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The Delusions of Academic Philosophy

Back during the 2008-2009 strike at York University, when I was walking the picket line as a Teaching Assistant and just a year away from completing my PhD, there were graduate students in my department who refused to participate. Not only because they refused to see themselves as workers (and instead believed in the "respectability" of being philosophy graduate students) but because they felt that their individual rationality, granted to them by studying philosophy, meant that they were experts in all areas of thought, even those they had done little to no research in. One student whose area was the philosophy of mind thus declared that the strike was "irrational" merely because he thought it was irrational. When asked about the meaning of a union, his understanding of what strikes were, and even basic information about what that strike concerned, he had nothing substantial to say except to repeat the talking points of anti-union columnists in a right wing newspaper and declare them the "factual" basis of his "logical" decision.

There is a funny thing that happens in the world of academic philosophy. Due to a history of declaring itself the basis of critical thinking, developing important tools of rationality (rigorous argument structure, logic, etc.), and reminding anyone and everyone that philosophy is the "queen" of every university discipline, its students and faculty tend to grant to themselves the right to legislate thought itself. Having multiple courses entitled "critical thinking" or "modes of reasoning" certainly helps to concretize the high opinion philosophy scholars have of themselves. As early as their undergraduate degree large number of would-be philosophers become quickly convinced that they are the avatars of Reason Itself, that their individual opinions are correct simply because they've learned some logic (both formal and informal), and that they can intervene with authority in every single subject even if these subjects concern areas where they have done a very small amount of research. The weirdness is that philosophy professors and graduate students do not tolerate such subjectivism in their undergraduate students, and even joke amongst themselves about the arrogance of the undergraduate "philosophy guy" who refuses to recognize the errors of his dearly held opinion because he also thinks he's smarter than the professor. The problem is that some of these "philosophy guys", when subjected to the discipline of criticism, learn to adapt and transform the same arrogance into a more acceptable graduate student and then philosophy professor version of the same subjectivist bullshit.

Thus the disciples of academic philosophy learn to tolerate subjectivism in themselves when they refuse to tolerate it others, and thus can continue to teach their students about what qualifies as good reasoning even when they fail to satisfy the qualifications they teach. For example, in many critical thinking textbooks (I've read a bunch because I've had to teach multiple critical thinking courses) there are sections about the meaning of expertise. These sections correctly indicate that we should treat those who have the credentials, experience, and proven qualifications in a given area as possible experts in that area but not in other areas (i.e. a Biologist who has contributing groundbreaking research to Biology but then makes public statements about an imperialist war should not be treated out of hand as an authority on imperialism or war), but so many philosophers always do precisely the opposite of this assessment of expertise. This is because they believe, because of philosophy, that they are the experts of thought itself.

Look, I get it since I was trained as an academic philosopher and thus went through the same disciplinary apparatus. With all the confusion about what philosophy is in relation to other disciplines, and the complaint that philosophy is just about "your opinions man", there is this deep seeded desire to uphold the importance of philosophy. Hence the philosophical decision that renders philosophy foundational to all other forms of thought, the decision that says it is not just about opinions––because it is not and at least this much philosophy gets right, but only in theory. Because at the end of the day the level individual opinion ends up being reified, when it definitely should not, and hidden behind a training in making arguments, knowing some modicum of logic, speaking in the name of rationality. Connected to this is the neurosis of persecution inherited from the Eurocentric canon's decision to centre philosophy in the story of Socrates. Students of philosophy are taught to imagine themselves as victims for being philosophers––that when they are questioned and then attacked for questionable positions that they, like Socrates, are martyrs for the cause of rationality. Combine this canon martyr complex with a fact that all academic disciplines have to deal with––that structural inequality means that people from marginalized communities are underrepresented in graduate school let alone faculty––and the discipline of philosophy generates a machine for turning the most socially privileged members of society into "experts" who imagine themselves victims whenever they are asked to account for their failure to be the experts they pretend they are.

Shut up Socrates!

