Saturday, May 7, 2011

Tearing the Academy a New Asshole: A Preview

I've actually touched on this issue already:

The Nature of the "Educators"

The integrating strand between the "educators'" evasions described therein and what the Leiters of the world are up to is almost too obvious to require further explanation.

There is a difference between errors of knowledge and breaches of morality. An evasion is the wedge-in-the-door to immorality. (There is actually an interesting psychological question here: how does one determine whether one is in fact on a course of evasion? I think the very raising of that question in a person's own mind is the chief saving grace, because it means the mind is calling itself to attention and signaling a course of caution.) At some point, the "educators" (or anyone else for that matter) lose the benefit of the doubt, when they demonstrate in action a vicious, base, ignoble, or cowardly tendency without a course correction.

Errors of knowledge are quite commonplace - much moreso throughout history - than breaches of morality. For there to be a breach of morality takes quite a bit. Intellectual dishonesty is a relatively rare - but real - phenomenon. And that's where such moral terms as "praise" or "blame" come in. If we observe some disastrous and deadly human-caused event in history, we can make objective, fact-based assessments as to whether the disaster was a result of lack of knowledge, or of evasion. (Socrates apparently held that it is lack of knowledge that leads to vice. But I think that is mistaken; lack of knowledge is either a product of a lack of information having been presented - or it is due to a willful refusal to face information that has been presented. In other words, a lack of knowledge can arise out of a freely-chosen decision.)

To apply this to the question of the Academy as it is today:

To wax Randian for a bit, if you want to gauge the health of a country, look at the state of its universities' philosophy departments. (If it doesn't have universities, much less philosophy departments, that signifies a more primitive state than what we have in America.) At present, Ayn Rand is what might be termed "dialectically alienated" from the Academy to a very large extent. There is the Ayn Rand Society, but it is at present still a small organization without a lot of what those in the Academy would regard as "big names." So to a large extent, Rand's ideas just aren't being talked about much in the academy - despite her affinity methodologically and substantively with Aristotle, and despite the profound human need for integration. A lot of this has to do with a conscious or unconscious bias against pro-capitalist ideas, something Nozick identified (though didn't quite fully diagnose) a few years back.

The Academy has many good people in it, doing quality work. It is just about the only place philosophers - lovers of wisdom - can make a living doing what they love doing. They are entrusted with a serious responsibility - of educating those of college age who will then go out and make of the world what they will. If they fail in some way at this responsibility, the real-world results are quite inevitable. We are seeing those results in all the crises we observe today. A lot of the philosophers lament this fact, and are at a loss for explanations or solutions.

The solution, of course, would be a better dialogue between advocates of Ayn Rand's ideas and the Academy as a whole. Ayn Rand's importance lies in the fact that her philosophy is so representative of America's founding ideals, and in the fact that her writings have influenced and inspired millions of Americans. It would be a default on the responsibilities of the philosophers were there to be a failure of communication between the Academy and the ideals upon which this country was built. But that is exactly what has been happening.

What turns this problem - this error of knowledge, if you will - into a breach of morality, is when leading figures in the Profession engage in the kind of smear tactics that Prof. Leiter engages in - and when the others in the profession sit by in silence. That sort of default is a moral one. And that is when we can begin assigning praise or blame - be it at an individual or (to some degree or other) an institutional level - for the state that both the philosophy profession and America at large are in currently.

There's really no excusing the sort of thing Leiter does when it comes to Rand and advocates of capitalism - and there's no excusing the behavior of academic philosophers who sit by and utter not a word of protest. It is the height of anti-philosophy to smear Rand the way way Leiter does. Rand herself did commit errors of knowledge - quite notably in her assessment of Kant the man, to name a most notorious instance. But Leiter's behavior is downright dishonest, and readers of his blog sanction that dishonesty with their silent complicity.

(More to come.)

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