On December 27, the American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division, returned to the Sheraton-Boston hotel in downtown Boston’s Prudential Center for its eightieth annual meeting. One could safely hazard that not since 1980, when the APA last convened in Boston, had the Sheraton’s tidy, convention-center hallways been so alive with imponderables. Although professionally committed to the love of wisdom, philosophers are men and women of wildly different temperaments and training, and often they can hardly bear to be in the same room with one another back home. Yet for four days, philosophers of every conceivable stripe crowded together into these businesslike surroundings to catch up with colleagues from other institutions, to deliver or listen to papers on matters of current philosophical moment, and, except for the tenured elite, to scout around for jobs.
As has become customary, the meeting included papers and symposia officially sponsored by the APA and a potpourri of discussions sponsored by the many independent philosophical organizations that gather at the APA meeting to propagate their ideas and conduct business. The program of officially sponsored sessions—sometimes technical (“Epistemic Supervenience and the Circle of Belief”), sometimes not (“The Social Responsibility of Intellectuals”)—was calculated to be of interest to the professional philosophical community at large. This year’s roster included discussions on Aristotle, ethics, Frege, decision theory, the philosophy of language, and other mainstream topics.
The independent group meetings, on the other hand, served more specialized interests.
The independent group meetings, on the other hand, served more specialized interests. These ranged from the traditional scholarly inquiries of groups like the Bertrand Russell Society, the International Thomas Aquinas Society, and the Leibniz Society of America, through the discussions of the North American Nietzsche Society and the Society for the Study of Ethics and Animals, to the philosophically marginal agendas of organizations like the Radical Philosophical Association, the Society for the Philosophy of Sex and Love, and the Philosophic Society for the Study of Sport. Altogether, there were over a hundred papers given on topics as diverse as “Divine Necessity,” “Style, Subject, and Art in Photography,” “Translating Western Philosophy into Chinese,” “Radical Pedagogy: A Feminist Perspective,” and “Why Truth?”
Hegel once wrote that “philosophy by its nature is something esoteric.” Many would not agree, though I suppose that nearly everyone would admit that Hegel did his best to make it true. But whatever one’s convictions about the intrinsic accessibility of philosophy, one has to be heartened by the amount of interest the subject still manages to attract. And serious interest, too. According to several seasoned philosophers I spoke with, the general level of competence in the discipline seems as high now as at any time in recent memory. Jobs are scarce and academic positions generally pay poorly, but a surprising number of good students continue to aspire to careers in philosophy.
One token of this interest was the size of this year’s meeting. Those in charge of local arrangements estimated that attendance was up from something better than sixteen hundred last year to well over two thousand, making the eightieth meeting of the Eastern Division of the APA the largest to date. The close to ninety publishers' displays of philosophy texts told a similar tale. The book displays (which included for the first time a booth for IBM to display its microcomputers) were crowded throughout the meeting, and more than one veteran publisher reported that sales were unusually brisk.
It is no criticism of academic professional gatherings to note that their proceedings are often of greater social than intellectual interest. For if many sessions are intellectually rather dreary affairs—predictable, too long, and poorly attended—they do represent the profession communicating with itself, acquainting members with what other members are up to. And there are almost always a few eminent personages on hand to deliver papers or participate in symposia where their own work, or the work of an equally eminent colleague, is discussed.
The proceedings of the APA are in this respect typical, and, at least in recent years, there have been two or three sessions that mustered widespread enthusiasm. Often such sessions examine a text that captured the philosophical community’s imagination that year, as Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature did two years ago and Alasdair Maclntyre’s After Virtue and Hilary Putnam’s Reason, Truth, and History did last year. Unfortunately, there were no good candidates for stardom this year; indeed, very few meetings generated more than parochial interest.
A special panel discussion on the teaching of philosophy attracted considerable attention, though in substance it hardly proceeded beyond the platitudes (“Insist that your students practice distinguishing between premises and conclusions,” “Encourage them to write clearly”) that constitute the staple of such investigations into pedagogy. In another symposium, less well attended, Margaret Coyne offered a paper on “Moral Luck?” challenging the idea (proposed most notably by Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel) that being morally “lucky” poses grave problems to our conception of ourselves as moral agents. This is, of course, the kind of thing philosophers love to argue about, and many of the symposia at the APA convention were devoted to such questions. Coyne contended that, if we forego the more or less Kantian distinction between an empirical self (subject to necessity) and a transcendental self (the locus of freedom), emphasizing instead the historical character of the self, then luck can indeed be an ingredient in moral action.
Perhaps the best-attended symposium was that on “The Social Responsibility of Intellectuals.” This was almost guaranteed to be a big draw not only because of its catchy title but also because professors Rorty and MacIntyre were among its participants. One would not necessarily expect intellectuals to be enlightening about the social responsibility of intellectuals, but nothing prepared one for the remarkably jejune performances of Virginia Held and Rorty, the main speakers.
