Philosophical Vices

Philosophers who are aware of the systematic character of their enterprise may always fall in love with their own system to such an extent that they gloss over what they ought to recognize as intractable difficulties or unanswerable questions. Love of that particular system displaces the love of truth. If the vice of reducing philosophy to a set of piecemeal, apparently unconnected set of enquiries is the characteristic analytical vice, this vice of system-lovers may perhaps be called the idealist vice.

Both these vices have their representatives in present-day academic philosophy. Yet neither they nor the condition of academic philosophy more generally is sufficient to explain the radical marginalization of philosophical concerns in our culture. This marginalization has several aspects. In part it is a matter of the relegation of philosophy in the vast majority of colleges and universities to a subordinate position in the curriculum, an inessential elective for those who happen to like that sort of thing. But this itself is a symptom of a more general malaise. For to a remarkable extent the norms of our secularized culture not only exclude any serious and systematic questioning of oneself and others about the nature of the human good and the order of things, but they also exclude questioning those dominant cultural norms that make it so difficult to pose these philosophical questions outside academic contexts in any serious and systematic way. We have within our social order few, if any milieus within which reflective and critical enquiry concerning the central issues of human life can be sustained and the education to which we subject our young is not well-designed to develop the habits of thought necessary for such questioning. This tends to be a culture of answers, not of questions, and those answers, whether secular or religious, liberal or conservative, are generally delivered as though meant to put an end to questioning. So it is not just that the philosophy of the academic philosopher has been marginalized in the college curriculum. It is also and more importantly that, when plain persons do try to ask those questions about the human good and the nature of things in which the philosophical enterprise is rooted, the culture immediately invites them to think about something else and to forget those questions.

– Alasdair MacIntyre, ‘Philosophy Recalled to Its Tasks’

13 thoughts on “Philosophical Vices

  1. This tends to be a culture of answers, not of questions, and those answers, whether secular or religious, liberal or conservative, are generally delivered as though meant to put an end to questioning.

    Having read The Tasks of Philosophy, as well as many of his other books, it’s never been clear to me what MacIntyre regarded as a paradigm of a culture of questions rather than answers. The paradigm he sometimes gives is good scientific practice, but it’s not clear why that would be excluded by the “this” that begins the quoted sentence.

    The full title of the essay you’ve quoted from is “Philosophy recalled to its tasks: a Thomistic reading of Fides et Ratio.” I used to teach Fides et Ratio when I used to teach epistemology (when we used to have a Philosophy major at Felician, prior to the discontinuation of the major in 2013). Contrary to what he says about it in the essay, Fides et Ratio never struck me as exemplifying a culture of questions rather than answers. Neither did any other papal encyclical I ever read, and neither, in general, did the Church as an institution. (The Church’s sex scandals could only have taken place in an institution geared to not asking relevant questions.) To the extent that any Catholic institution I’ve ever dealt with has been oriented to question-asking and challenges to hierarchy and authority–the University of Notre Dame at its best, let’s say–it’s done so under the direct influence of liberalism, MacIntyre’s arch–enemy. In short, Notre Dame became the world-class institution it became because liberals (like its current president, John Jenkins) took over and said, “OK, enough of the dogmatism. Let’s have a real university.”

    Elsewhere in the book, he takes issue with moral and political philosophers, clearly meaning liberal ones, who “have discovered a realm…characterizable independently of reference to any social practice” (p. 112). And his general animosity for liberalism (“animosity” is not too strong a word) is too well known to belabor. The combination of claims that emerges from his writings is really puzzling:

    Liberalism is bad. Liberal moral philosophers abstract too much from actual practice. The problem with our modern, liberal culture is that it’s more a culture of answers than questions. Yes, the best actual example of such a culture, modern science, comes from directly within modernity, and in its current incarnation is heavily influenced by liberal norms, but ignore that. In fact, it’s hard to think of a social realm oriented toward questioning that isn’t heavily influenced by liberal norms, but ignore that, too. Oh, and by the way, as I write this, the Catholic Church is trying its best to squeeze past justice in a series of sex scandals–scandals in which the author of Fides et Ratio himself played a notable part. But set that aside. I just happen, abstractly, to be imagining a real of Pure Catholic Practice Abstracted from Actual Catholic Practice, and this realm happens to be one of questions rather dogmatic answer-giving.


    It isn’t adequate to cite texts like the Summa Theologiae or Summa Contra Gentiles in defense of his claim that Thomistic Catholicism is about questions–one of M’s favorite tactics. No one who’s read them would dispute that those texts are about questions as much as about answers. But a text is not a culture. There are plenty of non-Thomistic texts that ask philosophical questions, too. His complaint is that modern, liberal culture doesn’t embody this ethos. True enough, but what culture does?

