I’M NOT ONE FOR taking long road trips, but I’ve been in a few cars and I know the kind of games people play when they’re on a long-distance trip.
Along with the classic (and often painful) driving game “slug bug”
back seat passengers and drivers also play the guessing game “I spy with my little eye”.
If you’ve never played the game before, “I spy with my little eye” goes like this:
The “spy” says “I spy with my little eye”, and the other passengers have to guess what the “spy” is looking at.
FOR EXAMPLE: I spy with my little eye, something that looks like… Logan?
I’m not in a car right now, but I’m still looking around, spying with my little eye.
And I can tell you what I’m not seeing a lot of around here: philosophers.
I don’t see them anywhere.
Now, before you tell me that Slavoj Žižek and Peter Singer are popular and are all over the inernet, or that Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett are two of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism, I’m gonna say this: can you name all the Kardashian/Jenner sisters?
Be honest, you can name all five of them, right?
Easy peasy, right?
Now, name five living popular philosophers.
Next to impossible, isn’t it?
Now ask someone who knows nothing about philosophy to name one living philosopher.
Now ask them to name the Kardashian/Jenner sisters.
Easy peasy, right?
Suddenly Žižek ain’t so popular, is he?
Seriously tho, where are the public intellectuals?
Why don’t I see them on t.v.?
And why aren’t philosophers leading the charge???
The question is rhetorical. I actually know why.
Listen: having gone through the trials and tribulations of getting a philosophy degree, I’ve come to understand a few things. To wit: American culture absolutely HATES intellectuals.
The reason why we hate intellectuals is because when we think of intellectuals, we envision a smarty pants; the know-it-all, talks a bunch but doesn’t actually do anything, who lords his university degree over his perceived intellectual inferiors like a better-than-you, my-knowledge-is-ordained-by-god (with a small “g” because god with the big “G” doesn’t exist) cudgel.
We’ve all met that guy. We can admit he’s awful.
*Alright, I noticed that I’ve been using the words “he”, and “him”, and “that guy” to describe arrogant intellectuals. I know I should be using gendered pronouns equally (or just removing gender altogether), but let’s be honest here, have you encountered an arrogant intellectual who wasn’t a him?
Here’s another thing: when we talk about philosophers in the public sphere, it’s important that we understand that there are (at least) two different definitions of what a philosopher is: the academic philosopher and the pop philosopher.
Academic philosophers and pop philosophers are not the same thing.
Academic philosophy, to its own peril, looks down of anything that stinks of popularity.
This is a problem for academia in general.
I recall a conversation I had years ago with a former professor after I wrote my book.
Did I mention that I wrote a book?
Anyway, during the conversation with my former professor, I learned the harsh truth of writing about philosophy. You see, philosophy is an a-c-a-d-e-m-i-c topic − and writing about academic topics requires an advanced degree. I ain’t got an advanced degree.
Therefore, my book isn’t legit philosophy.
That kinda sucks.
My book is well researched. I have citations. At least some of my thoughts are original.
But in the end, I
wasted devoted a year and a half of my life researching and writing a book that I would have had more success at philosophy doing Friedrich Nietzsche cosplay.
Alas, without an advanced degree, I will never be a professional philosopher.
Professional (academic) philosophical writing is relegated to the realm of peer-reviewed journals, and the price of admission into that world is a PhD.
For a group of people who deal with how people think, this is a pretty stupid thing to do.
Shouldn’t the love of wisdom be for everybody?
In his essay Philosophy for Laymen, Bertrand Russell wrote:
even in the time that can easily be spared without injury to the learning of technical skills, philosophy can give certain things that will greatly increase the student’s value as a human being and as a citizen.
Russell believed that philosophy should be accessible, if only to help people to make their lives better.
Russell died in 1970.
In Russell’s absence, philosophy has taken a turn toward the (even more) technical, and unfortunately, the philosophical nomenclature isn’t easily understandable to those who aren’t academically trained.
That’s not by accident.
Some philosophers, like the late German-American political philosopher, Leo Strauss (1899-1973), intentionally wrote in obscure and difficult-to-understand language to make their philosophy indecipherable to the average reader. For some philosophers, doing philosophy is a member’s only enterprise.
In Strauss’ case, the members of his philosopher’s only club were his fellow University of Chicago-trained neo-conservatives.
In short, laymen philosophers need not apply.
The unfortunate, but intended result is, modern philosophers dwell nearly exclusively in the halls of academia. Academic philosophers don’t (or perhaps refuse to) engage with the public. Non-academic folks can’t understand academic philosophy (because they don’t have the technical training), so professional philosophers don’t bother teaching philosophy to people outside of the university.
The ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle established the first professional philosopher-making factories, the Academy and the Lyceum (respectively), to produce academic philosophers and that’s exactly where modern-day philosophers intend to keep philosophers and philosophy!
