You could say a lot of things about a New York Times opinion section that runs pieces such as these: “Happy Birthday, Karl Marx. You Were Right!”; “How to Serve a Deranged Tyrant, Stoically”; “James Bond Is a Wimp”; “An Open Letter of Love to Kim Jong-un”; and “College Football Is Here. But What Are We Really Cheering?” You could call it clickbait; you could call it radically leftist; you could call it overly obsessed with the minutiae of popular culture and breaking news. What you probably wouldn’t think to call it is philosophy. And yet The Stone, a Times series since 2010, is called precisely that: “A forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.” However, what claims to be the deepest and most thoughtful part of the “paper of record” is notable for its superficiality and closed-mindedness. This can teach us a lot about the modern journalistic and academic landscape.
To the extent that there was a change, it probably began right around when Trump announced his presidential candidacy in 2015. The last essay The Stone published that truly attempted to make a philosophical point without reference to politics or pop culture was “Getting It Right,” by Ernest Sosa, a highly regarded epistemologist at Rutgers. (But let’s not wax too nostalgic: The three pieces preceding it were “What Can We Do about Climate Change?”; “Why Afrocentricity?”; and “Making It Explicit in Israel.”)
Even famous philosophers, with long histories of erudite public engagement, seem to end up grasping for relevance, like Martha Nussbaum in her opinion piece entitled “Sex, Love and the Aging Woman.” The Times seems to have decided that Nussbaum’s massive oeuvre, covering everything from Greek tragedy to contemporary feminism and providing some of the deepest insights into human capabilities and emotions, can be made interesting to its readers only when titled as though it comes from Cosmopolitan. And many contributors are not philosophers at all, such as the author of “My Syllabus, My Self,” an essay whose blurb reads: “It’s more than a reading list. It’s a personal and political statement.” The same could be said for The Stone writ large. It seems to conceive of the philosophical as a potent cocktail of the personal (which, of course, is political) and the political (which, of course, is personal), and the only dialectic necessary is the one we associate with Narcissus: staring into the pond of politics and seeing in its dark water one’s own reflection.
Some contributors seem not hostile to but unaware of perspectives that differ from their own. In the “Happy Birthday, Karl Marx” piece, Jason Barker tells us that “educated liberal opinion is today more or less unanimous in its agreement that Marx’s basic thesis . . . is correct.” But “liberal” is used as a term of abuse by many socialist and Communist commentators to mean precisely those people who are left of center by American standards but who have not integrated Marx’s conclusions into their thinking. Barker leaves us wondering just whom he is talking about. Others diagnose disagreement as motivated by a psychological need to retain the oppressive structures of contemporary society. In “Should I Give Up on White People?” George Yancy writes:
When it comes to white racist hatred, America never seems to have short supply. Perhaps you believe that I exaggerate. But I know better. You see, many whites in America have no need of me. They refuse what James Baldwin called a disagreeable mirror, one that shows them what they would rather not see.
For Yancy, those who disagree are simply averting their eyes.
For Jason Stanley, disagreement is even more pernicious; it’s a rejection of reality itself. In “Bannon’s Deviant ‘Badge of Honor,’” he critiques the “subversion of language” by noting that “the Nazis regularly inverted the meanings of ordinary words . . . by turning vices or negative ideals into virtues.” Stanley seems to be saying that one can find the answers to moral and political disputes by reading unproblematically from a dictionary. People who disagree with him are not properly using the English language and, as a result, are denying reality.
Many of our current conundrums are epistemic. We hear that experts have lost the trust of the public. What’s an expert? What’s trust? Philosophers argue about this.
But the charge of changing meanings is better aimed at Stanley’s compatriots in the business of “ameliorative analysis” or “conceptual engineering.” Their project is captured in the title of Herman Cappelen’s just-released work, Fixing Language. The goal of these philosophers is to inject politics into every aspect of our existence. Even the most fundamental questions about reality, about how parts form wholes and how particulars participate in universals and so forth, are to be policed by the “feminist metaphysics” that has risen up in recent years. Leftist political perspectives have come to dominate “public philosophy,” which now appears almost always as an effort to push new definitions onto the public, to “fix” their language. Sally Haslanger, for instance, offers definitions of terms such as “black” and “woman” in which oppression features directly. It is not that we identify women and then observe that they are oppressed because of their sex (or what their sex seems to be); women are defined to be people who are oppressed because of their sex.
It’s unfortunate, because apart from all of the intriguing work under way in core philosophy areas including metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, and traditional normative ethics, much of which has no political ramifications or presuppositions whatsoever, there are, in addition, many ways in which philosophers could respond to the political struggles of the Trump era. Many of our current conundrums are epistemic, for example. We hear that experts have lost the trust of the public. What’s an expert? What’s trust? Philosophers argue about this. We hear that politics has become irrationally polarized and there is no opportunity for consensus. What makes polarization irrational? What’s so great about consensus? I’d love an answer to these questions! Finally, disagreement itself: What do we do when we disagree so deeply with our neighbors that we feel we are operating from completely different moral frameworks or speaking in completely different languages?’
To politicize philosophy risks giving the impression that values such as truth, reason, and curiosity are themselves political.
I have a few answers. We shouldn’t try to paper over the fact of disagreement. We shouldn’t try to change language further when so many communication problems already abound. And we shouldn’t form enclaves around inherently pluralistic, even universal, ideas — such as the love of truth, the use of reason, and the call of curiosity — that have characterized philosophy since the time of Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle. To politicize philosophy risks giving the impression that values such as truth, reason, and curiosity are themselves political, a harbinger of the “post-truth” era to which philosophy should be opposed. To the extent that there are disagreements among philosophers themselves about these values, those disagreements should be aired publicly and explicitly, not sublimated in tirades about the latest Trump-focused scandal or the latest problematic TV show. The Stone represents a terribly blinkered approach, but it also exemplifies the attitude toward disagreement found in much of the academic and journalistic world. Philosophers, of all people, should know — and can do — better.