speaking.

11:43 may be right that being a hack is no serious obstacle to the task Critchley has been assigned. That's slightly depressing, but nevertheless plausible.

Anonymous said...

Some real philosophers are bored with "S knows that P" epistemology.

anonymouse said...

"Maybe if he had explained mereology it would have been a better column."

"a blog series about S knows that P epistemology or mereology would bore just about everyone except 'real' philosophers."

Maybe a column on straw men would have been better.

Anonymous said...

I don't know anything about Critchley, but the sheepley, circle-jerk, dog-pile it has inspired among the pros will surely do far more to damage the image of the profession than his piddly little column ever could. The overwhelming chorus of cheap shot, too-cool-for-school critiques really come off like a comic store boy having a pissyfit because someone confused Star Wars with Star Trek.

Self-important, immature, bullshit? Yeah, that pretty much sums up the profession and its members. So what?

The basic point of the column seemed simple but true: philosophy has an honorable contrarian tradition of approaching serious, self-important, assholes of the real world, whether Athens or Manhattan, and calling them on their bullshit.

To retort "bullshit" to this tradition--a Socratic tradition that is naive and juvenile in admirable senses of those words--is to fly your real colors: paid and proud bullshitters, also known as sophists and philistines. You're still just mad, deep down, that you didn't go into law.

I hope the NY Times hires one of your bunch to replace Critchley: you deserve each other.

godless said...

Right, it's Critchley's critics who are engaged in a "circle jerk". That's probably it. "The philosopher is the person who has time or who takes time." Deep! "The basic contrast here is that between the lawyer, who has no time, or for whom time is money, and the philosopher, who takes time." Hm, yeah. That could be profound, or maybe it's just bullshit. Wow, I can't tell! "PHILOSOPHY KILLS." Oh, man, it does! I am powerful! I'm not an ineffectual academic, I'm a fuckin killer!

Talk about "self-important assholes."

There are much better tries in the Comments section. I liked this one:

a philosopher is anyone who thinks about existence and takes a whack at trying to explain it. Just ask the guy seated next to you on the subway what he thinks -- then duck, just in case he's had it up to here with those who think one has to turn philosophy into sticky treacle with Socratic anecdotes before a spark of interest can be coaxed from the masses.

Nice.

Anonymous said...

@Klytemnestre:

Your answer just pushes off my question one step. How does an "incompetent" philosopher come to author, edit, and co-edit books with Oxford, Cambridge, and Routledge?

Anonymous said...

I won't weight in on his philosophical credentials, but Critchley does make some god-awful techno music:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pO7JJKPRy0M&feature=related

Klytemnestre said...

Anon 3:34,

I know, right? It's like, "How did that cockroach get in my refrigerator?"

-Kly

Anonymous said...

"The basic contrast here is that between the lawyer, who has no time, or for whom time is money, and the philosopher, who takes time." Hm, yeah. That could be profound, or maybe it's just bullshit."

Yeah, like I said--Plato was punk who was filled with such bullshit. Just like those cockroaches in the refrigerator. He was just incompetent and a hack. Wilamowitz said so.

Anonymous said...

"I don't know anything about Critchley, but the sheepley, circle-jerk, dog-pile it has inspired among the pros will surely do far more to damage the image of the profession than his piddly little column ever could. The overwhelming chorus of cheap shot, too-cool-for-school critiques really come off like a comic store boy having a pissyfit because someone confused Star Wars with Star Trek."

I pretty much concur.

This blog is one of my favorites, for many reasons, it's funny, thought-provoking, and deliciously controversial at times.

But: the frequent bashing of anything / anyone that is deemed as not "real" philosophy / philosophers is depressing. Not offensive, even, just depressing.

Why? Because it belittles the real progress that the rest of us help bring about in our / your world, through using and teaching the same basic methodologies you do.

I don't work at a top school, not even close. I teach at a state college. I, and my students, are nothing close to what you apparently consider "real" philosophers.

Yet: those students of mine (and the students of other "amateurs" like me) who significantly better their reasoning and arguing skills in my classes, who gather in philosophy clubs on campus (and beyond) to passionately discuss the nature of justice, knowledge, morality, and so on, they make your world a better place when they apply those skills in their (non-real philosophy) jobs and relationships.

If articles like Critchley's ignite a spark in individuals who might not otherwise encounter philosophy, to explore and study philosophy further, isn't that an important step towards philosophy?

Perhaps I am not reading your criticisms correctly...if so, let me know, I can handle it.

These are not loaded questions, I really am curious:

- What do you mean by "real" philosopher / philosophy? Someone who teaches at a top level school, someone who utilizes the methodologies of philosophy, both, or something else?

