Education, Philosophy, recent

The Role of Politics in Academic Philosophy

Recently Quillette published an exchange about the low proportion of conservatives in academic philosophy departments, consisting of an article by Tristan Rogers and a response by Shelby Hanna. This interesting exchange largely concerns the status of conservative political philosophy within the discipline and the interpretation of the PhilPapers survey results regarding philosophers’ stances on political philosophy. But this is a very limited way to understand the role of politics in academic philosophy. In fact, political philosophy is perhaps one of the least political places in philosophy at the moment, precisely because it is in political philosophy that conservative ideas must be, as a matter of intellectual integrity, taken seriously.

Activist philosophers, and philosophical activists, increasingly find themselves publishing work on topics in metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of language, philosophy of science, and so on. The problem here is precisely the opposite of what Hanna seems to be thinking about: It’s not that there is little conservatism within political philosophy but that there is little political philosophy within the politicized work of philosophers in other subfields. Activist scholars in these subfields never seem to get around to questioning their political views, which turn out to be near the center of what Willard Van Orman Quine would have called their “webs of belief.”

Metaphysics, traditionally a highly abstract and impractical area of inquiry, is the area of philosophy that has had perhaps the most high-profile political scuffles in the past few years. This is because there are significant political overtones to questions about the nature of race and ethnicity, or the nature of sex and gender. The Hypatia affair, which I wrote about for this magazine two years ago, crystallized many of the dynamics surrounding these issues. My contention is not that questions about race/ethnicity and sex/gender are improper for philosophical inquiry, but that philosophical inquiry is threatened by the political fervor that surrounds these questions. In the debates between gender-critical feminists and their detractors (who call them “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists”), for instance, it is often taken as a given that the political demands of feminism should determine our views on the metaphysics of sex and gender; at issue is which version of feminism is given pride of place.

But to many less politicized observers I expect that this will seem backwards. More than any other domain, metaphysics is about what’s fundamental, not about the practical exigencies of this or that historical moment. But the approach of viewing many important categories of experience as social constructions—which is again to some degree shared by the two sides of the debate about the metaphysics of gender—is resistant to claims about fundamentality and ultimate reality. Participants in these debates are often trying to change what they view as an already ideologically-determined reality, not to describe a common world that underlies our political differences. And, of course, the changes these participants attempt to make are absolutely never in line with conservative political principles. So that’s an area in which the representation of conservatives in philosophy might matter to Rogers and Hanna. Conservative representation might involve a rejection of the politicized model, or it might involve an implementation of that model on the basis of conservative rather than progressive values.

A similar absence of conservatives in the philosophy of science might trouble Rogers and Hanna. It is increasingly the position of philosophers of science that scientific research should—or even must—involve various kinds of value judgments; judgments not only using epistemic values, like simplicity and elegance, but using ethical and political values, as well. The most common source of such values is feminist philosophy, leading to the prominence of subfields such as feminist philosophy of science and feminist epistemology. As with the influence of feminism within metaphysics, conservative philosophers might produce counterarguments against the idea that political values ought to be central in scientific inquiry, or they might embrace that idea and offer a vision of science in which conservative political values are crucial. Either of these would be interesting roles for conservatives to play in areas outside of the value theory subfields emphasized by Hanna.

I’m a political liberal. Ultimately, my problem when it comes to the under-representation of conservatives in philosophy is the same problem Jonathan Haidt has frequently noted with regard to the under-representation of conservatives in psychology: It leads to poor scholarship. If articles on the epistemology of political conspiracies are written as though there are no progressive conspiracy theories, or if articles on top-down changes in the meanings of words (called “concept inflation” in this magazine in a terrific article by Spencer Case) take as their only examples the manipulation of language by powerful progressives toward left-wing political ends, then we will end up failing systematically to understand what’s actually at stake in the topics under discussion.

Philosophers—who, despite their political convictions, are usually incredibly naive when it comes to political strategy outside the academy—seem constantly to be tempted by their colleagues’ assurances that some line of research will pay dividends in the form of progressive political outcomes. Because philosophy is so dominated by political progressives, it is possible to get the sense that some philosophical approach is inherently politically progressive, simply because there are no conservatives around to engage in it. This leads to the adoption of philosophically poor ideas out of misplaced political passion.

A year and a half ago a popular philosophy blog posted—approvingly, though to mostly negative comments—an introductory course syllabus from a successful young professor. It had a section on metaphysics, which was limited to articles on the metaphysics of social construction; a section on the philosophy of language, which was limited to articles on slurs and hate speech; and a section on epistemology, which was limited to articles on standpoint theory and similar topics. Virtually every piece of writing in this introductory class had been produced in the past decade or two; this was meant, somehow, to promote “diversity” on the syllabus (as though there are more differences among social justice-oriented activist philosophers of the past twenty years than there are between present-day philosophers and, say, the ancient Greeks).

Clearly it is possible to do politics in philosophy without doing political philosophy. In fact, that is just about the trendiest sort of philosophy there is—what all the coolest philosophers are doing, and what outlets like the New York Times publish “public philosophy” articles about. Engagement with conservative political philosophy is a sad consolation prize, at best, and at worst, a distraction from these developments in every other aspect of the discipline.


Oliver Traldi is a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. You can follow him on Twitter @olivertraldi

Photo by Giammarco Boscaro on Unsplash

Filed under: Education, Philosophy, recent


Oliver Traldi is a writer living in the United States. He has a bachelor's degree in classics and a master's degree in philosophy.

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  1. It’s nice to see a mention of Quine’s web of belief. For me, it has been an incredibly powerful tool in trying to sort out what is reasonable and what is not. I would highly recommended to anyone to read his book on the subject.

    • Paolo says

      What do you suggest as the best work to approach Quine’s philosophy of science? I am interested in reading his text directly, whereas so far I only know him second-hand.

  2. Good article, Oliver. Much needed. I think the problem is much bigger though.
    I’ve been trying to publish a philosophy paper which both rejects the politicized model of metaphysics, and builds up a political view from some metaphysical conclusions. I’m trying to publish a metaphysics/metaethics paper which rejects the leftist/feminist/progressive dogmas. But I’ve run into a problem. Its not just a passive ‘trendiness’, where conservatives merely happen to be absent. It’s an active effort by journals and reviewers to unfairly reject and suppress any philosophy which transgresses the leftist dogma.

    What I’ve noticed is that the journals to which I wanted to submit the paper have an ideological conflict of interests. The journal ‘Ergo’ says on its homepage, “Ergo is strongly committed to diversity and especially welcomes submissions from members of groups currently underrepresented in philosophy.” The ‘Journal of Political Philosophy’ publicly apologized for not including enough “philosophers of color”, and promised to include more in the future. The journal, ‘Ethics’ released an announcement stating their commitment to “redouble the journal’s efforts to attract work by female authors and authors of color.”

    The paper I’m trying to publish argues that groups (including ‘underrepresented’ and ‘oppressed’ groups such as ‘authors of color’) should not be treated as morally valuable qua groups. I argue that only individuals intrinsically matter. A straightforward implication of my argument is that the journals’ concerns for ‘underrepresented groups’ and ‘diversity’ are misguided and wrong.

    This is the kind of thing that should be argued in philosophy journals. But that can’t be allowed, because the very journals which should facilitate the arguments have taken a priori positions on the matter.

    So I’ve gotten some rejections with laughably weak reasoning. The arguments in the reviews would never survive review themselves. Most wouldn’t survive a high school grading. But there is no grading system for reviews; they can be infinitely arbitrary and petty. Since the primary mechanism which underlies the entire field of philosophy is possessed by political ideology, I have to conclude that the field as a whole is corrupt. And unfortunately, ideas do tend to flow downward from the lofty peak of ‘philosophy’ down into the populous valley. People need to know that the untreated sewage waste from the valley has been pipelined back up to the peak.

