Live and Let Live, or Let the Left Live?

When historians of philosophy look back on our age they may be surprised by the tolerance analytic philosophers have displayed toward cultural studies, queer studies, postcolonial studies, LGBT studies, women’s studies, gender studies, African-American/black studies, disability studies, and those sections of slightly more traditional disciplines (for example, anthropology, sociology, and English) that have also been dominated by Theory. After all, it is well-known that these disciplines—henceforth, I shall refer to them as studies—exhibit only an infinitesimal fraction of the discipline which analytic philosophers expect from their colleagues (in nonpolitical contexts). Recall, for example, that Crispin Wright publicly criticized John McDowell for not being rigorous enough, even to the point of questioning his status as an analytic philosopher; and that Timothy Williamson publicly criticized a large part of analytic philosophy for the same reason:

Much contemporary analytic philosophy … seems to be written in the tacit hope of discursively muddling through, uncontrolled by any clear methodological constraints… All too often it produces only eddies in academic fashion, without any advance in our understanding of the subject matter. Although we can make progress in philosophy, we cannot expect to do so when we are not working at the highest available level of intellectual discipline (Williamson, ‘Must Do Better’).

Williamson adds to this complaint that much work in analytic philosophy is “obscure”, and, as far as the use of arguments is concerned, barely better than most continental philosophy.

Wright and Williamson may well be right that many analytic philosophers are insufficiently rigorous, but one has to keep in mind what their standards are. Wright expects “the clearest possible… formulation of assumptions, targets, and goals”, and Williamson expects “the highest available level of intellectual discipline”. If these are standards of intellectual inquiry to be adopted in the humanities,  then what to think of the aforementioned (cultural, queer,…) studies, where the highest level of rigor seems to be reached as soon as one is able to quote Badiou, Deleuze, Foucault, or Lacan without typos?

True, analytic philosophers occasionally express denigrating comments about the studies in private, but, in public, they are strikingly reserved, and even on the defensive. This seems to be truer than ever. In 1999, Martha Nussbaum still questioned whether Judith Butler “belongs to the philosophical tradition at all, rather than to the closely related but adversarial traditions of sophistry and rhetoric”. Today, prominent analytic philosophers are happy to regard her as a great thinker. For example, Jason Stanley calls Butler “one of the great philosophers of our time”. Perhaps more surprisingly, David Chalmers praises Butler’s treatment of gender as “groundbreaking”, and as part of one of the “most exciting” trends in philosophy. Note that Butler is the American gender theorist par excellence. In 1998, she was awarded the first prize in Denis Dutton’s Bad Writing Contest for the following sentence:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

(When Nussbaum quoted this sentence in her critique of Butler, she was careful enough to add that such bad writing is “by no means ubiquitous in the “queer theory” group of theorists with which Butler is associated”.)

Also in a defensive mode, Brian Leiter—not much of an analytic philosopher himself, but at least a reference point in the analytic blogosphere—repeatedly criticized Naomi Schaefer Riley, calling her a “moron”, a “malevolent empty vessel”, and a “brainless non-entity”, among several other things, for her criticism of black studies in the Chronicle of Higher Education (for which she was promptly fired). More generally, it is quasi-impossible to find a prominent analytic philosopher criticizing the aforementioned studies on a blog, in an opinion piece, or in an interview. Instead, one reads in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that analytic feminists “draw on feminist critical race theory, queer theory, and disability studies to enrich their understanding of the ways in which various axes of oppression and privilege intermesh”.

The only notable exception within analytic philosophy—assuming a broader notion of this movement than Wright’s—appears to be the conservative philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, who continues to lambaste the studies for their poor scholarship at the service of political conformity (see, for example, this video and this interview). Apart from him, analytic philosophers seem to be happy to let the studies benefit from philosophy’s culture of silence. Perhaps it is not a coincidence, then, that the famous Sokal hoax, which struck at the heart of the studies, was perpetrated by physicists instead of analytic philosophers.

What is more worrying, quite a few analytic philosophers seem to be eager to go down the path of the aforementioned studies, and turn analytic philosophy, too, into an ideological bulwark centered on the notions of race, class, and gender (albeit one that may generate less nonsense). For example, analytic philosophy now has summer schools for women only (here and here), grants for promoting diversity in respect of race and gender, reading lists that have been screened for their inclusion of certain “underrepresented groups” (here and here), and, last but not least, an increasing number of jobs that can only be taught by those who have the right—that means, leftist—opinions about race, class, and gender. All of this seems to be part of the trend toward “socially driven philosophy” that Chalmers embraces in the interview from which I quoted. And what this suggests is that the public tolerance of analytic philosophers toward the studies is to be explained, not by the live-and-let-live rule adopted by academics across the political spectrum, but rather by a let-the-Left-live rule adopted by academics on one side of that spectrum. In other words, it does not matter if you produce nonsense, as long as it is left-wing nonsense.

 

Bob le flambeur

Bob le flambeur is a professional philosopher who enjoys the finer things in life, but who is afraid that his opinions about politically sensitive topics are becoming unaffordable. Hence, he has decided to go underground.

