Philosophy vs Western Civilisation

A recent Matt Yglesias post contained some discussion of concerns people have about the contemporary humanities. For those not subscribed he included a screenshot of the discussion in a recent tweet. The basic idea is that there are some core values underlying American society (the context from which he writes, but I think we can fairly generalise this to at least other liberal democracies) and that people expect educated people to be inculcated into these values. By way of example he mentions ideals of religious freedom and  "a philosophical lineage from Plato and Aristotle to Hobbes and Locke and Mill and Rawls". He says that while it is good to hear about radical critiques of such ideas and such a tradition, and that can even be from some who endorse the critiques (intelligent advocacy for the view points being a good way of hearing them at their strongest) in the end the broader society will not long put up with funding institutions that are too hostile to these things. The contemporary humanities thus risk losing public support because they are dominated by people who buy into the radical critique of the mainstream. As such they are accurately perceived to be undermining (rather than inculcating people into) "faith in the main underpinnings of society".

I liked this because I think Yglesias expresses in plain language a concern many people have. I do not think the concern is well founded, and I say that as someone who has been working in humanities departments continuously since 2011. Of course my experience is limited. That has all been in philosophy, and even then a relatively small number of departments (I have personally been in Warwick, London School of Economics, and Carnegie Mellon University philosophy departments; while at CMU I spent extensive time in Pittsburgh's History and Philosophy of Science department. I have also been an external advisor to students in University of British Columbia, UC Irvine: Logic and Philosophy of Science, and UC San Diego, letting me get to know how those departments operate a bit). My impression is that people who have this worry usually think that philosophy is a bit different from the other humanities. So it is possible we are just talking at cross purposes and I want to acknowledge that. But none the less I think it might be informative for people outside the academy to get a glimpse into the mundane workings of an actual humanities department, and so I will use my experience as a guide.

At the LSE we make our course offerings publicly available, you can find the list here -- and masters students can take these and some others in addition, list found here. (The ones whose codes start with the letters PH are ours.) Various facts about our recent history (most prominently: until relatively recently being able to rely on our students taking courses elsewhere among London universities) mean our course offering is a bit more limited than is typical of philosophy departments. Primarily this means we do less history than is typical. Other than that I think we're a safe basis to induct from.

So there is some mandatory basic logic followed up by optional more advanced courses going into the (in)completeness theorems, modal logic, and set theory. Epistemology covering ideas about knowledge, various good properties knowledge might have like being reliable or safe (these are technical terms!), and an introduction to core ideas from Bayesianism and expected utility theory. Political philosophy is heavily focussed on debates within the social democratic liberal tradition, with Rawlsian students and respondents being heavily over-represented. Though of course older debates find their way in too, especially as we have within-faculty disagreement about Just War Theory, with both advocates and critics among our number. But there is a splattering of anarchist, socialist, and libertarian readings one will also find, so out-of-mainstream critiques do get a shoe in. (We are typical, alas, in not really having much by way of the Burkean tradition -- this is a real sense in which I think conservatism is under-represented in philosophy, but it is all the more galling at the institutional home of Oakeshott. Though as of late we do include some chance to study Confucian ideas that are at least similar in spirit.) Debates about the philosophy of mind and the metaphysics of persons find their place. And finally we are somewhat of a speciality school in philosophy of science, so that is also unusually well represented among our course offerings.

(For a while I personally taught a short module on the nature of truth as part of our big introductory course. Readers who know my general take on things may be amused to know I found students generally came away from this sympathetic to the correspondence theory of truth.)

Now of course all of these things could be taught from a perspective quite hostile to them, and so while by following the links you can verify for yourself that the sort of things I mention above really do appear in the course description that should not yet satisfy you. But I can assure you they are not in fact taught from the perspectives of cynics who want to tear them all down... though I also would not reassure you that they are not taught from the point of view of proponents who wish to get students to see the benefit of liberalism and rationality and the like. Rather, and this is my main point: that sort of advocacy-vs-attack perspective is just a bit of an odd way of thinking about the teaching enterprise as a whole.

For instance, at the masters level I teach a course called Evidence and Policy. We focus on how one can well use scientific evidence to guide policy in a democracy. So the students will do a bit of philosophy of science and a bit of democratic theory and think about how the two go together. I can't say that I spend much time praising democracy and science, but nor do I take the time to condemn either. We certainly do look at tensions, points where they mutually compliment and points where the good order of one may disrupt the other, and so on. But the question of whether or not students should prefer democracy to its rivals, or science to any other mode of inquiry, just doesn't really arise. That is not what that particular course is about. The course is pitched at students who already think there is reason to care about how science and democracy fit together; there are other courses they could take (on political philosophy or epistemology respectively) if they wanted to consider why that might be. And even in those courses you would find the baseline assumptions are those typical of "the common sense of the Euro-American middle class" -- such a starting point being as I have noted before integral to the method of contemporary philosophy.

