Ayn Rand/Objectivism Sightings
Free Radical Updates
Local Club Meeting Plans
News & Interesting Links
The Fouling of Philosophy
This article is a horror file and a call to arms. Having recently completed three first year Philosophy papers at one of New Zealand's larger universities - Victoria University of Wellington, I am in a unique position to highlight the bankruptcy of modern philosophy. I am not an academic in the field of philosophy; I am an undergraduate student. But far from making me unqualified to comment, I am exactly the kind of person who should be speaking out against modern philosophy's nihilism. My generation are its victims, because in a better culture philosophy would be targeted first and foremost at us - young students seeking direction and purpose in life, but such a situation is being denied us - at least by our teachers. I cannot vouch for students at other universities, but I suspect my experience at Victoria is an example of a wider trend that has been engrained internationally. Whatever the case, my own university's approach to teaching philosophy descends lower than I would ever have thought possible.
No Dead White Males.
Before beginning my studies, an acquaintance mentioned he had been talking to a Philosophy graduate from Massey University. Upon hearing that she had recently completed her degree, he asked her: "So, you'd know all about Plato and Aristotle then?"
The girl replied, in all honesty, "Who?"
A girl who has bluffed her way through her degree? If only. The truth is that girl, and many others, are victims of a completely ahistorical approach to teaching philosophy.
Anxious to dumb philosophy down, and not to bore anybody with the philosophies of "dead white males," it seems many philosophy departments are more willing to expose their students to the voluminous waffle of nauseating modern academics. Rather than learning about Plato, Aquinas, Hume, Kant or Hegel - whose theories have had a huge impact on the course of history - students like myself are to digest the work of otherwise unemployable academics who say largely nothing. I can count on one hand the great philosophers who were mentioned in my first year studies. I cannot begin to count the scores of academics whose dull, hair-splitting nonsense makes up the bulk of course content.
Jumping in the deep end.
Students reading this will know that courses usually begin the year with an outline of the reason for studying the subject. What is History? Why should we study it? What is Politics? And so on.
Not the Victoria University Philosophy Department. Students are expected to dive straight into the deep end without any knowledge of the importance of what they are studying or any reason for doing so! There is no discussion of what philosophy is, what branches make it up, or what importance it has for human life. We begin the year with completely obtuse arguments about the existence or non-existence of God. And, just in case any student is under the impression that philosophy actually has relevance to his actual life, the paper continues with a discussion of the paradoxes of the sentence: "This sentence is false" to change his mind.
The Art of Sophistry
A vague purpose is given to this verbiage - namely, that it allows students to develop skills in the analysis of arguments. This is all well and good, as long as we understand that many arguments have life and death significance and are not simply games for academics to indulge in. But, it appears from Victoria's approach that picking apart arguments is all that philosophy is about. The decaying carcass of modern philosophy consists in the analysis of completely arbitrary arguments about whether time travel or life after death is "logically possible." To these academics, it is not truth or facts that matter but the internal self-consistency of absurd floating abstractions.
Students are taught by example to indulge in the most hair-splitting mind games possible to them. The goal of philosophy is to be able to tear down arguments and build nothing up in response. The truly successful philosophy student, under this approach, lives his intellectual life in a process of constant refutation and rejection. He is the one who can smell any conviction a mile off, and go in for the kill. To indulge in sophistic refutations of the ideas of others and sneer the only conviction he has been allowed to hold by his teachers - that certainty is impossible. Rather than a lover of wisdom, the student who learns from the approach of his teachers is the lover of destruction, of nihilism.
Such nihilism is inherent, albeit in a somewhat subtle manner, in the very technique with which we are taught philosophy. Examine an idea, tear it down with a refutation. Examine that refutation then tear that down also!
On this subject, I can do no better than to quote Ronald E. Merrill in his book, The Ideas of Ayn Rand:
"The traditional dialectical teaching method affects to be neutral among philosophical doctrines. But the dialectical method itself smuggles into the student's mind the doctrines of which it is an expression: That no truth is ever certain, that no question is ever settled, that no argument is irrefutable. All too often the superficial commitment to free enquiry conceals a covert intellectual intimidation. Under the cover of a quest for rigor is conveyed the subtle message that skill at debate makes right. And so everything is uncertain, for perhaps a faster gun will come along tomorrow."
In Ancient Greece a group of itinerant teachers known as Sophists would, in return for a fee, teach aristocratic youth the skill of making weaker philosophic arguments defeat the stronger, and instruct in the ability to leave one's opponent in a state of hopeless confusion. It is ironic that two thousand years later such sophistry is alive and well at Victoria University in the southern hemisphere, despite the fact that students will learn nothing of their own teachers' intellectual forebears because such history has been blotted out. Like the Sophists, today's teachers are more interested in argumentation as an end in itself, like a game of chess or cards, rather than as a means to the pursuit of philosophic truth - which, they hold, is an unattainable goal.
The heresy of system building.
A rational method of learning sees students apply new knowledge to a larger context of earlier learning. It also builds a hierarchy - establishing an understanding of which elements of a subject are the more fundamental and which are derivatives, in order that new knowledge always rests upon a firm foundation of understanding. But at Victoria University, (as Forrest Gump might say), philosophy is like a box of chocolates - you never know what you 're going to get! One first year paper, entitled "Argument and Analysis," jumps from God to linguistic paradoxes to scepticism to just war theory to psychological egoism. Such leaps make it impossible for a student ignorant of philosophy to establish any kind of context. No connection is drawn between any of these topics. Nor is any hierarchy established - do metaphysical positions have implications for ethics, for example? Apparently not.