    Consider the actual practices of the Catholic Church as contrasted with liberal regimes in just one respect: legal justice. Secrecy in ecclesiastical trials is a basic, unquestioned norm within the Catholic Church (given the absolute secrecy accorded to confession, among other things). Meanwhile, anyone has the right to attend virtually any criminal trial in the American criminal justice system (that’s the default norm), and has the right to make document requests via the Freedom of Information Act (again, as a default). Through FOIA requests, I’ve gotten literally thousands of documents from the CIA, among other agencies. But try to imagine making an FOIA request to the Vatican. Surely liberalism is more oriented to question asking than Catholicism in this respect.

    Or consider legislation at every level from Congress to local town councils and every level in between. No matter how stupidly our legislators deliberate, or how dogmatic they are, we have access to their deliberations, and we can write, call, or email them with our questions. There is nothing remotely comparable in the governance of the Catholic Church, never has been, and probably never will be. At any rate, they have centuries of catching-up to do. I can access literally any town council or zoning board meeting by going to the website of Readington Township and watching the whole meeting in its entirety. I can then harangue individual board members with specific questions about specific claims they’ve made in a given meeting. Hilariously, if you try to do the same in the case of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, they refer you to…your state legislator!

    The idea that they might be responsive to questions is just beyond the pale. Catholic Bishops? Answering questions? “You must be confusing us with Presbyterians!” From their perspective, their authority is self-sufficient, or requires tutelage only from those above them in the Church hierarchy. They certainly have nothing to learn from the laity or the flock, much less unbelievers. They catechize, they evangelize, they educate. Questions aren’t really part of their ontology except when they fit that framework.

    The Church’s love of opacity, concealment, hierarchy, authority, and dogmatism tends to have its effects on Catholic institutions that work at insulating themselves from what they regard as the alien influences of modern liberalism (a phenomenon I’ve encountered at close quarters). Worth noting the contrast between the internal governance of the Catholic Church and that of the Presbyterian or Episcopal churches; the contrast seems to me to favor the latter, influenced by liberalism. I’ve spent most of my career in Catholic institutions; my parents worked for 40 years at an Episcopalian hospital, under the much reviled John Spong. I can’t answer for his theology, but as far as embodying a “culture of questions,” he’s light-years ahead of his Catholic counterparts.

    MacIntyre’s incredible severity on liberalism and modern culture contrasts problematically with his mystifying laxity when it comes to Catholicism, whether as doctrine or as institution. The whole thing strikes me as adding up to a double standard that detracts from a lot of what he says, not only in that essay, but in much of his work.

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    • I think that critique is overstated in at least two ways. First, it suggests that a culture has to be either a culture of questions or not a culture of questions, while of course any actual culture might enable or cultivate the kind of questioning MacIntyre has in mind to various degrees and in various ways in its various parts. Second, it supposes that a culture of questions is one that does not recognize institutional authority and whose institutions are highly transparent, but MacIntyre at least plainly rejects the idea that questioning requires either. Your focus on the pathologies of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy brings these two problems together.

      Though he’s not explicit about it in ‘Philosophy recalled to its tasks,’ in other work MacIntyre describes several cultures that I think he’d describe as cultures of questioning: classical Athens, the medieval universities, and 17th-18th century Scotland (none, of course, heavily influenced by liberal norms in any sense of ‘liberal’ that MacIntyre criticizes). In each case, the practices that he focuses on as embodying the sort of questioning that he is praising in the quotation above co-exist in the culture with attitudes, practices, and even authoritative institutions in conflict with that sort of questioning. But despite his tendency to “exaggerate both the coherence of the past and the incoherence of the present,” as Williams put it, MacIntyre is not committed to an oversimple view on which the existence of a culture of questions excludes the existence, or even the powerful influence, of such attitudes, practices, and authoritative institutions. It is not as though MacIntyre is somehow unaware of the condemnations of 1270 and 1277, or other efforts by the ecclesiastical hierarchy to silence disputes (or unaware of the fact that some of Aquinas’ own positions fell under the condemnations). He does not regard such ecclesiastical interventions as necessarily inappropriate or as incompatible with a culture of questioning, but neither does he think that they are always appropriate or even often appropriate (see ‘Intolerance, Censorship, and Other Requirements of Rationality’ and brief remarks in God, Philosophy, Universities, p. 170). More importantly, I don’t know that MacIntyre anywhere commits himself to the idea that the hierarchy has usually been well-ordered and properly functioning, let alone that its officials have been virtuous. The appeal to the Church’s sexual abuse scandals has little bearing on the issue, since the numerous problems there do not have much or anything to do with philosophical questioning, and we need look no further than secular academia to see that an intense interest in philosophical or theoretical inquiry by no means excludes an intense interest in protecting a department or institution’s reputation by concealing accusations of sexual abuse. You’ll get no defense of the Catholic Church hierarchy or of its general lack of transparency from me, and perhaps there is a strong case to be made that such secrecy is in tension with a culture of philosophical questioning. But the fact that the Catholic Church’s hierarchy suffers from systematic pathologies in that area poses no problem for MacIntyre’s claims (and MacIntyre himself has recently criticized the hierarchy’s handling of sexual abuse cases quite strongly along with its other failures to care for children, as in ‘Absences from Aquinas, Silences in Ireland’).