So enter, in this context, the recent "controversies" caused by Holly Lawford-Smith, her avid defender, Brian Leiter, and every other tenured philosopher who has lined up to defend the right of tenured philosophers and their toadies to write offensive bullshit about marginalized communities. Lawford-Smith wrote essays that followed a TERF line of reasoning, was criticized mainly by philosophy graduate students (some of whom were trans) for doing so, and then got her colleagues and eventually Brian Leiter to defend her bullshit and treat everyone criticizing her as if they were the mob that had Socrates killed. If the discipline of philosophy really cared about the pursuit of truth, good argument, and reasoning based on requisite expertise this controversy wouldn't be very controversial: Lawford-Smith clearly demonstrated very little understanding of feminist philosophy, even less understanding of the history of the philosophy of gender, and thus cobbled together a perspective that was about as rational as those philosophy graduate students who refused to participate in my union's labour strikes because of their personal opinion. My point here is not to deal directly with the reasoning of Lawford-Smith's work on gender but to point out that she had no expertise in this region, that it was clear she was unfamiliar with the work that preceded her philosophical decision, that she conflated personal opinion with rationality when push came to shove, and then fell back on the Socratic martyr complex because she was called out on her inexpertise… And other career philosophers came rushing to her aid immediately.

Considering that complaints about Lawford-Smith's work has been made primarily by graduate students and non-tenured faculty, the fact that she and her defenders have waged a defense of her position according to the discourse of martyrdom tells us something significant about the hegemony of academic philosophy. This is a world in which unsubstantiated opinion is treated as logical simply because those peddling this opinion know how to speak in the language of analytic philosophy––and thus don't have to do any research beyond self-reflection. This is also a world where those who possess professional power can treat the criticisms of their poor reasoning as victimization because they see themselves as the Socratic standards of thought being set upon by the Athenian mob. Hence Brian Leiter would eventually complain about a "Twitter Red Guard" that was victimizing himself, Lawford-Smith, and other philosophers who published similar crap. The fact that he could maintain this claim about victimization while both himself and Lawford-Smith occupy positions of academic authority/security, and worked overtime to subject their critics to departmental discipline, is quite telling because it means they are either liars or completely deluded. After all, when you can call up a department and set its tenured faculty against those graduate students who dared to challenge you on Twitter––and when your job security will never be threatened by these so-called "Twitter Red Guards"––then to maintain the claim that you are the actual victim amounts to serious self-delusion.

(As an aside, and as I noted on Twitter, I'm fine with the existence of "Twitter Red Guards" because maybe these politically problematic philosophers should be held to account in the way that people were held to account in the Cultural Revolution. I'm more than happy to see the Leiters of the world paraded through the streets with dunce caps.)

The Lawford-Smith/Leiter "controversy" is paradigmatic because it demonstrates how the pseudo-rationality and martyr complex of academic philosophy intersect in such a way to call into question the meaningfulness of the discipline. After all when you get tenured philosophers writing diatribes in areas they refuse to do the bare minimum of research on, and yet pass off their individual reason as authoritative, and then are defended by other tenured philosophers who think actual criticism is akin to the mob that sentenced Socrates… This is bourgeois philosophy at its most obvious manifestation.

The fact is that the tools of philosophy are very useful for marginalized populations in their struggle against bourgeois hegemony. I have long been a champion of rationality, against the attempt to claim that all assertions of rationality are violent, as a tool of the oppressed. The best anti-systemic literature from Marx to the present has demonstrated how rational engagement can and should work for the oppressed against oppressors who promulgate a pseudo-rationality that masquerades as Reason Itself. But the only way to pursue this progressive rationality is to transgress the limits imposed by bourgeois philosophy, mock the martyrdom complex of the most privileged, and open up philosophy to the most marginalized populations. The fact that most philosophy departments function to marginalize Indigenous and racialized people, as well as driving out or holding as suspect women and trans people, means that there is something wrong with the definition of Reason. That the Leiters of the world can maintain blogs that target their critics, while pretending that being tenured faculty is tantamount to martyrdom, confirms this wrongness.

Which is why, without irony, I really do want to promote the philosophy Red Guard that Leiter seems to think every rational being should perceive as horrendous. It's only horrendous for people like Leiter and those who he defends: the vicious establishment that promulgates their hegemony by targeting their critics. Would that these critics tear down the establishment and reestablish philosophy upon an egalitarian basis.