Daniel Dennett is Not Wrong (mostly)

August 29, 2016

Recently, Prof. Dennett, a friend of secularism and humanism who has long committed to our joint concerns (and who many of us have met and interacted valuably with), made a stir among philosophers with the following statements:

“A great deal of philosophy doesn’t really deserve much of a place of the world,” he says. “Philosophy in some quarters has become self-indulgent, clever play in a vacuum that’s not dealing of problems of any intrinsic interest.” Much if not all philosophical work in analytic metaphysics, for example, is “willfully cut off from any serious issues”

…much of philosophy is little more than a “luxury decoration on society,” and he complains many of the questions studied in both analytic and continental philosophy are “idle—just games.”

Having been a professional philosopher for some time, and now being more or less outside that particular profession, I will admit that Dennett is not wrong for the most part. His words raised a great deal of ire and vigorous denunciation from the professional philosophical community, mostly by those objecting to the characterization. No one wants to believe that their career is some sort of game. Indeed, there are also a number of philosophers who are engaged with the world in their work, and their objections based on their personal view of their contribution to society are to be noted. But what of the vast majority of published philosophy that 99.99% of the world will never read nor care about? It seems that, for the millions of words published in the field of academic philosophy in journals no one outside of the profession will read, and most professional philosophers will likewise ignore, Dennett has a real point. As pointed out in the Daily Nous (a popular philosophy blog), Dennett has made similar claims and arguments in his paper: “Higher Order Truths About Chmess” also published as a chapter in his book Intuition Pumps. A paragraph of that paper is revealing, and forms the basis for my disagreement with any overly hasty conclusion about the ultimate value of philosophy:

Of course some people are quite content to find a congenial group of smart people with whom to share ‘‘the fun of discovery, the pleasures of cooperation, and the satisfaction of reaching agreement,’’ as John Austin once put it (see Austin 1961, p. 175), without worrying about whether the joint task is worth doing. And if enough people do it, it eventually becomes a phenomenon in its own right, worth studying. As Burton Dreben used to say to the graduate students at Harvard, ‘‘Philosophy is garbage, but the history of garbage is scholarship.’’ Some garbage is more important than other garbage, however, and it’s hard to decide which of it is worthy of scholarship.

Frankly, most of academic research is just this. The world of academia is a sort of game, much like the games we play in other realms. I happen to love playing tennis and chess (I haven’t tried chmess), and I also enjoy politics, and astronomy, literature, and reading about particle physics. The bulk of the world cares very little about any of these things, and most people could care less about the implications of the standard model of particle physics or the leitmotifs in James Joyce’s Ulysses. The academic game, however, demands that professional academics comment about all such things, and do so in highly ranked journals, as often as possible. So the commentary abounds, and it largely amounts to a lot of back and forth among a small group of people who are, after all, just playing a type of game.

              Recently, a list of the “50 most influential living philosophers” was likewise circulated, raising a fair amount of debate also in the philosophy community. Prof. Dennett is on that list. A notable feature of the list is that many of those listed are known outside of the world of academic philosophy, and so their influence extends beyond the philosophy game into other games. We may well ask a number of questions about the larger game of academia in general, such as: how does academia benefit the world at large, or the least advantaged, or “everyman?” Should particle physicists, for instance, do more to make the discovery of the Higgs Boson, or the search for dark matter, more clearly relevant for non-academics? Does interdisciplinary work among researchers in different fields improve the world of academia, or the world beyond the ivory tower in any material way? But I would suggest that all of these questions, while perhaps well-meaning, are ultimately irrelevant.

              Donald Trump is more influential than any philosopher alive. So are the Beatles and Madonna. This influence is not an indication of some objective worth, nor can we have some sort of universal scale for value among fields. The domains of the games we play are largely non-overlapping, and the values at their cores are incommensurable. A very influential philosopher or chess player (or chmess player) may have no influence outside the realm of their game. Their work may have no relevance to the world outside that domain. And that’s OK. Indeed, the world of Tennis is self-indulgent, as is the world of high art, music, politics, NASCAR, etc. Indeed, we live in a time when we are fortunate that much of what any of us do is a “luxury decoration on society.” Having achieved a standard of living beyond mere subsistence, at least in the prosperous developed world, we have invented all sorts of games to bide our time, none of which are ultimately necessary for survival, nor inherently worthwhile to the species and its survival.

              The marketplace determines what is ultimately valued, and for now philosophers are valued well enough. There exist philosophy departments, and their members publish papers and give lectures, and bandwidth is consumed on the internet discussing philosophical topics, and meta-philosophical topics about philosophy and philosophers. The same is true of every one of our games, although the market for each may differ in size. Prof. Dennett is mostly correct in his assessment, but he makes that assessment as part of yet another game, another luxury decoration on society for which we should be thankful.