      That’s not to say that I don’t share your other criticisms of MacIntyre here, though. I’m inclined to think that we can identify other cultures of questioning in, say, Renaissance Italy, Enlightenment France, Victorian England, or 19th century Germany. But MacIntyre wants to have such little good to say about Enlightenment culture or liberalism that it’s not clear he’d be happy to acknowledge these examples. It’s not at all clear that recognizing them as such would be inconsistent with his general critiques of liberalism or Enlightenment thought, anymore than his recognizing Athens, the medieval universities, or 17th-18th century Scotland is inconsistent with his recognizing countervailing forces there. Your point that he insists on concrete specificity of culture and practice in critical mode but not in constructive mode is on point; though it’s not part of what he’s trying to do and may not be something that he believes philosophy as such can do — if it’s a matter of building particular local communities and practices, then philosophizing about exactly how to do it is exactly wrongheaded — but once one begins to ask how things really would look on the ground and how we’d really get somewhere that MacIntyre would like us to be, it becomes difficult not only to see how to do it, but to determine whether we really can or should want to. I find that a common shortcoming in radical, quasi-utopian thinking, and it strikes me as something that he hasn’t discarded from his Marxist past; it’s not only unclear whether these ideals are practicable, it’s deeply unclear whether, in any form that they could actually take, they’d be worth wanting, and hence it’s unclear whether they’re really even worthy ideals.

      On the whole I think MacIntyre’s critique of the Enlightenment and liberalism is far too monolithic and coarse-grained, whether we take those as cultural phenomena or more narrowly as intellectual tendencies. In certain respects, though, he seems to me quite right, particularly when it comes to the centrality of a basically emotivist stance toward morality and value in general in our culture and the difficulties it poses to any meaningful, fruitful intellectual discourse within it. “We have within our social order few, if any milieus within which reflective and critical enquiry concerning the central issues of human life can be sustained and the education to which we subject our young is not well-designed to develop the habits of thought necessary for such questioning. This tends to be a culture of answers, not of questions, and those answers, whether secular or religious, liberal or conservative, are generally delivered as though meant to put an end to questioning.” That seems to me spot on.

      Is this really just how every culture is, though? I’m inclined to think that most people in most times and places will not go in for sustained reflective and critical enquiry concerning the central issues of human life. On the self-understanding of the institution that employs me to teach the young, we are dedicated to helping students and ourselves develop the habits of thought necessary for such questioning, and indeed to engaging in such questioning together. There are many obstacles to that, and they have different sources, but it is most definitely an uphill battle. I am not convinced, though, that every culture poses so many obstacles as ours. Nor, for that matter, am I convinced that cultures that are in important respects non-liberal will generally face more obstacles. One of the major obstacles is that many students do not believe that there is any truth or understanding to be had independent of their own subjective attitudes, or that reflective and critical inquiry is a way to progress toward them. Religious cultures and traditions often close themselves off with a dogmatic insistence that all the important questions are answered, and not answered by rational inquiry; but religious cultures often also retain commitments to truth and the possibility of understanding that make for an openness to this kind of inquiry (hence the peculiarly maddening double obstacle of essentially emotivist therapeutic religiosity).

      I think your criticisms above wrongly focus too narrowly on the Catholic Church hierarchy, as though that were the essence of what Catholic culture is, let alone Catholic intellectual culture. But I know from experience that Catholic culture, in this country at least, is not really much more hospitable to the sort of questioning or inquiry that MacIntyre is praising than the rest of the culture is. I suspect he’d agree; American Catholic culture is pretty much just a stylistic variation on American culture more broadly (hence your progressive Catholics often have more in common with progressive atheists than with conservative Catholics, and conservative Catholics often have more in common with conservative evangelicals than with progressive Catholics). That said, I’m not wholly convinced that the sort of ideal of philosophical culture that MacIntyre has in mind is impossible, even for Catholics. But it’s far away.