    • TarsTarkas says

      I agree that mental and philosophical sewage, like water, tends to flow downhill. The problem is these intellectuals not only don’t know how to design or create sewage disposal systems but build dams in the valley preventing the sewage from draining. So when the sewage fills up the valleys and reach the mountaintops, the intellectuals who birthed and fostered the revolution cry out in despair as they float away, ‘But we were on your side, you turds!’

    • Geary Johansen says

      @ Time and Silence

      Have you thought about writing the paper, and then asking someone from Quillette to write an article about it? It might produce notoriety, rather than the impact you are hoping for, but the two often equate to the same thing, when attempt to claim a corner of the cultural consciousness.

      I sympathise- the novel I’m about halfway through planning, is made considerably more laborious by the fact that I’m dealing with cultural subject matters, that sensitivity readers may baulk at.

    • C Young says

      @Time And Silence – You have a pleasant and engaging writing style – even rarer than conservatism in philosophy. The most effective way for you to change minds is through journalism, perhaps here.

    • Max says

      What about blind review? How does the review process work if they apparently have to know your position in the grievance pyramid?

  3. Andras Kovacs says

    I have to conclude that the field as a whole is corrupt

    A radical critique, but not entirely implausible. As Schopenhauer said it about the “age of dishonesty”:

    The character of honesty, that spirit of undertaking an inquiry together with the reader, which permeates the works of all previous philosophers, disappears here completely. Every page witnesses that these so-called philosophers do not attempt to teach, but to bewitch the reader.

    Have you thought about self-publishing your research in a book format?

    • Thanks for the suggestion. I just worry that self-publishing won’t have the effect I’m looking for. I wanted to influence the thinking of philosophers, who influence the thinking of all other academic elites, who’s ideas can trickle down into culture.

      It’s just so easy to ignore self published material.

      • Morgan Foster says

        @Time and Silence

        Martin Luther found himself in a similar position with the Catholic Church. He had to self-publish in the end.

        You’ll be in good company.

      • Andras Kovacs says

        I just worry that self-publishing won’t have the effect I’m looking for.

        OK, what you’re is looking for impact. Well, it seems that there’s a price to be paid for that: conformance to the orthodoxy as expressed in the positions taken by the gatekeepers. Maybe you should raise your gaze toward the distant horizon. I’ve just quoted you Schopenhauer; but I found the quote in Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies, a book-length (in two volumes) treatment of the intellectual history of the West.

        I believe that it is more important that you publish your research than to maximize contemporary impact. Is your stuff is good, it’ll make some impact in due course; and if not, lack of impact is no great loss to others, whether fellow philosophers or others.

      • defmn says

        I think what you mean is that is “just so easy” for academics to ignore self published material.

        I would argue that academia is not the place to look for philosophers in any case.

  4. Klaus C. says

    “metaphysics is about what’s fundamental”

    Metaphysics is essentially about bullshit, in umpteen flavours.

    If you want to tangle with reality, science is what matters.

    Let’s hope we can protect real science from both the “woke” and the “conservatives”, as much as possible.

    • Good thing Albert Einstein didn’t share your opinion. Otherwise, science would still be a lot farther from reality.

      In reference to Leibniz’ ‘Discourse on Metaphysics’:
      “Einstein professed himself a Leibnizian and declared that the superiority of Leibnizianism is so obvious that one can only explain the triumph of Newtonianism by the absence of sufficient mathematical tools”

    • Andras Kovacs says

      If you want to tangle with reality, science is what matters.

      Nicely said. Let me quote somebody from the field:

      The spreading of information about the [quantum] system through the [classical] environment is ultimately responsible for the emergence of “objective reality.”

      — Wojciech Hubert Zurek: Decoherence, einselection, and the quantum origins of the classical

      • Mohammad Sarafraaz says

        In other words – objective reality is being entangled with the system. Those not entangled will not find the objective reality, and the system will appear in superposition. It is not so much the “spreading” of quantum information, but the “sharing” of the quantum information through entanglement. If I am not entangled with the environment, then no matter how the information is spread through the environment and classizied, I am still unable to observe objective reality.

    • TarsTarkas says

      Klaus C.:

      I assume that who you mean by ‘conservatives’ are religious science-denying fundamentalists, not political conservatives, I consider myself conservative, but have as little patience with creationists and the Earth is 6K old crowd as I do with the biology is all in the mind mob. The former are much less dangerous since they aren’t threatening lives and livelihoods to the degree they once did generations ago.

    • Carlo says

      Nice list of unproven metaphysical statements you just made.

  5. Aristodemus says

    @Klaus C. & Time and Silence, Einstein also admired Schopenhauer, who was already mentioned in this thread. Disdain for metaphysics isn’t characteristic of scientists who study the deepest levels of reality.

  6. Andras Kovacs says

    Disdain for metaphysics isn’t characteristic of scientists who study the deepest levels of reality.

    Well, that depends on the metaphysics. Some philosophers are debating metaphysical questions like “if there’s a lamp which gets switched on then half a second later gets switched off then a quarter second later on and an eight of a second later off and so on, what will be the lamp’s state after precisely a full second elapsed?”

    Any scientist worth his salt refuses to speculate on this question as there’s no meaning to speaking of shorter time than the Planck time: in this sense — at least theoretically –, time is quantized, and quantas — by definition — can’t be halved.

    • Jesse Schneider says

      Mr. Kovacs: The Thomson’s Lamp paradox is (as I have seen it discussed) not directly relevant to physical or naural possibility, but to supertasks and logical possibility (which isn’t restricted by the considerations you mention) – and only through its mediation relevant to metaphysical possibility and again only through it to physical possibility. That’s why your criticism speaks mainly of your ignorance of the subject and the motivations for discussing it.

      • Andras Kovacs says

        The Thomson’s Lamp paradox is (as I have seen it discussed) not directly relevant to physical or na[t]ural possibility

        Thank you.

  7. Justin Kalef says

    It’s always a pleasure to hear the latest from you, Oliver.

    One thing that kept jumping out to me as I read this is how closely connected your assessment of these current trends is to an assessment made a couple of decades ago by the great Bryan Magee — who died a few hours ago, unfortunately — about the inroads made by continental philosophers into English-speaking departments:

    “Continental philosophy has abandoned what I see as philosophy’s central task, the attempt to understand what is. The interests of Continental philosophers appear to be parochially confined to human affairs, and even then at a highly superficial level. In most cases this runs counter to their own larger beliefs; for most of them would agree, I take it, that human beings are a tiny and local phenomenon, a recent arrival on the surface of a planet that is unimaginably small compared with the universe at large; and that even this speck of a planet existed for aeons before humans emerged on it. But they are not interested in trying very hard to understand such matters. They take what happen to be our local, current and short-term human concerns and treat these as if they were everything. Even then they are more interested in comment than in understanding. All this gives an unmistakably journalistic character to much of their writings. For even if it should be the case, as I think it probably is, that the solutions to such cosmic enigmas as the nature of time and space, and the material objects these seem to contain, have something fundamentally to do with the nature of experiencing subjects, this involves the structural properties of human beings on a far deeper level than that on which these are engaged with by Continental philosophers, who write about humans at the level on which they visit their psychiatrist or go to the cinema, vote, read books and newspapers, or hold forth on cultural, social and political topics—in other words, at a level of ephemeral social concerns. As a conception of philosophy it is piffling, beneath any serious consideration, and could only possibly appeal to people for whom genuine philosophical problems have little or no interest…”

    “Despite, or perhaps even helped by, its superficiality, Continental philosophy is making inroads into many university philosophy departments in the English-speaking world, and has taken some over. It has also had an impact on literature departments, and made inroads into departments of psychology, anthropology, sociology and other subjects. In some places a war is going on between counter-balanced factions of Continental and analytic thinkers. Very noticeably, many of the individuals to whom Continental philosophy appeals are among those to whom Marxism once appealed. Its factions often possess the same sort of gang mentality, and behave in the same unlovely ways—in dead jargon rather than living language, portentously rather than simply, obscurely rather than clearly—and to abandon rational argument for rhetoric. It actively trains them not to think, and to be bogus; and in doing these things it debauches their minds.”

