The Spat Over A Christian Philosopher’s Presentation Reveals the True State of the Profession: Wretched!

A recent meeting of the Society of Christian Philosophers featured as keynote speaker Richard Swinburne, a well-established philosopher of religion of the rapidly dwindling “old school,” one might call it: the school for which professional philosophy really was the love of wisdom, and not a platform for professing one’s leftist ideology. Swinburne presented well-known and fairly obvious criticisms of homosexuality stemming from the natural law worldview dating to St. Thomas Aquinas and still believed by some elderly Catholic philosophers and theologians. I used to give these criticisms 15 minutes or so in my historically-oriented ethics classes. I am not sure doing so would be such a good idea today for someone without tenure; for this is 2016, not the 1990s. While far from perfect, the world was definitely saner then. Or, at least, academic philosophy was saner then … somewhat. Needless to say, it was already heading in the wrong direction. After all, on at least one occasion my own criticisms of affirmative action for women met with a borderline obscenity by a leftist philosopher writing in the American Philosophical Association’s flagship publications.

Today the situation is magnitudes worse, of course … and illustrative of how academic philosophy has gone over the cliff and is in complete free fall.

Jason Stanley, of Yale University (!!!), offered this adult, professional philosopher’s opinion of Swinburne’s speech: “F**k those a**holes! Seriously!” Stanley’s comment was picked up and circulated by other philosophy professors across the political spectrum. Naturally, he’s won praise for his articulateness from his fellow academic leftists.

You can read many of the details here; I need not recycle them.

I will note that I predicted, back in 1994, that political correctness and Christianity were on collision course, and that the flashpoint would be the rising and increasingly radical homosexual movement.

More recently,  Stanley wrote on his public Facebook page (which he has since, in perhaps one of his rare flashes of intelligence or even — dare I use the word? — wisdom, taken down):

I am really mortified about this. My comment “F*ck those assholes”, posted on a friend’s private FB page about homophobes, was *photographed*. Even *worse*, it made it into *the right-wing hateosphere*, where it is being linked and relinked. I really wish now I hadn’t said that!! I PROFOUNDLY regret not using much harsher language and saying what I really think of anyone who uses their religion to promote homophobia, you know that sickness that has led people for thousands of years to kill my fellow human beings for their sexual preferences. Like you know, pink triangles and the Holocaust. I am really, truly, embarrassed by the fact that my mild comment “F*ck those assholes” is being spread. This wildly understates my actual sentiments towards homophobic religious proponents of evil like Richard Swinburne, who use their status as professional philosophers to oppress others with less power. I am SO SORRY for using such mild language. I am posting this on “public” so that there will be no need for anyone to violate any religious code of ethics and take pictures of private FB pages to share my views about such matters.

This guy is tenured in philosophy at an Ivy League university, one no longer exactly noted for its support for freedom of speech or thought, unless, I presume, the speech is both politically correct, laced with obscenities, and contains casual libel against the expected targets. Pink triangles and the Holocaust? Come on! Oppress others with less power? Where does Stanley believe today’s loci of power really lie? Is he another of these ridiculous characters swinging clumsily at windmills of nonexistent “white privilege” (or “white male privilege”) while those with real power continue advancing their leviathan “trade” deals like TTP and TTIP?

Now, another philosophy professor by the name of Rebecca Kukla … calling these people philosophers just doesn’t seem appropriate … has weighed in. The details of her tira–  I mean words of wisdom, of course! — are here.

She is teaching at what was once a proud Catholic institution! She is also a senior researcher at an ethics institute there and editor-in-chief of two academic journals (one of which, Public Affairs Quarterly, used to be sane).

What can I, an ex-academic, say? What can anyone say?

Reading such material, or as much of it as I can stomach without losing my most recent meal, I am reminded of why I abandoned my multi-year search for a permanent academic position in a philosophy department in the U.S. Apparently, these vulgar, chronically angry, ideologically-driven pseudo-intellectuals are now the type of people likely to win tenure and promotions, applause from colleagues, and even editorial positions on academic journals. They win cheers from their many followers in academia on their Facebook pages!

The radical feminists I cross-swords with a number of years ago were not people I either trusted or wanted as colleagues. People like this Kukla woman, and Jason Stanley’s supporters, appear to be ten-times nastier than the PC-addled ideologues whom I encountered back in the 1990s.

I continue to wonder if anyone has noticed that REAL philosophers, whether politically active or not, are rapidly diminishing in numbers as they die, one at a time, and are not replaced. The Jason Stanleys and Rebecca Kuklas of academia aren’t scholars, they are jokes! Any department that would hire these people does not merit being taken seriously even if it is a “ranked” department!

With the few remaining living philosophers who made the field worth studying almost all in their 80s (the youngest is Saul Kripke, 75), in another decade or so not even vestiges will be left of the once-magnificent endeavor born from “love of wisdom” in academia.

Brian Leiter understandably describes this latest academic catfight using phrases like “tempest in a teapot” and “the high school with tenure crowd,” although I don’t think what he dismisses as “right wing websites” are “eating it up.” They are commenting, also understandably, with bemusement on the fall of the universities in our time. They ought to note how students at these institutions are going massively into debt to attend classes offered by these joke-academics, many of whom wouldn’t have the jobs they have without their institution’s affirmative action program, or being otherwise well-networked.

There is an upside to such tempests as this, however. The more the antics of hard-leftist professors with tenure can be exposed … their juvenile rants, their casual obscenities, etc. … in online articles, on blogs, on Facebook, etc., the wider will be the realization that academic philosophy may be active institutionally but is intellectually dead in the water. The wider the doors may one day open to the writings of us outsiders in a troubled world hungering for meaning and actual critical thinking, the sorts of things philosophy traditionally pointed toward and provided.

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Eight Theses on the “Alt-Right”

Prior to Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s speech last week, I’d barely heard the term “alt-right.” Seems I am not a part of it, if for no other reason than that I am too old. What it appears to be is an unorganized collection of bloggers, editors of and writers for online-only newssites (she named, probably because the Donald Trump campaign’s new CEO Stephen Bannon was editor there), a few other agitators, and trolls on “establishment” sites, perhaps, defined more by what they are against than what they are for. What they are against: political correctness, radical feminism, multiculturalism, academic cliches like “diversity is our strength,” and other staples of the current so-called progressive left (the “alt-left”?). They do not share the mainstream’s hostility to what it dismisses as “conspiracy theories.” “Alt-right” bloggers and writers appear to favor nationalism over globalism, and white identity over other kinds of identities for no other reason than because they are white. Whether this commits them to some kind of racism is unclear. It is rare to find a clear definition of a term almost everyone uses as the linguistic equivalent of club-swinging. To someone trying to engage in analysis instead of ideological club-swinging, this makes it difficult to know when the term should be applied and when it should be withheld pending further inquiry.

These eight theses, assuming anyone reads them, might help us better understand the appeal the “alt-right” has to certain populations, either at present or in the near-future, as the “movement” seems likely to be around well past Election 2016.

(1) Enlightenment philosophers created the concept of universal human rights (UHR) back in the 1700s, as a central component of universal reason (UR), the idea best exemplified in Kant that we all have the same categories (moral as well as epistemological). The culmination of UR and UHR, as civilization moved forward, was a world based on science as the key to discovering truth that was the same for all, technology as the key to material advance, commerce within the confines of sensible regulations, public education to communicate achievements to the next generation, and universal human progress. However the specifics of these are cashed out, UR and UHR was the product of white European men. Some were Christian, and others were attempting to have a fundamentally Christian morality substituting Reason for God.

The result was modernity, whatever its various strengths and perceived weaknesses.

(2) No other people anywhere in the world developed such an ethos. If peoples of other cultures developed anything on the order of a concept of rights, it applied only to their own.

(3) The Enlightenment ethos worked where it was embraced & applied. It brought about material improvements on a scale never before seen. These improvements were extended to minorities within the dominant culture of the U.S. Slavery was abolished. Immigrants willing to assimilate were welcomed. Women’s status was elevated. Cultures elsewhere in the world improved their status materially to the extent they embraced modernity, intended to include UHR.

(4) To be sure, not every culture values material progress. There were peoples who resented Western valuation (exemplified as, e.g., “democracy”) as unwarranted interference,  especially when it was pushed on them at gunpoint, while Western corporations exploited their resources and removed the profits from their countries. Some of these other peoples do have legitimate gripes against modernity.

(5) Western purveyors of what became postmodernity provided the basis for a de facto rejection of UR and UHR when they invented Difference and Identity Politics — e.g., the politics of preferential favors for minorities and women, however justified, implemented by bureaucrats, very quickly at the expense of white men few of whom had been born when the bulk of the events described under (4) were taking place. Difference, no less than UR, had its roots in Western philosophy: specifically, in Hegel’s concept of the different perceptions of the world as experienced by the master versus that of the slave. Hegel’s concept has been taken and generalized. Straight white Christian males are seen within the contemporary academic universe as “privileged” while everyone else is seen as “victim.”