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21 Comments

  1. “The only notable exception within analytic philosophy—assuming a broader notion of this movement than Wright’s—appears to be the conservative philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, who continues to lambaste the studies for their poor scholarship at the service of political conformity (see, for example, this video and this interview).”

    I personally know many people who have criticized such things, often strongly. We tend to be either ignored or worse, that is true; but we exist. I have criticized social constructivism and postmodernism for a long time, over two decades in fact. What I think is more or less similar to what, e.g., Karl Popper and Bertrand Russell said long ago (1940s); and also what Norman Levitt, Alan Sokal, Susan Haack, Stephen Weinberg, Christina Hoff Sommers, Noretta Koertge and many others have said and think about these trends since the 1990s. Here is a link to Susan Haack’s 1998 book, Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate (Chicago), a book I recommend highly,

    http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/M/bo3614193.html

    And here is a quote from a review I wrote back in 2000 of a (quite a good) book about Karl Popper:

    ———–
    It is worth remarking that when Popper wrotes his books on political philosophy between 1935 and 1945, the idea that philosophy might lead to political disatser was not at all new. During the Second World War, Russell, was writing, in his History of Western Philosophy, about the catastrophic consequences of the `subjectivist trend in philosophy’, which he traced back to Rousseau[1], and which is still alive and kicking in modern France and, regrettably, in numerous humanities, social sciences and cultural studies departments up and down the land.[2]

    [1] Bertrand Russell ([1945]), History of Western Philosophy. London” Unwin Paperbacks ([1979]): “The rejection of reason in favour of the heart was not, to my mind, an advance” (p. 668). “Rousseau speaks like a sophistical politiceman. Hegel, who owed much to Rousseau, adopted his muses of the word ‘freedom’, and defined it as the right to obey the police, or something not very different’ (p. 671).

    [2] See e.g. Madan Sarup [1993], An Introductory Guide to Post-structuralism and Postmodernism, second ed., Hemel Hemstead: Harvester-Wheatsheaf.
    ————
    URL:
    https://www.academia.edu/1146863/Reviews-Popper_Philosophy_Politics_and_Scientific_Method

    • Thanks for the references, Jeff. Let me clarify why I regard Scruton as an exception (although you’re probably right that he’s not the only exception). First, he’s a practicing analytic philosopher (unlike, say, Levitt and Sokal) who can be compared, in terms of prominence, to some of the other people I mention. Second, he does not just criticize postmodernism, relativism and feminism. He also explains why nonsense and poor scholarship find a natural home in the studies: because they are predicated on ideological assumptions (and little else). Third, his criticism arguably predates the Sokal affair, and it continues to this day. This said, I agree that at least Haack would have been worth mentioning.

  2. Yes, I agree those two main points are strongly in play: culture of silence and unquestioned, unquestionable, ideological assumptions. I thought of some other things/people worth mentioning; that’s why I wished to mention Russell and Popper from the 1940s. Others are, e.g., Janet Radcliffe Richards; Noretta Koertge; and Daphne Patai. Noam Chomsky has also long expressed something like contempt, since his 1959 review of Skinner’s Verbal Behaviour, for the postmodernists, behaviourists and their contemporary heirs, the “social constructivists”. Another professional philosopher, long critical of identity politics, grievance studies, etc., is Christina Hoff Sommers.
    Sommers just recently recorded a conversation with Sir Roger Scruton here,

    • Although I agree that more people could have been mentioned, I have reservations about some of the names that you mention. For example, Russell and Popper in the 1940s could hardly have been referring to cultural or queer studies. Patai is not a philosopher. Chomsky may be a borderline case (linguistics/philosophy). Sommers, with all due respect (I like her work), is not that prominent *as* an analytic philosopher. In any case, I’ll leave it someone else to write the entire history of this skeptical movement. For the time being, I’ll stick to these two hypotheses regarding the involvement of analytic philosophers: (i) there may been a brief uptick in criticism of Theory or theorists by analytic philosophers shortly after the Sokal affair, but this trend seems to have been short-lived—there are even indications of a *reversal* (cf. the importance attached to, for example, Butler and Althusser by Stanley, Haslanger, Chalmers,…) (ii) analytic philosophers almost never name the academic homes of the maligned Theory—the “studies”—unless they come to their defense.

  3. The Culture of Silence & Unquestionable Assumptions are features (more exactly, bugs) of the political Left. Repeated, for centuries. The reversal you mention is real and was surprising. The brief uptick, mainly mocking pomo, driven by Sokal and co was then followed by acquiescence and then endorsement. However what really grew afterwards was identity politics (grievance studies, race & gender victim olympics). In practice, the Pomo cluster struck me as libertines, anarchists, provocateurs, ultra-libertarian in many respects. The identity politics cluster (or social justice warriors as they got called a couple of years ago) strike me as the opposite: moralistic, puritan; judgmental; authoritarian; illiberal.