    At the very end of the ’90s and in the early 2000s, it began to seem that the threats to philosophical practice Magee is speaking of were fading. I suspect that this came about for a number of reasons. One is that analytic philosophy continued to overcome its limitations, having much more to say about the deeper questions many have always associated with philosophy, so a perennial complaint raised by the continentals lost its force. Another is that the attractions of political Marxism continued to decline.

    However, continental thought had a profound influence on the development of academic feminism and Critical Race Theory, and the complaints (frequently heard even about a decade ago) that continental philosophy was almost devoid of rigor and was perhaps not even a proper part of the discipline were seldom, if ever, directed against those working in feminist philosophy or the philosophy of race. I suspect the reasons for this are the obvious ones: taking a position against continental philosophy was seen in most circles as an understandable means to defend the integrity of the discipline, but it was reasonable to fear that a criticism of the methodologies of certain versions of, say, feminist philosophy would be construed as a criticism of the goals of feminism itself, and hence open one up to charges of misogyny. Moreover, even without the threat of such accusations, feelings of white guilt and male guilt made sustained critiques of such schools of thought much less psychologically appealing.

    For that reason, I think, what we are seeing now is best understood primarily as the strain of continental philosophy most immune to the natural defenses of analytic philosophy. With it, especially over the past decade, has come a view that one must never criticize a rival understanding of philosophy or call anything non-philosophical: another adaptation, I think, in the same Darwinian struggle for ideological survival and domination.

    If all that is a roughly correct explanation of the incursion of all this into mainstream metaphysics, epistemology, etc., where it may be on its way to becoming normalized, then the unquestioned assumptions that motivate so much of this work are not only political ones: they are also continental ideological ones. I find it startling how few of the ideas of Foucault (whose work forms the basis of ‘epistemic injustice’ and related topics in current epistemology), Marcuse (the main source of the view that the right to free speech does not extend to anyone not sufficiently on the left, since they will only use that speech to oppress) and other continental thinkers seem to be accepted in many philosophical discussions today without any examination or suspicion.

    As Marx (whose influence looms so large in continental thought) famously said, “”Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” The orientation toward activism and partisan advocacy rather than careful, rigorous analysis aiming at understanding may go a long way toward explaining the frustration felt by many in his extended shadow in the face of what would otherwise be perfectly acceptable demands for clarification and support.

    Personally, I think the issues surrounding race, sex, gender, and so on are a wonderful basis for philosophical exploration and discussion, and I’ve seen some great philosophical work written on those topics from both sides of the issues. I find it unfortunate that so much of this — or indeed, any — philosophy is produced without the rigor, including an ordeal through the fires of deeply searching critiques — that is essential for making something genuinely philosophical. But I continue to hope that these trends within the discipline may be temporary.

    • Oliver Traldi says

      Justin, thank you so much for this very thoughtful comment!

    • Excellent comment. I hadn’t seen the Magee quotes you posted, but it basically expresses what I had been thinking about this for a long time, and had not seen articulated elsewhere.

      One thing to add — I think that one cannot understand the phenomenon of modern feminism without also taking a class-based approach to it.

      Philosophers in the past certainly had political views, and they usually belonged to the elite in society, which added another layer of cognitive biases. But they didn’t really see themselves as belonging to a layer in society defined by their intellectual pursuits. There were always so few of them and thus they were forced to be their own men as there was barely anyone to be grouped with.

      But modern academia (this effect concerns academia as a whole, not philosophy on its own) isn’t like that, it has over the centuries evolved into a large industrialized enterprise, staffed by an army of people working in it. Those people are sufficiently many to form a class and a certain mentality to go with it, and that is what indeed happened (though it should be noted that the class in question is bigger than just the people working in academia, it is of the salaried educated professionals whose status depends on having educational credentials; this includes much of the finance and high-tech sectors, quite a few governmental and NGO positions, etc.). From then on they align themselves politically with a certain set of positions and mechanisms develop to reinforce that alignment with each other too, at the level of the individual.

      It is hard to escape one’s attention how the policies pushed for, especially by feminist activism, tend to quite directly benefit this layer of society at the expense of the rest of it.

      Whose speech and behavior is it going to be policed? Yes, there will be a few rogue men within academia who don’t keep their mouths shut, but the truth is that most have actually learned to conform quite well. The people that will transgress the most are the ones not behaviorally trained into it, and that means the working classes and the poor.

      How is the policing going to be done? It will require an army of new bureaucratic positions.

      Who is staffing those positions? It is the graduates of the academic “disciplines” where that activism is coming from. Who, coincidentally, have no good employment options other than that, because they have no useful skills whatsoever.

      And they are very well paid positions too.

      Examining metaphysical assumptions and figuring out the inherent contradictions in one’s professed ideology tends to interfere with these larger goals. So, naturally, it is not done.

      • Steven Clyde Flanders says

        Very good insight. I have noticed the “professions” have made themselves immune to the disruptions wrought by technological and sociological tidal changes, and that is the major reason society as a whole is not resisting or even wrestling with these changes.
        From robotization of almost all industry to outsourcing and run away illegal immigration, to now the woke and LBGT agenda, almost all the real changes affect the working and poor class Americans, but the professions are left untouched or probably even benefit (as you note),
        So the professional class that could and should lead, and either resist these meta-changes to society, or at least ensure that the changes occur in a humane way, are on the sidelines silently watching the devastation take place in the larger community

        • aidan maconachy says

          The “professions” as you put it, aren’t as untouched as you seem to think. Maybe fear has something to do with it, it’s a very nasty world out there. Doesn’t mean though that there aren’t lots of silent partners who get exercised when using online nicks, especially when it comes to the LGBT agenda.

  8. Casimiro Lanzillo says

    “Ultimately, my problem when it comes to the under-representation of conservatives in philosophy is the same problem Jonathan Haidt has frequently noted with regard to the under-representation of conservatives in psychology: It leads to poor scholarship.”

    I am right-wing (probably far-right by most standards but whatever), but It’s always uncomfortable when defenders of viewpoint diversity in academia use the effectiveness argument. This argument is at best doubtful and at worst wrong. It’s difficult to test but there are several reasons to doubt it. Political psychology (including studies made by Haidt) has shown that right-wing are lower than left-wing people on openess to experience, arguably the most important trait for an academician. Pushing for more conservatives in academia may even lead to poorer scholarship. Even without accounting

    However there’s also a normative, value-based for conservatism in academia: Academia is a public good, and thus the values present in society must be present in academia. Ultimately, academia is not just about the disinterested pursuit of truth, but also its applications to human matters. E.G. The physicists who built the atomic bomb were no doubt rational men who used valid physics, this says nothing about the morality of building the atomic bomb. The psychiatrists who want to make being right-wing a pathology are no doubt rational men who use valid psychiatry in their daily work. This says nothing about what should be labeled as “mental illness”. Illness is by essence a normative concept. (Ironically this is something the Left itself defended when they were not in a majority position in academia).

    There is a distinction between “is” and “ought” (putting aside ethical naturalism, which is bullshit). Even supposing we right-wing people are irreductilby “dumber” than Leftists, that still wouldn’t justily excluding us from academia as people like John Jost argue, see

    (John Jost is pretty much the extremist of this cause, he devoted his entire carrer attempting to show right-wing people are dumb and shouldn’t be in academia, he’s also an insufferable asshole more generally)

    However this raises another issue: What is academia for? Should academia have a moral commitment to political values like “social justice”? Or should it just thrive for truth seeking and nothing else, IE focusing solely on the “is” and never on the “ought”? Should universities worth with states or private companies? Something else altogether? If we choose the first option, it is therefore normal that academia as a whole leans left, and primarily attracts left-wing people. (In fact, the second option would also primarily attract left-wing people, but to a lesser degree).

    Ultimately, nobody is concerned that there are no atheists in the Catholic Church, or no anarchist in the US military. This is normal. Should it be normal for academia too? Given the long-term power of academia, I say no.

