Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Let's Not Pretend This NEH Thing Is All That Surprising

Next Week: Follow-Up Post On Presentism And Graham Priest's Theory Of Change

This Week: Curmudgeonage

One of the saddest and funniest things about doing academic philosophy is that, once you start doing it, you quickly figure out that, to a really surreal extent, at least 75% of college-educated people, hell, at least 50% of *academics in other disciplines,* have absolutely no earthly idea whatsoever what your subject matter is. The pilot episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer includes the following snatch of dialogue:

Buffy: My philosophy, do you want to hear my philosophy?
Willow: Yeah, I do!
Buffy: Life is short.
Willow: Life is short!
Buffy: Not terribly original, I'll grant you, but it's true...Why waste time being all shy, and worrying about some guy, and if he's gonna laugh at you. Seize the moment, 'cause tomorrow you might be dead.
Willow: Oh, that's nice!

Now, I'd submit that Buffy's grasp of what the word "philosophy" refers to, while...uh...not great, is about as good as the average graduate student in English Literature, and considerably better than whoever runs the NEH. More about that in a second.

This is constantly hammered home to me when I meet people who ask what I do for a living, and we have the following conversation:

Them: Oh, what kind of philosophy are you interested in?
Me: Well, my dissertation has to do with dialetheism, which is the position that some sentences are both true and false.
Them (brow furrowing): So...uh...what kind of philosophy is that?

...because they have no idea how to relate their hazy impression of what "philosophy" means to an actual description of a philosophical subject, so they assume you must be doing lead-up to telling them what kind of philosophy you do. Because philosophy means studying the Big, Complicated Thoughts of Great Thinkers. Whatever those might be, y'know, about. A correct answer to "what kind of philosophy are you interested in?" would be in the form of "oh, I'm interested in Great Thinkers X, Y and Z," or better yet a few of them clumped together into a historical period.

(A closely related piece of silliness comes with the question, "oh, who's your favorite philosopher?" I'm always tempted to give some smart-ass answer like "oh, that would be Greg Restall. He's a Great Thinker from Australia in the late 20th and early 21st centuries...")

So that's what you get from college-educated people with no earthly idea what philosophy is about. It actually makes you appreciate the actually slightly less ridiculous line you get from non-college-educated people with no earthly idea of what philosophy is about, accurately exemplified by Buffy and Willow. A lot of people in this category will initially confuse philosophy with psychology, or even sociology, which at least has the virtue of embodying the assumption that philosophy deals with some important, well-defined subject matter. (When I adjunct teach Intro classes at my local community college, I generally ask the class on the first day what they think philosophy is, and I invariably get a lot of answers like "the study of how people think" or "the study of why societies are the way they are" before I get answers that start to approach the ballpark of being vaguely philosophy-like.) Those who know slightly better, but just slightly, will ask you, "oh, what's your philosophy?"

Now...don't get me wrong. That's an inane, cringe-inducing question that displays a deep ignorance of the sort of thing philosophy is about. There's a level on which it makes exactly as much sense as asking a mathematician, 'oh, what's your mathematics?'


That said.

The impression of what philosophy is that's reflected at the Buffy & Willow/community college student level is actually considerably less dumb than the impression of what philosophy is that's reflected at the college-educated-but-clueless level. I say this with a heavy heart as someone with an obvious financial stake in the claim that college makes people smarter, but, in small doses, for a lot of people, in certain ways and on certain issues, college actually makes them dumber, and there's a fair bit of empirical evidence of this phenomenon. Going to college gives them General Impressions Of Things, picked up by osmosis from What Smart-Seeming People At College Seem To Think, and, sadly, from time to time, these General Impressions Of Things are pretty asinine.

(Historical example: Statistically, people with at least some college were far more likely to support the Vietnam War than people with only high school educations. That whole historical narrative about college kids all being anti-war and 'hard hats' being more likely to support the war? Provably, consistently wrong throughout the whole duration of the Vietnam conflict. See here for details. For a fuller discussion, scroll back to p. 345 and keep going until p. 353.)

Inane as "what's your philosophy?" may be, at least it contains within itself a kernel of understanding that philosophy is not just about studying Important People In The Past Who Had Big, Complicated Thoughts (whatever exactly those may be, y'know, *about*), but actually currently thinking about Big, Complicated Thoughts (whatever exactly those may be, y'know, *about*). Sad that a little education seems to kill even that understanding.

So when I read about this absurdity from the NEH, I'm sad, and I'm frustrated, but I'm not even a little bit surprised.

"Is there such a thing as right and wrong? Good and evil?"

Well, you *should* expect whoever's designing grants at the NEH to have heard of meta-ethics, and to be aware that, far from being a "pre-disciplinary question," a gaping hole in the course offerings that it's appropriate to offer a grant for whoever in whatever discipline to offer a class in, meta-ethics has been a thriving sub-discipline of academic philosophy for a long, long time, something that any Intro course worth its salt will touch on, something that every 100-level ethics class offered by every Philosophy Department in the f--ing world will devote a large segment to, and something that there are of course lots of grad and upper-level undergrad seminars specifically devoted to. For sure. There's definitely some sense in which you *should* be surprised, but...really...if you've ever had the "oh, what kind of philosophy are you interested in?" discussion over coffee with that girl with the MA in Post-Colonial Portugese Literature who's eyes just started to cloud over when you told her, *would* you be surprised? Really?


chaospet said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
chaospet said...

You're right, this really probably SHOULDN'T be surprising. But for me, it somewhat still was... I don't expect much from your average person on the street, not even your average college educated person on the street... but I guess I did have higher expectations of the folks at the NEH. No more.

Peter Bradley said...

50% is a low estimate. On my campus, we have 109 faculty, and I'd say 2 or 3 understand academic Phil at all.

Unknown said...

pssh. But all us college-y types have all been assigned and actually READ Lies My Teacher Told Me... Right?


Emil O. W. Kirkegaard said...

I absolutely agree with this! I often get asked "Who's your favorit philosopher?". I always wonder what I should answer. Should I name some 'famous' philosopher the person might know and that I like (e.g. David Hume) or name some 'unknown' philosophers the person doesn't know and I like very much? (e.g. Norman Swartz). Or should I refuse to answer the question?

Another thing. When people ask you what you do with your homepage and you answer "Philosophy", "You probably wouldn't think it is interesting.". And people always respond "You don't know that. I think it's interesting.". And then I have to give them some reason why they won't find it interesting, like, that I write mostly about technical stuff, logic, metaphysics... and not about what they think "philosophy" is about. I've had the above conversation about 50 times. Sigh.