The Rump Parliament of Modern Academic Philosophy.

A guest authored edgy essay by Doug Mann

1. The Problem Delineated

Bertrand Russell actually gives an early account of this process from a benign perspective in his 1912 book The Problems of Philosophy: once a subfield becomes a science, it leaves philosophy behind, with psychology being the most famous case in point of how a field of philosophy becomes a science. I will argue that Russell’s “sciencization” hypothesis is explicitly ideological, and simply doesn’t cover all meaningful cases of the shaving off of philosophy. Instead, the proper way of understanding the history of this fragmentation is by using a political model, by comparing it to the way that a dominant faction in a revolutionary state systematically purges its enemies in order to both protect itself and to exert its control over the nation.

English-language academic philosophy is now in a post-purge period of its development, ruled over not by the iron fist of a Cromwell or the national razor of the Jacobins, but by the velvet glove of a mass of analytic philosophers committed to a view of philosophy as a mere shadow of what it once was, a shadow that emphasizes links to physical science and the logical analysis of philosophical language. This shadow was not created by a series of logical debates aiming at “truth,” but by a train of ideological and political struggles aiming at power.

2. Mapping a Discipline

Diagram One: Honderich’s Map of the Philosophical Solar System

At the fiery center of this solar system we find exactly what we would expect from an analytic philosopher: epistemology, logic, and metaphysics. In the first orbit we find fields allied to the former, namely the philosophies of language, science, and mind, along with moral philosophy. At the solar system’s outer edge, in the darker regions of academic space, we find the fields that Honderich feels are peripheral to the core interests of philosophy: social and political philosophy, the philosophies of history and law, aesthetics, the philosophies of education, religion, and mathematics.

Although admitting that many different maps of philosophy are possible, he justifies his own map with the odd remark that as we move away from the core area, the other items tend to be less general, and to be dependent on these core items, while the core items are not dependent on the peripheries. He concludes that for these reasons “philosophers have given more attention to the more central items, so that the diagram also to some extent maps popularity” (p. 928). The obvious question here is, popularity according to whom?

Epistemology, logic and metaphysics are just as dependent on questions of moral, political, and aesthetic values as the reverse. Firstly, they all take place in institutions maintained either by the state or by some private interests, and thus are associated with economic and political values; second, researchers’ choices of which area of research to pursue are also governed by moral and aesthetic values; third, the sense of the rightness of a solution to a problem in these areas is as often a reflection of feelings of its goodness or beauty as its logical or empirical truth. If it weren’t, then there would be a body of epistemological and metaphysical problems that would have been settled, once and for all, just as science has given us a series of physical laws that, with some qualifications, are accepted as true beyond doubt. Yet there are few such firm conclusions in these fields of philosophy.

And most fundamentally, we have to ask Honderich and like-minded thinkers, why is moral philosophy (along with the social and political philosophies which Honderich sees as its offshoots) dependent on logic and epistemology, and therefore less fundamental, than the core areas? This has certainly not been accepted by the majority of important thinkers in the history of philosophy — many have produced quite coherent discussions of moral philosophy with little if any reference to these “core disciplines” (at least directly, in the works where they intend to focus on morals and politics). Quite the opposite — important thinkers such as Socrates, Plato, Hobbes, Hume, Mill, Marx, Nietzsche and Sartre, just to mention a few, seemed to have thought that Honderich’s core fields are mere propaedeutics to more important moral, political and aesthetic questions. In short, values zoom in and out of the core of this solar system like so many errant comets, putting into question the accuracy of his cosmic map.

A good test of the arbitrary nature of Honderich’s map of the discipline is a visit to the beginnings of the analytic/Continental split in the eighteenth century. A core thinker here was David Hume. His core text is, of course, A Treatise of Human Nature, which despite falling dead born from the presses, presents in its own way a superb map of philosophy as seen by an early modern empiricist. Hume was no obscure Heidegger or wooly-headed Foucault, but a sound and sober Scot who believed as earnestly as Ayer in the elimination of philosophical confusions through the use of good arguments.

For Hume, the telos of philosophical speculation was certainly not logic. His one discussion of logic in the Treatise comes on p. 175 of the Selby-Bigge edition, during a treatment of causality. In it he ridicules the “scholastic headpieces and logicians” for showing no superiority over the “vulgar” in their ability to reason, which gives Hume the determination to avoid “long systems of rules and precepts”, turning to the “natural principles” of the understanding instead.