    Why do so many analytic philosophers capitulate to the intolerant, authoritarian, irrationalist, anti-scientific judgmentalism of identity politics? It’s a genuine surprise to me. Liberal democracy is based on principles like free speech/thought; universalism (legislative/juridical); the rule of law; tolerance (of different opinions); and scientific method. Identity politics attacks all this, as we keep seeing. One would expect to see analytic philosophers leading the charge opposing identity politics. But, with few exceptions, they’re its strongest promoters. While amongst the very few open critics of these trends attacking free speech, the rule of law, etc., is a Marxist whose main interest is history and Nietzsche.

    • “Why do so many analytic philosophers capitulate to the intolerant, authoritarian, irrationalist, anti-scientific judgmentalism of identity politics? It’s a genuine surprise to me”. Unfortunately, analytic philosophy has a history of capitulating to intolerant, authoritarian, irrationalist, anti-scientific politics; see Sesardic, When Reason Goes on Holiday. That’s of course not an explanation, but it makes the current situation less surprising.

    • Dear Jeff,
      We don’t live in a “liberal democracy” (and maybe no one ever has). We live in leftist quasi-theocracy where people who openly question basic leftist assumptions will be persecuted and ruined. Ordinary people have no say in any important policies such as immigration or multiculturalism.

      The “studies” people are the Leninist vanguard, dictating what we must pretend to believe. Whatever evil lies they tell about whites, men, heterosexuals, Europeans or Christians this week will be mandatory beliefs for the rest of us in a year or two. How can anyone think our system is either liberal or democratic? I’ve never understood this. The myth of “liberal democracy” is just propaganda for an obviously illiberal undemocratic system. So there is no mystery about how the “studies” people, and now lickspittle analytic philosophers, have rejected the ideals of liberal democracy. They’re just going with the flow of power, showing how obedient they are and getting some goodies in return.

  4. Every once in a while I encounter analytic philosophers that feel the need to police the boundaries of what might be considered true and proper philosophy. Analytics have been doing this for years on many number of topics, not just the fact that Let-the-Left-Live. Here, however, the net is so wide with unqualified “studies” that I fear you may be considerably vague with such a big brush. Some time ago, Jason Stanley wrote a piece for Inside Higher Ed on this very topic wherein he outlined what he took the humanities to be doing in many of these identity-based critiques and what he saw the function of philosophy doing on a more conceptual level.

    https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2010/04/05/crisis-philosophy

    From Hegel onward, philosophers have sought to understand how one may raise consciousness about the formation of these identities in much the same way that one uses art and literature. Or is understanding alienation from one’s labor in Melville’s Bartleby something none of you would consider a wise thing to do? How about Alexander Roquentin’s anguish and nausea at a finite life? Isn’t Sartre’s exploration of that theme by depicting it in a novel worthy of our attention just as much as reading neuroscience annual reviews that a philosopher of mind would read to stay abreast of findings in the field? What about reading theology for those that do philosophy of religion? I would say yes because the love of wisdom is not about any one topics as it is a set of intellectual habits of mind replicated in many disciplines apart from philosophy.

    The question that I pose is why should philosophy be only about free will, the nature of truth, conceptual analysis with rigor (or whatever else is posed here)? Why can’t philosophy dig in its heels and explore why the question of Being qua being can no longer be asked by our current vocabulary? Why not read a text in another language and stretch out one’s heel and read in many disciplines? Why be convinced that rigor is what analytic philosophers say it is? I guess that’s the clincher really. I’ve heard this same complaint for years. However, this is the first time that a displeasure of the analytic’s tolerance of studies was a culprit of the more agreed upon Leftism of philosophy more generally.

    If I had to guess the philosophical reasoning, it’s not because analytic philosophy is tolerant of “studies.” That’s a superficial answer.

    Analytic philosophy — like Continental philosophy — has generally been suspicious of traditional sources of authority. Particularly, the rise of an accepted scientifically-compatible naturalism means that most analytic philosophers do not like Christian-based conservative philosophies. This orthodox naturalism, however, can track many ways in which various traditional sources of authority (not just religion) are called into question in very much the same way that Nietzsche’s skepticism of Christianity has become orthodox in Continental philosophy.

    • Just for the record: I do not oppose—in fact, I favor—reading theology, novels, texts in another language or from different disciplines, within the context of a philosophical course or project. Nor do I believe that philosophy can only be about free will, truth, and conceptual analysis, and not about, say, alienation or group identity.

    • Hi Jim,
      The following seems false if “traditional sources of authority” refers to things that are traditionally regarded as authoritative in the modern west:

      “Analytic philosophy — like Continental philosophy — has generally been suspicious of traditional sources of authority.”

      The vast hierarchical system of higher education with its canons and Great Thinkers and Great Books (which now includes Judy Butts and “Gender Trouble”, apparently) has been a source of authority in the western world for at least a few centuries now. So I’d say it is a “traditional source of authority” in western societies. In fact, it might well be one of the only traditional sources of authority that we have. Christianity is no more “traditional” for _us_ than Norse religion was 18th century Europeans. Professors are authority figures. Scholarly peer-reviewed journals are (traditionally) regarded as having a special epistemic status. When journalists want us to know the range of intelligent opinions on drone strikes or taxation or feminism, they find a few professors to spout off. And so on.

