Thinking Inside the Box: The Institutional Structure of “Hard” Problems in Professional Philosophy.
1. Gaps, Knots, and Philosophical Pictures
A classical or typical “hard” philosophical problem has a three-part structure.
(i) There is an explanatory gap between some set of basic facts and another set of basic facts.
E.g., in the classical mind-body problem: “how is consciousness or subjective experience, which is fundamentally mental, possible in a fundamentally physical world?”
The first set of basic facts are subjective, non-mechanical facts about consciousness (the mind), and the second set of basic facts are objective, mechanical facts about physical processes (the body).
So there is an explanatory gap between mind-facts and body facts.
(ii) There is a conceptual knot, or theoretical puzzle, that needs to be untangled before there can be any significant progress in philosophical understanding.
E.g., in the classical mind-body problem: it seems impossible to understand how something that is fundamentally mental could ever arise through fundamentally physical processes.
This conceptual knot is also known as “Cartesian conceptual dualism.”
(iii) There is a philosophical picture, i.e., a critically-unexamined presupposition, or set of critically-unexamined presuppositions, being made by all participants in the existing debate.
E.g., in the classical mind-body problem: it is being uncritically presupposed by all philosophical participants in the existing debate that mental facts are inherently non-physical and essentially exclude physical facts, and also those physical facts are inherently non-mental and essentially exclude mental facts.
Significant progress on the classical mind-body problem can be made by identifying the explanatory gaps, conceptual knots, and philosophical pictures, critically questioning the unexamined presuppositions, and then proposing a new, “outside the box” way of conceptualizing the basic facts.
E.g., in the classical mind-body problem: it is possible to reject the philosophical picture/critically-unexamined presupposition of Cartesian conceptual dualism, and propose that that mental fact and physical facts are not mutually exclusive and that in fact both mental facts and physical facts arise from a single third domain of more basic facts that are neither fundamentally mental nor fundamentally physical.
So far, however, we’ve only gotten as far as neutral monism, which, to the extent that it usually has physicalist motivations–say, as per Spinoza or Russell–is still locked inside the box of Cartesian conceptual dualism.
But a radically different third domain would be primitive facts about immanently-structured, purposive, non-equilibrium complex thermodynamic systems–forward-directed flows of actual and potential energy, and/or matter–especially including organismic living systems.
This genuinely new, truly “outside the box” way of conceptualizing the basic facts about the mind-body relation is known as “organicism.”
Historically speaking, you might call it, “Whitehead-ing the Russell.”
Exploring the organicist option, therefore, involves truly “thinking outside the box” of Cartesian conceptual dualism.
But the great majority of contemporary professional philosophers cannot even see the organicist option; or if they are exposed to it, they instantly reject it as “crazy,” thereby dismissing anyone who seriously holds it, shut their eyes, put plugs in their ears, take another Tylenol PM, rollover, and falls back into Goya’s “sleep of reason” again.
And the very same three-part structure and associated pattern of cognitive pathology can be found in the free will problem, the problem of knowledge, the realism/idealism problem, the personal identity problem, the problem of moral skepticism, the problem of political authority, etc., etc., etc.
2. Where Do the Conceptual Boxes Come From?
As Boethius argued in a recent APP post:
If one accepts the general line of argument in Schmidt’s Disciplined Minds, that is—the argument is that through various subtle and not-so-subtle means, most members of the [Professional Academic State, aka PAS] are selected for their tendency to obey.
Evidence includes subtleties like biases in tests like the GRE (which emphasize the ability for rule-following and disciplined memorization over deeper critical thinking), less-subtle selection methods like grad school comprehensive exams (which again emphasize disciplined study/memorization over independent thinking), and even less-subtle selection methods like hiring practices that seem ideologically/politically driven.
Why these types of gates for entry to the professional world?
Answer: Because it’s what the rulers want in their employees. This includes employees like professional academics, including of course professional academic philosophers.
Schmidt’s best case for this involves his own field, physics (a field driven by its corporate and military applications), but professionalized analytic philosophy seems not to be far away.
E.g., Z has pointed out the scientism that infects contemporary philosophy in ways completely out of proportion to the influence science ought to have on philosophical practice….
We rock the GRE, it’s been shown.
We celebrate this fact, yet what should we think if philosophy graduate students and professional philosophers seem to be really good at exactly the skills and habits of obeying that Kant’s prince [who says: “Argue as much you like, but obey!”] prefers?
This makes for even more trouble for the “argue but obey” maxim.