(6) Did anyone really expect that white men would simply accept this, and not eventually embrace the same Identity Politics and demand that it be applied consistently? Did anyone expect that they would not begun using Difference and Identity Politics to defend their interests just as other races / ethnic groups have been doing? The embrace of, e.g., “men’s rights” reflects this as a presumed valid response to radical feminism. Why, moreover, is the white male’s denial of “privilege” deemed automatically illegitimate while the supposed experience of “racism” by the black male is deemed automatically legitimate based on his identity as a black male? (Donald Trump, incidentally, was invoking the application of Identity Politics across the board when he questioned whether a federal judge’s Mexican ancestry would detract from his capacity to judge a white male’s case objectively.)

(7) The “alt-right” is demanding, in this case, a consistent application of Difference and Identity Politics. If there is a black identity, then there is a white identity, even if this makes the worlds they inhabit incommensurable.

(8) What the “alt-right” misses … I think (I could be wrong about this) … is that the losses of UR and UHR are losses of some magnitude, with potentially disastrous consequences for civilization as they continue to work themselves out.

Unless, that is, a “remnant” is able to revisit and revive some version of them.

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The 50 Most Influential Living Philosophers

Intriguing list of the “50 most influential living philosophers” at

Brian Leiter doesn’t much care for it, but this list seems to me reasonably balanced in offering representatives of, e.g., both Christian and atheist perspectives, Continental versus analytic philosophers, as well as a wide variety of others. Feminists can’t claim not to be represented, as there are at least two (Judith Butler, Judith Jarvis Thomson). There are a few names I would have left off (Cornel West who is clearly far more a political activist than a philosopher).

And a few glaring omissions, such as Alvin Plantinga who I’d thought was one of the leading Christian analytic philosophers of religion in the country, Harry G. Frankfurt who actually published something relevant with On Bullshit (2005) and has done other useful work as well, and Colin McGinn of “New Mysterian” fame, although he might have been excluded for political reasons, e.g., the accusation of sexual harassment at the University of Miami from which he resigned in 2013.  Doubtless I’d think of a few others who should be on this list but aren’t, if I put my mind to it. The list, as it says, is a list of those who are influential, not necessarily those who are the best, and as Leiter observes, we don’t know what methodology was used to generate this list.

Most, I note, are elderly; many, also unsurprisingly, are not Americans. Not an absolutely wretched list, given a field very much “in the doldrums” (Harry Frankfurt’s apt description).

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E-Philosophy: A Brief Manifesto

The word philosophy comes to us from two Greek words meaning the love of wisdom. What is wisdom? Knowledge, both theoretical and practical, used in ways both defining and helping to bring about what is good and beneficial in life (i.e., in our lives as persons), based on respect for all life and its unique instantiations. Wisdom surely includes awareness of the limitations on our knowledge and the risks involved in action. It may seek to minimize them where possible, accommodating risk where minimizing it is neither possible nor necessarily desirable.

The Internet, moreover, has become an arena of mixed blessings. Its possibilities give its users a level of reach never before seen. When one uploads a post, one never knows who is reading, or where they are, or how (or if) they will respond. One of the problems is that the Internet has now become so large and cluttered that getting one’s posts noticed is now almost as difficult as it was in the days when we outsiders were printing and distributing leaflets through snail mail. But because of the potential reach leaflets did not have, we would be crazy not to make the attempt. Hence E-Philosophy, which moves philosophy from the physical classroom and publication to cyberspace.

We stand at a unique juncture in time. In the near future, a decision will be made: continued elite domination over the nations of peoples of the world, or an end to such domination however accomplished and the beginning of a world based on principles of responsible freedom, peace (including peaceful and voluntary interactions at all levels), decentralization, and technology that creates abundance instead perpetuating artificial scarcity. Whether we look at the current political unrest reflected in the rejection of elitism in its various manifestations by peoples around the world, the economic uncertainty motivating much restlessness, or just at the fact that technology is changing every facet of the world around us and taking our lives in directions our ancestors could never have begun to imagine, one thing becomes abundantly clear: either we rise to this occasion, or we pass into history as another failed civilization, as did Rome, the Ottomans, the British Empire, and many others. For continued elitism only presages global unrest, destabilization caused by resistance to corruption and perceived injustice, financial irrationality, and inevitable long-term collapse (which probably began in 2008).

Can E-Philosophy, the love of wisdom, contribute to this rising to the occasion? It can surely do not worse than its academic antecedent!

Academic philosophy, in its environment, has become (with rare exceptions) almost completely irrelevant. Even some of its more thoughtful practitioners such as Harry G. Frankfurt of Princeton (author of the celebrated On Bullshit) admit that academic philosophy is “in the doldrums”:

I believe that there is, at least in this country, a more or less general agreement among philosophers and other scholars that our subject is currently in the doldrums. Until not very long ago, there were powerful creative impulses moving energetically through the field. There was the work in England of G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell and of Gilbert Ryle, Paul Grice, and Herbert Hart, as well as the work of various logical positivists. In the United States, even after interest in William James and John Dewey had receded, there was lively attention to contributions by Willard Quine and Donald Davidson, John Rawls and Saul Kripke. In addition, some philosophers were powerfully moved by the gigantic speculative edifice of Whitehead. Heidegger was having a massive impact on European philosophy, as well as on other disciplines – and not only in Europe, but here as well. And, of course, there was everywhere a vigorously appreciative and productive response to the work of Wittgenstein.

The lively impact of these impressive figures has faded. We are no longer busily preoccupied with responding to them. Except for a few contributors of somewhat less general scope, such as Habermas, no one has replaced the imposingly great figures of the recent past in providing us with contagiously inspiring direction. Nowadays, there are really no conspicuously fresh, bold, and intellectually exciting new challenges or innovations. For the most part, the field is quiet. We seem, more or less, to be marking time. (In Steven Cahn, ed., Portraits of American Philosophy [2013], pp. 125-126; italics mine).

Frankfurt probably exaggerates the contributions of the analysts if we understand philosophy as the love of wisdom as defined above, since the major analysts (1) had embraced an essentially positivist view of the discipline and its place in academia, one which was insular, self-contained, and seeing this as an advance over all past philosophy; and (2) which meant only rarely addressing the “big questions” in ways challenging to the institutional authority structures it was absorbed comfortably into.

Despite the powerful logical-linguistic techniques analytic philosophers developed, readily available to anyone who studies them, they are rarely employed in any effective way outside a rarefied and impotent philosophical literature gathering dust on the shelves of university libraries. Not used to their full potential, their influence was bound to fade in the face of the various rebellions we have seen since the 1960s, postmodernity being the most formidable. George Orwell was far more effective at showing the relevance of the analysis of language to the problems of civilization!

E-Philosophy proposes to revitalize philosophy as a discipline by finding not just the new arena in cyberspace but new ways to apply philosophy to today’s situation, present-day institutions, and to life in the world as it is. What will E-Philosophy be? As already explained, online, rather than in a university office cubicle or classroom. Independent, rather than affiliated with an institution (although individuals in institutions may participate as they chooses). Mobile and dynamic, rather than fixed and static. Pluralistic, rather than monistic, monolithic, and absolutist. Simultaneously global and local — having global reach as noted above, but local because it respects locality: local autonomy, local traditions / customs, local knowledge. Why localism? Because most people conduct their lives within a sense of place defining them; genuine “citizens of the world” are few and far between, and (interestingly!) usually limited to those steeped in Western Enlightenment thought and scientism. I don’t know that this need be the case, as a “remnant” might exist that recognizes the limitations of this, can see beyond locality to what we all have in common as human beings (or, indeed, in all conscious beings), but will nevertheless respect the fact of their status as an extreme minority. The transition that has probably already begun may allow this “remnant” to act, although this remains to be seen.

Be all this as it may, E-Philosophy will seek contact across cultural divides, community amidst diversity, and dialogue amidst disagreement and controversy. It will be future-oriented under the assumption that the future will come whether we plan for it or not, and it might be better if we tried to build a better future for ourselves and our posterity rather than leaving the matter to chance.

E-Philosophy’s “heroes” will be reflected in this kind of agenda. They range from Aristotle and logical systematicity to Stoics such as Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius, and their view of “living in accordance with nature,” reflected further in Bacon’s “nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” Other E-Philosophical heroes and sources of inspiration will be drawn from a broad list of rebels, prophets, observers, critics, provocateurs, innovators, creators: Jesus Christ, Michel de Montaigne, Bishop George Berkeley, Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Charles Sanders Peirce, Charles Fort, Nikola Tesla, Albert Jay Nock, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Leopold Kohr, E.F. Schumacher, Ervin Laszlo, Robert Anton Wilson, Thomas S. Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, Brian Eno; and fictional characters such as Dr. Ian Malcolm on Jurassic Park, Ambassador Delenn on Babylon 5 (the television series), Morpheus (The Matrix), and others. E-Philosophy will draw on the sciences where they are relevant, on technology where it is helpful, on popular culture where it can be illuminating, and on all those experiences — sometimes unique — that confront us with problems to solve as well as opportunities and resources for solving them, or which sometimes upset comforting and privileged dogmas.