      Analytic philosophers (and Continental ones) have definitely _not_ been “suspicious” of this “source of authority”. Even if they disagree with Plato or Kant or Quine about this or that, they accept (often quite mindlessly) that these figures framed the Big Questions for us, that our discussions should proceed within that conceptual and historical setting.

      Of course, if “traditional sources of authority” refers to things that were once regarded as authoritative, but not anymore, the quoted statement does seem true enough. Analytic philosophers are very proud of their intellectual independence and skepticism about Christianity or traditional (now defunct) sexual morality.

      I think a more realistic statement about how analytic philosophers relate to authority would be something like this:

      “Analytic philosophers are suspicious of some source of authority S only if (a) S is not regarded as authoritative by analytic philosophers or the larger (white, European, secular, leftist) culture to which they belong or (b) the social status, power and influence of analytic philosophers or the larger culture to which they belong is dependent on S being regarded as authoritative.”

      The (b) clause helps us to understand why supposedly rigorous logic-chopping analytic philosophers are happy to go all mushy and mindless when confronted by some halfwit screaming about “gender” or “white privilege”. They sense that, given the current political and institutional realities, they’re going to get spanked if they disagree or raise intelligent questions or hold the halfwit to basic intellectual standards. And they also sense that they might be rewarded with greater status, power and influence if they can rationalize the halfwit’s screams. They get to be the good white people (or whatever). They get to scold others. They get to seem moral and really really smart. They get to show off and pose as revolutionaries or social critics (or whatever). And they get to have great benefits and pension packages and even the occasional puff piece in the media in return for Speaking Truth to Power (in reality, speaking power to truth).

      And (b) helps us to understand why so many of them now think, or pretend to think, that “naturalism” is a reasonable default position. After all, “naturalism” is pretty much what a technocratic, materialistic, soulless, degenerate society such as ours requires at the metaphysical level. So I think the following claim needs to be spelled out more precisely:

      “the rise of an accepted scientifically-compatible naturalism means that most analytic philosophers do not like Christian-based conservative philosophies”

      The key thing is that it’s “accepted”. In other words, it’s a belief that lots of people like, that powerful people have managed to propagate within the mis-educated masses, that the media and the “education” system promote, etc. Analytic philosophers like to “accept” what those in power want us to accept, quite apart from any rational arguments for or against. In reality, “naturalism” is either meaningless or totally implausible. (Consider the claim that reality is exhaustively described by natural science, for example. If natural science includes physics in 500 years, for example, or any kind of inquiry that might bear some family resemblance to what we now call “natural science”, the claim is totally empty. But if natural science is just our current science, or something roughly along those lines, the claim is just silly.)

      Analytic philosophers tend not to accept Christianity or Christian-based conservative philosophies for the same bad reason that most Europeans in the middle ages tend not to accept Hinduism or Hindu-based philosophies. There was no particular discovery or insight or new method that made Christianity less philosophically respectable than it was before. Philosophers in the west live within a mass of irrational superstitions and taboos that seem entirely reasonable and obvious to them (like most people). In other words, they’re just not philosophers.

      If someone were to truly question “traditional sources of authority” and “philosophies” issuing from those sources of authority in _this_ time and place–if someone were a real philosopher–he’d question naturalism, liberalism, egalitarianism, feminism, multiculturalism, etc. He’d question capitalism and socialism, the higher ed racket, the received history of WWII, and all kinds of other stuff. But, of course, almost no analytic philosophers ever do question any of these things.

  5. Oops — an important typo in my claim about analytic philosophers and authority:

    It says:

    “Analytic philosophers are suspicious of some source of authority S only if (a) S is not regarded as authoritative by analytic philosophers or the larger (white, European, secular, leftist) culture to which they belong or (b) the social status, power and influence of analytic philosophers or the larger culture to which they belong is dependent on S being regarded as authoritative.”

    But it SHOULD have said:

    “Analytic philosophers are suspicious of some source of authority S only if (a) S is not regarded as authoritative by analytic philosophers or the larger (white, European, secular, leftist) culture to which they belong or (b) the social status, power and influence of analytic philosophers or the larger culture to which they belong is NOT dependent on S being regarded as authoritative.”

    Everything after makes sense only with that “not”…

  6. Really all this points to man’s general penchant to be led like sheep. Go with the flow, don’t rock the boat, go along to get along.

    That plus people aren’t (generally speaking) stupid. Do we really think the citizens of the DPRK turn out in droves raising their collective fists in unity for Kim Jong Un, their women weeping over his oratory in the streets because they worship him, or because they’ve figured out when you don’t show up and put out that your family is all killed and your house is razed?

    The sad truth is people love comfort more than they love the truth. Men love the praise of men. It’s man’s nature.

    There are some who will go against the flow, but they are very few and far between, and those in power know how to shut them up, shut them down, or buy them off. There’s nothing new under the sun.