For the “arguing” part will be by members of the PAS that have already been selected for their capacity to obey!
And as I argued in an earlier post:
The problem of specialization in professional philosophy is fundamentally an anarcho-political problem, because endemic, forced early specialization and hyper-specialization flow naturally from the deep but all-too-often unacknowledged influence of larger socio-cultural and political mechanisms of scientism, statism, and global corporate capitalism on professional academic philosophy.
By a bad philosophical picture, I mean a set of interlinked unarticulated, unargued presuppositions that consistently yields significant conceptual blindness/blinkeredness and conceptual confusion in philosophy.
And by a disastrously bad philosophical picture I mean a bad philosophical picture that is so gripping and so severely mistaken it that covertly drives philosophy into a conceptual cul de sac or vicious loop, consisting of endless insoluble antinomies and/or radical skepticism, in effect killing real philosophy, and then generating from its death throes only arid, narrow, pointless, busy-busy-busy bee philosophical scholasticism and sophistry.
You know, the very sort of thing that the Critique of Pure Reason and Philosophical Investigations were written to diagnose, undermine, and overcome?
Sadly, there are all-too-many examples of how endemic, forced early specialization and hyper-specialization in contemporary professional academic philosophy covertly induces or produces disastrously bad philosophical pictures.
In other words, the “conceptual boxes,” or disastrously bad philosophical pictures, that haunt contemporary professional academic philosophy are produced by
(i) the GRE-driven pre-selection of obedient, formally adept, rule-implementing people by Ph.D. programs in philosophy, especially in The Fortune 500 Philosophy Club departments, and
(ii) endemic, forced early specialization and hyper-specialization.
Hence the reason that professional academic philosophers cannot think outside their disastrously bad philosophical pictures, their killer conceptual boxes, is that powerful mechanisms of hyper-disciplining in contemporary professional academic philosophy induce in them an ideologically manipulated state of cognitive blindness/blinkeredness about the genuine space of conceptual options actually open to them.
In short, classical or typical “hard problems” in contemporary professional academic philosophy are institutional artifacts of the hyper-disciplining of contemporary professional academic philosophers.
Moreover, it’s also a highly striking and ironic historical fact that so-called “classical or typical ‘hard’ philosophical problems” are actually institutional artifacts of Anglo-American professional academic philosophy since 1912.
The great philosophers of the past, up through the end of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century, i.e., prior to the publication of Russell’s Problems of Philosophy in 1912, never formulated or understood the problems in just this way.
Of course, they were engaging and struggling with some or all of the same basic facts, explanatory gaps, conceptual knots, and philosophical pictures, but the pictures hadn’t yet hardened into killer conceptual boxes in the way they did after Russell.
No wonder, then, that Wittgenstein was so intensely annoyed by Russell, and no wonder that Wittgenstein’s critical meta-philosophy unfolded as it did.
–And it’s no accident, organicism-wise, that Whitehead wasn’t a professional academic philosopher.
Of course, it wasn’t really all Russell’s fault!
Indeed, Russell had his own Close Encounter with the coercive moralism of the Professional Academic State during World War I, being jailed for pacifist, social-anarchist activism, then having his Trinity fellowship rescinded (plus, the fellowship ouster also had something to do with Russell’s “scandalous” personal life), and it all radically changed his philosophical life.
It was just that the juggernaut of professional academic philosophy was on the move, and by the end of World War II, it had pretty much conquered 20th-century philosophy, via the institutional triumph of Russell’s Frankenstein monster, hardcore Analytic philosophy.
By the time of the publication of Philosophical Investigations in 1953, at the height of the McCarthy era, the hyper-disciplined, hegemonic institutional structure of Anglo-American professional academic philosophy was not merely a juggernaut, it was a Leviathan, especially in the USA, and a proper part of the larger post-WW II military-industrial-university complex–and since the end of the Cold War, it’s been a proper part of the neoliberal military-industrial-university complex.
The institutional structure of Anglo-American professional academic philosophy is the homunculus-Leviathan inside the empty head-box of the megamachine-Leviathan of the (neo)liberal democratic state.
3. Can Professional Philosophers Liberate Their Minds and Think Outside Their Conceptual Boxes?
YES. But given the institutional structure of classical or typical “hard” philosophical problems, there are only two ways this can happen: either
(i) by becoming overtly APP and exiting the Professional Academic State,
(ii) by becoming secretly APP and using the “weapons of the weak” to subvert the powerful ideological mechanisms of professional academic philosophy.