- While we're at it, can you clarify what a "hack" philosopher is / does?

- Does a "hack" argument turn a "real" philosopher into a hack?

- Can a "real" philosopher argument redeem a "hack" philosopher and turn him or her into a "real" philosopher?

- What do you take the goal of "real" philosophy to be?

- What do you think Critchley's goal was, in writing that article? (Charitable--not punk rock--readings please.)

- What is your main goal, in terms of your role as a "real" philosopher?

- If these goals turn out to be pretty similar, does that help make the case that Critchley's article has merit in the world of...er...real philosophy?

Mostly Anonymous said...

So, the Critchley article isn't great, but it didn't strike me as so obscenely bad either. Over-the-top and pompous in places, yes. Silly in places, yes. But was it really so bad a way to kick off a new "popular" philosophy column? Meh.

Comparing Critchley to Plato or using features of Plato's philosophy to defend what Critchley wrote, however, does strike me as obscene. What Plato wrote was great philosophy, but it probably wouldn't pass muster today, because philosophy has developed quite a bit in the last 2500 years. Plato didn't have the developments in mathematics, logic, linguistics, physics, biology, psychology, and neurology that we have now. Plato didn't have the long history of politics and economics or theorizing about them either. And there might have been some developments in ethics as well ...

Anonymous said...

I don't know anything about Critchley, but the sheepley, circle-jerk, dog-pile it has inspired among the pros will surely do far more to damage the image of the profession than his piddly little column ever could.

Riiiiiight. Because we all know whatever Publikum might find it's way to Critchley's column is even more likely to find its way to Leiter's blog.

Anonymous said...

Hell, if the NYTimes hired someone to write a column on science-fiction and that person confused Star Trek with Star Wars, then I would be setting my Blaster to kill, readying my Vulcan force-choke, or at least be demanding the offender be shipped off to Ceti Alpha V at Hyperspeed.

Live Long and There is no Try!

Anonymous said...

"Comparing Critchley to Plato or using features of Plato's philosophy to defend what Critchley wrote, however, does strike me as obscene. What Plato wrote was great philosophy, but it probably wouldn't pass muster today, because philosophy has developed quite a bit in the last 2500 years."

The point is that Critchley is commenting on the "digression" of the Theaetetus. Most of the particular locutions and ideas that seem to be inviting derision and sneering are Platonic. This is a form of explication of a text that is a common genre among "continental" and Straussian philosophers. It is not a genre that is familiar among "analytic" philosophers--and as Plato suggests, philosophers, like dogs, bark at what they don't know and are only gracious to what they do know.

I'm sure that modern science has dramatically affected the truth and importance of the contrast between the intellectual life and the lawyer's life, such as to change Plato's benighted views from foundational to bullshit. And I'm sure you're right that Plato would not pass muster these days.

But the point is that criticizing Critchley for explicating a Platonic conception of philosophy as "incompetent" or "bullshit" seems, despite all of that progress in ethics, to entirely miss his point. You may want him to have written a different column (and so I think would I), but that desire doesn't, to my mind at least, justify the sort of adolescent bluster I see in so many reactions.

I wish certain scholars of Nietzsche remembered Wilamowitz's criticisms of Birth of Tragedy as incompetent and misleading, which while perhaps not untrue with respect to Nietzsche's philologist cred, entirely missed the importance of what was being born in that text.

Let's all agree that Critchely is not a particularly good "Analytic" philosopher, he's possibly something far more interesting than that.

Anonymous said...

6:22, it's not a "Platonic conception of philosophy" that's bullshit. It's Critchley's pseudoprofundities. The crap about philosophers being out of time and lawyers being those for whom time is money... you can't seriously think that's Platonic. It's just bullshit, and I think some commenters are offended on Plato's behalf to see it being attributed to him. (I'm not offended, myself -- I'm not a heroic enough philosopher to take offense.)

Anonymous said...

"it's not a "Platonic conception of philosophy" that's bullshit. It's Critchley's pseudoprofundities. "

Seriously? Have you read the Theaetetus? Or are you making some sort of more interesting point about the difference between Socrates' digression and Plato's own views, a la Seth Benardete. Why do I doubt that?

Anonymous said...

If there's gonna be Theaetetus-bashing here, I'm leaving in a huff . . . .

Anonymous said...

"Well look at the man who has been knocking about in law courts and such places ever since he was a boy; and compare him with the man brought in philosophy, in the life of the a student. . .Because the one man always has what you mentioned just now plenty of time. When he talks, he talks in peace and quiet and his time is his own. It is so with us now. . .It does not matter to such men [i.e. philosophers] whether they talk for a day or year, if only they may hit upon that which is. But, the other--the man of the law courts--is always in a hurry when he is talking; he has to speak with one eye on the clock. Besides, he can't make his speeches on any subject he likes; he has his adversary standing over him. . .."

