Rationally Speaking: an archived blog about science & philosophy, by Massimo Pigliucci
Monday, February 11, 2013
The Talking Cure: The Political Model and The Dialectical Model
by Steve Neumann
I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States. — Alexis de Tocqueville, On Democracy, 1835
When Alexis de Tocqueville surveyed the social and intellectual terroir of the fledgling United States of America in the early 1830s, he noticed that the independence of mind the Americans possessed led them to mistrust and even reject received opinions and philosophical systems. Though it could be argued that he had at least a bit of a favorable view of the Americans on that account (even while wondering aloud if it would ultimately lead to their demise), I think it’s clear that the American culture of today, nearly 200 years later, has obviously suffered from this lack of engagement with more rigorous philosophical thought.
Nevertheless, three philosophers (all from the University of North Texas) recently argued in Inside Higher Ed that it may be time for the proceedings of the Ivory Tower to open itself up to official review and evaluation from the plebeian herd. It’s an interesting suggestion, one that would result in a sharp turn from the general trend of philosophical discourse and professionalization since the Renaissance, which was further solidified by the 19th Century German university system.
The authors’ argument rests mainly on the fact that the discipline of philosophy is “a highly technical, inward-looking field that values intellectual rigor over other values such as relevance or timeliness,” and on the emergence of a trend of criticism directed toward the standard peer review process and “academic accountability” anyway. They say that philosophers should take advantage of this trend by mentioning “a variety of ethical, epistemological, and political issues surrounding peer review worthy of philosophic reflection,” but insist that “the most pressing is the question of whether we should extend the notion of peer beyond disciplinary bounds.”
Though their essay is ultimately disappointing because they never really give a satisfactory reason as to why this is the most pressing question, I think a more interesting issue concerns the decentralization of philosophical inquiry and discourse itself. I’d like to offer some thoughts of my own, in regard to both professional philosophy and “lay philosophers” like me.
Getting back to de Tocqueville for a moment, he noticed that the social conditions of the Americans of his time didn’t allow for “speculative studies”; he observed that, since they enjoyed considerable success in navigating their practical lives, this led them to conclude that just about everything in life could be explained or grasped, and grasped by them. The necessary pragmatism of their day-to-day material and social existence showed that they didn’t need to “extract their philosophical method from books; they have found it in themselves.” They took from traditional (non-religious) sources of wisdom only what proved useful for pragmatic ends. And the fluidity with which individuals in an egalitarian, democratic society move about caused them sometimes to lose “the trace of the ideas of [their] forefathers” altogether.
What de Tocqueville is describing is nearly identical to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s observations in his essay “Self-Reliance,” which was published not long after de Tocqueville’s “On Democracy.” Emerson and de Tocqueville were contemporaries (born in 1803 and 1805, respectively), and the similarities in thought come as no surprise. One wonders what de Tocqueville thought of someone like Emerson, a homegrown philosopher. To my knowledge de Tocqueville never mentioned Emerson in his writings, although he surely must have known of him.
It’s clear to me that in America today there is still a large (or at least vocal) contingent of these what you might call “self-reliant patriots.” I’m looking primarily at you, Tea Party; and, of course, other political Libertarians. I suppose that’s always been the case to some degree, but are these modern self-reliant patriots cut from the same cloth as those of Emerson’s and de Tocqueville’s time?
Without getting into a detailed analysis of early American social and political life, or creating a lengthy taxonomy of modern thinkers, I’d like to focus more on the average, workaday citizen earning a living, raising a family, doing her best to keep abreast of social and political trends and events via major media outlets (CNN, FOX, ABC, NBC, and maybe even the New York Times and Washington Times; but not outlets like Mother Jones or The Weekly Standard). I want to focus on the people I imagine make up the majority of the electorate, whatever their political allegiance.
It seems (and this is based partly on personal experience, partly on news reports and polls from all over the political spectrum) that these people form their opinions about religion, culture, science, etc., largely from a combination of their reading of the major media and the ensuing discussions they have (if they have them at all) with members of their social circle. They may occasionally come across articles and essays from Malcolm Gladwell or David Brooks, but I doubt they’re reading books by academic philosophers or philosophically-literate scientists.
This is what I encounter most in my life: I work and live primarily among college-educated, middle-class people who strive for the ever-elusive work/life balance. Between earning a living, raising a family, and making time for hobbies, there never seems to be time or energy left over to devote to traditional intellectual pursuits. Indeed, when I go on at length about moral philosophy or the philosophy of space-time, they’re more likely to tell me that life is simply too short to waste on pondering such things.