E-Philosophy’s purpose is not to “found a new philosophical tradition”; its purpose is to challenge said dogmas, and urge new conversations on the problems our civilization confronts. Rather than defend a privileged metaphysics (be it materialist or Christian) it calls for interfaith dialogue and a search for a consensus among those articulating answers to common problems, with those affected by proposed answers having a say in whatever policies are embraced. Rather than defend a specific range of methods held as absolute and above critical examination, E-Philosophy proposes that all methods have limits — even seemingly obvious ones. Rather than outline a specific philosophy of life it goes on to insist is “the good life” for all human beings, it suggests there is much to be gained by encouraging a plurality of approaches to living, and that in the last analysis each person who chooses to do so should be allowed to walk his/her own path in life instead of being compelled to walk down paths laid down by others.


Key texts:

“The Sermon on the Mount” (Matt. 5 – 7)

Epictetus, “Enchiridion.”

Berkeley, George. A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge.

Søren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments.

Frederic Bastiat, The Law.

Charles Sanders Peirce, “Some Consequences of the Four Incapacities.”

Charles Fort, The Book of the Damned.

Albert Jay Nock, “Isaiah’s Job.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Philosophical Investigations.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited.

George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language.”

Ervin Laszlo, The Systems View of the World.

Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Paul Feyerabend, Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge.

Brian Eno, “The Long Now.”

Helena Norberg-Hodge, Ancient Futures: Lessons from Ladakh for a Globalizing World.


Key films / television series / etc.

Jurassic Park (1993)

Babylon 5 (1993 – 1998)

The Matrix (1999)

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What Is It Like to Be a Lost Generation Philosopher (Part 3)

[Continued from Parts One and Two]

Given that you pursued a career in academic philosophy, any specific regrets?

One big one from my early days. Not turning my MA thesis on Paul Feyerabend into my first book. The idea was there, and it hadn’t been done. There were no book-length works devoted to Feyerabend’s ideas then like there are now, and most of the secondary literature on Feyerabend was awful. I don’t know if having a book like that come out about the same time as receipt of the Ph.D. would have helped or not, of course, but part of me would still like to think so. But I let myself get sidetracked. I can’t blame anyone else for that. I was writing for a local music magazine and trying to write a novel based on some of the stuff I’d seen and been through as a student in a college town where there were a lot of popular bands — and also a lot of dopers. One version of it got finished but was never published, which is probably just as well.

I also ended up with what was probably a publishable paper on incommensurability that I’d read at a meeting that first year out. All it needed was some tweaking, but the novel seemed more important! We live, we learn, we regret. Paraphrasing Kierkegaard, we reflect backwards after we’ve lived our lives forwards.

There’s a new book out with Paul Feyerabend’s name on it, you know.

Yes, Philosophy of Nature. I’ve started reading it, and I doubt his forays into ancient Greek art and the Homeric worldview will be understood. Feyerabend was always an interdisciplinarian, in a field riddled with microspecialists.

You wouldn’t describe yourself as a specialist, then, I take it?

Heck no! If I wanted to be a specialist I would have stayed where I was in geology!

Do you find any recent trends in academic philosophy disconcerting?

I never cared for so-called feminist philosophy. Nothing against women, of course; I just doubt the wisdom of pursing philosophy from a group-grievance perspective. Most of what I’ve read of feminist philosophy just isn’t very good. It isn’t well reasoned, conscious of its own unstated premises which tend to be Hegelian-Marxist, or what it’s borrowed from others sometimes without credit. It’s not even well written. And radical feminists don’t handle criticism particularly well. That was one of my first observations as a new Ph.D., knowing next to nothing about them at the time but observing them disrupt a meeting at a national conference.

What was the conference?

American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division, either 1987 or 1988, that escapes me now. Christina Hoff Sommers was the speaker, doing a paper on feminism and the family, and she was basically shouted down – booed and hissed down, in fact. You might expect something like that from student revolutionaries, but do you expect it from professionals many with tenured teaching jobs? I was astonished. Drawing attention to this in a couple of prominent venues probably cost me job interviews because of the special favors accorded these people. There was, and still is, an irrational push to get more women into philosophy.

But is it not the case that only 25% of philosophy professors are women?

I’ve seen that stat, and I’ve no reason to think it’s wrong. There’s also been a push, going back longer than 30 years, to get more blacks into philosophy. The percentage of blacks in philosophy in the late 1960s was between 1 and 2%, and that hasn’t budged. These affirmative-action pushes just don’t work, unless we’re supposed to believe there’s dozens of blacks and women out there who can’t find tenure-track teaching jobs in philosophy because of discrimination. Some say that women just don’t warm to philosophy’s argumentative nature, which doesn’t ring true to me, so I don’t have a specific explanation other than the actual numbers reflect the actual choices women have made, or are making. Sometimes political hires backfire. There are departments that get stung because they hired someone who doesn’t give a damn about anything except her political agenda, and she turns the department into a war zone. I watched that happen once … from a safe distance … so I know it happens.

Wouldn’t feminists or critical race theorists or other voices that claim they’ve been marginalized say that traditional philosophy is all straight white male philosophy?

Strictly speaking, that’s not true. Plato, arguably the first pivotal figure in Western philosophy, was gay. Wittgenstein was gay. It doesn’t appear to have affected the way they did philosophy. I’m sure there are others. As for the rest…?  Straight white males all. But so what? Look, whether anyone likes it or not, just about all the people who gave us the Western intellectual tradition were white males, many of them explicitly Christian, at least until we get to the Enlightenment. Not that the Western tradition is perfect. I’ve criticized it as a whole myself on certain specifics like its tendency to dichotomize everything: Plato’s essential versus accidental properties, Aristotle’s terrestrial versus celestial realms which the scientific revolution transcended, Cartesian mind versus body which in some respects we’re still stuck in, Kant’s noumenal versus phenomenal worlds, analytic versus synthetic statements, determinism versus free will, and so on and so on. There are other problems. There’s a tendency in most Western thought to treat everything abstractly. Abstract and universal versus concrete and local is probably another dichotomy. The postmoderns do get some things right in my view. We are situated. We all come from specific places and times. We are either male or female, and there are things (relationships being the obvious example) we don’t perceive in the same way. There is such a thing as class consciousness. This academic abstraction, the rational individual, thinking thing, or whatever you want to call it, does not exist. It’s a Platonist-Cartesian myth, and pernicious as it works against the local knowledge of common people the world over and justifies this creation of a mass-consumption monoculture, which turns out to be nothing more than Western scientistic-technocratic materialism based on abstract rules. What happens is that common peoples in other cultures have followed their noses for centuries solving problems rather than relying on a book of rules, or a money system, or anything like that. Feyerabend’s worked on this; so have anthropologists like Clifford Geertz. There’s plenty of grist there for anybody’s intellectual mill, if they’d but use it; there’s no need for this affirmative-action based pseudo-scholarship to talk about group dynamics in cultural settings. A “feminist approach to physical science”? What sense does that make, anyway?

What bothers me the most about academic feminists and others of that ilk is that intellectual curiosity is not what motivates them. They’re part of a collective grievance industry driven by a desire to “get even” with us mean old white guys. Some are chronically angry, like the women who disrupted that meeting I talked about. I had an office right next door to one such person during my last job in the U.S. During a four-year period, I think she spoke three words to me. One of them was “Hey!” when one day I accidentally hit the hall light switch that also killed the lights in her corner office due to some screwy wiring. Guys like me just had no business existing in her version of reality.

Are you an angry white male?

The angry white male was an invention of the mass media. The first time I saw it was on an article I wrote that year, 1994. I’d not used the phrase in the article. Nor has any other white person used it that I know of.

Don’t you think racism is still a problem in America?

I’m sure it is, it’s a problem in a lot of places, not just America, and the devices liberals favor, offering minority groups benefits at the expense of whites, are making it worse, not better. Any time government offers one group favors at the expense of another invites resentment from the nonpreferred. That’s not racism, that’s human nature. That, plus factors like the outsourcing of jobs, is part of what is driving whites, the only race in America losing ground and numbers right now as is well documented, to support Donald Trump. Also, there’s the implication that blacks can’t succeed without government-mandated freebies. Many aren’t succeeding with government freebies. They’ve been made dependent, and told they are entitled. Left-liberals have created a postmodern welfare-state plantation, and I fear it’s about to blow up in their faces.

There are more whites on welfare than blacks.

