I found a rather interesting little post over here. Except I probably found it interesting for different reasons from most people.
The author of the article, for those who don’t want to have to read it, argues that the failure of academic economists to predict the financial crisis is down to three things:
“…specialization, the difficulty of forecasting, and the disengagement of much of the profession from the real world.”
Now, I must briefly ridicule the idea that due to these problems “it may well be that academic economists have little to say about short-term economic movements, so that forecasting, with all its errors, is best left to professional forecasters” – that’s like saying after an unpredicted hurricane that maybe meteorologists have little to say about short-term weather conditions and that weather forecasting is best left to guys with pine cones or gammy weather-legs that twinge when a storm is coming. But my main thought when reading the article was: is he talking about economics, or about philosophy?
Like economics, (analytic) philosophy is highly specialised, both in the way that few philosophers are notable in more than one area (particular if we’re talking about analysis of historical philosophy), and in the way that the analytic movement (even the modern soi-dissant “analytic” movement) likes to take one point of trivium at a time. And like economics, philosophy is, I think, at great risk of divorcing itself from social realities and abandoning its purpose – inculcating wisdom. Philosophy can bring wisdom on two levels – at the first order, by solving or resolving particular questions in ethics (in in prior years in science also), and at the second order, by resolving tensions of the mind and confusions or disordered thoughts. Modern philosophy, however, seems entirely divorced from both these problems. What possible function has an answer to the question of perdurance and endurance (even if we admit that such a question can have ‘an answer’)? It feels as though philosophy has fallen in love with its own method, and forgotten what the method is for. Instead, academics apply thought not to the world but to the writings of other academics. This in turn leads to that specialisation: if my only interest in writing about Epicurus, for instance, is to undermine him on his own premises, or to refute the attempts of others to undermine him, or even if I happen to rise above that and try to work out what he really means… well, why would I care what the guy next door is writing about Mill? The determination to analyse each thing by itself, on its own foundations, precludes the attempt to draw together divergent strands into a productive and synthetic work. Meanwhile, the public need for wisdom in thought and deed has not gone away, but now must be met by pop-psychology, self-help, incoherent cod-philosophy and second-hand religion – the market forecasters or the men with pine cones.
More fundamentally, I wonder whether this ‘academisation’ of both economics and philosophy is no coincidence. Philosophy, either as a cause or as a mirror of something underlying, often tells us a lot about a culture: and just as the lunacies of the Continent (chiefly France) can often be untangled by realising their roots (or reflection) in Continental philosophy, perhaps the lunacy of Angloaustria can be untangled in the light of our own philosophical weakness, our isolate scholasticism. The pervading atmosphere of our academia (outside those departments, chiefly in the arts and humanities, that have been infected by Continental wiffle-waffle) is pedantic, scholarly small-mindedness insulated by a pervasive distrust of overaching theory, systemisation, syncretism, or just about anything bold enough to make any claim or prediction.
Although I do believe philosophy, as a sort of model for academic respectability, has had a causal role in setting different academic atmospheres in different places, the article about economists may also lead us to consider the economic and political reasons for the way modern philosophy is. Just like economists, philosophers are lead into specialisation and reactiveness by the stresses of financial competition, which reward the limited expert over the generalist, and punish anybody brave enough to let themselves be proven wrong. At core, then, beyond questions of the actual state of modern philosophy – which no doubt is debateable – is the more fundamental question of whether the modern academic system, and its interaction with the economic and political systems, is really incentivised to produce the results that are best for philosophy itself. If everybody follows what is best for them, we may be in a situation where the discipline as a whole suffers. And the same is also true for other subjects – not just economics, but science, art, and the humanities also.
If I might be allowed a philosophical moment: if philosophy is turned into a profession, then philosophers will act like professionals. Professionals have many good qualities, but the professional way of thinking is not noted for its inculcation of wisdom. It is as easy to get rich as a fool as it is to get rich as a wise man; easier, perhaps. The safetyguard here should be the wisdom of those who purchase philosophy – department heads, the peers who review books and articles. But all of them are professionals too! And the common public who buy pseudophilosophical trash, and pseudoscience likewise, clearly are not rewarding wisdom either.
As somebody wiser than me once said: “All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind”.
In some ways, perhaps academia, and in particular philosophy, is facing a Malthusian crisis: there are more and more people, and more and more philosophers, but the amount that can be said has not increased in proportion. As a result, we have more and more people saying less and less (something which applies equally to the Continental tradition – while we write more and more about fewer and smaller things, they write less and less and pretend to be saying more and more); and the question must be asked, whether the acceptance and support of a system that encourages mediocrity will actually hinder the production of great thoughts?
So here’s a radical suggestion: make it harder to be a philosopher. Don’t encourage people to study it. It goes against all my instincts, but perhaps it would be for the best. Reduce the number of academics, reduce the feasibility of a life lived entirely in close specialisation, and maybe the standard of discourse would be raised. I certainly believe that at earlier levels of education the fundamental skills of philosophy – which is to say the fundamental skills of living and of being human – should be taught to everybody, but is anything really gained by having so many people sitting around congratulating each other?
Of course, it’s not a practical idea by itself. If there are fewer places, there will be more competition, which means more pandering, not less. Perhaps there’s something to be said for idleness; but now that we have developed a conscience, perhaps the renewal of idleness, and hence the renewal of philosophy, may have to wait until a time beyond scarcity.