Nor was his central concern epistemology and “hard” metaphysics in isolation, though these certainly interested him (admittedly, the “soft” metaphysics surrounding the philosophy of religion occupied his thoughts to a great degree). Instead it was human nature, whose study he saw as a moral science. He makes this crystal clear in the Introduction to the Treatise, where he says that “all sciences have a relation, greater or less, to human nature” (p. xix), including mathematics and physical science.

The organization of the book also makes his interest in morals clear. Book I tries to clear away some epistemological and metaphysical confusions, though even Hume himself admits not entirely successfully — it ends with a sceptical concluding section in which he fancies himself a “strange uncouth monster” (p. 264) expelled from all human commerce. He engages in some existential angst while walking alone the river, then decides that a glass of wine and a game of backgammon with friends, and not another dose of epistemology, will cure this angst. Book II is on the psychology of the passions; Book III on moral philosophy, or what we would call today ethics and political theory, with a few other things mixed in. This organization is no accident — the Scottish Enlightenment as a whole saw moral philosophy, and the social life it studied, as the central preoccupation of philosophy. And to understand social life it engaged in a diverse series of inquiries that encompassed fields that we would call today philosophy, history, political science, psychology, sociology, literary criticism, and economics. In fact, an argument could be made that the last three fields owe their existence to the explorations of the Scots — Adam Ferguson in sociology; Hugh Blair, George Campbell, and others in literary criticism; and Adam Smith in economics.

3. A Historical Analogy: The English and French Revolutions

In most major revolutions, from the English Civil War of the 1640s to the Russian Revolution of 1917 to the decline and fall of the Soviet empire, a central party (or leader) has systematically eliminated opposition groups that it sees as threatening its power. I take my basic metaphor from the English Civil War of the 1640s, specifically, from the purge of December 6, 1648 when Colonel Pride barred or arrested members of the House of Commons who opposed the trial of King Charles II. Pride’s Purge took place under the orders of Oliver Cromwell, head of the New Model Army and of the Puritan faction in England. With half its members ejected from government, the new “Rump” parliament approved Charles’ trial and execution the next year, creating a republic — the Commonwealth. In 1653 Cromwell grew weary of the Rump Parliament’s dithering, dissolving it and eventually declaring himself Lord Protector. The term “Rump Parliament” has come to signify the dubious remnants of a once-legitimate political body after it has been purged of key dissenters by a dominant party.

Yet perhaps the classic case of this process is the series of purges in the National Convention of the First French Republic of the enemies (and former friends) of the radical republican Jacobin party in the 1792–1794 period, the Reign of Terror. The Jacobins were lead by Robespierre and his colleagues on the Committee of Public Safety. In this short period they purged and guillotined key leaders in the political factions that opposed their domestic and foreign policies: the Royalist friends of King Louis; the Jacobins’ chief opponents, the moderate liberal Girondins from France’s south; the radical left enragés, the wild men of the Paris streets led by Jacques-Louis Hébert; and lastly Danton, Camille Desmoulins, and a few of their friends, not really a formal party at all, but a group of radical allies who had soured on the bloodthirsty rule of the Committee. Part of this process involved an argument over the best direction of the French Revolution; yet another part of it was pure politics, the protection of positions of power by the Jacobins.

Other cases come to mind — the struggle for power in 1917–1920 in the post-revolution Soviet Union between Lenin’s Bolsheviks and their rivals; Stalin’s purges in the 1920s and 1930; and even the post-1989 politics in some countries in the former Soviet Empire (Vladimir Putin’s recent manoeuvrings come to mind). In all cases a strong leader or party systematically eliminated its opponents to achieve, at least for a time, its political hegemony.

4. An Outline of the Rump Parliament

At the border of this rump, in the center of the parliament, we find ethics, applied ethics, social and political philosophy, and “bad” metaphysics i.e. the philosophy of religion and speculations about the nature of reality as a whole. These are usually represented in at least a middling way in Philosophy departments, but for the most part in a spirit that assimilates them to the concerns and methods of the analytic rump. For example, an analytic philosopher will typically divide a 12-week Introduction to Philosophy course up in something like the following manner: 2 weeks on basic logic, 3 weeks on “hard” metaphysics, 5 on epistemology, and 2 weeks on ethics (with political philosophy being assimilated to ethics, and aesthetics, the philosophy of culture, and Continental thought totally ignored).[2]

On the left side of the old parliament of philosophy, but largely excluded from the rump, are aesthetics, the philosophy of history, and existentialism and phenomenology, which are represented in rumpish philosophy departments in a token fashion, if at all (despite the popularity of existentialism with students, if it is presented in a coherent and sympathetic fashion by instructors).