Blacks make up 14.4% of the population in the U.S. I don’t have statistics in front of me what percentage of the population receiving government benefits of some sort or another is black, but I’m sure it’s larger than 14.4%. Everyone wants to think in terms of ratios, that if the ratios don’t match, it’s systemic racism. If 14.4% of the population is black, then 14.4% of professors should be black, the reasoning goes, the same being true in other organizations. But there’s not a society of multiple ethnicities anywhere in the world where you see proportional ratios in all institutions. You always have a dominant group. Always. These Social Justice Warrior types demanding more “diversity” because they can’t have the politically correct ratios they want are in a fantasy world. You’d think more people would figure out that the disruptions we saw on campuses all over the country last year are dead giveaways that these left wing policies don’t work. How long have these policies been around, anyway? At least since the early 1970s. That’s the trouble with the left in a nutshell: nothing it does ever works. It discredits the disciplines it takes over, and the universities get more corporate. And it turns race relations into a powder keg.

Do you believe political correctness is both real, and a problem in academia?

I think political correctness, along with the corporate model that’s eliminating the tenure system little by little … the two of them together have just about ruined higher education in America. I have been banging the first drum for a quarter century now, and everything I warned about in the early ‘90s has come true. I have no idea how to turn these two tides back at this point, because they’re part of academic culture now. Students believe they’re entitled to “safe spaces” just like top administrators believe they’re entitled to six-figure salaries. These disasters aren’t going to be fixed from the inside. I’m not sure they’re going to be fixed at all. It’s past time to start new institutions that make the present-day ones. Some folks are already doing this, but the accreditation system is in their way, and so is the employment system. If that ever changes, watch out!

Do you think sexual harassment is a problem in academic philosophy?

Well, I’m not there anymore, and I never saw anything when I was, but I have followed to some extent the accounts of the last few years, one at Northwestern University, another at the University of Miami. Nothing I’ve read really surprises me that much. I met arrogant men with tenure when I was in academia. They may or may not be married, I have no idea, but it’s clear: professional ethics took a nosedive long ago. I wouldn’t put it past some of them to solicit favors from vulnerable female graduate students in exchange for positive recommendations or contacts later to help them in this horrid job market. I think any guy who does anything that stupid in this day and age deserves whatever he gets when he gets caught.

How do you see the future of philosophy?

Dismal. It’s suffering from all the problems of academic culture generally we just talked about, as well as the neglect that is the natural outcome of a corporate environment of money über alles, which fields like philosophy don’t contribute to. Most of those finding academic work are ending up as permanent part-timers — adjuncts — working for pay that’s a joke. The “hyper-educated poor,” one online column called them. One concern I have is the disappearance of figures that promise to be historically important. Where are today’s Quines, Wittgensteins, or even its Kuhns, Feyerabends, and Rortys? There are very few if any such voices, and the remaining major figures are almost all in their 70s and 80s. The figures that made philosophy worth studying in the last century are dying off, one at a time, and not being replaced. This is particularly true in the U.S. A major figure in the philosophy of mind is David Chalmers, 50 I think, but he’s Australian. There are a handful of good people in Great Britain, like Timothy Williamson and Luciano Floridi, but in the U.S. no one under 70 is breaking new ground. One reason is this adjunctification, affecting 70% or so of those with teaching jobs, and you can’t do scholarship on the kinds of schedules adjuncts have to keep if they want a roof over their heads. Of that other 30%, no one is writing anything especially new or impressive. There is publishing going on, of course, a lot of it, in fact, but it’s the same microspecialization that’s guaranteed to gather the proverbial dust on library shelves. Some folks are retreading the same ground over and over again — especially libertarians and anarcho-whatevers. Their books have been written three dozen times now.

I think another reason things prospects for academic philosophy are so dismal is that the reasoning skills that make you good at it transfer to other disciplines or occupations, and so there’s been a brain drain. There’s no way to document this, of course, because there’s no way to determine how many people might have gone into philosophy had the environment been more hospitable, but my nose is telling me the number is far from negligible, that a lot of intelligent people who might have been good philosophers saw better opportunities and took them, sometimes before ever starting graduate programs.

Meanwhile, hostility to liberal arts education in our neoliberal environment has never been greater! Guys like Florida governor Rick Scott openly suggest what amounts to eliminating them in favor of STEM education. A book I’ve been reading on the culture wars by Andrew Hartman [A War For the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars] says it all at one point, how the real issue, now that universities have been changed not just by PC but by the corporate model, is not, do we teach John Locke or Frantz Fanon, but do we bother with the liberal arts at all? They don’t help corporations make money! In a way it’s depressing. But in a way it’s not, because in a few years, the field may be wide open for contributions from those of us working outside academia.

Like yourself?


You moved to Chile in 2012?

Yes. I had an inheritance, and was fed up with teaching jobs which by themselves would never have paid the bills.

You had outside work?

In a manner of speaking I had outside self-employment. I was selling off my vinyl collection on eBay all those years — well over 1,000 vinyl records, some dating from those days I told you about [Part One] when I was growing up. That wasn’t sustainable indefinitely, of course, because a vinyl collection is finite and soon those that sell really well are gone. I’d gone to my department chair and asked for a raise, but the university I was then at — USC-Upstate  in Spartanburg — wouldn’t even reimburse my travel expenses to a conference in North Carolina where I’d read a paper a few weeks back. This was a university that had just spent something like a $100 million on a plush new facility for the business school, as well as random millions on other new buildings and beautification projects around campus. So at the end of spring semester 2012, I resigned. It was a de facto resignation: since adjuncts don’t really “resign,” they just aren’t rehired. All I did was clean out my office and disappear. I don’t think the department was happy to be left in the lurch, but for a change the shoe was on the other foot; it wasn’t my problem. I had friends in Chile and a couple of job prospects there, so off I went. Plus, the political situation in the U.S. was already bad and about to get worse. The GOP screwed up again, got Obama reelected, and Americans got Obamacare shoved down their throats. Not to mention continuing the Bush foreign policy that’s just about wrecked the Middle East. Chile, to its credit, is not at war with anybody and has no designs on countries on other continents.

Anything you miss about the States?

A few things. Solid research libraries, reliable mail that doesn’t cost a fortune, good customer service, dealing with ordinary people in my own language, greater efficiency generally. Although I imagine those are living on borrowed time in the U.S.

You’re more than pessimistic about the future of the U.S., I gather.

Look at the present presidential choices, the deteriorating infrastructure, the culture generally. I’ve long considered the Clintons to be two of the most loathsome human beings on the planet, and there’s at least a 50-50 chance voters are going to put another Clinton in the White House — probably the worst of the two — because the Republicans screwed up yet again! As bad as left-liberal Democrats are, Republicans also screw up everything they touch.

Are you for or against Donald Trump, then?

I’m not endorsing anyone, but I don’t think he’s worse than Hillary. Some of what I’ve read about his being a psychotic sociopath who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the nuclear codes is utterly ridiculous! He’s not going to blow up the world! I do think his Make America Great Again slogan, as well as the response it has generated, speaks volumes about America’s decline from greatness, but because he’s a prima donna, lacks patience with complexity, and will sow a lot of confusion by insisting on doing things his way, and above all, will be resisted by a firmly entrenched Establishment, if he gets in it will hasten the empire’s demise. That’s if he is who he says he is. If he turns out to be another Establishment tool who’s been leading a huge swath of voters by their noses, then all bets are off. There’s a massive financial debt bubble that is going to burst in the near future anyway, and that’s going to happen no matter who gets elected.

Your opinion of Hillary Clinton?

A loathsome creature. A lot of progressive leftists despise her, because they’ve figured out she’s not one of them. She’s a consummate opportunist who serves the interests of power and greed. And a total hypocrite. She claims to support the LGBTQ community while the Clinton Foundation takes money from foreign governments that brutally murder homosexuals. Her volatile temper is well-known, according to those who worked around her in the 1990s. She’s the one who shouldn’t be anywhere near your nuclear codes. She’ll get you into World War III faster than Donald Trump, who assuming he’s allowed to govern if he gets elected, may try to work with Vladimir Putin to rid the world of ISIS, instead of against him to try to extend neocon / neoliberal world domination.

Wow! Now tell the world how you really feel.

I think I just did.

Have any of your fellow U.S. citizens criticized your decision to leave?

I’ve been accused of cutting and running instead of standing and fighting, so to speak. My short answer is, you’re right, I cut and run. Only because I think standing and fighting is a losing game at this point. My long answer: however we look at it, the U.S. is an empire in decline: overextended militarily and fighting wars we shouldn’t be involved in, its “main street” economy hollowed out by globalism, its national debt rising to unsustainable levels, its political system bankrupt and dysfunctional, its media corrupted and filled with shills who wouldn’t keep their jobs otherwise, and the culture hopelessly divided with the races at each other’s throats and dumbed down by the entertainment industry. And very few people really have that much of a clue what is really going on. If things go completely to pieces, I’ll be watching over my computer screen instead of through my front window.