Any philosophy written or discussed outside of the academy or by unsanctioned persons is “pop philosophy”.
Pop philosophy is trivial; pablum for philistines. pandering to the lowest common denominator.
You ever have a “philosophical” conversation about an episode of Star Trek?
Yep. Pop philosophy.
BTW: lowest common denominator = you and me.
Academia, on the other hand, is the REAL THING.
Spend any time with an academic philosopher and you’ll realize academia’s contempt for pop philosophy.
If you want to be a legit philosopher, you gotta get published in a peer-reviewed academic philosophy journal. Publishing is not just a goal, it’s the goal. One is a real philosopher if and only if a group of experts (aka, other academic philosophers) certify that you’re also an expert.
Philosophy has become the Cult of the Credential.
Unfortunately, with the absence of academic philosophers in the public discourse, we’ve seen the emergence of bro philosophers.
Bro philosophers, mind you. Not PhilosophyBro.
Public intellectual/philosophical conversation is dominated by so-called regular Joes who champion the intellect of the average man. Bro philosophy prides itself on its rejection of the advanced degrees and academic standards “required” for critical thought*. It rails against the arrogance and political correctness of academia.
I’m not saying this is a bad thing. In fact, I encourage regular Joes and Janes doing philosophy.
That’s what this blog and my book are all about.
Did I mention that I wrote a book?
But why aren’t philosophers doing this? Why are philosophers not jumping in and doing philosophy with the bros?
Why is it that there is not one academic philosopher as popular as Jordan Peterson or Sam Harris?
Perhaps money, a life goal in the non-academic world, isn’t an acceptable goal for the professional, academic philosopher?
Maybe it really is all about the wisdom?
The wise academic philosopher, Daniel Dennett, is estimated to be worth about 700,000 bucks.
The popular philosopher, Jordan Peterson is worth $16 million.
FUN FACT: If you’re curious, Peter Singer is worth an estimated $2 million.
A decent amount of dough for an academic philosopher, but still considerably less than Peterson.
Although I think it’s safe to assume that academic philosophers, like anyone else who enjoys having a roof over their head, food in the fridge, and electricity, appreciate a nice paycheck at the end of the week, I also suspect that the lack of academic philosophers in the public sphere is really rooted in the academic philosopher’s avoidance of the perception as pop philosophers, not a rejection of fortune.
Unfortunately, because academic philosophers reject the currency of pop philosophy (namely pop culture), philosophers don’t keep track of pop trends. That makes it difficult to drop justified true belief bombs on the Dr. Phil show — especially when you have no idea who Dr. Phil is.
I remember when I was a student. I did not have the most culturally astute philosophy professors.
Of course, I’m not saying that every philosophy professor should have a favorite member of One Direction
If your favorite member isn’t Zayn you’re not even worth talking to.
but an awareness of what’s going on outside of the university may help with things.
Things like communicating with people…who don’t know or care who Wittgenstein is.
Or, if only to prove that philosophy is still relevant to popular culture.
(so that your philosophy department isn’t shut down).
The lack of academic philosophers in the public sphere has left an opening for others, sometimes less qualified, to slip through.
You see, there’s nothing wrong with laymen getting involved with philosophy. A slave can be just as wise as a devotee of Socrates. However, there’s a risk we take when we the make average Joe and Jane popular philosophers – sometimes average folks have no idea what in THE FUCK they’re talking about.
And as any of us who has ever sat in a classroom with a fellow philosophy student who has no CLUE what they were talking about can tell you, people who don’t think right about things can end up doing more harm than good.
Although philosophy should be for everyone, it’s also useful to get advice from the experts
…at least sometimes.
Academic philosophers know the formal rules of philosophy. Because they’re trained in the academy, academic philosophers are familiar with the theories and how to think about the theories critically, and more importantly — how to think about and apply the theories correctly.
And yes, academic philosophers know the correct philosophical nomenclature to use.
That comes in handy when using words like “valid”, “argument”, “logically follows”, or “intuition”.
If you’re talking to a academic philosopher, these words might not mean what you think they mean.
If I want to discuss refrigerator repair, I’ll go to a refrigerator repairman. If I want to know about the correct application of utilitarian ethics in a trolley problem scenario, I’ll look to someone who studied utilitarian ethics.
Just like churches realized that they needed to appeal to the masses to retain
power popularity, academic philosophy needs to get hip with the times. Academia needs to ditch the ivory tower and jump into the pop cultural cesspool that is Dr. Phil, Star Trek, and YouTube clickbait thumbnail reaction vids.
Philosophers have a responsibility to teach the people.
And the people watch The Big Bang Theory**.
I think Žižek would be great on that show.
*it might be worth noting that Plato and Aristotle didn’t have college degrees. But then, it’s also worth noting that at that time there were no academic degrees.
** The Big Bang Theory (CBS) is the highest rated network English-speaking tv show in the U.S.