In fact, in some sense, what we do is really inculcation in the deepest sense. We do not persuade the students of the good of this tradition or these ideas, we simply immerse them in the debates around them. Their importance is demonstrated by the way they are the focus, even when we are thinking about criticisms or problems they are still the pole around which all else rotates. The occasional libertarian or anarchist epicycle does not really change the clear centre of gravity. And I think that centre point is just the sort of rationalist-y liberal-y post-Enlightenment kinda perspective that would lead a person to think that "ideals of religious freedom" and "a philosophical lineage from Plato and Aristotle to Hobbes and Locke and Mill and Rawls" are natural examples of the sort of thing that universities should be encouraging. Again, maybe philosophy is unusual, or maybe what people want is more explicit defence of these things (though I think they would not welcome the results of that should their wish be granted) rather than just courses that presuppose them. But I actually suspect that philosophy and the LSE are both in this way typical, and if more people knew this was the state of things there would be rather less culture war fussing about the academy. Though Burkean conservatives and genuine radicals would still have cause for complaint, centrist liberal types really would not.

Much as it is a mark of the monarchy's strength in UK public life that we so rarely debate their merits, so too the way in which these ideas are not really defended should not be confused with their being undermined or subject to hostile attack. So if one thinks of inculcation not so much as providing explicit defence but more along the lines of presupposition and immersion, I think we are still doing the thing Yglesias worries we are not and radicals worry we are.

I asked Bing's Art Generator to depict the typical LSE class room and the bastard did me like this


  1. I suspect that you're overwhelmed how typical philosophy departments, especially analytic philosophy, departments are compared to the rest of the humanities. My own experience with sociologists and historians is that liberalism and enlightenment ideals about especially and morality are

    1. oh no it got cut off! liberalism etc are what!?

    2. Sorry it got cut off. My experience with historians and sociologists is that they tend to be more sceptical about objectivity about morality, truth and liberalism. I.e. while the ideological center of gravity in analytic philosophy departments is liberalism, more or less, this is not true of at least some other humanities departments.

  2. I think that your wise qualifier about your own experience is almost the whole story here, and that you may not be correct to say that "philosophy and the LSE are both in this way typical"
    .Philosophy is likely the least politically radical of the humanities; and LSE perhaps one of the least radical campuses around. Yglesias may well be referring to departments like English and Sociology, focusing on the North American experience. My sense is that at many large US and Canadian universities, it is possible to do a degree in one of these fields without being exposed to conservative or status-quo-friendly thinkers at all. Everything, particularly everything about society and institutions, is critique; I've seen the humanities syllabi at my own relatively conservative US institution and to a philosopher's eyes they look absolutely *wild*. And the explicit, stated aim on many such syllabi is to make students more "active agents in the fight for change" or something like that.

    1. Ah yeah that could well be it, I want to look into this more. Ty for sharing!

  3. Hi Liam! I think in the US the situation is very different in philosophy v other humanities, this may not be as true in the UK. But I also think in philosophy there is a difference regarding the "liberal" vs "capitalist" part of the equation.

    I've been to a ton of philosophy talks where it was taken for granted as an unargued foundational premise that capitalism is extremely bad. I've been to talks where capitalism was defended, but in those it was treated as a controversial view that required some argument in favor. So I do think anti-capitalism has become a "default" view even in philosophy.

    1. Ah interesting, I have rarely seen talks that challenge the idea of private ownershi of the means of production from philosophers. I have seen some no doubt! But the norm I have found is to presume sort sort of market based mixed economy and try to work out what tweaks to make to it.

    2. I think I will do a full post on this, but since I got interested I looked at all the papers from 2023 and 2022 in the leading journal Philosophy and Public Affairs that had something to do with markets or firm organisation. It doesn't publish that many papers a year so its a small set, nevertheless here is what I found. - this one has the form you mention, being in favour of market organisation but in a way that obviously takes that to be controversial and worth having to defend. So what you say is definitely reflected here!

      A couple on algorithmic distribution of goods ( and that seem to presuppose something like a mixed economy and want to know how to regulate it. Both are consistent with more radical takes (maybe you are regulating a command economy, or all the firms are taken to be little worker co-ops!) but neither suggest that and both give examples which are obviously meant to be in mixed economies. So this is the sort of thing I had in mind as typical. So we both are picking up on something real! - this one is amusingly something like half way between our two points. It argues that because firms have state-esque authority over workers therein, they should have something like civil-rights within the firm. So not quite challenging private ownership of the means of production, but also taking its aspects to be problematic and in need of modification. - this one is about the ethics of consumer behaviour that very firmly assumes something like a market society with private ownership of the means of production. And likewise this one - is very much about the exact form the welfare state should take within a presupposed market based society.

      So on the whole my sense is that while there are definitely some things getting published that have the form you say, more work seems to be as I thought. A capitalist organisation is taken for granted, but that is not to say people do not want (generally left liberal or social democratic flavoured) reforms thereto.

    3. (oh and, to make it explicit, none of these were challenging market organisation with private ownership to the extent of wanting rid of it! Not that this doesn't exist in analytical philosophy - see e.g. or - but its still perhaps noteworthy that a top journal could go two years without that.)


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