    As an aside, political psychologists of all stripes should stop equating Liberal/Conservative with Left/Right. The first divide is merely a particular case of the second. For anarchists and socialists, “liberal” is an insult. Symetrically, there are massive differences between conservaitsm (in the true, burkean sense of the term), right-libertarianism, and fascism.

    • Mr. Lanzillo, did you read the piece by myself adverted to in the opening of this article? I address some of the issues you raise in your thoughtful comment.

      • Casimiro Lanzillo says

        Rogers, thank you, I read it when it was released and re-read it again to refresh my memory. Reasons 1) and 3) are still pragmatic ones and therefore can potentially be made invalid by new developments in political psychology.2) is the strongest argument. I agree that the best solution is for non-conservative philosophers to study conservative philosophy. Joshua Tait is an example.

    • Casimiro Lanzillo says

      To add on to my commentary on John Jost: The problem with him is not just that he believes the Right is dumb, but that he believes psychologists should be on the Left. He’s a moral realist (which is bullshit) and a virtue ethicist, which means he thinks he is being objective in a scientific sense when he says that. This line of thinking must be challenged. Granted, a lot of the Right is guilty of of fact-value trespassing too, but that doesn’t mean we should tolerate it.

      Here’s a concrete area where left-wing hegemony can have dreadful impacts: psychiatry.

      We should be concerned that a group (psychatrists) that has the power to define who deserves to be locked up and who should be branded “crazy” and therefore delegitimized as a political actor is 80% left-wing. Health is by essence a normative concept that shouldn’t be let to scientists alone.

  9. Quite a few good points, but there is one major issue with the text overall — it gives the impression that we need more conservatives in these fields.

    But we do not need more “conservatives” in philosophy, or in any other area of inquiry.

    We need zero “conservatives”, zero “liberals”, and zero of any other group of people whose thinking is guided by preconceived political ideologies. One cannot avoid being guided by some metaphysical assumptions, but this is not what we have here. It’s not even ideologies, actually, for a lot of these people, instead, it is the much more primitive “Republican/Democrat” dichotomy that guides them, i.e. brutish tribalism, with the content of the labels irrelevant (which is why they supported someone like Obama and still see him as a saint even though, aside from his positions on identity politics issues, he was in fact a seriously right-wing president by most reasonable definitions of the terms).

    If your thinking is primarily guided by such commitments rather than by an honest quest for knowledge, you are incapable of producing true scholarship. And that applies to all sides.

    • aidan maconachy says


      “We need zero “conservatives”, zero “liberals”, and zero of any other group of people whose thinking is guided by preconceived political ideologies.”

      Idealistic enough?

  10. defmn says

    Philosophy has a terrible reputation these days and not all of that can be blamed on the post modernists who are really only guilty of not being up to the task Nietzsche left them. Philosophy’s poor reputation goes deeper than that in my opinion and has to do with the old charge that philosophy is at best useless and at worst dangerous.

    Most moderns would readily agree with the part about it being useless but probably express bemusement at the idea that it can be dangerous for the very good reason that they really have no idea what philosophers do and have undoubtedly never met one. The only familiarity most people have is with the stereotypical fuddy duddy in the bow tie in the philosophy department at the local college and he certainly doesn’t look dangerous to anybody. More recently they may have run across a feminist claiming to be a philosopher and while she may look dangerous it is probably mostly only to her own self.

    These academics who call themselves philosophers are really only dangerous in the sense that they denigrate the idea. They are more correctly thought of as historians of great ideas or simply social scientists who think they are too smart to be called social scientists.

    But they are most definitely not philosophers.

    Philosophers are made up of a rare constellation of attributes. So rare that most people deny their possibility. It is the intention of this essay to, perhaps, cause a few to pause in that judgement and consider whether or not they may have rushed to judgement too quickly on this question because the true philosophers have left bread crumbs to follow for those for whom curiosity is truly “a lust of the mind”. And this is not an idle or academic question to consider because when properly understood the philosophic tradition of the west explains more about why the west is different than any other culture to ever occupy this planet than any other explanation you are likely to encounter.

    And, yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as western thought.

    Nietzsche claimed that “the greatest thoughts are the greatest events” in his book Beyond Good and Evil (BGE 285) and if that is true, as I believe it to be, the greatest events of western civilization are those to be found in the writings of two separate clusters. Plato and Aristotle, who basically defined the classical era and Bacon and Hobbes who created the architecture of the cave we call the modern liberal democracy.

    Of course such a pronouncement immediately ignites cries of disagreement. It would seem unreasonable to assume that the thoughts of only four writers could explain 2,500 years of western civilization. And I would tend to agree with that assessment because it is actually just Plato and Bacon who are the seminal thinkers whose thoughts have created the metaphysical structures we mere mortals have occupied these many centuries.

    But in many ways it is difficult to exclude the contributions and finishing touches provided by Aristotle and Hobbes to their mentors and so I have added them. Scholars will dismiss this broad brush as simplistic and ask where are the pre-Socratics, Machiavelli, Locke and Mills, Spinoza and Rousseau? Where are the Germans? Kant, Hegel, Heidegger? And that loudest voice of all in our age, Nietzsche?

    The religious will lament the slighting of Aquinas and Augustine, the sociologists will puff up at the absence of Comte, Marx or Weber among others. But this is an essay directed by the Nietzsche quote mentioned above. The greatest thoughts. And if you will bear with me I will try and explain why Plato and then Bacon stand above the rest even as Nietzsche hovers over their shoulders laying claim to his place beside them.

    The death of Socrates is generally regarded as the starting point for the western tradition. That is not really correct in the technical sense because Democritus (atomism), Empedocles (evolution), Pythagoras & Euclid (mathematics), Protagoras (sophist), to mention only a few, make up a fairly impressive body of knowledge if only we still had direct access to it. But the death of Socrates did change the direction of philosophy. The study of the heavens that Aristophanes so effectively ridiculed in his play ‘The Clouds’ quite correctly caused those for whom reason was preferable to revelation to reconsider their public stance towards knowledge and set in motion the oldest war known to man. That is the war between philosophy and poetry – or as we think of it today – philosophy and religion. And, yes, I know we moderns like to think the war is between science and religion but that is just a misunderstanding that we will get to with Bacon.

    Plato turned away from natural philosophy – the study of the non human things which included the heavens. The well known accusation that philosophy was useless at best and dangerous at worst for meddling with the cosmology that dictated the piety of Athens resulted in the charge against Socrates of corrupting the youth and with that conviction was born a second wave of philosophy. The philosophy of human things that has come to be known as political philosophy.

    It is most dramatically introduced in the book Politea which is known more generally by its English translation as The Republic. The first sentence of that book marks the move from the study of nature to the study of man.

    “Down I went to Piraeus yesterday with Glaukon, of Ariston, to pray to the goddess; and at the same time, I wanted to observe how they would put on the festival, since they are now holding it for the first time.”

    This sentence has been dissected to death over the centuries and I quote it here just to give an idea of what is involved in understanding a Platonic dialogue so I ask for a little patience in order that I can offer a very brief example of how Plato is to be read.

    “Down I went” – the philosopher descends from his contemplation of the heavens to turn his attention to the city.

    “to Piraeus yesterday with Glaukon, of Ariston” – the Piraeus was the port some miles from Athens. It is where the diversity and disorder that comes from foreign lands entered into Athens. It is outside a strict adherence to Athenian piety. Glaukon and his brother Adeimatus will be the main interlocutors with Socrates for the duration of the dialogue and were Plato’s brothers. They are historical figures as was their father, Ariston, and the others that are present.

    “to pray to the goddess” – a new goddess to Athens has been imported from Thrace. Remember that Socrates was put to death for ‘introducing new gods’ into Athens so this is a nice reminder that he was not the only one to do so if, in fact, he did so at all. Not being part of Athenian tradition it is appropriate that she be introduced to Athens through the port which served as the primary entry to Athens for all things non-Athenian.This was the introduction of that innovation. An innovation that Socrates declares to be at least as intriguing as the performance offered by the Athenian presentation in the same festival.

    So, curiosity – the primary motivator of philosophy – about that which is unique intrigues the philosopher and his companion to make the trek down to Piraeus.

