Does academic philosophy have value?
I just finished reading Sue Prideaux’s interesting recent biography of Nietzsche. A persistent theme in Nietzsche’s work and life is how silly, obtuse, self-deluded most philosophers are, and especially professors of philosophy.
Nietzsche’s criticism of philosophy professors is analogous to his criticism of priests. He says both reify truth and then – conveniently – place themselves as gate keepers to the enchanted land of truth. But, Nietzsche asks, what if there is no truth as such? What if there is only individual transformations? Then what gives priests and professors their power isn’t a link to a deeper understanding of the world, but they are able to – or seek to – impose their will on the general population. But instead of being honest about it, they color it up with fancy words of truth, rationality and objectivity.
For Nietzsche this is not true just of professors and priests. All people seek to do this. And in history the great philosophers and religious seekers succeeded more than most. Socrates claimed not to know anything, but his will was strong. Similarly for St. Paul or the Buddha. Whether we are talking about philosophy or faith, for Nietzsche the main issue is whether one is being honest about their own will to power.
Nietzsche concludes from this that academic philosophy is mainly a fraud. Just like churches are a fraud. Both hide their own will to power behind a rhetoric of unbiased impartiality.
This is too strong. Nietzsche usually didn’t let subtlety get in the way of a strong conclusion.
This doesn’t show that philosophy departments don’t have value. It only shows they don’t have value for everyone. That indeed they never can. They can be valuable to people who like what professors will, the mode of inquiry and life they exhibit. But – and this is the kicker – there is no objective reality about the nature of philosophy or what Socrates or Kant “really” said which undergirds what the professors’ value. There is only at bottom the fact that the professors value it. Their own will to what they value.
Why is it, for example, that when I was an undergrad at Cornell Kant and Nietzsche were taught, but not Du Bois or the Buddha? When I asked this question back then, I was met with answers such as, “Those are not philosophers. Du Bois was a sociologist. The Buddha was a religious figure.” Nietzsche would have smelled the bad faith of these answers. One of his recurring themes – one which Wittgenstein picks up later on – is how often abstractions (Philosophy, Sociology, Religion…) are used as explanations, but without really explaining anything. For the use is not to explain, but to assert authority – that is, to assert one’s own will.
My undergrad professors would have been more honest if they said, “It never occurred to us to teach that. It’s not what we are interested in. We want to do what we are doing.”
In current times this kind of assertion would be met with a different criticism – that it is white supremacist. “Look at all these white professors asserting that they will just teach what they want to! They have the power and they don’t want to give it up!”
Let’s go slowly. “White Supremacy” is also another abstract noun which has the whiff of explaining something. But does it?
If we apply the Nietzschen view to the “woke” assertions of fighting racist structures, we have the thought: the woke critics are themselves simply asserting their will, but hiding this behind a vaneer of fighting the “objective” wrongness of how philosophy departments used to be.
It is clear enough why the old guard wants to do this. Because it’s easier for them to say their habits are grounded in the nature of Philosophy than to say it’s grounded simply in their will. But why does the new guard also fight using abstractions?
Well, imagine if they – the woke – said “We just want to do philosophy this way!” The question arises: who is this we? Is it just the people who now get to be professors? The problem is in form this is no different from what the old guard said. Those who get to be professors just do the kind of work they want to do. Professors at Cornell didn’t want to teach Buddhist philosophers 25 years ago. But the professors there now do.
Is this an objective improvement? It is certainly an improvement for those who want to study Buddhist philosophers. But what about people who want to study Native American philosophers? Or Mayan philosophers? Or those who don’t make a distinction between philosophy and religion and who see – like Thomas Merton – prayer as itself a form of contemplation? A slippery slope is forming.
Hence the woke also find abstractions useful. It gives the vaneer that the curriculum they will implement will somehow capture truly what Philosophy is. This is the myth of the diverse curriculum. The fantasy that their canon will be really the global philosophical canon.
In contrast to both the academic old guard and the new guard, I find Nietzsche’s view more honest. Or rather: more what I like. What I will. What I want to build on.
It’s revealing that Nietzsche was not a philosophy professor, or even a professor when he wrote his main works. Though for the last century Nietzsche is in the canon in academic departments – even in analytic departments for the last 40 years – that is not what mattered to Nietzsche. Nor is it why Nietzsche’s work found an audience in broader society.
Nietzsche didn’t write aiming to be part of the normal philosophy canon. He mostly piled criticism on the traditional canon, on Plato, Kant and Mill. He wrote because he wanted to. He wrote about whatever he was moved to, bringing various parts of his life together. And he struck a nerve in many readers because they liked what he willed. To explain his attraction to readers by reference to the nature of Philosophy misses that part of his attraction – at least to me and I think many others – is that one can meet his thoughts just on their own. Unlike with Kant or Hegel, or Quine or Rawls, or Husserl or Heidegger, his thoughts are not mediated through an institution of people who claim to speak for Philosophy.
Nietzsche at root speaks for no abstract noun. He speaks just for himself. When he wills, it is clear. It is sometimes moving and inspiring. Sometimes silly and sophomoric. The profound and the silly dance often together because that was his form of willing. He was grand and deep, but was also trapped in a teenage angst of mock rebellion against everything and everyone.
Nietzsche was on to something when he saw that the greatness of great thinkers concerned their will. Their effort to not just get closer to universal values, but to change our values. That change isn’t worthwhile because it gets closer to the truth. One can say that, but it is really a tautology. It just means: that change was worthwhile because we now value it too.
Hence his criticism of professors and priests. Churches aim to help people be like Christ. Philosophy departments to help people be like Socrates. And yet to truly be like Christ or Socrates means to find the greatness of one’s own will and to follow that – not because one can then be better at faith or reason, but because then one can open new horizons and reinterpret what faith and reason themselves can mean.
Philosophy departments, like churches, can help in this process. Not everyone can transfigure values on their own, without help. Most people need help. To that extent professors and priests are valuable. Can indeed be very valuable.
But that value isn’t an end in itself. It is realized when one moves beyond teachers and can rest in the ungrounded terrain of one’s own will. When one can grow by continually overcoming oneself.