You mentioned job prospects down there. Have you done any philosophy teaching in Chile?

Yes, at two institutions. Both were disasters, mainly because the schools are so bureaucratic and inefficient. One of the places neglected to pay me for almost four months, and I had to threaten them with legal action. Liberal arts education is even less of a priority here than in the States. Chile is not a tropical paradise. It has its own set of problems. Education is a disaster here, too, though not for the same reasons as in the States. It’s more expensive than the average Chilean can afford, which is one of the things motivating a strong “free education” movement here. President Michelle Bachelet promised “free education” but hasn’t been able to deliver. Long story, but that’s been a cause of unrest here, especially among students. There have been protests that have shut down major campuses. The Social Justice Warriors haven’t done that in the U.S., at least not yet.

Any interesting projects on the horizon?

I am sitting on two manuscripts which I revise periodically, one of them on the breakdown of academia in the U.S. Another is on Descartes and the epistemological turn, that draws attention to a mistake in Descartes’s reasoning that, in my opinion, threw the Western tradition off track. It started as a paper that got turned down by four journals, none of which pointed to fundamental flaws in my arguments or otherwise gave a credible reason for the rejection (one said the paper was too long, but nothing more). After that I stopped sending it out. I was losing faith in peer review, just another overrated procedure that protects certain ideas and methods at the expense of others. I once had a 30-page paper of very detailed arguments against so-called feminist epistemology rejected by a major journal which provided two lines of referee comments. That paper disappeared during one of my many moves, trying to keep employed. As we were still in the 1990s it didn’t get saved on a flash drive. I’ve continued expanding the one on Descartes, and it could be published as a slim book now, if I ever get motivated to send it out. I’m also sitting on a manuscript on the original small-is-beautiful political philosopher Leopold Kohr, who was E.F. Schumacher’s teacher, and I’m working on a longer manuscript on where civilization needs to go from here.

That last sounds like an ambitious undertaking.

Yes, but as I note in its introduction, we’ve nothing to lose at this point.

Where does civilization need to go, in your opinion?

Away from scientistic-technocratic materialism. Away from financialization, centralization, and globalism, the actual drivers of the worsening inequality blamed on “capital in the 21st century.” These are causing unrest all over the world, and seeding the ground for more populist revolts by peoples who, if they get things right, will see their enemy as a firmly entrenched economic elite seated in central banks, centers of high finance, and the corporations that have grown up around all that – not just governments. We need to get away from the need to monetize everything and everyone, which means, away from the neoliberal ethos (leftists using that word do get some things right). We need to move past postmodernism, which is really just a gesture of despair in the face of the hardships of seeking truth inside the institutional cages we’ve created for ourselves.

And towards?

I call it civilization’s Fifth Stage.

Fifth Stage? What were the other four?

Auguste Comte, the founder of sociology, formulated the first three — the religious or fictitious, the metaphysical or abstract, and the scientific or positive. His Law of Three Stages. He thought we could stop at three, because the third would give us a scientific-secular paradise. It hasn’t, obviously. Postmodernism became the fourth, but postmodernism is an academic and artistic curiosity, not a basis for continuing civilization. Most of it is unintelligible to nonspecialists. We can’t go back to the first three in their original forms, although we can look for things they got right. The third still commands a lot of authority but, I argue, has left us at sea ethically and is one of the reasons we are having so many of the problems we are having. But we can draw on the earlier stages to build a fifth one. I don’t know that we’ll do it, or that anyone will care, but if we do, we will have figured out how to build a global civilization that isn’t centralized and authoritarian, one that uses technology to create abundance instead of to maintain artificial scarcity, one that doesn’t confuse liberty with money and power or free trade with corporate-controlled trade, but rather takes seriously what people want at a local level, acknowledging that most trade between common people is local and has to be. There is absolutely no reason, for example, to transport food from thousands of miles away, with unhealthy preservatives to keep it from deteriorating, when it can be grown locally. People have a right to know what’s in their food, and to have control over their food and health care. A Fifth Stage of civilization may have found a cheaper and more efficient way of powering our homes and vehicles that puts the present energy leviathans out of business. A Fifth Stage would be global, but post-globalist, in the sense of rejecting the encircling economic coercion we have now: cooperate or starve, because peoples have had their local economies destroyed and been robbed of their autonomy. (To see how this happens, read John Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.) A Fifth Stage would welcome cultural exchanges and learning, provided the interactions aren’t forced on peoples like today’s open immigration policies which really serve corporations, not the peoples directly involved including the immigrants. It might even be able to abolish the money economy, with a technological state of affairs no longer requiring rent and mortgages for shelter and money for electricity. Think of oxygen, our most basic biological need. Without it, you die in a matter of minutes. We don’t pay for oxygen, though, because oxygen is abundant. Energy is presently a scarce resource, produced from scarce resources. Can we use technology to make energy abundant and therefore free? I don’t know, but the question seems worth asking.

Sounds almost like a Utopia of your own.

It may be, but the alternative is that the West passes into history, another failed civilization. And that’s even if we avoid a major war involving a nuclear exchange.

You are married now, yes?

Yes, to a Chilean woman I met over two years ago. Love her to death. There are a lot of things she says and does that I can’t get enough of, even after well over two years. Last thing I expected, as I was an unmarried dateless wonder in the U.S. But in Chile, women are women. They don’t resent men, and aren’t trying to be men. PC imperatives are trying to make inroads here, promoting such things as legal abortion and gay marriage, but they’re up against some fairly high cultural walls.

Might these walls come down in the future?

It’s possible. If they do, it will be for the same reason they came down in the U.S. An educational system that was inattentive to those kinds of threats because it neglected subjects like philosophy and critical thinking, used the emphasis on vocational STEM education to create employees instead of free citizens, and a culture that emphasizes the same mass consumption we see in the U.S.

Congratulations on the marriage. Here’s a question I’ve asked several philosophers. Suppose you’re king of the world. What’s your first move?

Resign. Or abolish the position and then resign. Come to think of it, if I abolished the position first there’d be nothing to resign from. But if I resigned without abolishing the position, then I’d relinquish the authority to abolish the position, and someone could replace me. Sort of a paradox. So I guess I’d abolish the position. That would make resigning redundant. Although I’d still sign a resignation document. Just to be clear.

Any non-philosophical interests these days?

I’ve been working on my cooking, often just experimenting. It’s surprisingly relaxing, and my wife seems to like the results. It gives her a break since she does the bulk of the cooking. I think we’ll be doing some gardening when spring rolls around, too. With the crap that’s in the food you get in grocery stores now, even in Chile, we get as much as we can at outdoor farmer’s markets, and the next step is growing some of our own.

You’re in favor of “prepping,” of people growing and storing their own food?

Yes, even absent the dangers of economic decline, social conflict, and possible world war, I think food corporations have done a lot of damage to our health, and growing and distributing our own food is the only way we’re ever going to get it back. That’s another interview, though.

True. Is there anything else you have to say, any other author we haven’t mentioned in this interview you’d recommend reading?

Leopold Kohr, although I did mention him briefly. He wrote a book back in the 1950s predicting a lot of what we’ve seen, the breakdown of the U.S. amidst greed, political corruption, and wars of choice. It was called The Breakdown of Nations, and it deserves a much wider audience than it’s ever gotten. He basically laid out a theory of the trajectory of empires, something like Spengler without Spengler’s obscurities, that when they get too large, empires become violent, abusive, and self-destructive. My Fifth Stage thinking would try to break this trajectory, which has empires rising, hitting a plateau, slowly getting corrupted by complacency and greed, then falling from within. But a lot of my private thinking these days is about this, so nothing I’d say would be short, and I know this has gone on too long and we’re out of time.

One more question, then. Are you writing about Fifth Stage thinking, as you call it?

Yes. Assuming it ever gets finished, it’ll be called The Fifth Stage of Civilization.

How far along is the manuscript?

As we speak, I’m almost two thirds of the way done. With the hardest part still in the thinking stages!

Do you have a publisher?

Haven’t sought one yet. I’ll be sending out feelers well before the end of the year.

Good luck, in that case. I’ve enjoyed doing this, and I hope readers if we have a few will benefit in some way. Thank you.

I hope so, too, and thank you.

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What Is It Like to Be a Lost Generation Philosopher (Part 2)

[Continued from here.]

Getting back to personal stuff again if you don’t mind: what did your parents make of your decision to go into philosophy?

My mom had always encouraged me to find out and pursue what I was really interested in, but my dad wasn’t happy at all! He would have preferred I finish my geology degree, get an MBA, and follow his footsteps into business. But I remembered those evenings he fell asleep on the couch from exhaustion, and how he’d often complained about the pettiness of some of the people he worked with. I very much didn’t want to go that route, especially since I didn’t think it would work. I don’t have a good head for business. I tried a couple of sales jobs and struck out miserably.