      (Incidentally, when I posted the quotation I was thinking as much about Objectivists as Catholics — Objectivists have often struck me as the sort of people who were open to and looking for “reflective and critical enquiry concerning the central issues of human life,” but quickly became those for whom “love of that particular system displaces the love of truth.”)

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      • “My problem is with the practice of liberalism, even in the social democratic versions to which Williams gave his allegiance, not with its ideals. It is with the extent to which the practice of liberalism is a betrayal of its ideals. Liberal societies are commonly and characteristically ruled by elites, political, financial, and media elites. The members of those elites set the political agenda by determining what the range of alternatives is between which ordinary citizens will be allowed to choose, when they vote in elections. What is excluded is the possibility of putting that range of alternatives in question, of opening up for skeptical debate the shared assumptions of the elites.”

        – ‘Replies’, Revue internationale de philosophie, vol. no 264, no. 2, 2013, pp. 201-220.

        This way of characterizing it does open him up to charges of applying a double standard to liberalism and Catholicism. He can and does criticize Catholic institutions, but the distance between ideal and practice seems to call for more attention than he often gives it.

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        • As I said elsewhere, the problem with that passage is not just the double standard it embodies if taken as an accurate representation of MacIntyre’s views of liberalism, but that it simply is not an accurate representation of his views. I’ve only read this particular passage of that reply, but unless something else puts it in a radically different light, what he’s saying here is perplexing and flatly contradicts things he says elsewhere, where he makes clear that he opposes liberalism as such, not its betrayal of its ideals.


  2. Thank you, David and Irfan, for all the information and integration in the exchanges in this topic.

    When first reading the root post quoting MacIntyre, and not really thinking about who might be writing the words in the quotation, my thoughts were these. In the first paragraph, “what they ought to recognize as intractable difficulties or unanswerable questions” struck me as out of touch with actual minds in their own moments. Both in science and in philosophic systems, we work in the company of tensions suggesting inconsistencies and shadows suggesting better truth presently out of reach. That first paragraph seems a caricature set up for making a showy condemnation. And exactly who specifically among analytical philosophers has succeeded in making an “unconnected set of enquiries”? The qualification “apparently” seems a weaseling-out. An unconnected set of enquiries, at least within some usual division of philosophy, would be not merely not foundational (realizing there’s a range of what is meant by that term), but without any systematic or even connected set of inquiries. That an analytic philosopher claims such an approach is no showing that her work (and mind) actually attains such a hodge-podge.

    Concerning the second paragraph, I think divisions of departments in schools has no weight in the way our culture, with the power of modern science and technology in its hand, leans to emphasis on answers rather than questions. Our culture is largely driven with questions of how-to that have definite answers already delivered by inquiries into nature and turned into practical things for sale. Going into a contemporary class on physics, mathematics, or computer science, I certainly would drop the class if I found it had taken up Socratic dialogue for its method of getting answers in those areas and getting skill in those areas into my head. Epistemology concerning those subjects going beyond, far beyond, what is learned concerning immediate methods in those subjects is also a lovely thing, but best taken on in another sort of class if these students are going to be competitive in these areas (mathematics, physics, and other hard-science or hard-engineering). I’d wager that although answers and questions (especially holding forth answers) about the secular/religious and liberal/conservative are salient in a great many modern minds, it is usual even in those very minds that their days, years, and lives are run mainly by those very same minds taking up answers won from nature by science and made useful by technology. Endless learning in philosophy and its history enriches you and me, but for the lower half of the high school class (and probably more), I’ve come to think that absence of that gold is not the impoverishment (for them) we might first suppose.


    • I think that response misses the point that the quotation is about philosophical questions, not technological ones. If you think the analytical vice doesn’t exist among academic philosophers, you’re not paying attention to academic philosophy; if you think the idealist vice doesn’t exist, you’re not paying attention to, among other things, the Objectivist movement or a great deal of libertarian thought (to take only two cases that I have reason to think you know very well). These two phenomena come together in the work of some popularizing scientists and science journals, whose blinkered commitment to a system leads them to ignore or dismiss entire ranges of questions and very good work done on those questions.

      Now is not the time for a broader discussion of education, but obsession with technical skills at the expense of philosophical thinking is a problem. An education that does not provide students with the skills to engage in philosophical thinking is inadequate for free people. I don’t agree with Rand about a lot, but I think ‘Philosophy: Who Needs It?’ says enough to explain why philosophy isn’t just relevant for the ‘upper half’ of the class.