At the left end of the old parliament are a series of subsidiary theoretical interests largely foreign to the rump which are usually totally excluded from it. These include communications theory and cultural studies, post-structuralism, postmodernism, and the social theory that comes out of these fields of study. It might also include psychology proper, although in this case we can assume that Russell is right that its exclusion is based on its having achieved some sort of “scientific” status.

Diagram Two: The Parliament of Philosophy

The domination of this logical-epistemological rump is by no means the result of some process of natural academic selection or of a universal agreement that the areas of study excluded from it are entirely unworthy of study. Instead, it is the result of a series of unique historical and political events in academic life, allied to a series of basic presuppositions and prejudices on the part of analytic philosophy. Specifically, it is the result of an implicit decision in much of the Anglo-American world that what I shall all “engaged” philosophy — political and social theory, aesthetics, the philosophy of history, existentialism, cultural studies, communications theory, and postmodernism — should not be the central concern of philosophical speculation (or in many cases of any concern at all). This is a grand historical mistake, for in all cases these fields of study migrated from a hostile philosophical environment to more friendly environments in Political Science, Sociology, English, Communications, and other departments. The migration has served only to impoverish philosophy.

A number of interesting historical facts come to mind here. Social theory is full of thinkers who were either literally philosophers or who had strong philosophical backgrounds. All of the Enlightenment and its offspring fits in here — Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, the Marquis de Condorcet and Auguste Comte. Marx was a philosopher, amongst other things. George Herbert Mead, one of the most famous early twentieth-century American social theorists, was a philosopher by education. The school he helped to found, the Chicago School of symbolic interactionism, was heavily steeped in phenomenological ideas. One of his successors at Chicago, Erving Goffman, peppered his most famous book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) with philosophical references, including Sartre’s famous description of the waiter putting on a performance in a café. Certainly there was an empirical side to social theory. Yet this empiricism was in many cases set within a philosophical framework, at least until the disciplines hardened in the second half of the twentieth century.

This is especially surprising in the cases of cultural studies and communications theory, which until recently had no home turf in academe (though communications programs are proliferating as we speak). The influence of technology and media on our values, our perceptions and our lives is a fundamentally philosophical question, as theorists like Marshall McLuhan made all too clear. These are basic moral and epistemological issues, not just matters for empirical social research.

5. Some Statistics

Methodology: I chose ten representative universities from across the country, excluding the University of Toronto because it’s an “omnibus” school catering to many interests, and because its sheer number of professors would skew the overall statistics. These are the largest English-language universities in each region: UBC in British Columbia; the Universities of Calgary and Alberta (Edmonton) in Alberta; the University of Manitoba; Western, Waterloo, York and Queens in Ontario; McGill in Quebec; and Dalhousie in the Maritimes.

In general, I counted the first two specializations listed for each professor as the dominant ones in the absence of evidence to the contrary. In some cases two listed specializations are so similar that I combined them, including whatever else is listed as their “second” specialization. In cases where the main focus of a given specialization was unclear, I looked at publication titles, courses taught and the other specializations listed. In cases where only one specialization is listed, I simply counted it twice.

I only counted full-time (tenure or tenure-track) professors, excluding instructors/adjuncts/graduate students, whose long-term influence and position in the power structure of philosophy departments is minimal (though they may influence their undergraduate students through their teaching quite heavily). I also excluded retired professors. The total specializations in a department (T) = the number of full-time professors with declared specializations (P) x 2.

The “hard” philosophical rump of specializations includes logic, epistemology, philosophy of language, cognitive science/analytic philosophy of mind, the philosophy of science, and the history of philosophy in cases where the dominant focus seemed to be logic, epistemology or “hard” metaphysics. The soft rump includes all of the above plus ethics of all types since in most cases ethicists take an analytic approach to their work. To balance the few cases where they don’t, I included a number of vague “history of philosophy” specializations in a neutral category, including all listings of ancient philosophy, even though a substantial proportion of these historians of philosophy do, in fact, take an analytic approach indistinguishable from that of the “hard” rump. I also considered political and social philosophers as outside the soft rump despite the fact that many of them take an analytical or logical approach to their work, and are thus allied to the hard rump parliament of philosophy.