You mentioned Thomas S. Kuhn? What other philosophers did you read when you were first starting out?

David Hume was the first major figure I read closely, in an undergraduate seminar. Took a philosophy of science course to study Kuhn formally instead of reading him on my own, and the professor introduced us to Paul Feyerabend, whose Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge electrified me more than Kuhn’s book had. My thoughts about Kuhn had become, ho-hum, what’s so controversial here? Isn’t what he saying obvious? Feyerabend was a lot more challenging to intellectual authoritarianism than Kuhn — he was debunking the logical abstractions philosophers were trying to impose on science and calling scientific method. He claimed they would have prevented the most important episodes in the history of science from ever happening, and made a compelling case. His claim is that no method covers everything we call science; that’s the “anarchy” here. It’s kind of a joke, actually, as he says himself; the rationalist predicament is that if you want a rule that always holds, it will have to be something as empty as “anything goes.” Feyerabend complained more bitterly than Kuhn that critics didn’t understand him. He went so far as to call them illiterates, which seemed a bit over the top at the time, but most professional philosophers have little in the way of a sense of humor, or of irony.

Anyone else?

A British philosopher of science, Nicholas Maxwell, came to my attention when I was working on my MA. He stressed the presupposition made by science that nature is intelligible, and sought to promote a methodology in which scientists presuppose, a priori, that the world is intelligible in the sense of structural simplicity, and seek to identify and refine the specific ways in which the subject matter in their discipline is intelligible and structurally simple so that Occam’s Razor really does work. Since this seemed closer to how real science made progress, I thought Maxwell might have had the best answer to Feyerabend and be the next step in reconstructing the philosophy of science in the wake of epistemological anarchism. I wrote my MA thesis based on this idea, but later realized that nearly every endeavor, not just science, works under the assumption of a minimum of stability, order, intelligibility, simplicity, and so on, so this wasn’t a satisfactory answer to Feyerabend’s challenge to the idea that science has a unique method for finding truth.

You wrote your dissertation on the Kuhn-Feyerabend incommensurability thesis, and you used the term earlier to describe theism versus atheism. What is incommensurability?

Not something talked about much today, unfortunately, since the problem never really was addressed in my opinion. The idea comes from mathematics. Rational and irrational numbers are mathematically incommensurable, because the former can be expressed in the form a/b and the latter can’t. Comparisons between them are therefore approximate, and can be made to whatever degree you want, but are never exact. Example: ∏ and 22/7, or the far more exact ∏ and 3.14159 … non-ending and nonrepeating. Incommensurability can similarly hold between conceptual systems, vocabularies, cultural systems as systems of habits, and worldviews. We get the same inexactitude. Incommensurable systems can’t be reduced to one another or shoehorned inside a larger vocabulary or method with the conceptual machinery of both intact. I tried to argue that the phenomenon was not the threat to either scientific realism or rationality that it had been made out to be, if we don’t define these in formal terms. Kuhn’s eventual version of the thesis, which he had articulated by the time I was writing about this in the mid-80s, was that it was restricted to a few core postulates or propositions designating concepts not shared, so that when one theory replaces another, these postulates or propositions are not explained, or subsumed, they simply drop out of the vocabulary, like phlogiston did from chemistry, or élan vital from biology. The terms, viewed as referring in the old paradigm, are no longer seen as such, and so are no longer used. The pragmatics are relatively straightforward. But there is no “logical” means of convincing someone to drop a term or idea from across an incommensurable divide, since the very standards one needs to convince them are bound to the new system. As Kuhn says somewhere in Structure, there is no logical method of convincing the unconvinced to step inside the circle. But those who insist on defending an “old” paradigm end up written out of the discipline as it moves on, as was Joseph Priestley who defended the phlogiston theory of combustion for the rest of his life.

You’d worked this out in your dissertation?

Most of it.

Should have been a good launching pad for an academic career. Let’s talk about that, or what there was of it. How did you land your first teaching job?

It wasn’t on my own. If anybody actually does that, how they do it is a mystery to me. A professor in my graduate program knew a professor going on sabbatical for a semester at a university up the road, as it were, and had me send that department my CV. I interviewed for and got a job no one else knew about.

How long were you there?

A year. My first two jobs lasted one year each. Then I was out of work for a semester, part-time for a semester, then full-time for the next five years but still not on a path to tenure.

You never landed a tenure-track job?

No, and not through lack of trying. All those early years, I sent out over a hundred applications per year.

Did you get any interviews?

One, the first year out. Again, through a personal contact. Three, I think, the next year; and five the year after that. After that the interviews were just sporadic, and again it was usually because somebody who knew me knew somebody. It’s definitely true that it’s not what you know but who you know. And coming from the right graduate program, somewhere highly ranked, which I didn’t do. There was no Philosophy Gourmet Report in those days, either, if that matters. Academia, I like to say, is not a meritocracy or anything close. The more years you’re on the job market without finding a tenure-track job, the more it hurts you even if you’re building up teaching experience and even if you’re publishing in refereed journals. I think search committees conclude there must be something wrong with you, that you couldn’t keep a job. If they have over a hundred applications to go through, they’re looking for excuses to put yours in the slush pile where it never gets looked at again. You can publish and still perish, therefore.

You were writing articles in graduate school.

That’s right. My first published article was based on a chapter of my MA thesis, on one of Feyerabend’s ideas. It came out in ‘84 in a European journal called Inquiry, three years before I had my Ph.D. It proved important enough that someone wrote a discussion article of it. I replied, and that was my second academic refereed journal publication. Then I got a third, based on a conference presentation. A fourth came out right after I got the Ph.D. and when I had that first job. I had something like eight after three years out on the job market, and nearly always had something out to a journal. Naively, I thought this sort of thing would help my career.

And you don’t think it did.

Search committees have to read your CV first — not just three letters of recommendation from people they never heard of before.

What was the high point of your career?

The three years I spent at Auburn University teaching mainly logic — occasionally ethics, and once, philosophy of mind which I steered towards AI. Auburn had serious degree programs in schools like engineering, and for them logic was a required subject. Those students were damned smart! A lot of them were a joy to teach! I was very motivated during that period. During my four years there total — one of my one year jobs before had been in that department — I published a total of seven articles and review essays in refereed journals I can think of off the top of my head, and had the manuscript of my first book accepted by a publisher.

Was there an effort to get you on a tenure line?

Yes, but it failed. According to university bylaws I had to leave after four years of full-time work: after five years I would have de facto tenure, they called it, which took the tenure decision out of the hands of the department. They didn’t want that. I never saw any such system elsewhere, and I suppose whoever came up with that thought they were doing us some kind of favor, not putting us out of work. That’s what happens when bureaucrats make rules up on high. I didn’t have the unanimous support it would have taken to get on a tenure track and be put up for tenure before the end of that fourth year. So after that fourth year I was history.

You found another job, though.

Yes, right away, but I went from a place with those strong technical programs to a “flagship” state university with all but open admissions, tons of students on academic probation, a lot of them in remedial courses. The University of South Carolina at Columbia. It was culture shock. I went from classes of around 30 students, around seven of whom made A’s on average, A’s they’d earned, to classes of around 80 students in which only four or five did well enough to make an A without rampant grade inflation, and where a lot of students thought they were entitled to good grades just for showing up. There were some who had attitudes that said, “Teach me something, I dare you.” I’d say about a third shouldn’t have been in college at all. A lot of what went on in classrooms there amounted to little more than crowd control. There were no remedial courses in my subject, and I cut large pieces out of it anyway since they weren’t teachable to those students. One formal logic course I’d taught at Auburn went all the way through proofs in predicate logic using three-place relations. I’d never have been able to do that at USC. As it was, I had many bad experiences there with defiant students arguing over grades; I didn’t always handle them that well, and that hurt me with what really counts if you don’t have tenure: student evaluations. Plus I published a book that skewered one of academia’s the sacred cows. I wasn’t rehired for a third year, and found myself wishing I’d simply resigned.

You’re referring to your book on affirmative action?

Yeah, that one. Civil Wrongs was its name, and it came out in ‘94. It gave me my Warholian 15 minutes, as I was on talk radio quite a few times talking about it, and had several requests for spin-off articles based on it. I also had invitations to speak to off-campus groups and made some friendships I still have.

But you got no job offers?

No. That was when the interviews for academic jobs dried up. Imagine that. After that book came out I had two interviews for tenure-track teaching jobs. Two.

Low point of your career?

