News & Politics

Academic Success in Philosophy by Being Outrageous

Once upon a time, I was a philosophy major. I had what seemed like good reasons at the time — I was very interested in Asian philosophy, I’d read Atlas Shrugged and a lot of Rand’s essays and wanted to find out more about this Aristotle guy, and best of all, the Philosophy department was where they taught mathematical logic, and I knew that would be important to my career as a programmer and was inherently cool besides. And, honestly, it helped will all those interests: I started reading the primary literature at least in translation, and started studying Chinese; I not only found out about Aristotle, but also read Plato and John Stuart Mill and B.F. Skinner and Bertrand Russel and dozens of others, and had long and enjoyable arguments with both my peers and my professors; and an interest in mathematical logic led eventually to computer science in graduate school.

I also learned something about philosophy as it’s practiced. You see, like all academic disciplines in the modern university, Philosophy professors are measured first on the length of their curriculum vitae, which is to say on the number of times they are published in a citable fashion; second on the prestige of their various publications; and third on the amount of grant money and other support they can attract. (Depending on the institution, the order of the second and third items may be reversed.)

Philosophy as a topic, however, has a problem: nothing is ever settled. We still have the same arguments that students in Plato’s Academy were having. If anything does get settled, it stops being philosophy and becomes mathematics or physics or chemistry or something. This has happened to mathematical logic in my lifetime — Boole’s Laws of Thought, modal logics, many-valued logics, even things like the Law of Excluded Middle are largely mathematics and computer science now.

So what’s a philosopher to do? They write long and exquisitely-argued, heavily footnoted papers on obscure points, and they try to get attention, to stand out from the crowd of other philosophers.

Which brings us to an Op-Ed in the New York Times: “The Ignorant Do Not Have a Right to an Audience”, by Bryan W. Van Norden, a Professor at Wuhan University. There are several good arguments against his thesis which I’ll leave as an exercise to the interested student, and just note that his whole argument displays his ignorance of the Western tradition of open inquiry — and so, by his own argument, does not have a right to an audience.

Instead, though, let’s consider what actually happens when this Op-Ed is published: first, his CV grows, and “published in the New York Times”, while not a peer-reviewed publication, still is pretty prestigious. He may very well be invited to write more on the topic, or invited to speak at a conference — more lines on the CV. If he is invited to speak, well, he’s in Wuhan in Hubei Province, about equally far from Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong; not quite backcountry but a long ways from the major centers. He’ll need funding to attend, coming from his university, or from the conference itself, or of course, possibly as a grant. More lines on the CV. If he’s really successful at generating controversy, he may appear on TV, and he may get more Op Eds in the New York Times or other papers.

With enough success, he may be able to emulate Peter Singer, the Utilitarian ethicist who now has a named Chair at Princeton and a chair as a Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. Singer is a smart man, a deep thinker, and for a philosopher a reasonably clear writer. He also is an advocate for abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia, and argues that animals should have the same rights as humans. His arguments follow from his assumptions; academically they’re rigorous and apparently sound. But he doesn’t get a named professorship by the soundness of his arguments — his fame and fortune come through the outrageousness of his conclusions.

Which is the key: for an academic philosopher, a very good strategy for success is to be as outrageous as possible, and as time goes on, you have to stake out a new area about which to be outrageous. “God is dead”? Nah, Nietzsche wore that one out. Infanticide? Now you have something.

Now, I’m still a philosopher at heart, and I do think an interesting rigorous argument from a different set of assumptions has value in itself. As an argument, an exercise.

When you see a philosopher making an outrageous argument in a forum with a broad and non-specialist audience, though, just remember: the outrage is its own reward.