“A responsible critic aspires to the heights of intellectual charity, and at least rises to the level of fairness.”
So says Nathan (Nate) King at The American Conservative in an article much lauded today by many professing philosophers. The article is, for the most part, a criticism of Rod Dreher’s provocatively titled essay, “The Self-Murder of Academic Philosophy.” In the latter essay, Dreher leads by asking why anyone would choose to go into academic philosophy today. He then goes on to note some truly embarrassing events that have occurred in the last year within “professional” philosophy (some of which we have discussed. E.g., here and here.) In response, King says that Dreher has “flipped his lid” and “displays the same lack of care for which his critics are rightly scolded” and that his piece is “neither well argued nor helpful.” Do read the rest for background for what follows.
Let us start with a bit of autobiography. None of us upon reading Dreher’s missive took Dreher to be making an argument. We took him rather to be raising questions (book-ending his post): Why go into academic philosophy and why not start alternative institutions to those becoming infected by the sort of madness seen in the examples illustrated?
King, however, tries to find an argument where it does not seem Dreher intended there to be one, and the rest of his post is mostly a strawman which makes several unfounded assumptions. The argument appears to go like this:
Does a responsible critic aspire “to the height of intellectual charity” by presenting a formally invalid argument on behalf of an author when the author has not even presented an argument? We will let the reader decide.
King assumes that Dreher’s negative view of academic philosophy is based solely on two incidents, Swinburne’s swindling and Hypatia’s hosing. We wonder how closely King has followed Dreher throughout the years. He seems to us to have had his finger on the pulse of academic philosophy for the better part of a decade. Yet King seems to think Dreher has no other evidence, is not aware of other contemptible episodes, has not heard other testimony from philosophers about the dismal state of academic philosophy, and so forth. He just assumes that Dreher makes a hasty generalization from the Swinburne and Tuval cases. Once again we ask, does this strike you as responsible, charitable, and fair?
Second, King’s airline analogy is deeply flawed. King complains that Dreher seemingly discounts all the other nice exchanges in academic philosophy just like someone who discounts all of the successful flights that an airline has over the years in light of two crashes. However, the kinds of “successful” exchanges that take place in academic philosophy are ones that are not about the very issues conservatives like Dreher are concerned about in the first place. The successful conversations are about metaphysical minutia, epistemology of disagreement, philosophy of conditional statements, classical logic, and so forth. No doubt Dreher is aware of successful exchanges on these topics. But where are the successful exchanges about sexual ethics, especially ones critical of LGBT issues, gender theory, anything about race, nationalism, political theory, how to live well, the meaning of life (which many philosophers mock), etc.?
Conservatives do not have these exchanges for fear of reprisals and blacklisting, and senior conservatives or conservative-friendly philosophers explicitly tell younger, nontenured philosophers to avoid such topics. This is common knowledge. So we do not know how many exchanges are avoided because of this advice. Hence the airline analogy does not work at all. The analogy would work better if it were about an airline avoiding hostile areas for fear of being hijacked or shot down. The problem, though, is that the list of active hostile areas where planes have been shot down completely under-represents the total number of hostile areas where they would be shot down if entered, and the airlines do not publish the information about which ones they are avoiding. And if you persistently ask them about it, they won’t let you fly in first class.
Third, King’s claim that it is demonstrably false that academic philosophy “is a lost cause” (his words, not Dreher’s) also misses the mark. King writes:
But it does not follow that if McIntyre hadn’t written After Virtue, Dreher would not have thought of, discovered, or advocated for the Benedict Option. Demonstrating the truth of a such a counterfactual is not that easy. MacIntyre was conservative, so of course Dreher would like him. But others of MacIntyre’s persuasion are not the kind of people who currently can have a flourishing career in academic philosophy for precisely the reasons Dreher mentions. It would be an imprudent mistake to begin one’s career wearing one’s conservatism on one’s sleeve.
Even still, one could affirm without contradiction both that academic philosophy is a lost cause and that there are some good academic philosophers like MacIntyre. This would be similar to affirming that “Sully” is an excellent pilot even though American Airlines appears to be going belly-up with stock holders.
Fourth, King’s next point is also off target. He notes that a good number of philosophers are fans of objective truth and knowledge, citing the Character and Beacon projects (led by Christian Miller) as examples of this, as if this is somehow a counter response to Dreher. However, to be concerned with these items in the abstract is one thing. But to flesh out the actual details of what it takes to have good moral character, that is, to start talking about and listing substantive, first-order moral truths, this is exactly where one cannot be an outspoken conservative or traditional moral philosopher with respect to sexual ethics, gender differences, and other topics already mentioned above. Those topics are simply not talked about. In fact, in the last ten years or so, we have read scores of papers, literally scores, where the go-to examples of vice are almost exclusively about (ill-defined) racism and “homophobia”—hardly a place where people with diverse opinions can air them.
King’s point about Dreher’s implicit condemnation of excellent work by Christian philosophers is also hard to take seriously. Dreher has praised Christian philosophers time and time again (and did so explicitly during the Swinburne affair). Moreover, as Dreher said in his original piece, he is not recommending that Christian philosophers quit philosophizing; he is recommending that some start their own institutions.
Kicking dirt in the faces of Christian philosophers who are “laboring in hard ground”? Dreher does no such thing. And even if one grants that academic philosophy is a lost cause (if one wishes to philosophize about the unmentionable), does it follow that the Benedict Option is the only option? No. Dreher does not argue that it is the only option (though rhetorical flourishes sometimes may intimate as much). Rather, he seems to think it is a very desirable option; perhaps it is even the best option given the circumstances. This is obvious once you think about his project as a whole, which is to ask what Christians should do in the present socio-cultural milieu in which they find themselves. Is it the best option? Some of us think not, and King is fine to disagree that this is the best option, but to assume that Dreher thinks it’s the only option is yet again not responsible, charitable, or fair.
King ends in good academic, philosophical fashion by hedging his bets:
Hope no longer. Dreher’s position is much more nuanced. In fact, one will see that at the end of Dreher’s article he posted two addenda from philosophers criticizing his view. Anyone who has followed Dreher throughout the years will not be surprised at this.
In conclusion, let us return to the claim that from one or two instances we should not be hasty in generalizing about the current state of affairs in academic philosophy. (Note that we have been careful throughout to distinguish between philosophy and academic philosophy. The two are not the same). Let us take as our example the Swinburne affair as a reminder of how powerful the leftist, hegemonic hold is: a world-class, Christian philosopher cannot offer considerations in support of the traditional view of sexual ethics at a Christian philosophy conference without the leadership genuflecting at the altar of diversity. How many more examples do you need? Do you think a junior professor is going to defend traditional sexual ethics at the Society of Christian Philosophers conference in front of a large crowd? All it takes is making an example of one, and that one happened to be one of the most senior and distinguished in the profession. The left, of course, knows this and uses it to good effect.
With King, we too are concerned about aspiring Christian philosophers not entering the field. Moreover, we are concerned about aspiring traditional Christians and conservatives more generally not entering the field. And so we too end with a question: do we need more careerists in academic philosophy defending the status quo with know-nothing administrators beholden to leftists in power, or do we need more pesky gadflies willing to ask unpopular questions and, if need be, drink the hemlock?
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