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Calling All Metaphysicians

There's an awful lot I could disagree with in Ross Douthat's Harvard-bashing article in The Atlantic (can't wait to see the whole book!) but I'll refrain since it's a bit self-indulgent. Let me simply note one claim that has wider applicability: "Philosophy departments have largely purged themselves of metaphysicians and moralists." This is, near as I can tell, totally false. Perhaps some of the blogosphere's many philosophers can make some sense of this claim. Brian? John? Other Brian? There's a whole bunch at Left2Right? And Kieran Healy is not only married to a philosopher but the author of a sociological study of the structure of the profession which concluded that metaphysics was, along with the philosophy of language, one of the two most highly-prized subfields.

February 14, 2005 | Permalink


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» Ross Douthat, Harvard, and liberal arts education from no loss for words
I'm a bit late in getting to the "Pile criticism on Ross Douthat" party, but I'm pretty sure that I'm not stepping on any toes here. Thanks to my friend Phyllis for providing the text of the article which, sadly, is subscription only over at the Atla... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 19, 2005 7:01:34 PM


David Velleman and I have already flagged this as a piece of appalling factual inaccuracy over at Brad DeLong's blog--see:


It amazes me that something this uninformed could have been printed in the Atlantic.

Posted by: Tad Brennan | Feb 14, 2005 2:35:04 PM

I've also sent Cullen Murphy at the Atlantic an email asking why Douthat was not required to provide any substantiation for the factual claims in his article -- including the nonsense about philosophy departments that you quoted. Apparently, academia is regarded as a mythical realm about which authors can fantasize at will.

Posted by: david velleman | Feb 14, 2005 2:48:04 PM

Perhaps he meant that nowadays academics specializing and concentrating in ethics often take less a normative ("moralist") than a meta-ethical approach. Perhaps he does not count enthusiasts for possible worlds or essentialism as metaphysicians becuase they don't talk about "Being" (although Heideggerians sure do) or G-d, Freedom, Immortality? The "realism/anti-realism" debate is more abstruse to me than quiddities (I can't get wright about it), but it isn't metaphysics. Philosophizing about evolutionary biology or feminism isn't metaphysics, and need not be recognized as ethics either.

Posted by: Dabodius | Feb 14, 2005 2:51:53 PM

A couple definitions from dictionary.com:

1) Philosophy. The branch of philosophy that examines the nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter, substance and attribute, fact and value.

Yup. Philosophers still doing that, I think.

2) is kinda colloquial

3) A priori speculation upon questions that are unanswerable to scientific observation, analysis, or experiment.

umm, above my pay grade. Doubt it tho.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 14, 2005 3:01:17 PM

By metaphysics my guess is that he meant pre-XXc metaphysics -- Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and the various Aristotelians and Platonists. Ethics -- what Dabodius said.

Academic philosophers seem to be unaware of any problem, but the field seems terribly stunted to me.

Posted by: John Emerson | Feb 14, 2005 3:03:03 PM

Perhaps he was engaged in tendentious redefinition ("By "moralist" I mean someone who endorses the Natural Law tradition; by "metaphysician" I mean a cross between a porcupine and a hedgehog"). His claims still would be extremely misleading, and reflect a deep ignorance about Philosophy departments in America.

Even if he used your redefinitions (which are mildly tendentious--the realism debate isn't metaphysics?!?), he would still be flat wrong--there are normative ethicists all over the landscape. And there are also lots of people talking about God, Freedom, and Immortality--step into any Philosophy department and you will hear some. That's what Douthat never did.

Posted by: Tad Brennan | Feb 14, 2005 3:09:20 PM

John Emerson: People today still work on Aristotelian metaphysics. And ethicists are still taking positions on moral issues. The problem is, you can't know this unless you actually read what they're writing -- or even just read their web pages.

I'm not surprised that philosophy appears "stunted" to some people. It appeared stunted to the contemporaries of Socrates, too. Just read Aristophanes' Clouds.

Posted by: David Velleman | Feb 14, 2005 3:09:47 PM

Douthat's claim is flatly ridiculous. It's true that the Harvard department (formerly home to Quine and Putnam) has moved away from metaphysical issues some in recent years -- though between Charles Parsons (just retired), Warren Goldfarb and Richard Heck it's still a major center for the foundations of mathematics, which is metaphysical for my money. That move wasn't entirely voluntary, by the way: even Harvard can't always hire everyone it wants to. As for ethics, if you can find two more formidable ethicists alive today than Tim Scanlon and Amartya Sen, I'll eat my hat -- not to even mention Christine Korsgaard and Gisela Striker in the history of ethics. What college did this guy go to, anyway?

Posted by: Jotham Parsons | Feb 14, 2005 3:12:43 PM

I've had one prior encounter with Douthat. He wrote a review for The Weekly Standard of our blog Left2Right, in which he just made up a completely false description of the blog's authors, without even bothering to follow the links to our personal web pages. And then he misrepresented the content of the blog as well. I wrote this response to his review. The man appears to have no conception of journalistic ethics.

