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Reports of the Death of Metaphysics Greatly Exaggerated

February 14th, 2005 · 1 Comment

Y’know, I had a niggling sense there was a blog post I’d been meaning to make, and now Yglesias reminds me by beating me to the punch. Ross Douthat’s Atlantic Monthly piece about Harvard contains the surprising (to this philosophy major) claim that “philosophy departments have largely purged themselves of metaphysicians and moralists,” apparently due to the influence of postmodenism.

First off, the sell-by date on articles about the baleful influence of postmodernism passed at least two years ago. It’s not just beating a dead horse, it’s beating a dead horse that’s lying on top of another dead horse: postmodernism. It was always taken a lot more seriously in comp lit departments than actual philosophy deparments (where the attitude seemed largely to be: “Oh, look at the English majors playing at philosophy!”) and seems to have run out of steam even there. Discounting the history of philosophy courses, which of course are going to deal with ethics and metaphysics, the memorable classes I had at NYU were with folks like Frances Kamm (ethics), Derek Parfit (ethics and metaphysics), Peter Unger (ethics and metaphysics), and Paul Boghossian (epistemology, but not fully extricable from metaphysics). I had some contact, though unfortunately no classes, with Thomas Nagel (ethics). My thesis advisor was Liam Murphy (moral and political philosophy). But, of course, Ross is talking about Harvard; are things different there? Well, during Douthat’s time as a student, the philosophy faculty included (the now deceased) Robert Nozick (ethics and metaphysics), Christine Korsgaard (ethics–indeed, probably the most renowned modern Kantian), and Thomas Scanlon (probably the best known modern contractualist ethicist). They’ve more recently added Kamm and Parfit (above). Are these the sorts of departments Douthat means to refer to? If that’s a purge, it’s a pretty inept one.

Ross replies:

I was referencing what I think is the popular understanding of metaphysics (see here, for instance, for a useful summary of the technical/popular divide), in which it refers to a belief in the existence of immaterial beings, properties, etc. Aquinas’s God, Plato’s forms, Descartes’s ghost-in-the-machine all fall into this category….So one can be a staunchly materialist metaphysician, and indeed, there are many of these throughout academia. What there are not, I believe, are many philosophers in, say, the Platonist or Cartesian traditions, who entertain the possibility of souls, Gods, etc.

Which sounds a little like complaining that science is no longer being done at universities because there are no phrenologists or phlogiston theorists. Very rarely does philosophy (in contrast to science) make pretty definitive progress; it seems perverse to complain that on a few counts it actually seems to have happened.

Tags: Academia



1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Charlie Murtaugh // Feb 15, 2005 at 3:59 pm

    You rule…your dead-horse-on-dead-horse comment is priceless, as is your rejoinder to Douthat’s lame attempt at self-defense. I mean, seriously, “Descartes’s ghost-in-the-machine”? The problem, I think, stems from the fact that a lot of college grads who didn’t actually major in philosophy end up with their toenails snagged on the shag carpeting of “Plato’s forms” and “Descartes’s ghost-in-the-machine”, and imagine that these are somehow as relevant to working philosophers as they are to dorm hallway bullshitters.

    The real problem with a lot of conservative critiques of academia is that they expect the faculty to actually _research_ and _publish on_ the “timeless verities,” when those are usually boring and good only for teaching purposes. It’s like asking biology PhDs to keep working on the same stuff they learned about in high school biology. Philosophically and institutionally, academics is about learning and doing _new_ things, and if you believe (and most conservatives profess to one of the following) that there’s nothing new under the sun, or that novelty is inherently dangerous, or that our efforts to advance our mortal knowledge are an insult to God, Who knows all and would rather we spend our time praying, then you’re not really going to enjoy or succeed in academia. Which, in turn, mostly accounts for why conservatives are underrepresented in the faculty population.