What’s Wrong with Philosophers?

Philosophy and Literature 17 (1993): 185-89.

Denis Dutton

Being a Philosopher: The History of a Practice (Routledge, $29.95), by David Hamlyn, recently retired Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, and former editor of Mind (1972-1984), is in most respects a history of philosophy itself, from Thales to the present. His angle is try to show how a practice and profession of philosophy has developed since the Greeks. One of the themes of this solid but unexciting book is the relation of the doing of philosophy to institutional arrangements. On this question, Hamlyn has no particular theory to promote. He shows how philosophy with the Greeks culminated in the Academy and the Lyceum, how it advanced in independence of universities — often against them, in fact — in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and how in the the last and present centuries it has come back to universities, where it seems bound to remain for the foreseeable future.

Hamlyn’s outlook is British-English, even to the point of parochialism. He admires the Americans, though possibly with a hint of resentment since, along with the Vienna Circle, they get some of the blame for the increasing technicality of professional philosophy in the twentieth century, and this, Hamlyn seems to imply, is responsible for the decline of the importance of philosophy in general British culture. I would have thought rather that Principia Mathematica and the subsequent the rise of Russell/Moore British analytic philosophy were more responsible for making philosophy uninteresting to the British public. (It was William James and John Dewey, nontechnicians both, who were the important American names about the same time.) For better or worse, the British have done more to American philosophy in this century than vice versa. Anyway, it’s a bit rich for someone in charge of Mind for twelve recent years to lament the pernicious technicality of contemporary philosophy, isn’t it?

Hamlyn repeatedly bemoans the lack of status and respect given philosophers and intellectuals generally in Britain, compared to France, where intellectuals are “worshipped,” Germany, where scholars at least receive respect, and the United States, which, it strikes me, he doesn’t understand well. The French tend “to lionize their leading intellectuals and to take up their thoughts as the latest intellectual fashion.” But though it might interview relevant academics for a particular purpose, the BBC shows “no indication of any permanent regard for the scholar.” Maybe the BBC people tried to read Mind and just gave up. Hamlyn goes all weepy over the fact that there would today probably not be “any vast turn-out of the general public for the funeral of a philosopher, as there was reported to have been over the death of Theophrastus,” though adds in a cheering footnote that a memorial meeting for A.J. Ayer was “well-attended.” Apparently Hamlyn never heard about Sartre’s funeral in 1980, which was certainly more well-attended than Ayer’s — it was a well-attended riot, nearly. I cannot vouch for a comparison with Theophrastus.

Hamlyn is right that philosophy has fallen on hard times in Britain — from about the point that Baroness Thatcher became Prime Minister — but I don’t think he diagnoses the situation adequately, in part because of his blinkered English outlook. At the end of the book he recalls an incident when he was asked to justify academic philosophy to some bureaucrat, which he did. Afterward, he realizes that he should have said that the question itself was “a sign of the corruption of our times.” It would not have been asked in some other countries, “even where there are similar political attitudes to those which have been dominant in Britain.” No need to be coy; he obviously means the Reagan/Bush USA. Why, I found myself wondering, does academic philosophy in the United States still enjoy a sort of residual body of respect, a critical mass of public support, while in Britain, philosophy is perceived as so useless, or marginal, it has actually been abolished from some universities?

Hamlyn’s book ought to be helpful in the analysis of this issue, but it isn’t because, for one thing, despite all its ruminations on differences in the present British, European, and American intellectual climates, it contains no statistics. Demography is of key importance here. What, for example, is the percentage of the British population who attend university, and what percentage of them complete at least one course in philosophy? How many journalists in British newspapers or at the Beeb ever took a philosophy course? My guess is the numbers would be significantly lower per capita in Britain than the United States. The four-year undergraduate degree with broad general education requirements, often satisfied by a philosophy course, is an American idea. British higher education encourages greater specialization from earlier on at university; young people who “aren’t interested” in philosophy are never provided with a chance to find out they’re wrong. On the American side of the Atlantic, uncounted thousands of philosophy courses have been given over the years to millions of students, who in their turn become politicians, journalists, and bureaucrats. Even those citizens who may not remember much of their brush with philosophy still retain a vague sense of the value of the subject. Consequently, there is a wider, more secure respect for philosophy (and perhaps higher education generally, thanks again to general ed requirements) among the Americans than among the British. That at least is my personal impression, based of half a career in the United States and nearly a decade now in New Zealand, which has a system somewhere between the U.S. and Britain in its structure. Hamlyn’s failure to establish any clear reason for why British philosophy is at such low ebb does suggest a look at international comparative statistics on philosophy and higher education might be in order.

At the close of Being a Philosopher, Hamlyn asks what Aristotle would think about the profession of philosophy today, could we bring him back to survey the scene. It’s an intriguing question, and I wish Hamlyn could supply a more imaginative response than to suggest that Aristotle might deplore the narrowness of present-day conceptions of the subject, and the separation of philosophy from science, while welcoming the fact that present day educational institutions carry on the tradition of his Lyceum, “and that people come to study and teach in such institutions.” I cannot accept this. When I go to the journals section of my library, I’m struck by how many different conceptions of philosophy there are, including many that are so enmeshed with contemporary sciences — physics, mathematics, biology — they’re over my head. Here’s an even more provocative question: What would Aristotle think of present-day philosophers?

I think he’d find it isn’t fields of philosophy, but the philosophers who plough and reap therein who are the narrow ones. There is no doubting the fact that you’ll come across an abundance of raw human intelligence at most gatherings of professional philosophers. There are the obsessives and idiot-savants, of course, people who stroke their beards and mutter to themselves, but often even they are very, very smart. Usually, I’m struck, however, but the rarity of really wide-ranging, intensely curious minds. That’s how Aristotle was, as I understand him: not just a broadly educated Greek, but probably the first and last man in the history of civilization who knew everything there was (in his day) to know. He was insatiably driven to find out about the world. The more recent geniuses of philosophy are technicians who lack this virtue; if they are insatiably curious, it’s about who has published (in Mind, no doubt) the latest, cutting-edge paper in their little field. They are smart, but not cultivated. (This is not so bad: go to a soft sciences convention and you’ll perhaps meet academics who are neither.)

I was once told by a retired philosopher that when he was at an ivy-league university many years before he one morning had a conversation about drama with a very great philosopher of science, whom I also won’t name in case the story is inaccurate. The very great philosopher of science, it emerged in the conversation, had never in his life been to see a play in a theatre. My old friend — justifiably, I still think — told this story to illustrate this world-expert’s positivist philistinism, his general naivete in human affairs. This was pertinent, because the world-expert liked to write articles about how he thought we must understand history and other non-scientific kinds of inquiry, so imperialistically extending his theories of science beyond their natural domain. Aristotle, as it happens, was also a very great philosopher of science; as we don’t need to be reminded, he occasionally went to see a play, and even wrote a bit about the subject. He was a man who over his life came to know more and more about — well, more and more. Aristotle’s example has not of late been generally followed by the far-flung inheritors of the Lyceum.


Copyright 1993 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.