Learning the circumstances of my departure from Auburn, that one person had opposed my bid for tenurability — one person who had not identified himself, and gotten away with it. I was unemployed for six months, and then got a temp job in a state government office, doing typing, filing, stuff like that. Ridiculous underemployment. For a while I wasn’t even sending out applications, though. It probably sounds like whining, but there is a lot of professional jealousy in academic philosophy. I’d heard about, and sometimes met, other victims of that sort of thing. As much as I’d wanted to avoid the kind of pettiness my dad had seen, philosopher professors worried about someone encroaching on their territory are magnitudes worse — probably because so many of them with tenure do very little of value, and every one of them, in their heart of hearts, damned well knows it. This guy saw a chance to eliminate a threat, and he took it.

If you could go back in time and give yourself advice then, what would it be?

Some of what I said at the beginning [see Part 1]. I wouldn’t go anywhere near the humanities today. Never mind the anomalies, stick with the sciences, although I’ve heard that realistic employment prospects are no better in the hard sciences. If you just have to study philosophy, either get into an Ivy League doctoral program or keep it as a hobby. And then don’t get sidetracked.


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What Is It Like To Be a Lost Generation Philosopher? (Part 1)

This is an “Imagined” interview. It is based on a proposal I made to the What Is It Like To Be a Philosopher website created by Clifford Sosis (Coastal Carolina University), not responded to for whatever reason, but it follows that model. This is what I came up with as I thought through how such an interview might have gone at its best. It is also a potentially good vehicle for reviving this moribund blog. Take this seriously or just as self-indulgence, the thoughts here are intended to be serious:


In this interview, Steven Yates, Ph.D., talks about his background and interests; how he got interested in philosophy; how he gained Christian faith, lost it, then regained it again; how he got into and why he left academia; why he is so disdainful of academic feminism and other movements he associates with political correctness, a phrase he uses openly; why he left the U.S. and settled in a foreign country, Chile; and why he remains devoted to completing a few works of philosophy whether they gain him any personal reward or recognition or not.

What do you mean, a Lost Generation philosopher? What’s the Lost Generation?

There’s more than one “lost generation” now. The first was the generation to graduate with Ph.D.s after the infamous collapse of the academic job market in the early 1970s. For a while there were almost no jobs at all, or so I was told as that was a little before my time. What I was told: those who completed doctorates during those years had no choice but to go into other fields like computer programming or get a job with the government or maybe … well, I encountered a couple of articles about “cab-driving Ph.D.s.” I did my graduate work in the 1980s. By that time, the market was opening up, but not by much. Every tenure-track job opening still fetched hundreds of applications, and a lot of people who wanted to teach settled for anything they could find even if it was just one course at a community college. The market was slightly better in the late 1990s and for part of the 2000 decade but collapsed again when the Great Recession hit and has not recovered. With the direction the universities are going, with tenure being phased out little by little and people hired for starvation wages, I am not sure things are going to get better. There’s little point in taking jobs that don’t pay your basic expenses.

Then you wouldn’t encourage a really good student to go into philosophy?

The academic discipline? Right now, absolutely not! Those good at formal logic, I’d tell them to study computer science and keep philosophy as a hobby. If they like politics, I’d say study political science. I’d avoid fields like history and law. Law is also ridiculously overloaded with graduates who can’t find jobs actually using their JDs. Almost all the “thinking disciplines” are hurting because of poor employment prospects. The U.S. economy is terrible outside of Wall Street and Silicon Valley tech guru territory, and despite what the economics “experts” say about the drop in the unemployment rate, there’s no getting around that.

We’ll get into your thoughts about the future of academic philosophy, but first some basics. Where were you born? What did your parents do?

I was born in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and moved to Atlanta with my parents when I was a child. My dad had bachelor’s degrees in both zoology and chemistry and an MS in chemistry, and my mom was an RN. So I grew up around books on science, encyclopedias, stuff like that. My dad was the first person in my family to go to college. As a World War II Submarine Veteran he attended on the GI Bill. I was aware early on that there were people both well above us on the economic pyramid, but also well below us. We were somewhere in the middle of the middle class. We weren’t hurting, but we had no special privileges. My dad did chemical marketing research and wrote up his findings for an oil company, traveling a lot to get information you could probably pull up online today. He worked his butt off and sometimes came home so tired that he’d fall asleep on the sofa in the evenings while the rest of us watched television. He was crotchety sometimes, and something of an authoritarian, but he took care of us.


One sister, adopted when she was two and a half. Her name was Leigh, and she was very different from me. I loved books and education, but they just bored her. I think it was a given that I’d go to college and she wouldn’t. She barely graduated from high school, but went on to a satisfactory life with two kids of her own, working for Cobb County [Ga.] where she lived until chronic health problems forced her to go on disability. She kept doing volunteer work, though, as much as she could. We lost her just a few weeks ago as I do this interview. Complications following surgery.

Sorry to hear that.

Thanks. All I can do now is wish we’d been closer. I’m just grateful my wife and I traveled up to see her and her husband last summer.

What was on your mind as a kid?

Science. The first thing I remember wanting to be was either an astronaut or an astronomer. One of the first books I read from cover to cover was a book on the planets, back before a lot was known about them. My mom checked the book out of the public library. Then it was dinosaurs and paleontology. Then I got into collecting rocks and minerals — I became a “rockhound” in other words, could have told you the chemistry of every one of them. I ended up as a geology major for a while in college.

What did you do just for fun?  

Watched science fiction TV programs and movies, and read sci-fi books. Really got into a program called The Outer Limits even though it sometimes scared the bejesus out of me. I was only in the third grade. I’m sometimes surprised my parents let me watch that stuff.

Favorite books from back then?

Hmmm, when I was a kid there was a series called Tom Swift, which was juvenile sci-fi. There were maybe 30 of those books, a new one coming out every few months, and I tried to collect as many as I could find. It was a mixture of sci-fi and political intrigue, the U.S. against a country called “Brungaria” obviously modeled on the Soviet Union. Later, in high school, I discovered 2001: A Space Odyssey, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books, Frank Herbert’s Dune, more Arthur C. Clarke books especially Childhood’s End and later his Rendezvous With Rama — I was a senior in high school when that came out. Robert A. Heinlein, especially his short stories that involved paradoxes or excursions into other dimensions like “He Built a Crooked House …”  Roger Zelanzy’s fantasy novels about Amber, “the one true world,” and his other things.

You were a teenager in the 1970’s … what music were you listening to?

Progressive rock, mostly, some classical. Bands like Emerson, Lake, & Palmer; Yes; Focus; Pink Floyd; Moody Blues; Genesis; those were my favorites. Brian Eno became one of my musical idols after I got to college. I still collect his releases, just got The Ship through international mail a few weeks ago. Also got into a Hungarian band no one else I knew had ever heard of, Omega. Very big in their own country. They could have been famous in the English-speaking world if they’d gotten any airplay, which they didn’t. I also listened to German electronic stuff like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream. I enjoyed anything dominated by keyboards, be it pianos and organs, or synthesizers and mellotrons, anything that stretched the limits. Sometimes I couldn’t get enough! I think I had a lot of Maslovian “peak experiences” just from listening to what I thought was incredible music!

A lot of those guys are getting older now.

Brian Eno is 68. David Bowie who’d collaborated with him, just died at age 70. He had cancer. No one knew. He kept it a secret till the last minute. Chris Squire, of Yes, died of leukemia about a year ago. Rick Wright of Pink Floyd died of cancer several years ago. Keith Emerson, of ELP, committed suicide a few months back. Sad. He was 71, and had nerve problems in one of his hands. He was probably the best rock keyboardist ever, except that he could also play jazz, classical, honky-tonk, and probably more. Not just an incredible musician but an absolute perfectionist who couldn’t stand the thought of something like that hurting his live performances. Edgar Froese, who founded Tangerine Dream, died early in 2015 from a pulmonary embolism. He was 70. I mentioned losing my sister and I’ve lost several other people I was close to over the past couple of years. Makes you think about your mortality. You know something Froese was quoted as saying? “There is no death, there is just a change in our cosmic address.” I don’t know what his religious beliefs were, but I love that!

Are you religious? What role has religion played in your life?

We generally went to church when I was growing up. I don’t remember thinking about it much when I was a kid, but I became a Christian at a youth retreat between 9th and 10th grades, and then saw the tensions between science and religion in a new light. That was about the time I became conscious of the reality of worldviews, of the fact that different people and different communities bring entirely different basic beliefs, frames of reference, conceptual systems, there’s many things you can call them, to their experience. I also became conscious of things that didn’t fit into the dominant theories in the sciences and wondered what they meant.

What about in college, and more recently?

I thought of myself as an agnostic most of the way through college, graduate school, and for quite a while later. Just as well. I doubt I would have been able to complete a graduate program in philosophy as an outspoken Christian. It just doesn’t happen. Later, slowly, I came back to belief. No eureka experience I can put my finger on, but I realized that with the way some ideas are protected at the expense of others in academia as I’d experienced first-hand, the materialist view of the universe being one of them, many reasons for nonbelief no longer seemed to hold up to scrutiny.