Totals of Declared Specialisations

Logic (includes Critical Thinking, Philosophy of Mathematics, Decision Theory)=36

Epistemology/Philosophy of Language=34

Cognitive Science/Philosophy of Mind/Analytic Metaphysics=41

Philosophy of Science (all types)=67

“Hard” History of Philosophy (focus on logical, epistemology, analytics)=26

The Soft Rump Parliament

Ethics (all types)=43

Applied Ethics (includes Bioethics, Environmental Ethics, Business Ethics)=26

Largely Neutral Specializations

“Neutral” History of Philosophy (e.g. ancient)=20

“Soft” History of Philosophy (i.e. non-analytic)=6

“Soft” Metaphysics (including Philosophy of Religion, Idealism)=4

Engaged Philosophy

Social and Political Philosophy (includes Philosophy of Law)=38

Existentialism & Phenomenology (19th and 20th century continental thought)=12

Postmodernism & Post-structuralism=3

Aesthetics/Philosophy of Art=5

Philosophy of History=1

Social Theory=1

Communications or Cultural Theory=0

A Summary of the Canadian Parliament of Philosophy (totals for all ten schools)

Hard Rump Parliament (logic, epistemology, mind, science): 207 (56%)

Soft Rump Parliament (add ethics and applied ethics to hard rump): 275 (75%)

Specializations Outside the Rump (neutral and “engaged” philosophy): 93 (25%)

Analysis: We can categorize these ten universities into three groups. First comes the three “hardcore” analytic schools: UBC, Waterloo and Dalhousie. In each of these the hard rump dominates, with the soft rump representing at least 80% of specializations in each department. UBC has a whopping twelve philosophy of science specializations, twice as many as any other single specialization in the department, and zero continental philosophy. Dalhousie is even more extreme, having only one specialization outside of the right wing of the philosophical parliament. Waterloo’s smaller department is also heavily analytic, although the dominance of the hard rump is broke up somewhat by a single continentalist. At the fringe of this hardcore group comes the University of Western Ontario, which seems more moderate given its twelve specializations in ethics and six in political thought. Yet these numbers are deceptive, since at least four of the ethicists/political philosophers either hold joint appointments with other departments (e.g. with Women’s Studies) or have senior administrative jobs (Associate Dean, Chair) and are thus largely absent from the classroom, if not the physical space of the department. Factoring these faculty members out of the equation, Western’s hard and soft rumps represent about 70% and 85% of total specializations. Certainly the presence of seventeen philosophy-of-science specializations at UWO, five more than its rival UBC and twice as much as any other single specialization, indicates the intended focus of Western’s Philosophy Department.

Next comes four “softcore” universities where about half the specializations are in the hard rump, with the soft rump comprising 70–76% in each case: the Universities of Alberta, Calgary and Manitoba, along with Queen’s University. In each case a body of ethics and political philosophy specializations has softened the absolute dominance of the hard rump. Yet we should keep in mind that exhaustive research would be required to determine whether this softening indicates a less analytic approach is being taken by these departments, given the notorious tendency of academic ethicists and political thinkers in Canada to use more or less the same techniques as their logical and epistemological colleagues.

There are two partial anomalies to the general rule that the rump parliament dominates philosophy in Canada. First, York University has half its specializations in the hard rump, but only 61% of its specializations in the soft rump. This may be an artefact of the Social and Political Thought graduate program at York, which is a likely cause for the presence of ten social and political thought specializations in the department (which I have defined as outside the rump parliament). Second, McGill University, a large English-language school in Montreal, seems to be influenced by French-language schools in Quebec in having a half dozen specializations in continental philosophy, the most of these ten universities. Yet in each case these universities have a hard rump comprising about half of their specializations.

Finally, a few words about how specific specializations are distributed. The philosophy of science dominates the ten Canadian departments studied, with 67 specializations. Although ethics comes second with 43 specializations, the next three subfields are all from the hard rump: analytic metaphysics (41), logic (36) and epistemology (34). Honderich’s idealized “solar system” as a political model for hiring and promotion in philosophy departments seems to be confirmed by these statistics. Further, there are only fifteen specializations total for continental thought of all brands, with four schools not listing a single full-time professor with a continental philosophy primary specialization. Statistically, this equates to 0.75 continentalists per department. This is very strange, given the tremendous influence thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, Heidegger, Habermas, Baudrillard, Derrida and Foucault have had on modern thought and culture. Lastly, there is only one social theorist and one philosopher of history, and no philosophers of culture or communication, in these ten departments.