    • I agree that most analytic philosophers are simply conforming to what they perceive as the norm. Still, it’s an interesting question—raised earlier in this thread by Jeff—why this has become the norm.

    • I’d mention three main points, concerning the ideology itself; its prevalence and institutional power structure; and the opposition to it.

      1. The Social Justice/Identity Politics Ideology
      The political ideology here is “social justice”/identity politics; rather than socialism, or social democracy, or Marxism, or Marxism-Leninism, or Trotskyism, etc. It promotes evidence-free nonsense about non-existent “group oppression”, with a language resembling the credo of a religious cult. Its empirical claims are frequently false; sometimes a tiny nugget of truth but exaggerated, wildly by orders of magnitude; and sometimes just fabricated. Its methods and norms are authoritarian bullying, intimidation, indoctrination, false accusations, witch hunts, violations of civil liberties, aggression and punishment.

      2. Its prevalence and its power structure
      a) The social justice folks are not some small groupuscle; they have vast amounts of institutional and corporate power: social media (Facebook, Reddit, Twitter); the whole education system; the legal system; policing; corporate capitalism and the tech world — Wall St, Silicon Valley; the arts and literary world, Hollywood, etc.
      b) This ideology is a fairly recent innovation; it is comfortable with capitalism and antagonistic to the working-class, who are libelled as “deplorables” (a dog whistle for “working class”).
      c) Despite its widespread prevalence in academia, its prevalence and degree of frenzy seems to be highest in philosophy, and probably worst in analytic philosophy, as Bob says.

      3. Opposition
      a) There has fairly long-standing opposition to identity politics and grievance studies from many directions. From centrists/classical liberals like myself (similarly Dave Rubin, Cathy Young, Jon Haidt, Steven Pinker); from social conservatives; from libertarians (e.g., Reason and FIRE); and also from others in the Left, including social democrats (even Marxists like Michael Rechtenwald; and Freudian feminists like Laura Kipnis).
      b) There is almost no opposition to it in philosophy itself. Its opponents are frightened, silenced, and intimidated.

  7. “Despite its widespread prevalence in academia, its prevalence and degree of frenzy seems to be highest in philosophy, and probably worst in analytic philosophy, as Bob says”

    Where does he say that? I took him to say the opposite: that analytic philosophy is one of few disciplines in the humanities/social sciences that have been largely immune from the postmodernist/social justice left, despite the naive virtue signalling displayed in conformity with it by certain analytic philosophers.

    Just for the fun of it, I propose the following ranking of academic disciplines according to the degree of their being in thrall to leftism (from the most to the least):

    The newer “studies” (women’s, postcolonial, cultural, black, LGBT, etc)
    Sociology
    Anthropology
    English/Literature
    Continental Philosophy
    Art History
    Political Science
    Performing Arts
    History
    Religious Studies
    Linguistics
    Psychology
    Medieval Studies
    Classics
    Theology
    Economics
    Analytic Philosophy
    Hard Sciences
    Mathematics

  8. Hi Jacque,

    I am not trying to confuse “traditional sources of authority” with the want to make one’s own sense-making a tradition itself or the fact that there are other traditions. I was just trying to highlight traditional sources of authority like religious revelation, natural law, Framers’ intention etc. as frameworks that are common to many versions of US conservatism without being rather precise as to which source I meant. My only point was that internal to its own development, AP might have reasons on its own to reject those sources, and this is an additional reason why an APer might find themselves compatible with other people’s normative projects–e.g., LGBT discrimination often comes out of a Christian mindset. One might think that practical rationality, not God, are the source of moral insight. This is different from answering the same Big Questions differently than what came before. One can be skeptical of Christianity and still propose an objective moral order, so it might not be as mindless as many are pretending. In other words, there might be reasons many APers have for maintaining (a) below beyond simple regard.

    “Analytic philosophers are suspicious of some source of authority S only if (a) S is not regarded as authoritative by analytic philosophers or the larger (white, European, secular, leftist) culture to which they belong or (b) the social status, power and influence of analytic philosophers or the larger culture to which they belong is dependent on S being regarded as authoritative.”

    I do admit (b) happens some of the time because many “get spanked if they disagree or raise intelligent questions or hold the [person] to basic intelligent standards.” However, this is more or less what happens when people disagree with larger group-think (and not to be confused with the alleged influence of analytic philosophers larger effect on culture–perhaps that’s true in the UK??) It happens here when I openly say otherwise to some conservative statement Y. It also happens when I am in the room with feminists and I say that the bodily autonomy argument makes receiving an abortion AS IF if it were morally neutral like a haircut. Now whether one approves of abortion or not is besides the point. The bodily autonomy argument is a bad argument for abortion conceptually, and I have been slammed for it socially.

    I would also like to hear specific examples of these halfwits, which texts or ideas to which these analytic philosophers jump on some ad populum identity politics bandwagon.