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      • I do keep up with a lot of academic philosophy. I regularly attend meetings of the American Philosophical Association (mainly Eastern), most recently last January in New York. I buy their new books coming out each year, shelves and shelves of them, and sooner or later I get to read them. That’s why my wonder over the lack of naming specific names guilty of that vice. In addition to the lectures I get to attend at the Meetings, I got to take courses in philosophy at University of Oklahoma in the late ’60’s (it was my minor) and, much later, graduate courses at the University of Chicago. I simply have not encountered academic philosophers of the analytic-vice stripe. My first professor of the analytic stripe (self-professed) was in the late ’60’s. His name is Monte Cook, he was fresh with Ph.D. from Columbia in New York. That was a first course on modern philosophy (Descartes [and some before] to Kant), and he brought in a little of G. E. Moore with respect to Berkeley. He definitely didn’t have the analytic vice.

        For several years after that first college degree, I worked as an unskilled laborer. During those years, I read Copleston, petite Image volume by volume, which would include remarks on the analytic movement. Also, the little book from Morton White titled THE AGE OF ANALYSIS, which was much more than what we’d be likely to call analytic philosophy. And anyway, the philosophers being entered into that book were from the first half of the twentieth century. I imagine the first book I read from our own era by someone who might reasonably be called an analytic philosopher was the 1981 book of Robert Nozick titled PHILOSOPHICAL EXPLANATIONS. I really couldn’t see that as falling into the analytic vice however much he might tingle a bell against more systematic philosophies (Whitehead and Heidegger come to mind). In his 2007 book CARNAP AND TWENTIETH-CENTURY THOUGHT – EXPLICATION AS ENLIGHTENMENT, A. W. Carus concludes that “at present analytic philosophy is not even clearly defined” meaning “the distinction between analytic philosophy and other philosophy has become blurred . . . even arbitrary.” Perhaps I shouldn’t look to analytic philosophers, or anyway not be concerned with whether they are of the analytic stripe, for exemplification of the analytic vice.

        On the idealist error, I confess to simply seeing two different mindsets. There’s the sort like me and Nozick who seem to be constitutionally incapable of not being open to alterations of our systems, alterations for reasons, no matter how mature those systems in our intellectual development. Then there’s a Schopenhauer, Whitehead, or Rand who attain their most mature system, it’s DC al fine, or if they do tinker with it later (as Rand), it’s pretty much embroidery or forays that end up being basically repetitions. And it’s settled and sufficiently comprehensive for them to rest from that sort of profound creative work. Though I can’t be like that, I can sympathize with their ease in diagnosing and disposing of challenges within their own framework, for a lot of deliberation over challenges went into their settled position. I don’t think they are knowingly turning fideist on their positions or being evasive, though that mindset must be always some mystery to me.

        It’s long been my way of looking at all individuals (sane, normal brain) as walking philosophies amalgamated with other types of beliefs taken into their walk. And I do think of ideas as moving the world, including philosophical ideas, although not only ideas move the world (for nature-not-human and the human joined into collective actions with disastrous results willy nilly also have their weight). I do not think Rand got much right in that essay insofar as she attempted to trace ordinary folk sayings to specific philosophers. And her apparent one-way dependency of science and ordinary knowledge and the course of the human world on philosophy is wrong. And the weight she attached to that dependence, in that direction, is wrong. That’s not how we’ve done well.

        I had a brother who was of average general intelligence. He had horse sense, and because of our folks, he knew how to do various sorts of physical work—we take such work as nobility (contrary to how much in the history of philosophy?). He was able to benefit some by reading some of the popular level of philosophy by Rand. However, what he could assimilate was seriously limited, and what could and couldn’t be done with philosophy (even Platonic dialogues) by him, I take as typical for the lower half of the high school class (regular public school [or military school in his case]).


        • On the analytic vice: a great deal of work in contemporary philosophy is done by people who pay no attention to work done in other areas, even areas clearly relevant to the issues under discussion. Political philosophers routinely ignore not only economics and psychology, but empirical work in political science; hence we get not only the phenomenon that Irfan has noted before, that most Anglo-American political philosophy proceeds as if Western liberal democracy were the only thing that existed, but the additional phenomenon of political philosophy largely abstracted from the realities of concrete societies (e.g., democratic theory that ignores most of the details of how democracies can or might function). Ethicists also routinely ignore these areas, but also pay little or no attention to other areas of philosophy, such as epistemology and metaphysics, that one might think matter a great deal for ethics, while many meta-ethicists write about the metaphysics and epistemology of ‘morality’ as though there were some single, theory-neutral subject-matter of morality to discuss. Only recently have the fairly intimate connections between ethics and epistemology gained wide recognition in both fields. One might have hoped that the fashionableness of ‘naturalism’ in philosophy would lead to more careful attention to empirical considerations, but often it instead leads to naive and over-simplified appeals to the purported findings of this or that science, with too little attention to the theoretical disagreements among empirical theorists and too easy a deference to the claims of certain sciences, so that debates in the philosophy of mind, say, make a great deal of noise about neuroscience and evolutionary theory, yet rarely attend in any detail to neuroscience or evolutionary psychology (fields whose practitioners often disagree with one another).