Are you a churchgoer now?


A fundamentalist, or evangelist?

I don’t like to characterize myself in those terms. I leave exact Biblical interpretations to others. I read a lot of “end times” stuff when I was in high school, and none of it happened. I don’t agree with premillennial dispensationalism even if I think Western civilization is in all kinds of trouble.

What is premillennial dispensationalism?

Basically, a fifty-dollar term for the idea that Jesus is going to “rapture” all believers away from this world any day now, and then Jesus’s thousand-year (millennial) reign will begin. If someone asks me, I tell them nobody knows God’s timetable. Come to think of it, I tend to think both Pascal and Kierkegaard were right about God’s basic incomprehensibility beyond what He’s specifically revealed about Himself. I guess I would call myself a Kantian-Kierkegaardian Christian. Kant showed that our minds are designed to work in three-dimensional space plus time, and what transcends the categories of the human mind is simply a mystery. Kierkegaard basically destroyed the teleological argument that moves from the apparent design in nature to the idea that nature’s designer is necessarily the Christian God. Hume got there first, I know, but Hume wasn’t a believer and Kierkegaard was.

The leap of faith?

He never uses that phrase, he just calls it a “leap.” I prefer to think of it as trust — that we are better off trusting in the existence of God than not. Trust is not proof, of course. I can’t satisfy those who say, “There’s no proof,” and I usually don’t try. I think a more recent philosophical theologian, Cornelius Van Til of the Reformed School, had the basic idea when he described theism and atheism as incommensurable. I think he actually used that term.

Sounds like a long intellectual journey.

It was. Needless to say, I didn’t get much help from my atheist colleagues who in retrospect seemed arrogant and authoritarian even when they tried not to be. Part of my argument is that materialism, as I use that term a worldview which has dominated the intellectual and economic landscape for the past hundred years now in one form or another (communism yesterday, neoliberal capitalism today), has been a political, moral, and cultural disaster. We’ve set up our own massive empire based on money and power, ruined our culture with sexual hedonism and the worship of celebrities, the entertainment culture generally. Ruined our health with junk food. Wrecked the family unit. Our political system is close to dysfunction and our financial system is verging on bankruptcy. All the while we’ve been laying waste to other nations in the name of extracting resources we believed we were entitled to, making enemies of peoples with more traditional worldviews, and possibly threatening the ecosystem itself. Modernity may have given us all manner of technological advances and creature comforts, but they’ve come with a pretty steep price we’re probably just beginning to pay. It certainly hasn’t delivered on its Enlightenment promises. It’s true that a lot of wars have been fought over religion, but irreligious secularism looks to be just as hopeless at delivering world peace, and possibly a lot more dangerous since religion never served up weapons capable of reducing entire cities to ashes in a matter of seconds.   

Do you think man-made climate change is real?

I think we have no choice but to take the idea seriously. There seems to be a pretty solid consensus that’s coming out of all the hard sciences, and if you study what’s being said on its own terms, it’s the same kind of consensus you find for nearly every other major theory in any science, like the Big Bang, or evolution, or continental drift.

Would you say you got disillusioned with the scientific outlook?

I’d say I learned that there were a lot of problems the scientific outlook couldn’t solve, and a lot of areas of human life where it didn’t seem to apply.

And this got you interested in philosophy?

As I noted a few minutes ago, I got fascinated by things that didn’t fit into anybody’s favorite theories. I wanted to know what they meant, and what to do with them.

Give us an example.

I could give you several dozen because I kept a journal on them years ago, but one will do. It’s fairly representative. Back in 2000 in London there was a display of anomalous artifacts — a rare event, by the way — and one of them was a hammer, clearly of human design, found buried in solid rock geologists had dated as from the Cretaceous period. It was part wood and part petrified; radiocarbon tests on the wood were inconclusive. I read one attempt by a geologist to explain this, saying something along the lines of, older minerals can dissolve and then harden around a recent object dropped on the ground that falls into a crevasse in rock. I could be wrong, I never finished that geology degree, but that sounds very strained to me. If that was the only such object found in solid rock or in a coal vein supposedly millions of years old, I’d be satisfied with the idea that we’re fooling ourselves somehow, or that it’s a hoax some joker dreamed up. But there are dozens of such objects. There are obviously human footprints found in rock of equivalent age. We know these aren’t hoaxes because the sediment around them is compressed in ways compatible with the weight a human foot would make in sand or mud. If they were carvings made to look like human footprints, the sediment wouldn’t be compressed.

What about the supposed Paluxy River findings? Those were shown to be fakes.

Those might be. I honestly don’t know. That case got publicity, but I didn’t pay it any special attention, more than these others. I’d have to say that if the dozens of cases that have been catalogued are all hoaxes, then the hoaxers must have been a really, really busy bunch, and very clever to be able to get these things inside solid rock or coal beds well underground — not knowing they’d even be found! What these things seem to me to mean is that either our ideas about the age of the human race are wrong or our ideas about the age of the Earth and when these layers of rock and coal were formed are wrong. Declaring that something “isn’t real” or “they’re all hoaxes” because they don’t fit the dominant theories is too easy. Besides, why would religious believers fake these things when all they really accomplish is setting themselves up for public ridicule?

Such cases are part of what made me shift my emphasis from science to its metaphysical assumptions and epistemological foundations — and there I was, in philosophy.

Is this why you wanted to study the philosophy of science?

I had a world history class where one day the professor started in on Thomas S. Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and I realized I wasn’t the first person to wonder about this kind of thing, or about the status of scientific theories: knowledge? belief? or something else? I suppose I was a goner from that day forward — especially as the professor was clearly hostile to Kuhn’s ideas. That made me all the more curious. Why the hostility? So I picked up the book and read as much of it as I could on my own. It struck me as the most intelligent and rational depiction of science I’d ever run across. I started to suspect that academics were hostile to claims or ideas that threatened beliefs of their own that gave them a sense of security in the world — things they couldn’t incorporate into what they were absolutely certain the truth must be. I’m not all that happy with psychologistic explanations but I don’t think there’s a better one, for those who can’t believe in God but make Science their religion. A lot of secondary literature on Kuhn is dreadful. Most of his critics not only didn’t understand him, I don’t think they wanted to understand him. What they seemed to find offensive was his idea that paradigm change couldn’t be shoehorned into this view that science is a purely rational, i.e., logical enterprise, in the sense formal logic can be used to reconstruct, and that scientists don’t always deal logically with findings that conflict with favored theories. It clearly has a sociological and psychological dimension, possibly even an economic one. I could have become a postmodernist back then, but it never occurred to me to doubt that sometimes we do reach bona fide truth about the world. I assumed that authority and authority-driven institutions got in the way of truth-seeking, not that they in some sense defined what truth is for the populations they have power over, which is the way I read philosophers like Michel Foucault.

When did you start thinking about power in society?

Somewhere around the mid-1990s it struck me, almost out of the blue one day: the fundamental unsolved problem of social organization, and therefore political philosophy, is how to contain power. Every population has a minority in its midst that is fascinated with power, however we characterize them, whatever label we pin on them, whatever their worldview is. A few people, many of them philosophers, gave us comprehensive visions of the Perfect Society which, if you really study them, are almost invariably totalitarian when power-seekers use them, like Plato’s or Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s almost certainly were. As with the scientific anomalies they can’t figure out what to do with what doesn’t fit the plan. That’s another minority, those of us fascinated with freedom, who want to be free, can’t stand to be constrained, think we’re all better off when we have total freedom — whether we are or not. Most of the rest of the population, those we call the masses, are interested only in what affects them directly. They tend to seek security rather than freedom or power — perhaps just enough freedom or just enough power to have security. If they have to choose between freedom and security, they’ll choose security every time. I remember, I’d reached that conclusion as an advanced doctoral student thinking that the masses, including the masses of scientists, should be scientific or “naïve” realists, although we philosophers knew better.

Kind of an elitism of your own.

You could look at it that way, I suppose. I never accepted the Wittgensteinian and positivist view that there was no knowledge unique to philosophy, that philosophy was a method only, of clarifying language say, although obviously it involves a lot of that.

You used to think of yourself as a Libertarian, right?

I’m probably more conservative these days. The masses need tradition, convention, structure. That’s just to say that Hobbes and Hume were right: in the last analysis we’re not creatures of pure reason. We’re far more creatures of habit they we like to admit. Rationalists hate this, but none of their basic ideas have ever caught on with the general, nonintellectual population. Given what the political mainstream keeps coming up with, the Libertarian Party should have been able to clean house by now, or at least win a state-level election here and there. Creating conditions for freedom is still a problem, for the reasons just stated: the masses probably aren’t reachable on the rationalist terms Libertarians want. The contest is between whoever leads the masses: those who can create benevolent conditions for liberty, or those who want power.

Who’s winning these days?

I don’t think it’s the Libertarians, although they’re still out there.


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