The reason for this acontextual approach is an aversion to "system building." One should not attempt to seek systematic understanding of universal principles and apply them across the board! Arguments, after all, are self-contained floating abstractions with no relation to each other - or to reality!
Is it any wonder that we live in a world where people who supposedly support individual freedom in the realm of economics are at the same time opposed to the legalisation of drugs? Or where people oppose broadcasting fees but not compulsory taxation?
The first year Ethics paper, entitled "Contemporary Ethical Issues" is somewhat better than the papers dealing with metaphysical issues (Not that the term "metaphysics" is employed an awful lot - the paper dealing with such issues is given the dumbed-down title of "The Big Questions"!). Nevertheless, it leaves a lot to be desired. After a brief discussion of utilitarian and Kantian approaches to ethics - which the unaware student might go away thinking are the only possible alternatives - issues such as abortion, the death penalty, drugs, date rape and even libertarianism are discussed. The aim, it appears, is not to get too bogged down in any actual theory about what ethics is or what it is to be moral. Ethics is defined in a vacuum merely as "the study of right and wrong" without any identification of the meanings of those concepts nor of reasons as to man's need for morality. Indeed, only after an array of issues have been discussed is the question, "why be moral?" posed - shoved into the final two lectures of the course!
A closer examination of the course reveals why this is so. Notice that the issues dealt with are all social in nature, with the implication that ethics is the study of how society should be organised, and nothing more. Should society ban abortion? Should society ban drugs? Should society help the poor? The subtle brainwashing lies in the implication that morality has nothing to do with how you should live your life, achieve your goals, and attain your happiness.
Not surprisingly, when the question "why be moral?" is raised at the end of the course, it is the social contract theory of ethics that is endorsed. This theory holds that morality is the product of social consensus. We abide by moral rules because we agree to live in a society. Not because we want to live. Morality, in other words, has nothing to offer you if you are yearning for proper values and goals in life. It is simply an arbitrary set of rules to stop you from knifing your neighbour in the back. Morality is a kind of necessary annoyance that we all agree to abide by.
Egoists and straw men
And what of the philosophy of Objectivism and its ethical principle that morality is a guide, first and foremost, to our own, personal flourishing? Such egoism, to quote one lecturer, implies that one can kill one's irritating wife to collect on her insurance policy. A certain philosopher-novelist by the name of Ayn Rand, who is "very unpopular with professional philosophers" to quote this lecturer, is mentioned as an advocate of this viewpoint. Are any actual arguments offered by her examined? No. Yet one would expect a philosophy professor to be aware of the fallacy of attacking a straw man.
But the dismissal of rational egoism is simply an attempt to hide the fact that ethics has to be tied to life, and the only lives that exist are those of individuals. Ethics should tell us how to flourish, how to achieve our goals, how to live as healthy, independent people. We can't treat society as some mystical entity that has the right to establish any moral rules it pleases. Not if we want to live, in a society or otherwise.
For moral philosophers to concern themselves merely with social issues is to ignore such important questions as "how should I live my life?" and "what goals should I seek?" leaving people struggling to find a guide to life and happiness. For philosophy professors, faced with a lecture hall full of young people presumably seeking guidance and direction at the beginning of their adult lives, to ignore the vital relevance of ethics to the achievement of personal happiness is such a wasted opportunity as to be almost criminal.
I call upon the universities of this country to establish first year ethics courses where students can learn why ethics is a vital necessity, where they can learn the road to rational, independent, successful and joyful lives. But I will not hold my breath. Such a course would imply - horrors! - egoism. There would be no place for telling young people that morality consists of simply obeying the rules of society's "contract." Ethics would become a lifeline for all students seeking meaning and purpose in their lives. There would be no place for mention of leaky lifeboat ethics amidst discussions of the importance of thinking, of goals, of independence, hard work, integrity, honesty and pride. But it will take a revolution in ethical thought before such a day will come.
Philosophy and freedom
The destruction of philosophy has very real - and very frightening - implications for our freedom. The scepticism preached on campuses is creating a generation of young people with no confidence in the power of reason to offer us answers. By shunning reason's ability to find such answers - to the problems of their own lives or those of the world at large - the modern philosopher turns his students into desperate and terrified zombies. Such people are all too willing to doubt their own judgement, and all too ready to accept the judgement of the first dogmatic tyrant who shouts loudly enough. And herein lies the irony: scepticism ends up, not as a rigorous process of careful doubt and analysis, but as a trapdoor leading to the only alternative to rational certainty - dogmatic faith. The student reared on the notion that reason is impotent will simply seek answers elsewhere, and will be the first to raise his arm in salute to a Hitler who tells him to follow, not reason or logic, but his Aryan instincts.
The teachers of philosophy have defaulted on their responsibility. They have twisted philosophy into a narrow and seemingly irrelevant absurdity. They have turned the love of wisdom into a boring series of word games played out in the pages of rationalistic drivel which pass as arguments. They have stolen from youth the ability to gain a framework for living, thinking, achieving, succeeding. They have bankrupted themselves, young people, and philosophy.
Happily, there is still hope. There is a philosophy that says philosophy matters because you need it to live, and your life matters. There is a philosophy that says that morality is your teacher, your guide, and your signpost along the path of successful, fulfilling, joyous living.
It is the philosophy of Objectivism. But its creator "is not very popular among professional philosophers."
Ask yourself why.
If you enjoyed this, why not subscribe to The Free Radical?
Discuss this Article (21 messages)