    Now, I admit to adopting something like a nonnaturalism when it comes to the ontology of values, which is beside the following point. I have only encountered commitments to naturalism philosophically as a social virtue-signal once. I saw it as a graduate student, but I also see many people upset at the universal abuse of this word, and they are trying to figure out to what extent various domains can or should be naturalized. I know a few Peirce and Sellars scholars doing this sort of thing, and they are offering arguments to teach other. This more or less reflects my overall experience and so it’s not true that they are just accepting this from people in power or that they just like the belief. APers typically like beliefs they think are worthy of the truth. Your complaints against what we might call naturalism are a caricature in much the same way that Husserl launched phenomenology against the amplified dangers of the natural attitude.

    “If someone were to truly question “traditional sources of authority” and “philosophies” issuing from those sources of authority in _this_ time and place–if someone were a real philosopher–he’d question naturalism, liberalism, egalitarianism, feminism, multiculturalism, etc. He’d question capitalism and socialism, the higher ed racket, the received history of WWII, and all kinds of other stuff. But, of course, almost no analytic philosophers ever do question any of these things.”

    I totally agree with this, and yes APers never do question these things to my satisfaction. Then again, I am happily outside AP by method and choice.

  9. Hi Jim,
    A few scattered replies…

    “I would also like to hear specific examples of these halfwits, which texts or ideas to which these analytic philosophers jump on some ad populum identity politics bandwagon.”

    Take a look at Daily Nous, the Philosopher’s Cocoon or Leiter Reports for countless examples. If you really don’t believe me, I guess I can dig up a bunch of journal articles or course descriptions. A specific example, if you like. A few years back, some poor woman at Harvard was being ruined and humiliated for expressing mild (entirely rational) skepticism about the Blank Slate theory as applied to race, and Leiter wrote on his blog:

    ‘There is no evidence–literally, none–that IQ differences between racial groups have a genetic basis.’

    Naturally he says that anyone who thinks otherwise is ‘ignorant’ (and ‘racist’). As anyone who has looked into the subject will be aware, there is actually an enormous amount of evidence here. There is a full century of scientific literature on the topic. What Leiter says here, so smugly and categorically, is just demonstrably false. Experts in this field have been publishing studies and meta-analyses in peer-reviewed journals, non-stop, for years and decades. And while there is controversy about whether the evidence really does establish any important natural racial differences relevant to IQ (and other things) there is really _no_ evidence whatsoever that such differences are _not_ to some extent genetically based. Let me say that again, though it may be too obvious to say even once: there is _no_ evidence whatsoever for the belief that human races are identical or even roughly similar when it comes to the genetic or evolved traits that influence IQ (and other things). But analytic philosophers sure do “jump on some ad populum identity politics bandwagon” when it comes to racial issues. (Or a bandwagon anyway, if not an identity politics bandwagon.) You’re not going to hear any AP publicly questioning the racial egalitarian faith. Some might point out that Leiter is just dead wrong about the existence of the evidence, but you’re not going to find anyone with a career pointing out that, as a matter of fact, the evidence very strongly supports “racism”, etc. Although this is just obviously true.

    Find me one published article where a non-pseudonymous AP rationally investigates this issue (or anything in the ballpark). If there’s even one, I guarantee you I can find 100 more where APs mindlessly assert racial equality (and 60 or 70 of those will include Leiter-type moronism to the effect that “everyone knows” there are no natural differences in intelligence, that “of course” blacks and whites are perfectly equal in all their natural or genetic capacities, or that “of course” we find few black astrophysicists only because of “racism” or “colonialism”, etc.)

    If you want another example, read the dumb Ned Block essay that Leiter cites. (Probably the only thing Leiter has read on the topic.) Block very badly misunderstands the hereditarians he claims to be refuting. They simply don’t reason in the way that he claims. They don’t say “T-differences between members of group G are hereditary, so T-differences between G and G* are also hereditary”. Any minimally charitable reading of Jensen and other real scientists in this area would make that obvious. And the defense of egalitarianism that he offers could be knocked down by a bright 12 year old with a little training in logic. Block is being dumb as bricks here, despite being very smart, and I assume the reason is that he’s a coward or a conformist or a careerist.

    We could say the same thing about lots of other beliefs that APs generally accept. For example, there’s no evidence whatsoever for the kind of sexual egalitarianism that almost all of them accept, or pretend to accept. All the evidence points the other way–to natural evolved differences between men and women that range over psychology and sexuality and political orientation and pretty much everything. But APs know that being rational about feminism or “anti-racism” is bad for your health. So they pretend, or they actually convince themselves of these utterly absurd beliefs. So I don’t think I agree with your claim that

    “APers typically like beliefs they think are worthy of the truth”.

    At least, if “beliefs they think are worthy of the truth” means something like “beliefs they think are rationally or epistemically worthy of being believed, because they’re likely to be true”, this claim strikes me as very implausible. APs are mostly cowards, conformists and careerists. That’s the best explanation for their behavior. (After all, they’re generally fairly intelligent and reasonably well informed about the world.) They “like” a whole raft of beliefs that just happen to be the beliefs that good-thinking nice people in our society are supposed to share, beliefs that we can’t openly question without major risks and harms. These beliefs are a stew of extreme irrationality, ignorance and bullshit. I guess we might agree that they think these beliefs are rationally worthy of acceptance, or likely to be true, because they have _already_ decided to prostitute themselves as thinkers, and then managed to wishfully or willfully convince themselves that the stew of unreason and bullshit is eminently sensible and scientific and just all-round awesome. But that’s as far as I can get to agreeing with you on this point (unless I’m misunderstanding you).