I can hardly blame them. I don’t have a spouse or children (with the exception of my beautiful eight year-old German Shepherd Dog), so I’m free to devote most of my leisure time to intellectual pursuits. This means dividing my time between the vagaries of my day-to-day existence and the pleasures of “intellectual adventuring.” Clearly others feel they derive enough philosophical guidance from their religion or other “pop philosophies” that are easily accessible (and digestible) from the likes of Oprah or Dr. Oz. I don’t intend the term “pop philosophies” in a necessarily pejorative sense because, as I noted in the previous paragraph, the predicament most middle-class people find themselves in lends itself quite naturally to the simplicity and purported practicality of these philosophies, and they may be efficacious, to a point.
So to recap: I imagine the “average citizen” to be college-educated, busy as hell with work and family and hobbies, absorbing — sometimes inadvertently, sometimes intentionally — “philosophical” insight from major media outlets in tv show, blog post, or essay form. I don’t see them seeking out and reading book-length theses by academic philosophers. Additionally, I imagine that the information they are processing is either accepted outright (due to confirmation bias — yes, we all have it), or is put through a very brief dialectical analysis that doesn’t go beyond one or two objections at most. Again, this is a natural outcome of the time/energy problem involved in engaging in intellectual activity once one has satisfied the foundational needs represented by something akin to Maslow’s hierarchy.
Allow me to coin two terms, the Dialectical Model (DM) and the Political Model (PM), to designate two approaches to philosophy vis-à-vis the decentralization of philosophical inquiry and discourse. I’d like to designate the DM as what might be called the traditional notion of academic philosophy: the systematic search for the truth of matters discussed amongst and between professional philosophers. The PM, on the other hand, represents what the authors of the Insider Higher Ed article consider to be sophistry. I call it the “Political” model because this is what I believe occurs in American political (and cultural) discourse; that is, the generally specious, casuistic, partisan rhetoric employed by politicians, bloggers, and talking head ideologues on both ends of the political spectrum.
It seems to me that the PM is the option of choice whether one is conservative or liberal, religious or atheist — whether you’re Rick Santorum or Sam Harris. Individuals like Santorum and Harris are much more involved in the culture wars because they’re public intellectuals (before you slam down the lid of your laptop in disgust, I’m using that term descriptively, because they are in the public eye influencing the culture) and because they tend to say things that turn them into lightning rods for ideological derision. The sort of things they say is in turn what gets discussed among average citizens making up the electorate.
It is likely that our early American citizens of de Tocqueville’s time were just as impassioned, if not more so, by their social and political beliefs. de Tocqueville already called our attention to a fact that has become painfully contentious in the culture wars of our time, namely, the role of religion in public life: “It must never be forgotten that religion gave birth to Anglo-American society.” However, he went on to observe that “religious institutions have remained wholly distinct from political institutions, so that former laws have been easily changed whilst former belief has remained unshaken.” This clearly isn’t the case for us modern Americans. Whatever the actual influence of Christianity on our political system, religion and politics in America are now two sides of the same societal coin. Just think of “In God We Trust” on actual coins.
Now, despite the protracted extinction burst of the highly-visible Religious Right, there are signs that Americans are becoming less rigid in their religious beliefs, or at least less likely to allow those beliefs to inform their political positions. This is a welcome development, but as Nietzsche warned, God’s shadow is still intolerably long. I think it’s clear that there is a stark and important difference between the early Americans, whatever the strength of their religious beliefs, and the self-reliant patriots of today. It seems to me that the PM of today is much different from the PM of America’s early years, which is why it is detrimental to our political lives to maintain our version of the PM. From this perspective, the three University of North Texas philosophers’ suggestion that academic philosophy open itself up to non-academic evaluation and judgment seems ill-advised.
Regardless, what they suggest may already be taking place, albeit unofficially. For instance, they mention utilizing “the number of publications in popular magazines or newspaper articles; number of hits on philosophic blogs; number of quotes in the media; or the number of grants awarded by public agencies to conduct dedisciplined philosophic work” as potential evaluative criteria. While it is still the case that professional philosophers’ primary outlets for their work are academic journals, the de-centralization the authors in question seem to endorse is already happening through blogs like our own Rationally Speaking, FreethoughtBlogs and Patheos, where young DM philosophers like Dan Fincke of Camels with Hammers churn out prodigious amounts of philosophical discussion outside the Ivory Tower.
Maybe a hybrid of the Dialectical Model and the Political Model has already emerged, quite organically, and what the academy has to do is to co-opt it. Being a non-academic myself, I really can’t say how the academy would incorporate such developments into their evaluative process. But one suggestion I would like to see come to fruition, and one I believe would help rehabilitate the Political Model, is for our public education system to “teach the controversy,” so to speak: that is, have our secondary education system incorporate classes that discuss the history of religion and philosophy, including the salient aspects of each major religion (Hinduism, Buddhism, and the Abrahamic Trinity) and philosophical school (e.g., Analytic, Continental, etc.), and perhaps most importantly an introduction to basic philosophical concepts. I don’t see this happening any time soon, but there is no harm in having a wish list.