Thursday, January 27, 2011

Academic Analytic Philosophy and The Meaning of Life

The Distinguished Professor, Comprachico Leiter, addresses the subject of the relation between professional philosophy and the public's view of meaning-of-life questions. Leiter is being his usual elitist self, while commenters further address the seeming divide between their profession and the public at large.

Meanwhile, the other day, Leiter took a typical pot-shot regarding a certain "hack philosopher."

Now, what might the connection between these two phenomena be? I ask because there absolutely is a connection here. The "hack philosopher," after all, provided very thoughtful and compelling answers on meaning-of-life questions; she has considerable popular appeal and an uber-practical approach to philosophical questions, while professional philosophers have by and large neglected to look at these answers. Surely there's an integrating connection between all these facts.

One of Leiter's blog commenters, David Velleman (a professor of philosophy at the top-rated philosophy program in the world, NYU) recommends a few books from Serious Philosophers that deal with meaning-of-life issues. The Serious Philosophers include the usual suspects: Rawls, Nagel, Nussbaum, Williams, etc. - all academics. The books by these figures he recommends are from academic presses, addressing questions in an academic fashion, appropriate first and foremost for fellow academic philosophers. Rawls's Theory of Justice aside, these works are and will continue to be virtually unknown by the public-at-large, precisely because they are so academic in nature. Doesn't recommending these books kind of miss the whole point about the disconnect between the academy and the public at large? Doesn't it illustrate the whole point?

The only two books I've read on Prof. Velleman's recommendations list are the Rawls and Nagel ones. Now, there is an essay by Nagel, "Equality," in Mortal Questions, that made me remark at the time how far removed in sense-of-life terms it is from the "hack philosopher's" essay on the Apollo 11 launch. I mean, if sense-of-life has something to do with the meaning of life (I just now raised the potential connection between these two concepts), then isn't there something more inspiring in meaning-of-life terms in "Apollo 11," than in an academic essay on the importance of equality?

Okay, let's take the more familiar case, that of Rawls. What does one get out of A Theory of Justice in meaning-of-life (and sense-of-life!) terms? How, for instance, does maximin or the Difference Principle come to bear on the virtues of character required to achieve eudaemonia? Let's just put this in very plain terms a member of the general public as well as professional philosophers can understand: what has a closer connection to our understanding of the whole issue of the Meaning of Life: the ancient-Greek-inspired concept of eudaemonia or real happiness, or Rawls's Difference Principle?

Prof. Velleman caps off his book recommendations with this: "These authors have been associated with some of the foremost philosophy departments, and no philosophy student can get far without reading their work."

I think this kind of sums the whole problem up. We also have here a case of good answers being right under everyone's noses.

Now, let's say we take another look at the "hack philosopher" from an objective and impartial perspective as regards the big meaning-of-life issues in philosophy. Well, the standard objection raised right off is that the "hack philosopher" advocates selfishness as a virtue, and that's a no-no. However, the no-no response is not really an intellectually responsible one at all; it all crucially hinges on what the philosopher in question means by "selfishness." Far as I can tell, an excruciatingly small number of philosophers have given serious and respectable thought to what that philosopher actually meant (it has something to do with that ancient-Greek-inspired concept of eudaemonia, I think), and they come out in basic agreement with the philosopher. This is a very interesting data point, don't you think?

Part and parcel of eudaemonia, and of understanding the meaning of life, is adopting a (properly) capitalistic ethos. Already this puts much of the academy - well, the humanities parts of the academy - at odds with the interests of the general public. Rejecting a capitalistic ethos necessarily entails a form of intellectual disintegration between theory and life. The economics portion of the academy has done a better job figuring this out, but the humanities portions are more insulated from economic reality which demonstrates the superiority of capitalism.

Back at the time that he was a lone voice in the wilderness, Ludwig von Mises explained in apodictic-praxeological terms why socialism would fail. On the biggest economic question of the 20th century, Mises turned out to be right. The Nobel Prize arguably should be replaced with the Mises Prize. Anyway, it seems only Robert Heilbroner had the good graces to admit defeat in his own time, and to acknowledge the greatness of Mises.

Now, if Mises was right about that, what else might he have been right about? If he was right, not just about the failure of socialism, but that the best and most feasible economic system is the laissez-faire capitalism of classical liberalism, then that really puts the academy - and especially the humanities portion - in disconnect with and at odds with the general public and regular folks' interests, aspirations, etc., now does it not.

So, what we have here is an institutional bias against capitalism in academia, combined with compelling but pro-capitalist answers to big meaning-of-life questions being right under everyone's noses. So there you have it.

[ADDENDUM: Isn't it a case against the prevailing academic model all on its own, that so many of its practitioners have failed to integrate all the facts available here? The best philosophers are those best at making integrations qua philosopher. Could it really be that hard to integrate, say, Objectivist ethics with the eudaemonist tradition, or eudaemonism with meaning-of-life questions, or meaning-of-life questions with the unqualified goodness of capitalism, or with sense of life, or with Kubrick, or with House, M.D., or with Ralph Vaughan Williams, or with the history of philosophy? I mean, seriously, how fucking hard could it be? Sheesh! No wonder Understanding Objectivism is going to be such a big seller in the future.]

[ADDENDUM #2: Placeholder for future blog entry under the title "Economy." Integration is all about achieving maximum mental economy by thinking in essentials. But to think in an economistic fashion is to think suspiciously like a . . . capitalist! No fucking wonder . . . (That was an act of integration right there, BTW.)]

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