          It might be easier to illustrate the point by appeal to philosophers who succeed in some measure in avoiding the vice rather than in cataloguing the many who display it. So here’s a few: Jason Brennan pays attention to empirical social science and to political philosophy, and succeeds at the very least in drawing attention to relevant issues that democratic theorists need to deal with but that many philosophers have ignored; Terence Cuneo drew attention to parallels in epistemology and ethics that most philosophers in those areas had not noticed because they paid no attention to each other; Stephen Boulter’s Metaphysics from a Biological Point of View shows how the philosophy of biology and metaphysics can enrich one another. Boulter’s work in general brings out how frequently philosophers happily draw conclusions and defend theories that sit, at best, in serious tension with the apparent results or tendencies of other areas of inquiry, both philosophical and extra-philosophical; even if one rejects the methodology of his The Rediscovery of Commonsense Philosophy, the book reads like a catalogue of philosophical theses from one area of philosophy that conflict with prominent theses in other areas or with empirical scientific theories. And it’s not only philosophers; Jesse Prinz’s Beyond Human Nature shows that psychologists and social scientists too often draw hasty conclusions when more careful philosophical reflection is called for (despite falling into the trap himself at times). The issue here is not just the commonplace that philosophical disagreement is pervasive and infects even supposedly empirical science; it’s that these disagreements often continue to be less tractable than they might otherwise be because the proponents of rival theses so often proceed without serious consideration of work done in other areas.

          I don’t know exactly what MacIntyre’s judgment would be, but speaking only for myself, I can say that the point here is not that Anglo-American academic philosophy as a whole is guilty of the analytic vice (nor is the vice peculiar to so-called ‘analytic philosophy,’ though that tradition’s tendency to model itself on the empirical sciences perhaps contributes somewhat to its prevalence). It is not hard to come up with examples of people who aren’t especially guilty of the vice, particularly if we focus only on the most well-known and widely read philosophers. But most academic philosophy is not well-known and widely read. Most of it deals minutely with finely-grained issues that people in other areas not only ignore, but deny the relevance of (or would, if they paid attention). To produce successful academic philosophy, it is not only possible, but in many cases imperative, to ignore most other areas of inquiry. To some extent this is an inevitable product of specialization, with its mixed blessings and curses. But the fact that many prominent philosophers do not succumb to the analytic vice simply proves the point that it is not unavoidable.

          MacIntyre himself turns out to embody both some of the virtues and some of the vices of refusing to succumb to narrow specialization. On the one hand, his discussions of truth in ‘Truth as a Good’ and ‘First Principles, Final Ends, and Contemporary Philosophical Issues’ bring out how much analytic philosophical debate about truth misses important features of truth by approaching the topic from within a narrow linguistic and logical framework rather than attending more carefully to the wider range of uses to which the concept of truth is put in ordinary discourse and to the value of truth. So too, his attention to embodied social practices shows how sterile many debates in political philosophy and ethics are because they proceed as though these realities were relevant only to secondary applications of theory. On the other hand, it is hard to read much of MacIntyre on any topic that one knows well without being frustrated with how readily he skates over details; I find much of what he says about Aristotelian community, for instance, frustratingly inadequate even when I’m sympathetic to it, and I’d imagine philosophers of language might feel the same about some of what he says about truth. Perhaps it is impossible to be at once systematically broad and rigorously detailed.

          In any case, attention to the state of debates in the academic philosophical literature will show how deeply disconnected many of them are from one another and from other relevant areas of inquiry.

          On the idealist vice: I am not inclined to accept the idea that some people prefer their systems over the truth as a mere psychological variation among people. No doubt some find it easier than others, but if Rand or Schopenhauer or whoever displays the vice, it’s still a vice. Perhaps some dogmatic system-lovers are worth arguing with all the same, because one can learn from them; usually, though, one exhausts the benefits of discussion with dogmatists very quickly.

