The Purpose of a University / Negativity about Philosophers

In our discipline, history, the idea that historians can capture history as it really happened has been rejected as a fool’s errand by most of its practitioners for more than a century. As the British historian Edward H. Carr wrote in the early 1960s: “The reconstitution of the past in the historian’s mind is dependent on empirical evidence. But it is not in itself an empirical process and cannot consist in a mere recital of facts. On the contrary, the process of reconstitution governs the selection and interpretation of facts: this, indeed, is what makes them historical facts.”
4. Canon Calling. Veber thinks that defenders of academic freedom should be be focused on truth because “the best defense of freedom of expression is still Chapter II of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty—and the entire argument there is tethered to the idea that we want the truth.” He then provides a brief summary of part of Mill’s argument. But this kind of move can come off as a profession of faith—“as Mill said…”—when obvious worries about it are left unmentioned. Like Veber, I am a fan of Mill’s argument for freedom of speech, but it is premised on major empirical claims that are not only unsubstantiated but that, with each new development in communications technology, face new and seemingly stronger challenges. I share the great Millian hope that freedom, knowledge, and happiness are positively correlated, but it is a hope. More generally, name-checking well-known philosophers and even rehearsing their arguments, when done in a way that fails to acknowledge obvious questions about or challenges to them, convinces no one and may make the author seem smugly ignorant. Of course, philosophers aren’t the only academics who do this, and probably aren’t the ones who are most guilty of it, but so what? As Kant would say…
I suppose that on a day that began with me reading a tweet asking why people have negative views of philosophers, I’d be primed to interpret everything I see philosophers doing as providing possible answers to that question, and indeed that’s how I read Veber’s piece. In it, he defends the pursuit of truth as the proper aim of a university and central to the importance of academic freedom and free speech. Yet he does so in ways that I think might provide examples of why people sometimes have negative views of philosophers, if they in fact do.

Khalid and Synder’s point in their piece is that the variety of legitimate research and teaching activities of academics in the variety of disciplines found at a university is not well captured by the idea of “the pursuit of truth.” (They are concerned with this because they’re worried that some professors will not find the “pursuit of truth” rhetoric used by some academic freedom organizations sufficiently motivating.) They don’t think truth is irrelevant to the work conducted at a university, but rather that talk of its pursuit is an inapt way of describing what is going on when professors intepret literature, identify the meaning of historical events, create art, develop new techniques for making music, write computer programs to address practical problems, and so on. As they say:
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The email was from Andrew Beck, senior editor for philosophy at Routledge, sharing with me an exchange in The Chronicle of Higher Education between a pair of historians, Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Aaron Snyder (both of Carleton College), and philosopher Michael Veber (Eastern Carolina).
If I am aiming for my pancakes to be fluffly yet slightly crisp around the edges, as good pancakes are, then one could say that I need to know whether it’s true that such-and-such ingredients and such-and-such methods will yield fluffy-yet-slightly-crisp pancakes. But that doesn’t mean that, as I stood at the range this morning, spatula in hand, and one of the kids asked, “what’s for breakfast?” I should have answered, “Truth, son. Truth is what’s for breakfast.”
They then go on to look at the example of “why South Boston resisted school desegregation efforts in the 1970s” and note that “looking at the same evidence, two historians can reach very different conclusions.” Identifying actual historical causation is complicated and likely to involve a lot of argument, evidence, and indeterminacy. As philosophers who are still figuring out how best to understand causation itself, we should appreciate this. If historians are knowingly engaging in a collective enterprise that will generate informative yet mutually incompatible complicated historical stories, perhaps owing to different choices about who or what to focus on, and with no means of conclusively settling which is correct—that is, if they know they are not going to end up with the truth, then it doesn’t seem unreasonable to say that history is not best understood as “pursuit of the truth.” That of course doesn’t mean truth has nothing to do with their work.
Regarding the four issues I used Professor Veber’s article to point out, as I said, I don’t think philosophers are the worst at “canon calling”, and I get the sense that condescension as a disciplinary norm is, thankfully, waning. But I do see a fair amount of “naive gotchas” and “philososplaining”—related to the familiar problems of missing the forest for the trees and armchairing assumptions—in philosophers’ interactions with others, and it seems to me that we should be on guard about such things. But perhaps that’s just me; I’m curious how others see things.
A couple of weeks ago, I posted about a popular tweet asking why people had negative attitudes towards philosophers and philosophy. Later that day, an email brought to my attention an essay and response to it that seemed to be the kind of thing one might point to as part of an explanation for those negative attitudes.
