Indulge me this: how not to read Daniel Dennett’s comments on philosophy and self-indulgence

Daniel Dennett, philosopher.

Callicles, Ray Hadley and Daniel Dennett?

“A great deal of philosophy doesn’t really deserve much of a place in the world,” leading philosopher Daniel Dennett has recently suggested in an interview at his year’s Association of the Scientific Study of Consciousness conference in Buenos Aires.

“Philosophy in some quarters has become self-indulgent, clever play in a vacuum that’s not dealing of problems of any intrinsic interest.”

People in many other quarters of the world roll their eyes, or blink.

For this kind of accusation against philosophy is hardly new. The character Callicles in one of Plato’s stories suggests that philosophy is, more or less, child’s play: fit to entertain youths, but hardly a decent pursuit for serious adults.

Radio 2GB stalwart Ray Hadley has more recently taken up something like Callicles’ strains, in what has become a periodic refrain in the tabloids lamenting continuing government funding for humanities research, including in philosophy.

What is new about Dennett’s claims, which is making people within the discipline take notice, is that he is neither a Callicles, nor a Ray Hadley. Daniel Dennett is a decorated Professor of Philosophy of some decades’ experience, and near-universal respect amongst professional scholars.

Dennett also hails from the angloamerican or “analytic” stream of philosophy. This stream has been, until recently, the side of the “analytic-continental divide” a lot less open to weighing philosophy’s history, place and role in society, let alone delivering such strident self-criticisms.

Nevertheless, the Callicles’ of this world should draw breath and read again before too quickly taking Dennett’s criticism as a wholesale dismissal of philosophy, or the reflective humanities.

We can even take Dennett’s provocative remarks as the spur they seem intended by him to have been: a spur to undertake some philosophical reflection about philosophy’s relations to the wider world, as against its insulation from it.

He who doesn’t philosophise…

The first thing to note is that Dennett is not saying that all forms of philosophy are “idle—just games” or a “luxury”. Dennett praises forms of philosophy, like his own contributions to debates on religion and reason (and this Cogito column, gentle reader) that “engage with the world.”

He notes that it takes years for younger generations to “develop the combination of scholarly mastery and technical acumen to work on big, important issues with a long history of philosophical attention.”

But such issues, as he sees things, clearly do exist. And developing the wherewithal to deal philosophically with them is something Dennett evidently values.

When Dennett takes aim at “self-indulgent, clever play in a vacuum”, he has more particular quarry in his sights.

It is just as well. The Greeks had a saying that “he who does not philosophise, philosophises”, and philosophy—as the cradle of all the academic disciplines—has a long history of engaging with and changing the Western world, since about 600 BCE.

Socrates—responding to that other charge the Hadleys’ and Callicles’ of the world will always make (that, far from a harmless indulgence, philosophy harmfully corrupts the youth)—insisted that its role was to assist people in taking care of their souls, and helping them live better lives.

Socrates, who brought philosophy into social affairs.

Surely this sounds quaint for our wiser times. The connection between rationally questioning the norms and ideas we entertain and cultivating better lives can also seen opaque, even to Socrates’ bigger fans.

But Socrates’ fundamental idea is simple. Nearly all of the characteristics we admire in people and institutions require forms of knowledge.

The man who would show his courage, but doesn’t know for what cause, is not courageous but foolhardy. He’s unlikely to last long.

The government that would be just, without knowing who and what people and initiatives are worth supporting or censoring, will be unjust.

The person who would live happily but does not know what people truly need to be happy will end up disaffected; and so it goes.

Philosophy, on this original model, is the rational, questioning pursuit of the kinds of knowledge necessary to recognise and promote different forms of human flourishing and excellence. Far from indulgent, it has this much in common with the practical concerns of governors and managers, CEOs and parents: “leaders” of all kinds, as we might say today.

Philosophy, again, involves the attempt to think rationally about the goals of human endeavours, on the basis of the most clear and comprehensive understandings of what kinds of creatures we are, and how we fit into the larger ecology and economies of the world. Far from being indulgent, this kind of thinking seems more necessary than ever today.

For individuals and governments who do not understand the significance of their actions for this wider “whole” (“the truth is the whole”, a famous philosopher said) are bound to pursue short-sighted policies, which produce longer-term problems and “externalities”.