          I don’t want to defend the details of what Rand says in that essay, particularly not insofar as they’re tied up with distinguishing features of Objectivism. I take her basic points to be that we all act on the basis of beliefs about what the world is like, how we can know or come to know things, and what we should do in our own lives and in our shared lives together; that these are the basic areas of philosophy; that most of the beliefs that people actually have about these questions are in fact heavily influenced by philosophy; and that insofar as philosophy can move toward better or worse answers to these questions, philosophy is relevant to our lives. If we are to live as free and independent people, we need to be able to engage in sound critical reflection about those questions; otherwise we are at the mercy of whatever conventions we happened to be brought up with or whoever happens to whisper most persuasively in our ears. Perhaps you’re right that the lower half of the high school class consists of people constitutionally incapable of living as free and independent people; I doubt it. That few will have both the aptitude and the taste for doing philosophy in any serious, sustained way, I do not doubt. But the point isn’t that most people can be good philosophers; it’s that they can benefit from thinking about philosophy. For all the (quite different) shortcomings of popularizing philosophers like Rand, Mortimer Adler, and Henry Veatch, that is one thing they all got right.

          One thing I’ll concede about the lower half of the high school class, i.e., of high school students in this country on the whole, is that few of them are in a position to benefit from studying philosophy. But that is not because they are too stupid; it is because they haven’t reached the level of educational attainment necessary to begin benefiting from studying philosophy. Only 37% of 12th grade public school students test at or above ‘proficient’ in the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading assessment for 2017 (demonstrating “competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter”); in the state of Arizona**, only 30% of 11th graders tested as proficient in reading in 2015-16 (my students take these standardized tests, and most do well; proficiency in them is not a high bar). The lower half of the high school class can’t perform well on reading tests that are not very demanding; it’s no wonder that they can’t get much from reading Plato or Nozick, to say nothing of Aquinas or Rawls.

          [**: Addendum: I meant to make clear that I’m referring here to the Arizona state tests, which differ from the NAEP; I realized on re-reading later that this was not clear; I do not know how the two tests compare in difficulty]

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          • Thank you very much, David, for taking the time to go through this and convey this information. Especially lucky for me, for my areas, is your mention of those two books by Boulter, which I hadn’t known of. I ordered them just now.

            In the 1990’s, I edited a hardcopy journal to which some professional philosophers contributed or subscribed. Most contributors and readers were people who were highly educated and made their living in other ways, but had an interest in the topics allowed in the journal. (I allowed no social, political, or cultural matter in there because I knew from people’s earlier tries for serious amateur philosophy journals or magazines that if you allowed those areas they would quickly take over.) The title of the journal was OBJECTIVITY, but what I wanted to mention is its subtitle: A Journal of Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Theory of Value Informed by Modern Science. So the ideal particularly was to not do metaphysics without knowing and assimilating modern standard physics, not do epistemology without child developmental cognitive psychology, and not do theory of value without biology—for important examples. So philosophy books, scientifically informed and sensitive, such as Schellenberg’s THE UNITY OF PERCEPTION (2018), are natural home for me. Although linguistics, not science, can be an important discipline for a philosophic project also, such as in Betti’s AGAINST FACTS (2015). The books on my shelves tend to integrate the pertinent work from fields outside philosophy. But there is controversy over what external work is pertinent and over what is the special work of philosophy. I had a philosophy professor (a great teacher) who writes books that do not undertake relating scientific findings (brain science, for instance) to their subjects. They do not neglect what other philosophers have said, and I must say I can learn a great deal from them of great importance. Such are his THE PRACTICES OF THE SELF (2004) and THE AUTONOMY OF MORALITY (2008).



          • (Responding to David) I’m not persuaded by the “analytic vice” part of your comments. (I have no objection to the “idealist vice” part.)

            It’s true that a great deal of analytic philosophy proceeds in a narrow fashion by focusing on one topic to the exclusion of many relevant topics, but (a) this is much less true now than it once was, which suggests consciousness of the problem and a desire to change things, and (b) to the extent that it remains the case, it’s not clear that it’s really a vice.

            I can’t really comment adequately on (a) without writing a bibliographical essay, but I’ll say this: when Carrie-Ann and I lived together, she was an indexer for the Philosopher’s Index, and every few weeks or so, a box of journals would be shipped to our door for her to index. As she did this hard slogging that paid our bills, I took the leisurely opportunity to peruse the journals for sheer interest of what was in them. (This is what Aristotelian schole looks like in practice, by the way.) I did this for years, maybe 20-30 journals at a time, so it wasn’t a small sample. Suffice it to say that I found myself pretty impressed at the interdisciplinary character of a lot of stuff that was being published. Analytic philosophy has gotten more interdisciplinary and less armchair-ish over time.