Held, a professor at the City University of New York and author of the forthcoming Rights and Goods: Justifying Social Action, argued that intellectuals, by enjoying the leisure to intellectualize that “society” (that indispensable abstraction) grants them, assume “special responsibilities”—namely, to discern and promulgate “guidelines for the improvement of culture and the social structures in place, and for improving them at a satisfactory pace.” Unfortunately, she never specified what exactly constitutes “improvement” or a “satisfactory pace,” but it seemed almost nitpicking to worry about such things in the face of her breathless demand for the “liberation of culture.” In any case, in order that there be more intellectuals free to undertake this noble charge, Held called for the segregation of “moral and aesthetic worth” from “power, including economic power,” which she castigated for stifling intellectual independence. Again, it would be useful to know what is to count as “moral and aesthetic worth” and just which intellectuals we should entrust to articulate the desired “standard for society.” Indeed, one might wonder why we should want to turn to intellectuals at all in this case since what we are confronted with is apparently not an intellectual but a political problem.
Because Held has little patience for such details, her vision of the independence of intellectuals threatened to degenerate into little more than ideological grandstanding. Similarly, Rorty’s response, while it criticized Held’s “Platonism” (that is, her appeal to values that transcend everyday opinion) and praised the social arrangements she wanted to overhaul, was neither thoughtful nor particular enough to be cogent. Only Maclntyre (who, incidentally, has been elected president of the Eastern Division of the APA for 1984) provided redeeming moments. He emphasized that the fragmentation of traditional values in our culture makes social and intellectual disagreement endemic, thus rendering Held’s appeal to intellectuals as arbiters of value meaningless. “On every substantive social and moral issue,” Maclntyre noted,
intellectuals appear on opposing sides: Sowell versus Thurow, Scholem versus Arendt, Bethe versus Teller . . . . Only within a community with shared beliefs about goods and shared dispositions educated in accordance with those beliefs, both rooted in shared practices, can practical reason-giving be an ordered, teachable activity with standards of success and failure.
In some ways, Arthur C. Danto’s presidential address, “Philosophy as/and/of Literature,” represented the intellectual center of the convention. Several years of factional squabbling within the APA (“pluralists” versus “analysts”) have brought about changes in election procedures, and Danto is the first president to be elected by vote of the entire regular membership rather than by nomination and vote of an executive committee. Unlike his immediate predecessors, Danto abstained from internecine controversy in his address, focusing instead on a problem that challenges the status of philosophical discourse tout court. His topic was the troubled relationship between philosophy and literature. On one side, philosophical semantics attempts to analyze literature in terms of philosophical categories, confusing the meaning of works with what they refer to; hence, it loses sight of the work itself. On the other side, recent trends in literary theory, viewing literature as a self-contained network of language without any reference to reality, read philosophy as a species of literature, thereby denying philosophy’s claim to truth. Drawing on Hegel’s Aesthetics, Danto emphasized the role of the interpreter, of the act of interpretation, in our understanding of a work’s meaning. He was thus unwilling to treat texts, literary or philosophical, “after the manner of Derrida, simply as networks of reciprocal relationships, . . . as though they had nothing to do with us, were merely there, intricately wrought composites of logical lacework, puzzling and pretty and pointless.” Displaying his gift for ingenious and witty examples, he elaborated a conception of reading that seeks to return literature to the “plane of human concern” while still allowing us to appreciate philosophy as a discourse that “continues to aim at truth.”
Danto’s address, exemplifying the habit of critical reflection that distinguishes philosophy as a discipline, may help explain why philosophy has proven more resistant to the kind of theoretical anarchy that has wreaked havoc on literary studies in the last decade or so. In this sense, it may be taken as a sign of health. But this is not to say that all is well with philosophy. For one thing, resistance is not yet immunity, and philosophy, too, has suffered from its share of ideological and intellectual legerdemain. Further, a depressed job market continues to demoralize the profession. One of the busiest places during the convention was the placement office, where several times a day graduate students and untenured professors would appear to scan the bulletin board for new job listings and to check their file to see if any schools they had contacted were interested enough in their intellectual wares to grant them an interview. The atmosphere was gloomy: everyone in the placement office seemed lucidly aware that the files vastly outnumbered the jobs.
On the other hand, for philosophers the question of academic employment has to be complicated by an uneasiness with the whole idea of “professional philosophy.” Did not Plato repeatedly insist that only sophists, not true philosophers, accept payment for teaching philosophy? Changes in our social order and our understanding of the tasks of philosophy have obliged most modern philosophers to become sophists in Plato’s sense. Of course, tenure and other bulwarks of academic freedom have arguably gone a long way toward supplying the conditions for critical independence that Plato worried about, and the emerging conception of philosophy as a collaborative enterprise of “problem solving” has led most of us to revise his austere image of the philosopher. Nevertheless, it is to the profession’s credit that it continues to feel his description of the sophist as something of a reproach. Perhaps such sensitivities help explain the large quota of irony that philosophers proverbially exhibit. Near the end of the convention, I broached Plato’s image of the sophist with a young philosopher I know from Rice University. “Oh, I always bring that up to my students when I’m teaching Plato,” he said, “and I tell them to draw their own conclusions about me. They never do.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 2 Number 6, on page 81
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com