6. The Anatomy of Philosophical Revolutions

Why did this revolution happen? I suggest a number of causal explanations:

(1) The dominance of modern science in modern bureaucracies and the culture at large, bringing with it an emphasis on empirical experimentation as the ground of all valid knowledge, hence positivism. This lead to a long-term legitimation crisis for academic philosophy: how could the discipline of Plato, Descartes, Hume and Nietzsche win the favour of natural scientists?

(2) This is paralleled by the bureaucratization of philosophy in large academic institutions that are either privately funded, as in the USA, or publicly funded, as in Canada. In both cases universities and colleges have come more and more under pressure to justify the things they research and teach in economic terms — in terms of whether they “pay off”. This is J. F. Lyotard’s thesis about the postmodern condition in the academy, that more and more research will be expected to be “performative”. If philosophy departments could convince funding agencies that they were just as rigorous and just as useful as the physicists and engineers, they would be more likely to get the loot from these agencies. Thus philosophy has become in a number of ways corporatist, a professional body concerned primarily with economic self-preservation.

(3) A third likely cause is an over-emphasis within philosophy of the power of logical and linguistic analysis to solve important philosophical problems, which was tied to a sense of national or institutional pride associated in America and Britain with a rejection of continental thought. This rejection was the result of a long series of internal political struggles which the analytic philosophers have, by and large, won. Unfortunately, this hard-headedness also resulted in a rejection of native traditions in Anglo-American thought that put the mainstream analytic tradition into question, e.g. idealism and romanticism.

The final result of these paradigmatic revolutions is the political hegemony of the analytic rump parliament in Canadian (and no doubt American and British) philosophy departments.

7. The Grand Historical Mistake of Modern Philosophy

Ironically, by the 1970s and 1980s, this resulted in criticism in some quarters that academic philosophy had lost its social relevance. Normally, this wouldn’t matter to logicians and epistemologists lost in their abstruse speculations. Yet when student populations and sources of funds started to drop off in the 1980s and 1990s (after all, it’s a notorious fact that administrations always cut arts programs first when trimming university budgets under pressure from government cuts), academic philosophers saw their empires crumbling. So they took what was at hand — logic and largely rationalist ethics — and tried to “apply” them to social issues. Hence was born critical thinking, business ethics, ethics for accountants, bio-ethics, and other “service” courses that in some cases dominate a Philosophy department’s relation to the student population around it, at least in terms of sheer numbers. The question whether these courses are successful in accomplishing their goals — naturally, I am sceptical about this — I leave to another day. Yet it seems clear that the circumstances of their birth had a lot to do with putting some bums in the empty seats vacated by students who no longer saw philosophy as relevant.

Is it too late to reclaim engaged philosophy for the discipline? I’m not sure, though bureaucratic institutions, as any student of Max Weber knows, tend to fight for their territories tooth and nail, rarely agreeing to give up an administrative province to a rival without some sort of concrete political and economic pressure. Added to this is the fact that most current academic philosophers who run Philosophy departments don’t want these lost provinces back anyway, being proud of their splendid isolation from engaged philosophy. Yet there are no inevitabilities in the history of ideas. Surprising things sometimes do happen — to return to my political metaphor, ancien regimes collapse, Cold Wars end, kings are guillotined. If they do, then it will be not the worst of times, but the best of times, a spring of hope after a winter of despair (with a tip of the hat to Mr. Dickens).

Bibliography

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. Ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1888.

Russell, Betrand. The Problems of Philsophy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1912.

University websites for UBC, Calgary, Alberta, Manitoba, UWO, Waterloo, York, Queen’s, McGill and Dalhousie.

NOTES

[2] This is based on an actual outline whose author will remain nameless.

[3] This involves all those with declared specializations. The total number of specializations is twice the listed number of professors.

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APP EDITORS’ NOTE: This is the fourth in a six-part series featuring the work of Doug Mann.

Here is the essay’s original publication information–

Mann, D. (2008). “The Rump Parliament of Modern Academic Philosophy,” Dialogue 47, 663–676.

Like Marc Champagne’s essay, “We, the Professional Sages: Analytic Philosophy’s Arrogation of Argument,” Mann’s work in the 00s and early 10s of the 21st century remarkably anticipates many ideas and themes developed and explored by APP since 2013.

More information about Doug Mann’s work can be found HERE.

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AGAINST PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY REDUX 109

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Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.

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