    In the next few paragraphs we see the philosopher and his young companion accosted by a larger party as they begin their trek back up out of the port having seen what they came to see. They are confronted with the essential political problem. Those who stop them from leaving inform them that they will not listen to any reasoning about why they should be let go and since there are more of them – and therefore stronger – they can ensure that they will not be allowed to do so. A compromise is reached by offering an inducement to Glaukon who accepts on behalf of himself and the philosopher.

    The promise of dinner and more entertainment into the night entices Glaukon to agree with the larger party and they return back into Pireus where they spend the night in conversation about what is just rather than venturing back out to watch the continuation of the newly introduced festival celebration that originally enticed their descent. When the conversation is over everything has changed for those who stayed to hear what was said to a far greater degree than for those who watched the innovative introduction of a new god as it was welcomed into the Athenian pantheon.

    And this is the very much abridged version of the opening few paragraphs of the most famous book of political philosophy in our tradition.

    I skimmed through this in order to be able to at least suggest that there are some things about Plato’s writing that are important to notice in even a cursory examination of his thought. The first is that the people involved are important. Where they are historical they come with the baggage of their actual lives. Secondly these dialogues come with settings and timing and are often presented in different formats. You could be reading a dialogue remembered by the person who witnessed it just the day before or it could be told by somebody who heard it from somebody who heard it from somebody who was there years before. Where the dialogue takes place, when it took place, who is telling the tale and who is there to listen to it are all part of how to understand what is being said.

    And with that introduction I finally get to a second point made by Nietzsche – “The difference between exoteric and esoteric [was] formerly known to philosophers.” (BGE 30)

    This distinction in knowing how to write so that those who can understand understand something totally different than those who cannot or should not understand while reading the same words is, of course, foreign, if not distasteful, to most moderns raised in the tradition where science is the highest authority. But, of course, most citizens of the modern liberal democracy have never been faced with the prospect of death for saying what they really think.

    On the other hand the idea of circumspect writing doesn’t seem so foreign to those familiar with the books and essays of those raised under autocratic rule. The great authors of the Soviet Union produced an incredible legacy of literature where meaning was obscured in order to avoid censorship or incarceration. Or to be a little more to the point. The virtue of thought (which belongs to none other than the thinker) is clarity. The virtue of speech – of which writing is a form – is precision. Or to quote an old historian writing about Galileo; speech by those who question authority often has the “intellectual virtue of honest dissimulation”.

    And so we arrive some way through this essay knowing next to nothing about Plato’s thought other than that he hid it from all but those most driven to understand him. Somehow this seems to make it appropriate to quote Alexandre Kojeve from his ‘Introduction to the Reading of Hegel’.

    “I believe that Plato actually succeeds in convincing those who read and understand his dialogue. But here is the difficulty: The number of people who read Plato is limited; and the number who understand him is still more limited.”

    I would not be one of those with the presumption to include myself on that list of those who fully understand Plato but I have a pretty good idea of who can make that claim and it is the list of those whose “greatest thoughts” span the centuries from then until now and constitute that which we call the western tradition. Machiavelli, Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, Rousseau, Spinoza, and finally the clearest – or at least the loudest – voice of all; Nietzsche.

    This is the list of greatest thinkers that constitutes what we call the western tradition. A tradition based upon reason rather than revelation. A concept we take so for granted that it barely raises an eyebrow when it is stated so explicitly. And yet a tradition that does not find a counterpart anywhere else in any other civilization’s tradition.

    The death of Socrates not only caused Plato to go down into the city; it could be argued that he took philosophy underground. He kept it alive by aligning it with the poetry and piety that defined the ancient pagan world. He hid it through the practice of esoteric writing which taught different lessons to different people through the art of saying different things to different people using the same words to do so.

    For those interested in the methods involved in that process there are many guide books. Leo Strauss is probably the best known of those who have written explicitly about the subject. The image of the cave for which Plato is justly famous offers a fairly graphic depiction of the levels of understanding that characterize humanity’s diverse abilities. After all, philosophers are not exactly egalitarian in their nature.

    We can all think the way we can all pole vault. But not that many of us are invited to demonstrate our ability at the Olympics. To be a philosopher requires the congruence of a constellation of qualities rarely found in an individual. Montaigne suggested they appear about once every 300 years and that might be optimistic.

    Christianity is sometimes referred to as “Plato for the people” for good reason though. There is a lot of contemplation that can be directed into determining the veracity of that speculation but the fact that the New Testament was written primarily in Greek may not be coincidence. Many scholars will tell you that there are two roots in the western tradition. One planted firmly in Athens and the other in Jerusalem. There is a sense in which this is correct and a more profound sense in which it is terribly wrong. Philosophy has never accepted the easy answer of revelation. But revelation was willing to accept Aristotle.

    There are great images in Plato’s writings. The Cave, mentioned above, which offers a picture of the human condition as it relates to knowledge and culture. The ship of state with its thoughts on claims to rule. The chariot driven by two steeds as an entry into an understanding of the human psyche or soul, and the divided line would be four of the more famous. But if you were to ask most people the ideas they associate with Plato they would name the Philosopher King and the noble lie which is actually the noble and necessary lies.

    As Plato has Socrates navigate Glaukon and Adiemantus through the questions requiring answers in order to come to grip with what justice might be – let alone whether or not it is worth even knowing the answer to that question – we come to appreciate the complexity of the human experience and the diversity of attributes that define us as a species in our quest to live a good life. What a good life might look like turns out to be both a simple and a complicated matter depending upon what kind of soul nature has bequeathed to you.

    And I suppose that this is where we meet Aristotle and Bacon.

    You can spend your lifetime reading about how Aristotle disagreed with Plato about this and that. Academic careers have been forged on less important questions. But for me the significant difference is more general. Plato wrote for the philosophically inclined. Aristotle wrote for the educated class. That distinction is huge and well worth the effort to understand.

    Machiavelli, Bacon, Hobbes, and Descartes have all been proposed as the ‘father of modernity’ by various historians of philosophy. Given that Descartes acknowledges his debt to Bacon in his ‘Discourse on Method’ and his ‘Passions of the Soul’ even while claiming to have improved and surpassed him tends to exclude him from that title in my opinion. Hobbes was employed by Bacon to write down his thoughts – amongst other duties – so a simple matter of chronology would seem to dispense with that disagreement. Machiavelli’s contribution requires a longer detour so for the purposes of this essay I will simply note that Bacon’s most obvious contribution to western thought is found in ‘The Great Instauration’ that serves as a lead into the book we call ‘The New Organon’.

    The title is not an accident. Aristotle’s ‘Organon’ had served for centuries as the authoritative works on science and reasoning in what then constituted the Christian world. You cannot really understand Aquinas or Augustine without a grounding in Aristotle.

    Bacon, however, determined for reasons that are still argued over that the old alliance with religion that Plato had formed in order to safeguard philosophy from the excesses of revelation’s followers was no longer tenable and he turned to science as Plato’s predecessors had. After all, science, philosophy and religion do have one thing in common – curiosity about first causes – even if they have very different thoughts about approaches to satisfy that curiosity.

    Contrary to modern conceptions, however, there existed a coherent and reasonable account of both non-human and human nature. Bacon’s writing are considered seminal to the modern world not because he filled a vacuum but because he initiated a coup.

    To properly understand this, though, it has to be understood that while Bacon’s writings make clear that his proposed revolution concerning the ends of his science were purely political the work that constitutes the overtly political portion of the project was left to be written by his student Hobbes.

    In order to make both of these assertions clear let me start with Aristotle’s understanding of causes. Something every first year philosophy student should be familiar with.

    Aristotle maintained that in order to claim a full understanding of any thing you need to understand four different types of causes – material, formal, efficient and final. In simple, if not simplistic, terms these meant:

    The material cause or “that from which”. The steel of a sword. The flesh of a human. Wood of a tree. The matter of a thing.

    Second is the Formal cause – the shape, design or arrangement. The formula that determines how the matter forms the distinct whole thing that it is. A sword and a plough may be made from the same material but the form differentiates them.