I won't continue to footnote Critchley's essay for him, but to assert that it is not a Platonic trope is silly at best. More interesting is the suggestion that perhaps this opposition is no longer reasonable. Maybe philosophers are just as illiberal as "lawyers" were for Plato--I can probably be persuaded that philosophy is no longer a liberal or liberating art as it is taught in the modern university--just another way of earning a paycheck. Critchley, I think, thinks that it is more.

Anonymous said...

Actually, some Plato scholars argue that what Socrates says about philosophers in the digression is meant as a caricature. So it's not at all strange to suggest that Critchley's views do not equal Plato's.

Dan said...

There is more to be learnt about Ethics from Plato's Gorgias than from any other text.

Anonymous said...

4.54: You are doing a very valuable job. And if your students go off and discussion passionately in Philosophy Clubs, when down the bar, and so on, then that indicates that you are doing your job well. In teaching your students to argue rationally about things such as justics, knowledge and morality, as you do, you won't go far wrong.

Anonymous said...

"Actually, some Plato scholars argue that what Socrates says about philosophers in the digression is meant as a caricature. So it's not at all strange to suggest that Critchley's views do not equal Plato's"

Yes but the point was that it's rather ludicrous to reject the "Philosophers are the ones who make time" trope as blatantly non-Platonic. The idea of philosophy as a practice involving taking more time than is expedient to ponder important questions is a theme I spot at _least_ in the Thaetetus and at the end of the Euthyphro.

Anonymous said...

"Actually, some Plato scholars argue that what Socrates says about philosophers in the digression is meant as a caricature. So it's not at all strange to suggest that Critchley's views do not equal Plato's."

Yeah, a good straussian or derridean close reading of the Critchley's text would be a good thing--it should be thoughtful and engage the text that C. is commenting on, it also would not be the twaddle we've seen from the Wilamowitz's and their students.

Anonymous said...

I think a connection between time and philosophy is pretty obvious in Euthyphro as well. Part of the point of Socrates stopping Euthyphro on the courthouse steps, stalling him in his attempted lawsuit, is to suggest that he needs to take more time in making his moral decision--that regardless of what decision he reaches, it is a better one simply because he took time making it.

The funny thing is that the textual evidence supports criticizing the article for being too unoriginal and obvious, yet the common charges have been in a completely different, inexplicable direction: that it's bullshit or selfimportant or pseudoprofound. No, it's textbook. Little more or less.

Anonymous said...

It is possible to be a self-important pompous douche by agreeing with Plato. Critchley might be doing excellent Plato scholarship, but if he's telling a general audience "hey people like me are the ones who take time to think about stuff--presumably in contrast to other academics as well as lawyers [ptui]--cuz we're deep n stuff"--then he's being a pompous douche.

And it's not all good as long as he attracts more people to philosophy. False advertising is not good, even for us. Especially false advertising about how profound and deep and above-the-fray we are.

Anonymous said...

I never realised there were so many soi-disant philosophers who were into argument by caricature.

Anonymous said...

Critchley is a well-respected philosopher in one strain of continental philosophy who is published by some of the finest publishers. I don't like him or continental philosophy generally, but let's not pretend that he is some uniquely hackish lone wolf.

More importantly: Am I taking crazy pills here? How is the story not that Leiter is being a petty and malicious ass? He could be equally critical without being a 5-year old about it. But chooses not to.

Things would be a lot better if the blog that we all crowd around was run by someone nice, like, say, John Perry or someone.

Anonymous said...

word verification: druggi

I don't know Critchley, presumably he's talented, but that column sucked. Too many ideas and no development or coherence.

And Jesus, look at the column's effects! This blog's comment sections are usually quite entertaining: this one's a mess.

Anonymous said...

"More importantly: Am I taking crazy pills here? How is the story not that Leiter is being a petty and malicious ass? He could be equally critical without being a 5-year old about it. But chooses not to.

"Things would be a lot better if the blog that we all crowd around was run by someone nice, like, say, John Perry or someone."

Exactly. The profession needs a site that performs Leiter Reports' information function, without all the childish insults.

Anonymous said...

Anon 1:55:
But perhaps Leiter's blog is so popular because of the childish insults.

Anonymous said...

Or perhaps you guys are all losers--'hacks' even--which is why you're upset?

LFC said...

I'm not a philosopher but I occasionally look at Leiter's blog. He strikes me as somewhat arrogant and egotistical.