Philosophy is not serious about being a discipline

The visitor’s admission

Recently a somewhat distinguished philosopher was visiting our department to attend our weekly seminar (i.e. research presentation). Over drinks afterwards, we were discussing the increasingly common practice of asking visiting speakers to give a “pre-talk” to the graduate students alone, prior to the official presentation. This visitor was due to give a presentation at another university shortly, where a pre-talk was expected. Various advice was offered.

“Don’t just give a simplified version of your actual talk”, one of us urged.

“Try to give students what they need to know so that they can ask a good question in the talk itself.”

“The main thing is to be aware of how many of the students have only a very narrow background, and the pre-talk is a good opportunity for you to bring them up to speed on the existing literature.”

I don’t know any of the existing literature for this talk, said the visitor, without a hint of embarrassment.

My colleagues earnestly continued to offer advice, not batting an eyelid at this remarkable statement.

This is the wrong response. The visitor had just admitted that he is not competent to give an academic presentation on this topic. He should decline the invitation to speak.

Is academic philosophy really a discipline?

Yes it is, by any reasonable standard. But we tolerate behaviour, such as the visitor’s behaviour described above, that makes a mockery of our aspirations to be a discipline. Can you imagine any other discipline in a university where someone might agree to give a presentation on their research, while happily admitting that they knew none of the existing literature on the topic?

Can we learn anything about our discipline from this norm? (Apart from the fact that there are some massive egos in our midst.) I conjecture that this norm – tolerating a complete failure to engage with the existing literature on a topic – is indicative of two particular tendencies in how philosophers tend to think of their vocation. (Not everyone shares these tendencies, and I will be drawing something of a caricature, but there’s something to it.) First, that philosophy is something like an elaborate parlour game – in the seminar room we are primarily witnessing a demonstration of cleverness and ingenuity, rather than participating in an ongoing collective enterprise of accumulating knowledge. Second, that the speaker in a research presentation can expect to benefit more than the audience – much more. The idea is somehow that the audience is there to ask questions which will help the speaker sharpen the argument, that the presentation will be an opportunity for enhancing the prestige of the speaker and generally satisfying his or her ego. All good for the speaker, to be sure; but the audience won’t really learn much.

The second of these tendencies is, I suspect, reasonably widespread across the humanities. It goes with the tendency to think that it is appropriate to present work that is rough and still in development, rather than presenting the polished results of our prior labours. I can’t say this is the wrong norm – but it seems to me that it is a terribly inefficient way to help our fellow colleagues. To get feedback on a manuscript, send it to experts in your field. That is the optimal audience for work that is still in development.

The first tendency – the parlour game problem – is the more distinctive problem in philosophy. It goes deep, since it is indeed difficult to be sure that there ever is significant progress in philosophy. But even if there is some reasonable disagreement about the possibility of progress, why are we offering prestigious invitations to speak to people who behave as though they have no real contribution to make?