  10. “Your complaints against what we might call naturalism are a caricature”

    I’m curious about this. How would you define ‘naturalism’? What is a non-caricature? As far as I know, it’s quite common for philosophers (who like naturalism) to define it as the claim that everything can be fully described or explained in terms of natural science, or something like that.

    The SEP entry begins by admitting that the term “has no very precise meaning in contemporary philosophy”, apart from the idea that there is nothing “supernatural”, but that, nonetheless:

    “The great majority of contemporary philosophers would happily accept naturalism as just characterized—that is, they would both reject “supernatural” entities, and allow that science is a possible route (if not necessarily the only one) to important truths about the “human spirit”.”

    So what are they happily accepting? But what is the “supernatural” they reject? No doubt the experts at SEP would happily admit that there’s no very precise meaning they want to assign to “supernaturalism” either. But I guess it means they all happily accept that there is no God, no gods, no immaterial spirits or forces, no immaterial soul or reincarnation or afterlife, etc. Well, if that’s what they think, they’re just being dumb. No one has ever produced any argument against “supernaturalism” that would be anywhere near strong enough to justify happily accepting this very extreme thesis, contrary to the intuitions and spontaneous beliefs of almost all human beings throughout all known history, contrary to some very compelling philosophical arguments well known to all these people–but just ignored, or never really seriously considered.

    Moreover, if “science is a possible route to important truths about the human spirit”–would anyone deny that?–how can we happily accept that “science” won’t someday reveal all kinds of “supernatural” realities that “naturalists” deny? Or does “science” just mean “the kind of inquiry” that assumes away “the supernatural”?

    Anyway, my complaint is that “naturalism” is either vacuous or very implausible–to the degree that no open-minded rational thinker would “happily accept” it. SEP is being a bit disingenuous, of course, since most “naturalists” don’t just think that science is a _possible_ route to knowledge about this or that. They hold a much stronger view, as SEP then goes on to admit:

    “By the middle of the twentieth century, belief in sui generis mental or vital forces had become a minority view. This led to the widespread acceptance of the doctrine now known as the “causal closure” or the “causal completeness of the physical”, according to which all physical effects have fully physical causes.”

    Of course, if non-physical souls or minds (etc) are taken to be “supernatural”, human life (or “the human spirit”) must be a wholly physical affair, and must also have “fully physical causes”. Then the _only_ route to knowledge of human life or anything else would be one science, physics. And don’t many philosophers call themselves “physicalists”? I don’t think I’m caricaturing anything here.

    Well, what is “physical”? The kind of thing that actual contemporary physics postulates? If so, “naturalism” of this kind is absurdly conservative and narrow-minded. Or does “the physical” include any old thing that might someday figure in physics, however exactly “physics” might be defined at that point? (Maybe some future physics as different from ours as ours is from Aristotle’s?) Why can’t reincarnation or Christ’s incarnation or telepathy be “fully physical causes” in that sense? So on this non-absurd interpretation “naturalism” of this kind is vacuous. (The same point holds for the epistemic or methodological version of such “naturalism” with a few easy tweaks.)

    In a sane world, SEP would just begin by admitting that most analytic philosophers have come to agree on something way too nebulous and mushy to satisfy their own supposed standards–like medievals agreeing that the Holy Ghost ‘proceeds’ from the Father alone, or Derrideans agreeing that the text is always sub-altern-ed to the facticity of hegemonic neo-phallo-centrism (or whatever Derrideans might agree on). And SEP would admit that when we make any attempt to clarify this nebulous mushy thing it turns out to be really stupid or totally empty.

    But my question was real, not rhetorical. Is there some better definition of “naturalism” that’s not open to this kind of objection?

    • Hello Jacques,

      A few scattered replies. First, I’d love a separate thread on critiques of naturalism bogged down in particular authors. That would be very fun. Let’s not hijack a thread not devoted to that, and I invite you to write it. I bet there’s a lot there to explore. With that said, let’s move on to the example of genetic based theories of IQ.

      Next,let me concede to you that many have published studies on the nature aspect of inheritance and IQ. I still think that the question you claim as the central controversy presents us with a hard epistemic barrier, which may never be resolved–the overdetermination of evidence that IQ and inherited racial traits share a causal relationship. If evidence cannot be determined either way, then that debate ends up generating only arguments from ignorance. Why even think that’s important then? What upshot and difference is there to think one way or the other given that the evidence cannot be shown either way?

      I can only speculate about what your motives are to maintain that those differences are real and there by nature. If you want, you can tell me. I can tell you that I, JS, am suspicious of essentialisms in much the same way that many at one time advocated for oppressive or racist attitudes by advocating for the legitimacy of phrenology. I won’t put words into your mouth, however. There may be other things on your mind.