    The Efficient cause is the immediate precipitating event that effects change. You struck the match and it started the fire.

    The Final cause is the purpose. “That for the sake of which”. The ‘why’ or purpose of the action.

    This quick synopsis is embarrassingly unfair to Aristotle in that it reduces his much more profound understanding to almost cartoonish characterizations but they do not distort the purpose for which I list them and anybody interested in a truer understanding of these principles can find them readily enough.

    What Bacon did was to reject the Efficient and Final Cause as irrelevant to understanding nature as nature – although he does much later in his treatise almost silently slip in the admission that purpose is intrinsic to understanding human things. But that does not serve his purpose of making an understanding of non-human nature useful and it is almost invisible in his writings.

    Bacon accepts that the formal and material causes of things are what are important but he alters what that meant to Aristotle. Bacon’s conception of understanding causes emphasizes deconstruction so he takes the formal and material causes and breaks them down according to measurement of properties “such as dense or rare, hot and cold, solid and fluid, heavy and light, and several others”. Rather than trying to understand something’s nature as it is found in nature he takes it into the laboratory and deconstructs it into smaller pieces in order to understand the mechanism of action through controlled experimentation.

    Whereas the classical approach emphasized the purpose of ‘that which is’ in terms of the highest expression of its potential as a means to intellectual understanding Bacon wanted to know how things worked in order to make things useful to men and thus create a more “commodious living” for people as Hobbes will phrase it when we get to him.

    Science for Aristotle was an activity that befitted a gentleman. It improved the mind to be able to speculate in reasonable terms how the world was constructed. And it was based upon a very Platonic precept – “that all things by nature seek their good”.

    “This is the single most important conclusion to be drawn from the study of Nature, the First Principle of both Knowing and Being. And as this purposeful disposition is innate in the natures of all living things, Nature is the ultimate final cause of all that is and happens in life. “

    And that, in a nutshell, is the doctrine of Natural Right that steered philosophy for close to two millennia.

    If you are still with me this is why Aristotle’s science is referred to as teleological – it is based upon an assumption that there is purpose directing causes. Or to speak more clearly Bacon reversed the order of primacy between the two interrogatives useful for establishing cause. Whereas Aristotle promoted ‘why’ as the noblest question Bacon dismissed it as irrelevant and firmly established ‘how’ as the most useful path to knowledge. And he did this as a conscious decision to reverse Plato’s strategy of protecting philosophy from religion by aligning it in a manner that could be co-opted by religion as an intellectual adjunct. Instead, Bacon returned to an earlier version of philosophy intent on understanding the nature of non human things that would undermine the authority of religion’s version of first causes.

    Again, I must apologize for simplifying what is really a much more profound thought process. But it gives enough information in order to highlight the difference between Bacon’s revolutionary new science and Aristotle’s older version.

    Because of Bacon’s new direction to make science useful he introduces his ‘scientific method’ – which is still the basic model used to this day. Rational intuition for the formulation of a hypothesis followed by inductive reasoning to determine if there are obvious negatives that would invalidate the premise and, of course, rigorous empirical validation through replicable experiments. And now I must apologize to Bacon for simplifying his thought.

    Aristotle saw nature as something to be understood in terms of how it expressed itself in its highest form of potential. For him you could not explain the acorn without reference to the oak tree; the child to the adult. It was not about making nature useful to men. It was about making men’s place in nature understood.

    Bacon’s re-opening of how to determine the nature of things and the cosmology that naturally comes with it brought philosophy back into open conflict with religion. Why he did so is a longer story than this essay can encompass. Christianity had found a way to co-opt the Aristotelian categorization and explications sufficiently that they had actually been found useful by the church but the monolith that was Christianity was breaking down and Bacon lit a fire that threw that alliance into jeopardy. Descartes refined Bacon’s focus with methodology that gave it greater precision and successes.

    But it was Hobbes who brought the manpower necessary to pluck and poke at everything under the sun.

    Hobbes ‘Leviathan’ is a lifetime’s study in and of itself. A monster of deception and elucidation. A contradiction that resolves itself. Perhaps the pinnacle of political rhetoric masking a profound philosophical perspective. Or so I believe. Many others would disagree. Probably most.

    It is best understood as a political supplement to Bacon’s ‘empiricist first’ model in contrast to Plato’s ‘idealist first’ philosophy although both stereotypical interpretations are largely incorrect.

    The rhetorical tale told buttresses its authority on an odd metaphysical mix.

    Hobbes proposes to found a new political science based upon scientific principles such as his mentor Bacon would approve of. These consist of the “seven deadly sins” – my coinage – materialism, nominalism, determinism, hedonism, egoism, legal positivism and reason as calculation.

    It is upon this foundation that Hobbes raises his political science advocating for his view that a scientific politics should be built upon the following prescription.

    “The Passions that encline men to Peace, are Feare of Death; Desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living; and a Hope by their Industry to obtain them.” CH. 13 (L).

    The fact that all of the above motivations for the establishment of civil society seem reasonable to the modern democrat is the first clue as to how successful Hobbes was in erecting the architecture for the modern liberal democracy because there is nothing in that prescription that would have accorded with the classical view that it replaced.

    It is bewildering to know where to begin in unravelling the exoteric from the esoteric message of this book but I will make a few assertions to start.

    The modern reader educated to believe that ‘honesty is the best policy’ might be inclined by the numerous reference to God to think that Hobbes was a devout Christian. He was not. He was, as are all philosophers, an atheist.

    The modern reader might further come to the conclusion that Hobbes was an egalitarian who believed in the equality of all men in their passions, intellect and drives. He was not. He was, as are all philosophers, one who ranks humanity by the constellation of attributes that make up their psyche or soul.

    The modern reader might come to the conclusion that Hobbes was a monarchist. He was not.

    With these three precepts in mind we begin.

    The thought for which Hobbes is most famous is his characterization of humanity in the state of nature.

    “During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition called war; and such a war, as if of every man, against every man.

    “To this war of every man against every man, this also in consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law, where no law, no injustice. Force, and fraud, are in war the cardinal virtues.

    “No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” CH. 13

    A more chilling description of life would be difficult to imagine.

    The standard academic interpretation of Leviathan is that it is a rejection of Plato’s thought. The interpretation I will offer is that it is the acceptance of Plato’s challenge to create a society ruled by a Philosopher King. The ‘Leviathan’ is his solution. Or, to go to Nietzsche yet again “Genuine philosophers are commanders and legislators.” BGE 211

    To substantiate such an outrageous claim let us return to Plato’s image of the soul alluded to above. In that image of the charioteer Plato divides the soul into three parts. Eros, thymos and nomos which are generally translated into English as desire, spirit, and reason. The image is of a charioteer (nomos) directing the two horses, eros and thymos. In this image the desires and the passions exert all of the strength to power and move the chariot. Reason is relegated to directing the speed and direction but cannot move the chariot in and of itself. Again this is a very simplified version of the image but sufficient to introduce the next level of analysis that impinges on our narrative.

    The desiring part of the soul is further divided with Plato asserting that the forms of the objects of desire in individuals account for the forms of the state. In other words it is the ruling object of desire within human nature that accounts for the various forms of governance in the world. And he ranks those objects of desire.

    At the lowest level are those desires primarily driven by the bodily desires (tyranny). The next level up is occupied by lovers of gain (oligarchy). Lovers of honour (timocracy) occupy a higher level (incidentally represented by Adeimantus in the dialogue) with lovers of victory (nikocracy) (Glaukon) one step lower than lovers of wisdom (aristocracy which literally means rule of the best) (Socrates). So at one level the Republic is a discussion that takes place primarily between the three highest forms of human nature having dealt with other types early on.

    In the Republic Plato makes the claim that “Unless the philosophers rule as kings . . . . there is no rest from ills for the city, my dear Glaukon, nor I think for humankind nor will the regime we have now described in speech ever come forth from nature”.

