All posts tagged: philosophy

The Dearth of Conservatives in Academic Philosophy

It is no secret that conservative political views are underrepresented in the academy. In Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University, John A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn Sr. cite surveys that put the number of professors who self-identify as conservative in the humanities at between four and eight percent. It should therefore come as no surprise that conservative political views are scarce in philosophy. While it may seem impolite to raise this issue when the philosophy profession is contending with a rather different diversity problem, the fact itself is philosophically interesting. It is strange, for instance, how rarely philosophers agree about a wide range of thorny philosophical problems, and yet they appear to be unified on a range of complex issues that divide the American public roughly in half. Why are there so few political conservatives in philosophy? Some hypotheses stand out immediately. One may notice that philosophy requires a critical attitude that sits uncomfortably with the characteristically conservative respect for authority. As a profession, philosophy also does not offer career …

The Inevitable Clash of Politicians and Bureaucrats

Several Western countries have seen a surge in “populist” parties, leaders, and policies in recent years. This surge has elicited a forceful response from traditionally dominant elites. The situation also has led to tensions within governments and their bureaucracies. To cite just two examples: reports of White House officials actively assessing the possibility of ridding themselves of President Donald Trump; and Whitehall officials despairing of the “impossibility” of Brexit. In short, democratic elections, and democratic decisions, do not always seem to command the respect they deserve. Should we be worried? The short answer is: yes, we probably should. The long answer is more nuanced, and it goes far beyond conspiracy theories of “Deep State” or “elite” interest. The fact of the matter is that we were told to expect this a hundred years ago by the German sociologist Max Weber. Weber’s writings are practically inevitable as a point of reference when discussing modern public administration. (He called this bureaucracy, but I will use the term public administration interchangeably, as well as the terms officials or …

Enlightenment Wars: Some Reflections on ‘Enlightenment Now,’ One Year Later

You wouldn’t think that a defense of reason, science, and humanism would be particularly controversial in an era in which those ideals would seem to need all the help they can get. But in the words of a colleague, “You’ve made people’s heads explode!” Many people who have written to me about my 2018 book Enlightenment Now say they’ve been taken aback by the irate attacks from critics on both the right and the left. Far from embracing the beleaguered ideals of the Enlightenment, critics have blamed it for racism, imperialism, existential threats, and epidemics of loneliness, depression, and suicide. They have insisted that human progress can only be an illusion of cherry-picked data. They have proclaimed, with barely concealed schadenfreude, that the Enlightenment is an idea whose time has passed, soon to be killed off by authoritarian populism, social media, or artificial intelligence. This month’s publication of the paperback edition of EN in the US and UK is an occasion for me to weigh in on the controversies that have flared up in the year since …

In Praise of Boredom, Again

In their book The Coddling of the American Mind Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff wonder where it all went wrong. How did we get to a situation where so many of our kids see themselves as fragile victims, but at the same time throw their weight around, telling the rest of us what we are allowed to think and say and do? Haidt and Lukianoff have set up a website devoted to exploring the issue and finding solutions. I have a suggestion. It hit me like a hammer blow when I read Joseph Brodsky’s essay “In Praise of Boredom.” This was delivered as a commencement address at Dartmouth College in July 1989. Here is the opening sentence: “A substantial part of what lies ahead of you is going to be claimed by boredom.” That’s right. Joseph Brodsky, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1987, assumed that these Ivy League graduates, in common with the rest of humanity since the dawn of time would face hours of the psychological Sahara of boredom that “starts right in your bedroom …

The Future of Our Ancient Past

This is part one of a four part series on the Classics. Part two will be published tomorrow. Australian National University’s decision to reject a large donation from the Ramsay Centre has brought the topic of Western civilization to the forefront once again. For me, the most pressing question is about the future of classics, the discipline that has long claimed to deal with the foundations of Western civilizations. I’ve previously helped teach a course called “Origins of Political Thought,” and I’m preparing to teach another with the title “Foundations of Western Political Thought” next year. But should anyone still be teaching courses on “Western Civ”? My answer, in a word, is yes. There’s nothing wrong with teaching Western Civilization or the Western classics alongside other cultural traditions. At the same time, the way Classics used to be taught is gone for good. In many ways, that’s a good thing: the traditional classical education was astonishingly narrow, and often gave the impression that the tradition it dealt with was the only game in town. Luckily, …

Between Discipline and Chaos

“Anyone capable of living outside a city,” wrote Aristotle, “must either be a beast or a god.” Before taking offense or pride in that aphorism, the rural should know that the Greek for “city” here is polis, and the polis of classical Greece was not a city in our sense. It was smaller than a nation, to be sure, but unlike London or Washington, it was a sovereign state. Every human individual, Aristotle is saying, must live within such a group—whether it be a tribe or an empire. To lack such a polis, to live truly alone, would require the independence of a wild animal or the self-sufficiency of a god. We need groups to survive; we need someone else to do our hunting or growing, someone else to make our clothes and build our houses, someone else to fix our furnace and perform our surgeries. But the polis does more than help us survive. It encompasses the family, the school and the broader culture, all of which shape who we become. Without such groups, …

A Tale of Two Cities: The Modern Soothsayers

Five weeks on from the #GiletsJaunes, managerial elites in London conspire to chain the United Kingdom to ever closer union with the fate of Europe. There is something profoundly emblematic about the sight of Emmanuel Macron facing down the people of his once great nation. Condescending, Napoleonic, and completely without self-awareness, he is the living embodiment of the vision of the anointed. As French citizens riot because of increases in their fuel taxes, he has been utterly indifferent in telling them to take their thin gruel because the predictive models of his shaman class say so. It is an almost perfect encapsulation of the Rousseauian top-down state versus the people that it subjugates. Meanwhile, across the channel in London—where, despite their civic and intellectual history, the ruling class have long sought to mimic their Gallic counterparts— the Bank of England’s Mark Carney has been playing a similar game. He has been issuing regular doomsday forecasts based on predictive models by alleged experts. I wonder how much longer people are going to listen to these modern …

Who’s Afraid of Ludwig Wittgenstein? Explaining the Lack of Women in Philosophy

While criticism surrounding gender disparity in academia often is concentrated on STEM fields, there is at least one liberal-arts discipline in which the underrepresentation of women is equally as stark: philosophy. While women outnumber men in the humanities, U.S. survey data suggests they earn fewer than 30 percent of the Ph.D.s in philosophy. The philosophy gender gap garnered public attention in 2013, when the sexual harassment case of Colin McGinn, a philosophy professor at the University of Miami, was featured on the front page of The New York Times. The Times then solicited a series of op-eds from female philosophers to get their take on the issue. In one, titled “Women and Philosophy? You do the Math,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Sally Haslanger complained that most philosophers are “white men,” and that the small number of women is both “inexcusable” and “appalling.” She then went on to claim that female philosophers also face sexual harassment, “alienation,” “loneliness,” “implicit bias,” “stereotype threat,” “microaggression,” and “outright discrimination.” Since then, philosophy departments have been scrambling to address …