Philosophy, again, has long concerned itself with those difficult, ultimate questions that all people have been posed, whether we ask them or not: is there a God? Is there a soul, life after death, or transcendent meaning to life? How should we live? What is worth pursuing?

To call every person who ever asked these questions, at some point in their lives, indulgent would be to paint nearly everyone who has ever lived with the same, tarring brush.

Philosophy, finally, has since Aristotle been understood by some of its most eminent votaries as the “knowledge of knowledges”.

Aristotle teaching Alexander the Great.

Philosophy did not simply give birth to the other disciplines, as you might say. It was “interdisciplinary” from the start. Or at least, it has always been concerned to think through the relations between the different forms of intellectual inquiry and their place in the world. The concern is exactly to prevent particular “cottage industries” (Dennett’s term) proliferating into a cacophony of competing knowledges, without any symphonic wisdom.

Far from being indulgent, universities and governments today still face this form of philosophical issue, as they deliberate about how to manage the academies without which our societies’ historical memory and ability to reflect critically and democratically upon themselves will be sadly diminished:

For as water, whether it be the dew of heaven or the springs of the earth, doth scatter and leese itself in the ground, except it be collected into some receptacle where it may by union comfort and sustain itself […]; so this excellent liquor of knowledge, whether it descend from divine inspiration, or spring from human sense, would soon perish and vanish to oblivion, if it were not preserved in books, traditions, conferences, and places appointed […]

He who does philosophise …

Now, I don’t know whether Daniel Dennett would support everything I’ve tried to say in his defence here. Recalling the different forms of apology for philosophy (another ancient genre), I hope, can help to halt the kind of misreading of his comments as a wholesale “anti-philosophical” tirade that will inevitably sound about.

What is clear is that Dennett is not a critic of philosophy per se, let alone of philosophy in the several (amongst many other) larger senses I’ve picked out here.

What Dennett is critical of is the way academic philosophy is being undertaken, in situations in which a good many of its traditional functions—including reflecting critically about its “utility” and relation to other pursuits and disciplines—are being decided externally to the discipline itself.

For if the different justifications of philosophy we’ve recalled are clear enough, the ways in which philosophy has been funded and institutionalised throughout history have been ceaselessly up for negotiation.

Dennett, very much in the Platonic vein, is especially worried about the next generations of philosophers. He sees the ever-more pressing imperatives they face in order to advance within the institutional settings in which academic studies are today undertaken.

As everyone in the tertiary sector knows, so in this one discipline, “young philosophers are under great pressure to publish”. Nearly all of the material preconditions for ever being able to teach philosophy as a career depend upon meeting this pressure.

Little matter if the budding philosopher has only had the time to develop a limited, if highly cultivated area of specialisation. No matter if that specialisation’s relations to other parts of philosophy, knowledge and society remain unquestioned by him (or, as is less likely, her). “[S]o they find toy topics that they can knock off a clever comment/rebuttal/revival of.”

“These then build off each other and invade the journals, and philosophical discourse,” Olivia Goldhill glosses Dennett, in the article that sparked the present discussions.

Now, this is a very different object of criticism than philosophy per se. It is a form of criticism which it can be imagined has relevance beyond philosophy.

Plato in the first academy.

To criticise a certain form of some activity is not to undermine that activity, after all. It may be a call for needed reforms. Cicero defended rhetoric by saying it got its bad name from a few bad men who misused it. Francis Bacon at the dawn of the modern period echoed this kind of defence.

The prejudices of political men against the life of scholarship per se, he argued, applied only to “deficient” forms of university learning, not liberal education itself, which must be renewed.

But let me end with Plato, since I think Dennett must have had him in the back of his mind as he made his comments, and especially the sixth book of the Republic.

For this founding text of our discipline is all about Plato’s concern with how to recognise and educate good philosophers. The problem is that nearly everything speaks against the young attaining to something like that kind of “scholarly mastery and technical acumen” Dennett recognises amongst the larger goals of a humanistic education.

There are sophists, who promote name over wisdom. There is the appeal of popularity, which lures many of the best students away from their studies into political pursuits. Yet again, there is money-making, that lures many more again away from scholarly pursuits into more lucrative trades.

And, saddest of all for Plato as seemingly for Dennett too, some amongst the young who have been taught clever forms of dialectical argumentation too early fall prey to cynicism or “misologia”: a scorn for the whole business of true philosophy like that of Callicles, who had a sophistic training himself.