Here's a somewhat open-ended question, borrowed again from Bob Somerby, the Daily Howler:

First, a fairly simple question: With intellectual giants like Nozick and Rawls defining the world of “political philosophy,” how can it be that our daily political discourse seems to be drawn from the world’s largest sandbox? If giants like these have been striding the earth, consuming themselves with political theory, how can it be that the world’s dimmest, most childish, most unbalanced minds define our public discussion?

Here's my sense of this question.  Very few academics participate in political discussion for the reason Somerby mentions.  To elaborate: Engaging with a type like Goldberg or Will or Chris Matthews seems like picking on a child.  It's too easy to knock holes in shallw punditry, because, after all, it's shallow punditry.  Academics know that serious scholarship of the confidence-inducing kind involves a lot of hours of boring, hard work, and ever-so-subtle distinctions.  I can't think of one political show (even Charlie Rose's hour long program) that would have the patience for the kind of necessary parsing that academics engage in as a matter of course.  Besides, I'm not sure if a Rawls could get TV's greatest intellectuals to see the difference between a policy argument and a personal attack.  


9 thoughts on “Intellectual”

  1. I think Somerby sets academics like Nozick and Rawls up to fail; if they don’t engage in mainstream political discourse, they’re not “important” (not to mention that his “Philosopher Fridays” seem to ignore the relative sense in which “importance” is used when describing figures like Rawls or Nozick; Philosophical importance does not cash out to real importance.) if they do engage, they would doubtlessly be indicted, both by “establishment” philosophers and pundits alike, by the former for “not being serious scholars” (see: Cornel West, at whom this very accusation has been leveled, for this very reason) and by the latter for picking the easy target.

    Moreover, there are examples of philosophers who have engaged in, and continue to engage in, the mainstream political discourse: Cornel West, Richard Rorty, Martha Nussbaum, Kwame Appiah, Peter Singer, Michel Foucault, Sartre, de Beauvoir…for Pete’s sake, Sartre was a member of the French Resistance and used his academic position to oppose the Nazi occupation.

    I see Somerby’s point, and I agree to an extent. Probably more philosophers should step up and do the tedious parsing of Will, et al., if for no other reason that to see our national discourse improve, but I don’t know that there is as large a paucity of professional philosopher’s opinions in mainstream discourse as Somerby seems to imply, nor do I think he’s adequately considered the extent to which some of their opinions have been silenced.

  2. You say critiquing Chris Matthews would be child’s play for academics. That may be true. I think your puzzlement about the situation concerns this error, however: successful critiquing is NOT “winning.”

    Yes, some academic could write a book which thoroughly and completely shows Chris Matthews to be a bone-headed political sports-caster, rather than a serious source of political information and debate. But who would read it–with its “liberal” logic and thorough-but-boring analyses? Other academics? But they already know Matthews is a schmuck.

    The problem is, politics in the US isn’t about winning arguments. There was too much at stake to leave it up to that–so it’s evolved into a more robust system. Compare Foucault’s disciplinary society, or Smith’s evolutionarily-stable game theory strategies. Resistance and diversion only contribute to the smooth running of the system; it is impervious to any other approach.

    The game is rhetoric, and the entire mechanism of politicians, lobbyists, think tanks, and the majority of the media are geared to it. And no one person can change the rules. So what’s the lone academic “outlaw” to do? Winning his silly little argument in the face of all that machinery still loses the game, even if he doesn’t realize he’s lost.

    Why waste time figuring out what’s “right,” when what will sell is the only thing that’s actually going to be useful in the game? If the two coincide sometimes, great, but that doesn’t seem to be the point, right now, in this country.

    Just my pessimistic view this morning.

  3. Perhaps this ties into the straw man/weak man thread from earlier, in that, even if political arguments tend to be so weak that they hardly present a challenge to the pros, nevertheless it still would be useful if the pros could knock them down. I know you’re not supposed to pick on children, but if it’s a 40 foot tall child wreaking havoc the way children like Wills, Goldberg, and Matthews wreck our political discourse, then shouldn’t somebody do something? Probably, but then what constitutes “doing something?” If, as pmayo argues, there ISN’T a paucity of professional philosophers’ opinions flowing into mainstream discourse, then where is this bounty of sober reasoning? Why do I not see it on television, in letters to the editors of newspapers, and in Op-Ed commentaries? It’s possible that the pros ARE trying to engage, but they’re being ignored or “silenced.” Is it also possible that they simply are NOT trying to engage?

