Is philosophy a joke?

No, not a continuation of the theme of the previous two posts.

My son, who has been pursuing a degree in philosophy over the last couple of years with steadily mounting frustration, has decided to "drop out", work for a while, and consider where he goes next. He signs off his blog here:

Although it is unfortunate to quit before I can figure out whether (the vast majority of) philosophers are actually as staggeringly incompetent as they appear to be, or are simply playing an elaborate practical joke, I simply couldn’t stand it either way.

Yes, he's disenchanted. I'm proud of him and his efforts to find a way to apply reason to important questions about life, and I've been dismayed to watch the discipline of philosophy lose someone as motivated as he has been, punishing originality rather than encouraging it, pandering to intuition, and giving up on reason while spending its time on issues such as whether proper names are rigid designators.

I'm no philosopher, but while I look forward to seeing what my son does next, I have no inclination whatsoever to read Naming and Necessity.

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  1. Hmmmmm, you have no inclination whatsoever to read Naming and Necessity yet you deal with PRIMARY KEYs and GUIDs on a daily basis. Me thinks different groups have their own fancy names for the same thing.

  2. I hope your son figures out how he can do the kind of intellectual work that he wants to do.
    In the meantime he might enjoy this:

  3. I don’t get the indictment of philosophy that’s implied here. Of higher education, sure. The whole educational system is pretty badly broken. But philosophy? Because your son likes utilitarianism (and thus cavalierly dismisses its problems) and because philosophy of language and metaphysics (sub-disciplines of the whole huge field) are influenced by Kripke? Come on.

  4. ADHR, what on earth are you talking about? Your post is just wrong. You assume things about how I think that just aren’t true (oh, I cavalierly dismiss utilitarianism’s problems? Good to fucking know!).
    You ask what the indictment of philosophy is supposed to be, without even addressing e.g. the linked post on how philosophers give far too much weight to “basic beliefs” to the extent that they give up on ever coming to true, meaningful conclusions on important issues. I mean, if you don’t feel like reading my blog, that’s absolutely fine, but you can’t expect to know what the case being made here is, if you do not read the case being made. Make sense?
    In another one of the linked posts I make a case that Naming and Necessity, allegedly one of the most influential philosophical essays of the 20th century, is bullshit, and you try to handwave this away by saying “oh, well if it turns out that one of the most influential philosophical pieces of the 20th century is nonsense, is that REALLY a reason to think that something might be wrong with how philosophers go about things? I mean, COME ON.”
    Seriously, if that isn’t cause to think something is seriously wrong with philosophy as a whole then what is?

  5. I came to this blog to comment on the Open Data controversy, but I thought I’d leave a recommendation that your son read “What Is Wrong With Our Thoughts” by David Stove, only to find a previous commenter has said the same thing. +1!

  6. In case you and your son have not read it, Paul Graham’s essay on getting a B.A. in philosophy 25 years ago matched my experience perfectly:
    Like Paul, I found professional programming relatively easy after surviving those pointless yet demanding classes. Good luck to your son!

  7. Thanks for the suggestions and wishes.

  8. Hmmm. I have a degree in Philosophy. I didn’t agree with almost everything I read in my course work, and yet I have found it to be extremely useful training for the rest of my life.
    We read the old philosophers to get an understanding of the history of thought. For example, I have a deeper understanding of Hobbes’s theory of causality because I had read Descartes, Artistotle, etc. on the same subject.
    Not only do most of us disagree with most of what the old philosophers said, but we don’t even find most of their questions interesting anymore. (I spent months reading arguments for the existence of god by Leibniz and others, and I’m an atheist with zero interest in the subject.) Even with modern writers, I find most philosophy uninteresting, wrong, or wrong-headed.
    So why am I glad I studied philosophy? Here are some reasons:
    I learned to read, think, write, and argue.
    I trained my mind. I had to analyse all sorts of issues, not just ones that interested me. I found Leibniz so awful that I had to read parts of it out loud in order to get through it… and in so doing I trained myself to concentrate.
    I found a few philosophers whose writing really resonated with me: people like Kant, Wittgenstein, Robert Nozick, and everyone writing about philosophy of social science.
    Along the way, mostly through my essays, I came to some conclusions about moral relativism, political fairness and so on that have stuck with me as bedrock beliefs.
    As to the issue of bad teaching, this is no defence or excuse for it, but academia seems to create obstacles to students (especially at the graduate level) that are annoying, unfair, and sometimes evil. Only the very committed get through. It’s just what they do.
    Anyway, that’s my two cents.
    Your son sounds super smart and I’m sure he’ll do well however he decides to proceed.