    It is doubtful that this assertion is made at the exact arithmetic centre of the dialogue by accident but that, again, is a question that takes us off of our path. Just in passing I note that at the exact arithmetic centre of Hobbes ‘Leviathan’ we find this.

    “I am at the point of believing this my labour, as useless, as the Common-wealth of Plato. For he also is of opinion that it is impossible for the disorders of the State, and change of Governments by Civill Warre, ever to be taken away, till Sovereigns be Philosophers.” CH 31.

    In addition to Plato’s claim that philosophic rule cannot “come forth from nature” he also asserts that no philosopher would be willing to give up his love for knowledge for the lower love of political power or fame. If you consider this in relationship to his image of the cave and the fate that awaits the prisoner who has escaped from the cave and returns with ideas that are totally foreign to those who have remained chained in the cave the problem of philosophy as a ruling principle becomes clearer. Or to lean on Nietzsche’s clarity once again “honesty is our youngest virtue”. Zarathustra (1.3,5).

    But what if “the greatest thoughts are the greatest events”? If that is true then there is a way that a great philosopher could “command and legislate”. Can the midwifery of rhetorical language take the clarity of philosophic thought and translate it into the action of ruling? After all, is that not what the Bible attempts through the invocation of revelation?

    And this is the challenge that Hobbes took up as the necessary accompaniment of Bacon’s radical reformulation of science with his writing of Leviathan; the monster of the deep described in Job who “ None [is so] fierce that dare stir him up: who then is able to stand before me?” and “He beholdeth all high [things]: he [is] a king over all the children of pride.”

    The “children of pride”, of course, have always been the central problem for peace as they contend for honour. For those who are driven by a love of victory, fame, or glory the peaceful path of democratic egalitarianism has never seemed all that attractive. The idea of improving one’s “commodious living” through “their industry” certainly didn’t seem all that interesting to Machiavelli. But industry is essential to the modern scientific method. So how did Hobbes proceed to make it an attractive path?

    One of the most impressive examples demonstrating rhetorical style has to be the second paragraph of Chapter 13 of Hobbes’ masterpiece. That he stole parts of it from Descarte’s first paragraph of his Discourse on Method who stole it from Montaigne is just a juicy bit of philologic gossip but it is where Hobbes produces his argument that all men are equal in quality of mind.

    “For there is not ordinarily a greater signe of the equall distribution of anything, than that every man is contented with his share” ends his argument with a flair worthy of any great con man. For a careful reading of a paragraph filled with auxiliary clauses and metaphors clearly shows that he argues exactly the opposite position.

    As Hobbes weaves his story of equality amongst all men he denies the rank ordering of humans based upon the nobility of their desires that Plato laid out and Aristotle built his politics upon. Gone is the idea that man’s true nature was to be found in the highest manifestation of its potential as Aristotle and Plato both insisted and that reason was that attribute for homo sapiens – the species best understood in light of its ability to reason.

    As Hobbes meanders through his less than convincing nominalistic version of human passions he belittles pride and vanity eliminating Glaukon and Adeimantus as models for a society for whom industry directed towards commodious living will go hand in hand for those good citizens of the modern liberal democracy who fear a violent death. Glory, and the pride that drives it, are censored to be replaced with a new understanding of happiness grounded in an egalitarian view that flatters and pleases the largest part of humanity’s great diversity of soul.

    To the extent that pride remains in view at all it is assigned to those who pursue beneficial knowledge using Baconian & Descartian methodology rather than the martial or political arts. No longer is happiness the state acquired through the perfection of man’s highest purpose of reason ruling the passions and lower desires. The pursuit of happiness is now open to all as a personally contrived goal. None any better than another.

    With all this in mind it is easier to understand the “seven deadly sins” that Hobbes proposed as foundational for his metaphysics. My little joke aside they are more aptly thought of as seven dummied down positions likely to seem plausible to those minds naturally attracted to the regime Hobbes is proposing which is based upon the desire for comfort through gain and fear of violent death.

    None of materialism, nominalism, determinism, hedonism, egoism, legal positivism or reason as calculation can actually be defended as philosophically legitimate positions as Leon Craig so meticulously details in his brilliant book ‘The Platonian Leviathan’. But every one of those positions has an emotional appeal to the type of soul for whom love of gain is the ruling desire. It is a brilliant tour de force of misdirection.

    Of course the question arises as to why Bacon and Hobbes, both philosophers of the highest order, would descend down into the city in order to undertake such a mission. The answer is the same answer that Plato would give when he re-directed philosophy away from the non-human things 2,000 years earlier and hid it within religion. The new order was necessary in order to make philosophy safe since the older order was changing and the cloak or mask designed by Plato & implemented by Aristotle was no longer effectively protecting it from those who, knowing it for what it is, found it dangerous. And philosophy is dangerous because truth is always dangerous to the noble and necessary lies that form the basis of all political regimes.

    Democracy, or the rule of the majority – which is the rule of those most interested in commodious living through their own industry without fear of violent death – offers excellent cover for philosophers since it is a regime unlike other regimes in that it is not based upon any personal virtue or attribute. Its twin virtues of equality and liberty are descriptions of relationships between individuals based upon the useful lie of egalitarianism. Democracy leaves philosophy alone because it regards it as useless rather than understanding it as dangerous.

    Democracy is the regime that tolerates philosophy because tolerance is a necessary precept in an egalitarian society that rewards any particular human attribute. Egalitarian societies, by definition, reject the concept of standards as it applies to the diversity of human life.

    The Bacon/Hobbes project has produced a world unlike any before it and undoubtedly exceeds any dreams its progenitors envisioned in terms of technological wonders. Science is no longer the ‘small power’ of Aristotle’s time seen as a worthy or noble pastime for the few. It has become the ‘great power’ or final authority on subjects from astronomy to nutrition. If it has not defeated religious revelation concerning the creation of the universe and the evolution of life it has confined it to a very small corner and neutered its authority for the majority of those born into the western liberal democratic countries. Religion is no longer dangerous to philosophy in the modern western democracies. Of course that is not the case in other forms of regimes as the nightly news is happy to remind us.

    In fact the scientific method Bacon proposed became so successful that by the 19th century it started to spill over from explaining non human nature to tackling religion on its own turf – human nature. After all the Bible spends very little time talking about creation. It claims creation because it extends authority for its prescriptions on how humans are to live.

    And even though Bacon specifically notes that human things cannot be explained without the context of purpose the social scientists of that century set out to do exactly that by maintaining ‘how’ as the preeminent interrogative over the ‘why’ that dominated the same discourse during Aristotle’s tenure as the seminal thinker of the previous 2,000 years.

    If you look closely you can see the social scientists swallow the exoteric Hobbesian prescription to the letter. Reality is understood as ‘matter in motion’ just like Hobbes said it was when he created the underpinnings for his materialism upon the model we have come to know as Physics.

    Pleasure and pain have become synonymous with good and bad as befits regimes governed by the majority who are in all times and places those governed primarily by a desire for “commodious living”.

    Words (nominalism) are no longer a representation of thought or nature but what the regime defines them to mean. No more wasted time and effort attempting to unravel the subtleties of what justice might mean. It means what the regime and the laws (legal postivism) say it means.

    The egoist pursues his own good with religious fervour even though such an idea cannot begin to explain the father who shelters his child or wife from danger let alone the soldier’s willingness to advance on enemy fire.

    Determinism is a totally illogical concept based upon the false dichotomy of it being the opposite of free will – another illogical concept confused with free thought.

    And reason has been reduced to the lowest common denominator of calculation which reduces all ideas to a lowest common denominator while excluding the very idea of synoptics which is on full display in Hobbes own book.

    That all these ideas of determinism, materialism, hedonism, egoism, legal positivism, reason as calculation and nominalism seem to be plausible to the modern mind says more about how successfully Hobbes introduced them in order to produce a regime that would promote Bacon’s vision than it does about their profoundness. They seem reasonable to egalitarians for the simple reason that they were used to create an egalitarian state.