Posted by: David Velleman | Feb 14, 2005 3:21:59 PM

Well, he does give himself wiggle room with 'largely'. Maybe he's making a distinction between people who do ethical theory and good ole first-order down-and-dirty moralists. But I'd say e.g. Peter Singer, who is not a minor figure, counts at least partly as the latter, and there are 'applied ethics' people all over the place. And maybe too he's got some old-school foggy notion of 'metaphysics.' (Or maybe he just doesn't know what he's talking about.) But, let's say e.g. David Chalmers -- not a minor figure -- speculating that basic entities of physics are intrinsically phenomenal ... well, if that ain't metaphysics ...

Posted by: live | Feb 14, 2005 3:27:04 PM

Here at Yale, we have Troy Cross. If he's not a metaphysician, I dunno what is.

Posted by: Daniel A. Munz | Feb 14, 2005 3:28:12 PM

Has anybody considered that his article simply might be fictitious? It struck me, upon reflection, as simply too cute.

Posted by: Barry | Feb 14, 2005 3:39:24 PM

I just wanted to add to the chorus that Douthat's claim is about as made up as a claim can be. If he had said that the problem with philosophy departments is that they are doing nothing but metaphysics and morals, that would be closer to the truth. (Still not true, for we epistemologists and philosophers of language are doing our bit, but closer.) If Douthat is reading, here's a small challenge - find a single leading department with _no_ metaphysicians or moralists. I'd bet at fairly long odds that he won't find a one of them.

Posted by: Brian Weatherson | Feb 14, 2005 3:44:03 PM

Dave Velleman: I've been told that the history of philosophy is becoming increasingly unimportant, and that it's possible to get a degree, even a PhD, in philosophy without reading anything old.

From time to time I go to the library and flip through the journals there, and what I see normally confirms my prejudices. Awhile back one of the phil blogs, (Leiter? Crooked Timber?) put together a reading list of modern philosophy. Before Wittgenstein there was only Frege, IIRC.

What I normally see is an infinite analytic regress, dividing any interesting question (rather arbitrarily) into parts, choosing one of the parts, dividing that part into parts, etc., without ever returning to the original topic.

Rawls published a pretty good book 33 years ago, and philosophers have been working on it ever since, like a pack of hyenas that had brought down a hippopotamus. But there haven't been any more Rawlses unless you count Nozick.

All this is at my URL.

Your cute little Socrates gibe is bullshit. Socrates was a completely different kettle of fish. Not a rule-following disciplinary philosopher.

Posted by: John Emerson | Feb 14, 2005 3:50:51 PM

Upon further reflection, I'm assuming that what Ross meant by "metaphysicians and moralists" was something akin to "old-school." Hence the choice of the archaic "moralists" instead of "ethicist" or "moral philosophers" which is what you would also call these people. Probably Ross, like most people who didn't major in philosophy, doesn't really know what "metaphysics" means and through it in because it sounded musty. Certainly everyone familiar with contemporary philosophy to even a slight degree is aware of the oft-made (though, I think, ill-articulated) complate that postwar Anglophone philosophy has somehow become too narrow-minded and technical. I think this is what he must have meant.

I mean, I played it a bit coy in the post, but virtually 100 percent of what I studied in school was either morals or metaphysics. There was one tutorial on the philosophy of language, one in the philosophy of science, and two classes on logic -- but basically I did some metaphysics, some ethics, and some metaethics to combine the two.

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Feb 14, 2005 3:53:29 PM

God -- so many mispellings. that should be "threw it in" not "through it in" and "oft-made . . . complaint" not "oft-made . . . complate."

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Feb 14, 2005 3:55:53 PM

Yeah, me too: I always thought the word 'metaphysics' refers to some medieval stuff; like bloodletting or something...

Posted by: abb1 | Feb 14, 2005 4:06:11 PM

John Emerson:

In my department, at least, it is impossible to get a degree in philosophy (at any level) without studying the history of both ancient and modern philosophy. And our curriculum is pretty typical of the discipline, I imagine. (I haven't done a survey.)

I have no idea what you mean about Socrates. We still talk about him all the time. He's one of us.

Nor do I understand what you mean by "there haven't been any more Rawlses". There are plenty of people working in substantive political theory as Rawls did. If none of them are of Rawls's stature, in your opinion -- well, a discipline can produce Greats only so often.

Posted by: David Velleman | Feb 14, 2005 4:17:52 PM

I don't understand why you are trying to find excuses for this guy's ignorance. In particular, I don't see why you think that his use of these words in a non-standard way would provide him with any cover.

Years ago, "physic" was a common word for any kind of medical remedy. If Douthat had written a long piece on the decline of the university, complaining that these days you can't even get physics in a Physics department, would you excuse this ignorance by saying he must have meant old-time remedies? That's about how lame the "moralist in the old-time sense" excuse would be in Douthat's case.

And he would still wrong--for nearly any "old-time" sense of "moralist" you care to hunt up, you will find contemporary philosophers who are discussing those very same issues, in leading departments.