Unfortunately, Khalid and Synder’s article was given a needlessly provocative title (probably not by them, but by an editor): “The Purpose of a University Isn’t Truth. It’s Inquiry.” 3 out of 4 analytic philosophers will read that headline and say “But… it’s inquiry… toward the truth!” and proceed to hate-read the article. The remaining 1 out of 4 analytic philosophers will not read the article because their heads will have already exploded. I was initially one of those 3 out of 4, as was, it seems, Michael Veber. But as I read the article, my view of it changed.
Before I proceed, let me emphasize that I’ve got nothing against Professor Veber. He seems like a fine philosopher who has written lots of interesting stuff—check out his work—and who is now working on a book, Epistemology: What it Is and Why You Should Care, which you should all buy multiple copies of to give to your neighbors when it is published.
3. Philososplaining. If mansplaining is paradigmatically the phenomenon of men explaining things they’re not expert or experienced in to women who are, we can use “philososplaining” to refer to philosophers explaining things they’re not expert or experienced in to others who are. Veber says, “Khalid and Snyder say there are entire disciplines on contemporary college campuses that aren’t even trying to get at the truth. Their example: history.” He continues
critical inquiry harnesses the power of what Dewey saw as four natural human instincts or interests: conversation and communication, investigation, construction, and artistic expression. These, Dewey says, are the “natural resources” for deep, transformative educational experiences. Critical inquiry knits these four instincts together, giving them shape, purpose, and direction. How? By placing them in an educational context characterized by discipline, self-awareness, and reflection. Critical inquiry seeks to cultivate habits of mind that go beyond mere curiosity about the world. It combines creativity, experimentation, and evaluation in an ongoing, iterative process. It can encompass the full range of learning, teaching, and research activities on college campuses, from experiments in particle physics to orchestra rehearsals of Brahms’s concertos.
1. Condescension. Khalid and Synder’s essay, Veber writes, “reminds me of something a senior prof told me when I was a young philosophy grad student. ‘A good philosophy paper is one so clear that if you are wrong, we can tell.’ By that standard, Khalid and Snyder’s article is excellent.” Philosophers may, unfortunately, be used to talking this way to each other. But we should be sufficiently aware how it comes off to others who might not find clarity a sufficient consolation for error. Furthermore there’s the odd belittling of K&S, comparing them to students trying to write a good philosophy paper. Maybe Veber meant these lines in the friendliest of tones, but they don’t come off to my ear that way.
Note the simplistic example—the identification of a year in which an event happened—which is not representative of the kind of work academic historians do. If it were, then perhaps I could better understand Veber’s excited reaction. Still, though, isn’t concluding that what history professors say academic history is like is “insane” at least modest evidence that one’s facts or reasoning is off? Here’s what K&S say:
Or maybe I should have. That would at least explain why it’s the most important meal of the day.
2. The Naive Gotcha. The headline of K&S’s article says that “the purpose of a university isn’t truth” and they note that many university mission statements don’t refer to “truth.” One strategy Veber takes in response is to show that even when universities describe their missions without use of the word “truth,” they often use words that imply truth, such as “knowledge.” You can’t have knowledge without truth, because knowledge has to be true, and so the pursuit of knowledge is the pursuit of truth—Haha! However, it would be strange sounding to use “pursuit of truth” to describe the pursuit of much know-how, and there’s plenty of know-how being pursued in academia. Perhaps one could render, for example, “she knows how to intepret the literature of that era” in terms of the pursuit of truth, but there would certainly be an odd ring to it. Even if it involves the pursuit of truth, describing such work that way seems rather Procrustean.
Veber takes issue with K&S’s preferred replacement for describing what university’s are about: “critical inquiry.” He says: “What is inquiry if not an effort to get at the truth or to get at knowledge or to get at something else that entails truth?” Haha again! Except, well, K&S do answer that question. Inspired by John Dewey, they say:
Different disciplines have different standards for assessing the quality of evidence and claims. These standards should not be abandoned. Appeals to truth or truth-seeking may play an important role. There may even be a kind of sliding scale when it comes to how much truth matters, with the periodic table of elements at one end, the meaning of Huck’s raft in the middle, and throwing a clay pot at the other.
Veber takes himself to be in opposition to “folks on campus who don’t care about the truth,” but that doesn’t seem to be the people K&S are concerned might be alienated by the rhetoric of academic freedom organizations. People whose work is not best described as “the pursuit of truth” may nonetheless care about the truth as part of their work—and that’s the case in and outside of academia.
I am not a historian. Khalid and Snyder are. Nonetheless, I feel completely confident in saying: That’s insane. If Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, then it’s true — in fact, really true — that he did, and there’s nothing any of us can do now to make it so that never happened.