    Here’re some other things I wonder about (not being at all a professional philosopher). To what extent does philosophical apprenticeship (by which I mean graduate training in philosophy) feed into careers in political journalism? My sense is (I could be wrong) that a lot of our journalists have bachelors degrees in journalism, communication, broadcasting, political science, history, English, and writing, or post-graduate degrees in the same or in law. But, where are the philosophers? Is political analysis and journalism considered a worthwhile career path for philosophers-in-training? And do they get much practice with political arguments along the way? Or is the assumption that this is what “political science” is for? I ask these questions not in any accusatory way, I just sincerely am wondering what are the answers.


  4. David says:

    _Why do I not see [professional philosopher’s opinions] on television, in letters to the editors of newspapers, and in Op-Ed commentaries?_

    Several of the people I listed above have, in fact, contributed to the New York Times in both letters to the editor and Op-Ed’s. See, the problem is that these opinions are sloughed off in a variety of ways, being laughed off as kooky examples of academic naivete, being ignored as jealous curmudgeonery, or being lampooned as the fruit of “liberal academy” tree. Perhaps because of the way the MSM bullies treat academic opinions, the academy has withdrawn a bit, content to do some shoegazing whilst Will and Co. conduct their sham of a public discourse. Not that MSM bullying justifies this withdrawl, but Somerby, to this point, hasn’t even considered such an option.

  5. Hi David–

    I don’t know where Phil sees that either. Maybe he can tell us. Absolutely philosophers and other academics should engage in the public discourse. It may seem like picking on children to point out the banality of much of today’s political discourse, but hey, these are giant, rich, and powerful children whose mess we all have to live in. Someone has to be an adult here.

  6. Oaky, here are 4 excellent examples (and there are more, if you do a quick search of LExisNexis and the NYT archives–in fact, if you search the NYT archices, you can read the pedantic crap the Times crew wrote about West’s last book) of philosopher’s contributing to the political discourse. How often did we hear about these opinions? Is their absence simply coincidental?

    Here’s Rorty on Social Security:

    Here’s Nussbaum on the role of philosophers in political discourse (!):

    Here’s Appiah on globalization:

    Here’s Daniel Dennett on intelligent design:

  7. In fairness to Phil (thanks, btw) and to others who labor to demonstrate that philosophers ARE engaged in politics, perhaps I (we?) should examine my own argument more carefully. What is it exactly that I wish for philosophers to do? Phil’s examples from The New York Times–which I’m afraid are slightly unsatisfying to me–give me an opportunity to reflect on that. I want philosophers not just to argue on behalf of particular policies as Rorty appears to have argued on behalf of Social Security (well-reasoned though his opinion was), but also to refute the many bad arguments that are out there and to use the opportunity to equip citizens to do the same. Dennett’s critique of the arguments behind Intelligent Design is more like what I’d like to see. I’d also like to see philosophers turn their spotlights on the media itself (as this blog often does), which IMHO harbors the worst offenders.


  8. David,

    I couldn’t agree more. These particular samples don’t necessarily impress me, excepting the Dennett piece, but at least they show that some philosophers are trying to maintain a level of political engagement. Sure, I only pointed to four; but it would be both pointless and obnoxious to identify every single philosopher who has attempted to participate.

    Back to my first point, though. Somerby fails to distinguish between philosophical importance and real world importance. Kant’s distinction between the analytic and synthetic _a prioi_–not really important (though Kant might protest otherwise!), but it’s philosophically important. Rawls’ “original position?” Probably a bit idealistic and not really practicable or important, but it’s philosophically important. Now, my sense of Somerby’s argument is that he finds it problematic that there is such a distinction, that is, that what is philosophically important is not really important. That’s a claim worth pursuing, (but again, even philosophers have pointed that problem out and tried to diagnose and fix it. Pierre Hadot is a fine example.) and I hope that’s where Somerby is really going with this, but I don’t know that appreciate the way he’s doing it.

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