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Michel X.

Over 60 years ago, JA Passmore complained (rather notoriously) about the "dreariness" of aesthetics. It's pretty widely agreed, however, that everything in the subfield changed in 1968 with the publication of two books: Goodman's "Languages of Art" and Wollheim's "Art and its Objects". Since then, the field has grown exponentially in terms of both practitioners and areas of inquiry. Today's philosophers of art work on questions at the heart and intersection of many philosophical subfields, especially language and metaphysics (and, of course, history), but also increasingly ethics, metaethics, metametaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of science, mind, etc.

I think it's fair to say that the subfield is really coming into its own, and there's a lot of excitement about just that (see, e.g., pages 5-6 of this interview with the ASA's president, Dominic McIver Lopes: http://asage.org/index.php/ASAGE/article/view/177/89 ).

To be honest, I think philosophy's doing really well for itself these days. True, most of the low-hanging fruit have been picked. So a lot of very interesting ideas have already been dealt with--but that also means that a *lot* of the boring groundwork has also been done, and now we get to turn our collective attention to other things, including problems our forebears weren't particularly well equipped to tackle.

Josh Mugg

I don't think philosophy is in the doldrums. His argument seems to hinge on the importance of there being groundbreaking figures that unite the field and are setting the agenda for the field. I'm not sure why the agenda not being in the hands of four or five philosophers is a bad thing. I think there are interesting innovations being made by GROUPS of people, and that these innovations are being made by GROUPS (rather than INDIVIDUALS) does not seem at all relevant to the health of the field.

I will suggest that philosophy is doing very well in at least two areas: philosophy of mind and philosophy of religion.

Philosophy of mind (my AOS) is in an interesting phase when metaphysics, psychology, philosophy of science, and cognitive science are all coming together to bear on problems concerning content, consciousness, cognitive architecture, morality, and much more. I think that's cool, but someone might object that this implies that philosophers have turned their back on *truely* philosophical problems. But this is not so. Interesting and innovative work is being done on the emergence of mental properties, among other things. Indeed, Templeton have given out a fair bit of money for folks to generate novel work on emergence.

Philosophy of religion has seen two new innovations recently: cognitive science of religion, and analytic theology. Some philosophers of religion have claimed that we live in a golden age, when the tools of analytic philosophy will be applied and solve many old theological problems. Again, these innovations are being made by GROUPS rather some single INDIVIDUAL. However, I don't at all see this as a bad thing.

Martin Shuster

I love philosophy, and I think there's lots of interesting work being done in many, many subfields...but the answer to this question strikes me as so obvious that I almost have trouble understanding how someone could think that philosophy *isn't* in the doldrums.

Now, it is not for the reasons that Frankfurt cites, which strike me as generally conservative and not particularly perceptive, but rather because of several factors. First, as an academic discipline, the field of philosophy is quite conservative, dominated in large part by wholly invented rankings, rankings which squeeze out many viewpoints from the 'general' conversation to the extent that there is hardly a 'general' conversation to be had. Second, again as an academic discipline, the field is financially unstable and precarious, with many philosophy programs likely to be under threat of termination in the near future. This further squeezes out and will squeeze out voices from the conversation. Furthermore, a prominent feature of both of these factors is that many people operating within the field have become so subjectively colonized by the worldviews precipitating these factors that they are often unable even to produce work whose aim isn't fundamentally prestige or whatever limited wealth the field offers (in the form of promotion or movement). Third, as a discipline -- that is, as a field of inquiry irrespective of a place within academia -- philosophy is culturally suspect (as are many other humanities), especially in the United States; as the American university decays, so, in large part, goes philosophy.

Now, none of this means that there aren't interesting and highly innovative things being done (there are), or that there aren't wonderful new opportunities (just look at the panoply of blogs), or that philosophy is consigned to imminent death (it'll survive, like it has before).

But, right now, philosophy is nowhere near living up to its potential, where huge swaths of minorities, women, contingent laborers, and others are having trouble even surviving *as* philosophers, and thereby it is perfectly accurate to say philosophy is in the doldrums (although, as I stated above, not for the reasons Frankfurt cites).

Josh Mugg


I'm not sure you are understanding the dialectic correctly here. Frankfurt's claim is not so general as 'there is something wrong with philosophy.' Rather, the claim is that the work currently being done in philosophy is not very good. His claim is about the content of contemporary philosophical work, rather than the state of the profession as a whole. They might be related, but (I think) distinct.

Martin Shuster

@Josh Mugg: I think we're talking at cross purposes here, and perhaps that's my mistake for trying to broaden the question further than you (and others) might want to do so. My aim was not to engage the substance of Frankfurt's 'dialectic' (likely too strong a word here), which I think is quite thin on substance, and parochial for essentially the reason you cite. My point was rather exactly to stress that the state of the profession (and the culture in which it is embedded) is important to understanding the (realized and unrealized) potential of contemporary philosophical work. Given the sort of possibilities available in other fields (where it is common, e.g., to find a wide variety of voices, including notably non-Western approaches and critical-theoretical discourses of race, gender, and class), philosophy's possibilities are (by comparison) limited; the quality of contemporary work cannot be judged exclusively apart from the unrealized potential of crowding out certain voices. Pursuits of truth are strengthened by critical engagement from a wide variety of sources, and if that condition is absent or weakened, then even quality work is likely (eventually, with the introduction of more distinct voices) to be shown to be incomplete, if not outright deficient. In this way, the idea that the "state of the profession" only *might* be related to the content of contemporary philosophical work strikes me as exactly symptomatic of philosophy’s doldrums.

Enzo Rossi

There is certainly a big methodological debate going on in political philosophy. Or two related ones: realism vs moralism and ideal vs nonideal theory.

Marcus Arvan

Enzo: Agreed. I think it's a very exciting time in political philosophy.


Philosophy is unique in that philosophers often take positions that, if true, render almost all other philosophy that's being done pointless. This just doesn't happen in other fields. It's not a new thing, either - Hume, Kant, Hegel, Wittgenstein, Quine all in various ways suggested that most of their contemporary philosophers were wasting their time. So there's a sense in which philosophy will always look like it's in the doldrums, just because it so incessantly questions its own methodologies. But looked at in another way, isn't this a sign of its health?

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