It is clear that philosophy as practiced in our universities is not a method for discovering the answers to any important questions. Professional philosophers are invariably clever in many ways and so the problem cannot be pure incompetence or mere error. It must have a deeper and more obscure cause.
The usual response to this general criticism is to blame it all on the universe. The idea would be that Reality must always be incomprehensible to human beings and in this case nobody need be blamed for a failure to comprehend it. The problem for this view would be that many people claim that Reality is comprehensible and that they do comprehend it, at least well enough to deal with formal metaphysical problems. It is just that only very rarely are they a professional philosopher and this means that they do not need to be read.
After fifteen years of wondering why academics seem to miss what is right under their noses I have no clear answers but do have some ideas. There is a lot of overlap, but on my list would be:
Pessimism and Lack of Self-Belief
If all of our past heroes failed to comprehend philosophy then it would be natural for us to assume that we cannot hope to do so either, and perhaps even that it would be arrogant and hubristic for us to assume otherwise. Once we fall into his trap we are doomed.
In my experience philosophy professors rarely have a good knowledge of the literature but only an excellent knowledge of the official reading-list. This official list, however, may well be the locus of the problem.
Every new generation of students is taught by someone who does not understand philosophy and who may even believe that nobody ever could.
A Variety of Goals
On average the goals of professional philosophers do not appear to have much to do with understanding philosophy.
Trivialisation of Outsiders
It may be useful to be well-acquainted with a thousand philosophers who did not solve any problems, and perhaps it would be indispensable for an understanding of why ‘western’ philosophical thinking fails, but it would surely be much more useful to be well-acquainted with just one who did. It is still a common view in the profession that nobody has ever achieved this, as if the work of ten thousand philosophers over thirty centuries can be waived away because they are not in the club.
Naïve Views of Eastern Philosophy
Professional philosophers who closely identify themselves with the ‘Western’ tradition of thought, usually reckoned to begin with Plato and to proceed onwards from there in a myriad different directions as mapped out in the university reading list, do not understand the ‘Eastern’ tradition of thought, which tends to normalise on just one doctrine. If they did then they would see that it is ridiculous to reject a philosophy that solves problems for one that only causes them. They may dismiss this alternative view, trivialise it, mock it, despair at it and rant against it but they do not understand it. Nor do they understand why they cannot refute or falsify it. Nor do they understand why they cannot find an alternative solution for philosophical problems that works. This is not because they are unintelligent but because nobody studies ideas that they strongly believe to be nonsense. The role of a philosopher is to refute views wherever possible but Eastern ideas seem to escape this treatment. To refute a view one has to get to know it.
‘Not-invented here’ Syndrome
This is a problem for everyone. If someone has already solved philosophy then this would seem to make the rest of us followers and not, after all, intrepid explorers into uncharted territory. We could speculate that this is one reason for the widespread rejection of Nagarjuna’s carefully-crafted and well-explained ‘Eastern’ solution for philosophy, (viz. a neutral metaphysical position), that it would take all the fun out the game if this solution is correct. Yet reaching an understanding of an existing philosophy that is not our own may be a far more dangerous and exciting adventure than simply fishing around for new ideas, and it may require a great deal more courage, imagination and conceptual re-engineering. For Socrates philosophy was all about remembering, not inventing. Thus he is usually considered to pre-date the ‘Western’ way of doing philosophy and to be merely wise.
The average layman would be gobsmacked by the prevalence of poor thinking in professional philosophy. This is possible because this kind of philosophy is so mind-bendingly complicated that it becomes difficult to know what anybody is actually saying. This can be true even for our own thoughts, which as a result can quite easily become an unsystematic muddle of opinion and conjecture hidden under a veil of fancy words. In the case of the recent Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics this reader could not understand two-thirds of the contents while the preface clearly states that nobody can or ever will understand metaphysics. This is not a coincidence. This Guide stands as a metaphor for the entire discipline.
Being too Clever by Half
Extrapolating from our Failure to the Failure of Everyone
It is commonly assumed that all the people who claim to have solved philosophy are, without exception, deluded. This does away with any need to demonstrate what is wrong with their solution. It also does away with the need to solve any problems.
Holding Temperamental Views of Religion
Professional philosophers seem as prone to this problem as the average layman.