  9. I was struck by this comment:
    If you read Ayer and still find Kripke inconsequential, perhaps you could write a knock-down positive account of why you think so. Hell, submit it to a journal because that would be an important thesis. Until then, you might take the fact that such a paper has not been submitted to a journal as an indicator of the possibility that such a thesis is not tenable.
    Academic discourse (in any discipline) is a knowledge cloud constituted by a long-running conversation. To a newcomer (in any discipline) that conversation is likely to look idiosyncratic at best – I looked into doing Cultural Studies at MA level, years ago, and decided against when I realised that the conversation was going to be mostly about Habermas, who I’d never read and had no desire to read. But it is how academic discourse works (in any discipline).
    If the question is “why is Kripke important?”, “he refuted Ayer” is a perfectly good answer. And if the question is “why is Kripke important, given that he seems to be talking nonsense?” there are only two answers. One is “show that he’s talking nonsense, in terms that we can understand, and you may win our star prize (NB prize may be conditional on willingness to talk about Kripke)”. The other is “maybe this conversation isn’t for you”.
    In other words, I think there’s a difference between “philosophy doesn’t make sense in any way that I find useful or congenial” and “philosophy doesn’t make sense”.

  10. I’ve always found political philosophy of incredibly limited usefulness.
    E.G. the search for a ‘coherent’ philosophy, often pitted as deontology versus consequentialism. But obviously pure deontology makes no sense because it doesn’t take situation into account, there are areas not breaking a ruler might break another, etc. Pure consequentialism also has its well known flaws of sacrificing people for the greater good.
    But who cares whether we can build a moral theory on a single axiom? Of course we fucking can’t, the world is too complicated! What’s wrong with adopting a broadly consequentalist view, but with several caveats such as ‘by the way, don’t enslave anyone to achieve this, obviously.’ I just consider the rest of it pointless navel gazing.

  11. My impression (perhaps wrong) is that your son was doing an undergraduate degree in philosophy, and he was in a program in which philosophy courses were the only thing on the menu. While this is quite standard in UK (and I guess many Canadian) universities, you cannot do this, except under quite unusual circumstances, in the U.S., where one typically doesn’t study one subject *exclusively* as an undergrad. Despite all the severe and well-known problems with US higher education, this particular aspect strikes me as an advantage. It allows one to sample more than one field and potentially to switch from A to B if A is not to one’s liking. I took one philosophy course as a freshman and that was all I needed to decide not to be a philosophy major. I am interested in philosophy (political philosophy in particular) but probably would not have wanted to spend several years in a philosophy department dominated, as most Anglophone ones are, by analytic philosophers and having to take formal logic etc. Being able to take one philosophy course before committing to it helped me find that out.

  12. The UK does have courses that are split 50/50, 75/25 or even 33/33/33 between different subjects. It’s also entirely possible to do a number of modules in different schools in a pure degree, as long as you retain enough of the core.
    I don’t think it’s too different the US; it’s just that we don’t explicitly have ‘majors’ and ‘minors.’

  13. Unlearning Econ:
    Thanks. The US/UK differences may well be less sharp than I think. Given the hour where I am, I’ll leave it at that.

  14. The “discipline” of academic philosophy has been bleeding off all the good bits over the last several centuries: basically any field which grants a PhD is a spinoff, which includes math, all of the sciences, all of the social sciences, and large portions of the humanities.
    Philosophy even lost logic back in the ’50s (logic is now in math departments). Semantics and syntax are studied in math, CS, and linguistics. It’s all like this; all the subjects which developed proceeded to leave the philosophy department: from the origins of the world (physics, astronomy, geology, etc) to the workings of the human brain (psych) to social organization (poli-sci, sociology, anthropology).
    What’s left in philosophy departments is, unfortunately, the dregs, the subjects where nothing interesting enough has been discovered to create a “spinoff” department. This has been bad for the academic environment in philosophy departments.
    Morality is one of the few areas of interest where philosophy departments still maintain ‘exclusive’ academic focus, thanks to a lack of development of moral theories period; if there’s ever a developmemnt I expect it will leave the philo department too.

  15. Even as someone who’s sympathetic to many of your son’s substantive positions, the impression I get from those posts is primarily of someone who’s naively overconfident in the correctness of their own views, and who finds the task of having to convince others of this more frustrating than energizing.
    Neither the naive overconfidence nor the frustration are at all unusual for smart youngsters (indeed, I had both in spades at his age). However, over time many also come to realize (a) that learning to convince idiots that they’re wrong is a fun/valuable skill to learn, even if it’s sometimes frustrating, and (b) not all the people you think are idiots are actually idiots, and you can usually learn something useful from them if you take the time to really understand where they’re coming from.
    Re the specific complaints against philosophy:
    1. It IS frustrating, but if you can’t handle having to do more work to defend more original arguments, then you’re not really going to survive ANYWHERE. This is not so much a criticism of philosophy as a criticism of the world – abandoning Philosophy will not make it go away.
    2. Re intuitions, I think Richard Chappell’s response here is exactly right. Yes, intuitions are crap, but in many cases, including the example given, that’s all there is. Arbitrarily labelling things you think are obviously right as ‘not based on intuition’ doesn’t make them any less based on intuition (not even when I agree with those intuitions!)
    3. I tend to see the ‘value-add’ of philosophy as less to do with settling arguments than with figuring out what the real areas of disagreement are. Forcing logical consistency can only get you so far; actually settling arguments is more often an empirical than a philosophical exercise.
    None of which is to say that philosophy is necessarily the best thing for anyone to be spending their time on…

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