    As the social sciences created themselves based upon Hobbes exoteric teaching they took on a life of their own. The fact value distinction based upon Hobbes materialistic explanation that only ‘matter in motion’ constituted reality became entrenched. You can spend a lifetime trying to convince a good democrat that while pleasure is a good thing it is not “the good” in the Platonic sense. And so through the rest of the list. Hobbes domestication project for humanity has been incredibly successful viewed from the perspective of the democratic regime.

    At least it was until Nietzsche mounted the stage and said ‘enough is enough’.

    I will leave it to the sociologists as to who is most to blame. Was it Webber’s fact value distinction? Perhaps Marx’s homogenization of human nature to its sociologically viable lowest common nature? Whatever it was that accounts for Nietzsche’s decision to remove philosophy’s mask he took no prisoners when he did.

    The image of humanity as a herd of cows might not be quite as well known as Hobbes barbarian or Rousseau’s noble savage but it deserves to be. Trumpeting his “honesty is the youngest virtue” he rejects the view of both Plato and Bacon that philosophy must hide behind masks in order to be allowed to survive. He justifies this departure by pointing squarely at Bacon for establishing science as a great power through his creation of a system of knowledge that reveals truth to the many and the necessary erosion of faith in revelation that came with it.

    Scientific knowledge offered explanations of natural phenomena that rendered divine intervention superfluous. No longer was revelation considered the principle authority for creation or human existence. Without that validation the ideas concerning the human things that Christianity had used to define good and evil for two millennium was undermined. Doubt was sown and Nietzsche felt it was safe to pronounce the death of the noble and necessary lies that had safeguarded philosophy ever since Socrates was put to death for impiety.

    “Honesty is the youngest virtue” indeed.

    But can a society be built on the idea of honesty as a virtue? It’s never been tried in the history of humanity and a little over a hundred years since Nietzsche set that project in motion the early returns are not all that encouraging considering the disruption that activists fed on post modern nonsense have created. To be fair though Nietzsche himself said it would take 200 years before the destruction was complete and the rebuild could begin.

    What that will look like is still conjecture. Can we humans thrive without certainty or purpose? The ancients clearly felt that the answer was “no” for the vast majority. Even today when Christianity has been largely neutered as an authority by science there are those who prefer revelation to reason for those two very reasons.

    Science, after all, is an open ended project. Its strength lies in its claim that new knowledge is always possible which makes us the first civilization ever to live without the certainty that all religions claim to offer. The success of the social sciences lags far behind the success of the non human sciences precisely because purpose is rejected as a standard for principles or virtues. As far as we have come from a technological perspective it would be difficult to maintain that we have progressed to the same degree in understanding ourselves.

    And because the physical sciences have had so much tangible success while the human sciences have struggled the brightest and the best tend to be drawn in that direction – which further exacerbates the gulf. And this even though it is not at all difficult to make the case that life is more complicated than non-life and should attract the strongest minds driven by curiosity.

    Perhaps this was once just an interesting aberration of our time but in an age when we have the technological expertise to destroy all life available to a number of different regimes it has to be more than a little dangerous to lack the knowledge to know whether that would be a good or bad thing to do so. Or to live in a time when the very question of whether or not something can be good or bad is not even acknowledged to be amenable to cognitive analysis as our post modernists and sociologists insist.

    And so here we are with the question exposed but the answer not clear.

    Philosophers are commanders and legislators and they are dangerous. But they are also philanthropists. They share their wisdom with all those capable and willing to look for it no matter where it leads.

    Where Nietzsche’s wisdom will lead is still unknown.

  11. I am a left-leaning independent who is not an academic. I don’t have the inside perspective of the author (whose perspective is good to read), but I am a consumer of philosophy. I like to be challenged by what I read, but now more than ever before I often wonder if the academic author of a particular paper I may be reading, or talk I may be watching has ever been ‘politically’ challenged back. This article corroborates my suspicion that the answer is probably not. So I share the author’s concern that this is bad for philosophy.

    But that isn’t my bigger concern by a mile. Do many academic philosophers (and social scientists) see themselves as curious intellectuals, or as activists who are providing the undergirding justifications for a political cause? That is a question for someone like the author of this article to answer. I tend to hope it is the former. Whatever the case, academics in the humanities and social sciences are adjacent to political activist, ‘True Believers’ who have a purpose for this academic output and seek to promulgate versions of it. So in the end, regardless of true intention, academic philosophy (as well as probably the rest of the humanities and the social sciences) is doing heavy political work for the left. There isn’t an offsetting amount of political work being done for the right. This is obvious to the half of the public who leans right, however unaware they may be to the finer points of metaphysics.

    It isn’t hard to see that the public’s true perception of academic bias results in distrust of science, which is primarily performed by academics; especially when scientific results just happen to support a left-leaning ideology. Despite the reasons why society had tried to keep academia insulated from public opinion, this is not good. So, for example, despite the differences between the humanities and climate science, the humanities seem to have (along with social sciences) eroded progress we could have made against global warming. Would the public have been so distrustful of science in the 1950s?

    The constructionist epistemologies (such as the feminist epistomologies the author discusses) in philosophy of science could either improve or damage the physical sciences. Left-leaning philosophers gravitate to a construction of the ‘way we do science’ along a feminist/racial/colonial narrative that supports their ideology. The physical sciences do a great deal of non-political work in the world. Are the chances we will get it wrong (pragmatically speaking) increase if we misconstrue the ‘way we do science?’ So the lack of political diversity in philosophy could do great damage to the world. And that is the bigger concern; not that the lack of political diversity in philosophy is bad for philosophy, but that it does great damage to the world.

    Viewed from that perspective, the generational endeavor of getting more right-leaning perspectives into philosophy seems to set a pace that is far too glacial. Is there some way to preserve academic freedom while discouraging overt politics in the practice of philosophy; except in the domain of political philosophy where such politics belong?

    • aidan maconachy says

      Your comment includes some important insights and raises a few questions. Unlike yourself I lean well to the right. I took a number of philosophy courses at university and keep up with related discussion, mostly on the internet.

      Most academics in this discipline definitely lean left so I would indeed support your contention that “… academic philosophy (as well as probably the rest of the humanities and the social sciences) is doing heavy political work for the left.” Where I might differ is with respect to real world outcome or the degree to which it really matters on the right side of the spectrum.

      The philosophical component underpinning ideology does indeed provide deeper soil but that doesn’t necessarily result in wider acceptance of that ideology or translate into votes for parties representing it – particularly if the ideology in question is viewed to too wacko…scarily leftist and radical.

      The impetus behind right-wing populism is zeitgeisty and of course nationalistic. It is a reactionary movement on one level… reacting to the emergence of a more strident socialist-leaning progressivism with its group-think, identity politics and correctness protocols. Along with that comes the targeting by progressives of what some on the right would characterize as “Western civilization”… its monuments, its heroes, its very history. For some this is tantamount to an attack on the holy-of-holies… an assault on the psyche… on the deepest levels of received identity and so profoundly threatening.

      Trump once said he could kill someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose one voter. That would seem to be true because despite his many intemperate tweets and tirades… despite endless investigations, smears and accusations… he retains his base, and then some. The forces underpinning the right drive on a very different set of wheels, and while philosophy matters in the American example… I’m not sure it is a factor in a face-off that in many ways has gone beyond debate and civility and has all but descended into a quasi-war.

      There are deeply primal forces at play today and while I hold no brief for Marianne Williamson and her use of the adjective “dark” I would say that she has tapped into the deeply visceral energies that will go a large way toward determining America’s future direction.

  12. Gordon Fiala says

    If the Philosophy isn’t relative to a Career Facilitated By Capitalism
    Or which reinforces the Aristocracy,
    It isn’t thought in school

    Unless it is a non threatening redundancy which is being used through Capitalism / reinforcing the Aristocracy through hierarchies of social dominance, to make profits for incompetent professors.

    Otherwise philosophy in modern academia is a joke.

    • Gordon Fiala says

      Ancient philosopher’s were working with limited vocabulary and no awareness outlets.
      They aren’t geniuses by any measure of modern philosophy. They are merely model examples of affluence.

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