One of the reasons why I keep reading your blog is because you insist on the importance of informing yourself about the topics you write about--e.g., you actually read about the budget before you spout about it. I admire your commitment to keeping the standards high. In this case, I'm running the risk of dropping below them, because I have not read the full article that I am criticizing. I suppose it's just possible that it includes some context--some extensive discussion--that would show why he is justified in using "moralist" and "metaphysician" in ways that nobody else does, or would even give any reason to think he meant the sort of thing you are suggesting. If it's there, I hope someone with a subscription will quote it.

Otherwise, I think you're throwing this guy a life-line he doesn't deserve.

Posted by: Tad Brennan | Feb 14, 2005 4:23:55 PM

Still Matt, I would put Parfit and Korsgaard as moralists: these people care deeply about Right and the Good. (And Korsgaard and Parfit are both better than Sen when it comes to ethics, who I discovered to be a bit of a dud in seminar).\

As to Emerson:
I don't know what to say really. When I studied philosophy (and I hopet to continue, cross my fingers until March 15), I studied a fairly good mix of the broad and the narrow.

Consider Korsgaard's "The Sources of Normativity." That gets into some pretty deep detail about interpreting Kant or using Wittgenstein to discuss public reasons (a bit bizarrely in my view). However, it is fundamentally about discussing and justifiying a certain view about ethical norms (even aesthetic and epistemic ones as well): about why things are good and bad.

Doesn't get more broad than that, seems to me.

Posted by: Patrick | Feb 14, 2005 4:25:35 PM

Oh, to back up David's point about history of philosophy. As a prospective philosophy grad student, I applied to nine schools:

1) MIT
2) Columbia
3) Michigan
4) Illinois-Chicago
5) Illinois-Urbana
6) University of Chicago
8) Berkeley
9) North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

And to the best of my knowledge, each one of them has a substantive history of philosophy requirement (with MIT being the lowest in that respect).

P.S. My friend Doug Edwards is getting a PhD in philosophy from Harvard with a dissertation in the history of philosophy. At least, that is what it is this week.

Posted by: Patrick | Feb 14, 2005 4:31:24 PM

Tad: To explain is not to excuse. . . .

Patrick: Ah! You know Doug Edwards. He was my T.A. for, I think, Introduction to Political Philosophy -- a very excellent teacher. Unfortunately for him, my friend Angie doesn't like him and she writes for a publication (U.S. News and World Report) with a much bigger audience. And, yes, Korsgaard and Scanlon both did a reasonable amount of pretty old-school normative moralizing when I was in classes they taught. Waheed Hussain who I had as a T.A. twice when he was a grad student certainly seems to be moralizing according to his faculty page current projects listing: "Alienation, Freedom and Economic Democracy: Argues for a social democratic conception of freedom, then uses this conception to argue for a more democratic form of capitalism." You wouldn't think they would hire people to teach Marxism at Wharton, but it turns out to be a strange world.

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Feb 14, 2005 4:44:48 PM

I actually read Douthat's piece before most people noticed it - and I thought it was a piece of garbage. Then everybody else realized, that, yes, Douthat indeed did write: "Philosophy departments have largely purged themselves of metaphysicians and moralists."

Well, as Brian Weatherson has noted above, this statement is so bizarre that it seems to come from some other planet than our own - I actually did complain, during studying for my own undergraduate degree in philosophy (not at Harvard, but a school that called itself the "Harvard of the []"), that there was too much focus on metaphysics and ethics. Indeed, if you include epistemology and logic, that was pretty much ALL we studied. Hell, I took a class entitled "Socrates". A year-long course in the history of philosophy was required, and the required ethics course was also a historical survey course (among other history of philosophy courses, which included things like "Heidegger", "Topics in the History of Modern Philosophy", "Hume", "Kant", "Gods, Humans and Justice in Ancient Greece", and so on)

And this is the only mistaken statement from Douthat's article - it's filled with them. My impression is that he was a super-slacker poli sci major (poli sci can be very gut if you want it to be) and didn't really bother to learn very much beyond that.

Posted by: burritoboy | Feb 14, 2005 4:50:55 PM

Let me try a few more times. Take a canon of Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Machiavelli, Descartes, Pascal, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Mill, James, Dewey, Whitehead, and Wittgenstein. Are there any things that these philosophers did, that are not done in most philosophy departments? And if so, were these things proved not worth doing, or were they just bracketed out of the paradigm.

Or again, a lot of stuff is meta-this or meta-meta-that. The originally question is allowed to sit while something about the question is discussed.

Or again: does the increased rigor of analytic philosophy lead to the writing of equally ambitious philosophy which is also more rigorous, or does it cause different kinds of philosophy to be written, and in particular does it tend to draw attention to the meta-levels at the expense of the substantive levels.

Contemporary writers who say about what I'm saying include Stephen Toulmin (Cosmopolis), Richard Rorty (sometimes), Hilary Putnam (I've been told), and Michel Meyer from Belgium.

When I read contemporary philosophy and compare it to the pragmatists James, Dewey, Kenneth BUrke, George Herbert Mead, and also Whitehead, it seems terribly timid and stunted.

Posted by: John Emerson | Feb 14, 2005 5:13:32 PM

I meant to say:

"And this is NOT the only mistaken statement from Douthat's article"

Posted by: burritoboy | Feb 14, 2005 5:25:23 PM

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