Atfyfe, Public Domain
Source: Atfyfe, Public Domain

These days, much philosophy is esoteric and of limited practical utility.

We could use philosophers willing to apply their expertise to real-world matters and be willing to speak candidly on sensitive issues.

Today’s The Eminents interview is with such a person. 

Educated at Oxford and Cambridge, Susan Haack is Distinguished Professor in the Humanities, Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Law at the University of Miami.

She is among the tiny number of living philosophers included in Peter J. King’s book, 100 Philosophers: The Life and Times of the World’s Greatest Thinkers and was recently awarded the Ulysses Medal for her contributions to philosophy and the law.

Her books include, for example, Putting Philosophy to Work: Inquiry and Its Place in Culture and Evidence Matters: Science, Proof and Truth in the Law.

Her work spans many areas of philosophy but here, she asked to focus on higher education and on the place of women in the life of the mind.

Marty Nemko: In a recent essay on ethics in the academy, “Out of Step,” you write of an erosion of what you call “academic virtues.” What are those virtues and what are the causes of their erosion?

Susan Haack: In that essay, I first describe the chief virtues a professor needs to do his or her job responsibly and well. Then I look at how the present academic environment works against those virtues.

A professor needs industry, a willingness to work hard, patience, to keep working at hard problems, the judgment to distinguish good work from the flimsy and the superficial, intellectual honesty, focus, realism, a sense of what’s feasible, impartiality in assessing both ideas and people, independence of mind, and the courage to stand alone against the crowd when necessary.

But those virtues are rapidly eroding. What’s causing the erosion? Well, today’s academy is a hotbed of perverse incentives that reward not the genuinely serious but the clever, the flashy, the skillful self-promoter, and the connected. That is in significant part because university management is now largely in the hands of professional academic administrators and, every day, it seems more bureaucratic. That has led to reliance on badly flawed surrogate measures of the quality of academic work: the number and “prestige” of publications, the amount of grant money brought in, “rankings,” and the like.

From here, the explanation takes us into human psychology: Inevitably, many professors gradually internalize those distorted values and as they do, the academic virtues start to erode. To make matters worse, the erosion feeds on itself as professors who neither have nor appreciate those virtues hire others like themselves, pass their own skewed values to their students, and so on.

MN: In a number of papers, you propose what you call a humanist, individualist feminism very different from the kind of feminism now fashionable in the academy and elsewhere. Can you tell us more?

SH: My feminism is humanist because it stresses what all human beings have in common—that as Dorothy Sayers wrote, “Women are more like men than anything else on earth,” and it’s individualistic because it stresses that every woman has her own unique mélange of temperament, tastes, strengths, weaknesses, ideas, and opinions.

In contrast, today’s academic feminism, largely ignoring both what’s universal and what’s individual, stresses women-as-a-class. Sometimes it focuses on “women’s issues.” Sometimes it appeals to a supposed “woman’s point of view” or “women’s ways of knowing." Sometimes it goes as far as to decry science as an inherently masculinist enterprise.

 I think this all has been bad for women, as well as bad for philosophy. It reinstates old, sexist stereotypes: “Feminist epistemology” will focus on emotion rather than reason, “feminist ethics” on caring rather than justice. It confuses inquiry with advocacy of “feminist values.” It encourages women into a pink-collar ghetto of feminist philosophy and makes it harder for those whose talent is for logic, history of philosophy, metaphysics, etc., to succeed.

Interviewers sometimes ask me, “How we can get more women into philosophy?” “That’s the wrong goal,” I reply. “The right goal is to make a person’s sex irrelevant to our assessment of the quality of his or her mind.” So I’m intrigued by recent empirical work suggesting that blinding the hiring process—as I urged decades ago—results in more diverse hires than diversity-training programs and the like.      

MN: You acknowledge that heterodoxy on politically sensitive topics carries the risk of damaging one’s career. Are you ever tempted just to shut up? 

SH: First, it’s not only those who speak candidly on politically sensitive topics who run this risk. In philosophy at least, anyone who doesn’t meekly conform to the accepted wisdom about which are the “best” departments, who are the “important” people in this or that area, even which journals and presses it’s desirable to publish with, can find themselves in trouble. “Otherwise-minded” professors like me certainly pay a price for our independence.   

So, in the crudest career terms, yes, I suppose it would be more prudent to conform to the accepted academic pieties and hypocrisies or to avoid touchy topics altogether. And many professors seem to manage that quite well and even to thrive in the atmosphere of “lying and self-laudatory hallucination” that pervades universities today. But I simply couldn’t conduct my intellectual life that way, and to conduct my professional life like that would be just horrible.

In short, I’d much rather face the professional risks than sacrifice my independence. That’s why, when I was putting together Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate and a friend asked me: “Don’t you have enough enemies already?” I gave the answer you find in the introduction to the book: “Better ostracism than ostrich-ism.”

Marty Nemko's latest book, his 8th, is The Best of Marty Nemko. He is a career and personal coach. He can be reached at mnemko@comcast.net.

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