      What’s more, let us speculate for a minute that some supernatural principle like the soul exists and there really is a God to whom we owe our creation, this disembodied mind/soul is the true animating principle of what governs human intelligence, the body and the phenotypes which determine the category of race do not matter at that point. In fact, not seeing the differences might be the goal of Christian love. Every created being is infinitely loved by God and this calls for us to recognize each other in the same way with the same agapic unconditional love.

  11. Hi Jim,
    Thanks for your reply. About IQ, you write:

    “If evidence cannot be determined either way, then that debate ends up generating only arguments from ignorance. Why even think that’s important then?”

    I would like to see some real evidence for the claim that “evidence cannot be determined either way”. Based on my knowledge of the scientific literature–and I’m not an expert–it seems to me that the evidence strongly supports the “racist” theory that racial differences in average IQ are partly due to natural or genetic differences. So I don’t see why proponents of the “racist” theory can offer “only arguments from ignorance”. They can offer all kinds of scientifically credible arguments which (as far as I know) add up to a strong case.

    But let’s set that aside and assume for the sake of argument that, as you put it, this is a “controversy” that presents us with “a hard epistemic barrier” and “may never be resolved”. (Actually I’m willing to allow that this is a reasonable position, though I disagree.) The important point is that analytic philosophers almost _never_ say things like this. They don’t allow that there is any rational case to be made for the “racist” hypothesis. They don’t say that it’s hard to know whether racial differences in IQ are based in natural or evolved or genetic racial differences. Instead, they tend to assert dogmatically (and usually with lots of smugness and venom and name-calling) that there is absolutely no evidence for the “racist” hypothesis, like Leiter, or that human races just are identical in their natural or genetic capacities. But in reality, there is no evidence whatsoever for this position. The real situation is exactly the opposite of what Leiter so confidently asserts: There’s no evidence whatsoever for the blank slate or egalitarian position. At most, there are arguments meant to _defend_ that position against objections. There is no evidence _for_ the position.

    And yet, when the topic comes up, almost all analytic philosophers publicly support this irrational egalitarian position. (Aside from Michael Levin and maybe a few others, can you think of any examples of analytic philosophers who have publicly stated any position other than the irrational egalitarian position?)

    Rather than questioning my “motives” in putting forward this example, you should question the motives of analytic philosophers. Why do they publicly endorse a claim for which there is absolutely no evidence, when that claim is not obvious or self-evident or even intuitively plausible? (It’s not particularly plausible for anyone who accepts that humans are subject to macro-evolution, as virtually all of these people do–or, for that matter, anyone who’s noticed that human races differ in a thousand undeniable ways, and so surely could also differ psychologically or neurologically.)

    If you wanted an example of halfwits and ideologues jumping on a political bandwagon without any philosophical justification, I’d say this is a pretty compelling example.

  12. You also seem to be saying that given theism (or something like that) any natural racial differences don’t matter:

    “…some supernatural principle like the soul exists and there really is a God to whom we owe our creation, this disembodied mind/soul is the true animating principle of what governs human intelligence, the body and the phenotypes which determine the category of race do not matter at that point. In fact, not seeing the differences might be the goal of Christian love. Every created being is infinitely loved by God and this calls for us to recognize each other in the same way with the same agapic unconditional love.”

    But here and now, we are _embodied_ souls or minds. And maybe it matters what happens to these embodied souls or minds because their embodiment is the only way to learn and develop spiritually. Or maybe there are different kinds of souls, and we find ourselves in different bodies–with different brains and genes, belonging to different sexes or races–because those kinds of physical differences are manifestations of spiritual differences.

    Regardless of any supernatural dimension, we’re being subjected to non-stop propaganda for the egalitarian position. Whites are supposed to feel guilty when they hear that blacks are still not ending up as astrophysicists or analytic philosophers. It’s our fault that blacks often end up shooting each other, and shooting cops, and burning down their neighborhoods. On and on. Whites have been victims of serious massive violence at the hands of blacks and other non-whites for generations, and this violence is due in large part to the endless anti-white (egalitarian) propaganda. The propaganda incites deep non-white hatred of whites, prevents gullible whites from protecting themselves or organizing in their own defense and, to some extent, justifies it.

    And so, if there are natural or genetic reasons for some of these differences in behavior and life outcomes that are blamed on whites, that’s very important. It means that white people are being unfairly blamed and physically harmed, that none of these programs and policies meant to lift up blacks (at our expense, usually) are going to work (and maybe other policies are needed). Anyone who cares about crime and violence, fairness and racial harmony, or the well being of society should care about this. So unless you’re saying that the only thing that really matters is some kind of supernatural dimension–so that AIDS and nuclear war also “do not matter at that point”–this stuff really does matter.

    If “the goal of Christian love” is to ignore any racial differences even here on earth, even when ignoring those differences will cause irreparable damage to innocent people and a great civilization, “Christian love” is suicidal insanity. If the goal is to ignore such differences on some supernatural level, or in the afterlife, that’s fine with me. But there are other levels, and we’re not in the afterlife for the moment.

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