Holding Poorly-Informed Views of Religion
This follows from holding temperamental opinions, or perhaps it can be either way around. Even where there is some sympathy for religion there is rarely much attempt to reach an informed view. Astonishingly, it is not a condition of employment that philosophers should have one. Philosophy of Mind is awash with books and articles written by people who clearly have little clue about religion and who seem to want little to with it other than to put forward theories that entirely depend on it being nonsense. Progress is just as one would anticipate.
Being Frightened of Physicists
The failure of philosophy leaves it open to endless criticism from physics, some of whose practitioners would abolish it. Every time there is new attack the philosophers get all up in arms and print a million defensive words in reply attempting to explain why their work is important while succeeding only in making it clear that they are not quite sure themselves. It is physicists who should fear philosophers given the naivety of the philosophical views that currently prevail in physics, but why would they worry while according to all the philosophers that these physicists tend to consult philosophy is hopeless and we might as well believe what we like.
Externalising the World
Professional philosophy pays lip-service to our internal world but seems to be largely about denying it. ‘Cogito’ is treated as a valid kind of axiom but to claim any more than this as evidence from direct experience would be to dabble in ‘mystical’ knowledge and to leave behind ‘rationality’. Meanwhile there is no indication that our external world is any more real than our internal world, and Descartes’ choice of axiom implies it may well be less so.
Not Beginning at the Beginning
Few of the previous errors could arise were it not for a dreadful habit that philosophers have of starting half-way through the story, as if they are not a beginner but already know a lot.
A Dislike of Simplicity
Philosophy is a simple subject in essence and most of its important questions could be asked by a child. The problem is its profundity and the challenging and iconoclastic character of its results. This problem can be avoided by making the topics so complicated that no result need ever be reached. Complexity is also useful for disguising failure.
The world is falling apart for the sake of a metaphysical theory which would bring us all together and ground our world-view on a sound logical basis. Academic philosophy has proved itself utterly useless in this project and the whole world suffers as a consequence. Do we see any attempt to pursue progress? Or do we see the same old arguments being rehearsed over and over again to no purpose? Meanwhile students are trained to continue the tradition. It is almost as if philosophy does not matter. Performance targets for professionals do not include solving any problems.
Misuse of Logic
While all of the above problems cannot be entirely excused even for an amateur investigation of philosophy this one is rather more technical and it would be unfair to actually expect non-specialists to avoid it. A specialist, by contrast, must be expected to avoid it. As it is, however, few academic philosophers seem to grasp the rules for Aristotle’s dialectic. As a consequence they see no legitimate solution for metaphysical dilemmas. Yet according to Aristotle’s rules they are not dilemmas. I doubt any layman would believe that this mistake is so widespread and will doubt my sanity, but it is almost universal and easy to identify. (For more discussion see: https://theworldknot.wordpress.com/do-we-regularly-make-a-mistake-in-metaphysics/)
The net result of these tendencies is to render ‘Western’ academic philosophy useless as a path to truth and understanding. We could, in response, imagine that philosophy as a whole is useless, that the universe is incomprehensible, or find some other pessimistic explanation. We could equally well assume that the world is just as the Buddha says it is and that philosophy can be solved just as his philosophical commentator and explicator Nagarjuna proposes. Unfortunately this option is not usually available to professors who want their salary to go on being paid, nor is it offered by them to their students. The word ‘Mysticism’ might as well be pronounced ‘Voldemort’ in academia. Everybody knows it is nonsense due the above list of errors.
It would all be a fun game were it not for the effect on society. I believe that the failure of professional philosophers is the greatest part of the cause of the mess we are in. Some people call for a new mythology to unite us, but what do we want with a speculative mythology when we have all the tools required to determine what is actually the case? It was only ever ‘Western’ or ‘scholastic’ thinkers who denied this possibility. Socrates would not have done so but something went terribly wrong after his time.
Thanks to the internet and the easy availability of a vast literature explaining why the Western philosophical approach, grounded as it is in dualism, must forever fail, we might hope that a revolution is on the way. It may already be underway but it seems as yet a very fragile thing. What is required is some soul-searching in the Academy but it is not known for its powers of self-criticism. I suspect it may take another five hundred years of lobbying to persuade its members that philosophy is not useless, so well-entrenched are those who find it so.
[If the reader has more ideas for the list please mention them in the comments. If any seem unjustified please argue back. I’ve given up pulling punches but don’t want to land any unfairly.]