            As for (b), there are limits to what any one scholar can do in a given inquiry. It may be that given current standards of disciplinary rigor, one can’t humanly be expected to master more than two different fields, e.g. philosophy and psychiatry, or philosophy and cognitive science, or philosophy and economics, or philosophy and classics, or whatever. So inevitably, the vast majority of philosophers will just be philosophers; some others will combine philosophy with one other field; and a very small minority will integrate several fields.

            That isn’t necessarily a “vice”; it’s a neutral description of the unavoidable division of labor that occurs in any complex discipline or set of inquiries. It’s one thing for a philosopher writing on topic T1 to deny or evade its relation to T2; it’s another to ignore it, or more charitably to bracket it or omit reference to it. The first is a vice, but the second is not, and it’s an empirical question which of the two things is the better description of analytic philosophy today. It’s not obvious to me that good analytic philosophers habitually or routinely deny that there is more to a given topic than the part of it that they, or that analytic philosophers generally, try to tackle. They just tackle the part of the problem they’re best equipped to handle, and leave the rest for someone else–which seems reasonable enough. There always is a someone else.

            Philosophical ethnocentrism is, in my view at least, a vice of the “deny or evade” variety. In this respect, I would agree that MacIntyre has any edge on most analytic philosophers. As I’ve said a million times, too much analytic philosophy proceeds as though the non-Western world either didn’t exist or was irrelevant to “Western” inquiries (whatever “Western” ends up meaning). That said, analytic philosophers are on the case:

            To take two examples. But I take your point here (partly because it’s a case of me taking my own point).

            But here is the most recent issue of Ethics:


            The Rendall and Oberdiek papers are highly integrative of several different fields. I’ve been reading Oberdiek for a project I’m working on, and his ability to integrate philosophy and social science is enviable. Some of material there is more narrowly philosophical. Yes, it could be integrated with non-philosophical literatures, but it’s not necessarily a vice that it isn’t. “Naturalism” talk aside, philosophy has a certain autonomy as a discipline, so it can’t be a vice to engage in autonomous philosophical inquiries that don’t invoke this or that non-philosophical discipline.

            This issue is typical of Ethics, and I think Ethics is typical of analytic philosophy. There’s less “vice” there than MacIntyre’s criticisms suggest.

            Putting aside “garden-variety papers” of the preceding sort (I mean that ironically), the two classics of analytic political philosophy, A Theory of Justice and Anarchy, State, and Utopia can hardly be faulted for failing to deal with “issues in other areas”: both Rawls and Nozick make reference to quite a lot of social science, particularly economics.

            Your second and third paragraphs seem to agree with what I’ve said here, but to that extent, they seem in tension with the first. As you say, specialization involves a mixture of blessings and curses, and MacIntyre himself is often programmatic rather than detailed in his argumentation. But when all is said and done, it seems to me that there is more blessing here than curse, and less vice than virtue.


            • Whether there is more blessing than curse depends in part on what we’re looking for philosophy to do. Of course, if you’re interested in technically sophisticated and rigorous debate, then you’ll find much contemporary philosophy better in many respects than anything in the previous history of the tradition. If instead you’re looking for philosophy to do what philosophers for most of its history have been trying to do — to help you make sense of life and find answers to important questions — then you will find most of the fashionable debates at any given time utterly unhelpful. It is a mistake to take works like A Theory of Justice or Anarchy, State, and Utopia as the paradigms here; setting aside the ways in which those works are in fact non-systematic, much academic philosophy does not consist in writing works like those, but in writing fine-grained articles that make a small set of moves in a debate between a limited range of positions the differences between which have little bearing on any wider debates outside that particular sub-field. That is not a criticism of it as technical, specialized scholarship; it’s part of an explanation for why academic philosophy tends to have virtually no impact on people who are not professional academic philosophers.


          • NAEP Reading Assessment with comparison to state proficiency standards at the very bottom:


            I used to work for NAEP, and a good friend of mine still does (she supervises the Reading Assessment). Little publicized fact: NAEP has a special department set aside to respond to complaints about the content of its reading items. Despite making huge efforts to produce utterly anodyne, uncontroversial reading prompts, it gets deluged day after day with criticisms about the objectionable character of its reading prompts–criticisms that NAGB, its governing board, takes very seriously (along with the Dept of Education). Something to bear in mind if you read the Sample Questions. For every item you see there, they probably had to discard 10 items that were “too controversial” to run. We wouldn’t want kids reading anything that parents might disagree with, after all. Which is why, once they get to college, they interpret hypothetical statements as threats to commit mass murder, and call the police on those who utter them. It pays to start young.


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