“Philosophy is garbage, but the history of garbage is scholarship,” said Harvard philosopher Burton Dreben, as quoted by Dan Dennett in chapter 76 of his often delightful and sometimes irritating Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking . One could reasonably wonder why a famous philosopher approvingly quotes another famous philosopher who is trashing the very field that made them both famous and to which they dedicated their lives. But my anthropological observations as a newcomer (from science) into philosophy confirm that my colleagues have an uncanny tendency to constantly shoot themselves in the foot, and often even enjoy it.
Be that as it may, Dreben’s comment does ring true, though it should be (slightly) modified to read: Much of philosophy is garbage, but the history of garbage is scholarship. So there.
The problem is that the very same thing can (and should) be said of scholarship in any field. Perhaps the case will not be controversial for, say, literary criticism, and only slightly more so for, I don’t know, many of the so-called “studies” fields . But of course the “mostly garbage” summary judgment applies also to science itself, the current queen of academic disciplines.
Indeed, this was said as early as 1964 (the year I was born…) by John Platt, in a famous and controversial article published in Science magazine . Here is how he put it: “We speak piously of taking measurements and making small studies that will ‘add another brick to the temple of science.’ Most such bricks just lie around in the brickyard.”
I’ve done and read a significant amount of scholarship in both the natural sciences (biology) and philosophy (of science and related fields)  and I can attest that what Platt, Dreben and Dennett say is pretty much uncontroversially true. And moreover, that many people working in those fields recognize it as such, except of course when it comes to their own little bricks in the temple.
Dennett explains it in terms of the difference between chess and chmess. I will assume that we are all familiar with the first game. The second one is Dennett’s own invention, and works exactly like chess, the only difference being that the King can move two, rather than one, square in every direction. Needless to say, many people play (and care about) chess. Not so many in the case of chmess.
Dan further explains that a lot of scholarship in philosophy is like trying to solve chess problems. It is a search for a priori logical truths that hold within a defined conceptual space of possibilities. As far as it goes, it’s not a bad analogy, except for the fact that quite a bit of philosophy is actually concerned with the sort of conceptual problems that matters in real life (think epistemology, ethics, political philosophy, and even philosophy of science, at its best).
Dennett’s point is that trying to solve logical problems posed by chmess is just as difficult as trying to solve the very similar problems posed by chess, with the crucial difference that almost nobody gives a damn about it. A lot of philosophers, maintains Dennett, devote their careers to study chmess, they are quite good at it, and they manage to convince a small number of like minded people that the pursuit is actually worth a lifetime of efforts. But they are mistaken, and they would realize it if they bothered to try two tests of Dennett’s own devising: 1) Can anyone outside of academic philosophy be bothered to care about what you think is important scholarship? 2) Can you manage to explain what you are doing to a bunch of bright (but, crucially, uninitiated — i.e., not yet indoctrinated) undergraduates? (For obvious reasons, your own colleagues and graduate students don’t count for the purposes of the test.)
I think Dan is right, but — again — I don’t think the tests in question should be carried out only by philosophers. Every academic ought to do it, as a matter of routine. I cannot begin to tell you about the countless number of research seminars in biology I have attended over decades, and about which the recurrent commentary in my own head (and, occasionally, with colleagues and students, after a glass of wine) was: “clever, but who cares?” Another quip quoted by Dennett, this one by Donald Hebb, comes to mind: “If it isn’t worth doing, it isn’t worth doing well.”
So, what, if anything, should be done with this state of affairs? Why should the public keep supporting universities (and, in the sciences, provide large research grants) to people who mostly, and perversely, insist in wasting (or at the least, underutilizing) their lives figuring out the intricacies of chmess? Similarly, shouldn’t Deans, Provosts and university Presidents tell their faculty to stop squandering their brain power and get on with some project more germane to the public’s interest, or else?
Francis Bacon famously thought that the very point of human inquiry is not just knowledge broadly construed, but specifically knowledge that helps in human affairs. His famous motto (which is also, you might have noticed, the one adopted by Scientia Salon), was that knowledge is power. Power to control nature and to improve our lives.
Indeed, the famous Victorian debate on the nature of induction between John Stuart Mill and William Whewell , which pretty much began the modern field of philosophy of science, was actually a debate about the best way to gain knowledge that could be deployed for social progressive change, to which both Mill and Whewell were passionately committed.
One, very partial, answer to what to do about the problem is provided by Dennett himself in his essay: “let a thousand flowers bloom … but just remember … count on 995 of them to wilt.” Which essentially — and a bit less cynically — echoes Platt’s sentiment from half a century before. That strikes me as right, and it is particularly easy to see in the case of basic (as opposed to applied, or targeted) scientific research. It’s a shotgun approach to knowledge: you let people metaphorically fire wherever they wish, and statistically speaking they’ll occasionally hit a worthy target. Crucially, there doesn’t seem to be a way, certainly not a centralized or hierarchically determinable way, to improve the efficacy of the target shooting. If we want knowledge about the world, our best bet is to give smart and dedicated people pretty much free rein, sit back and wait for the possible societal returns.
But that’s just not enough, I think. Two more things really ought to happen on the part of university faculty engaged in scholarship, and I hope a good number of my colleagues will agree that they are pretty much no brainers.
The first additional realization that my colleagues and I have to seriously internalize is that we owe it to society at large to take our teaching seriously. And make no mistake about it, while some of us certainly do, most don’t. Consider two simple indicative facts: to begin with, pious protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, scholarship is ranked far above teaching (and service) when it comes to promotion and tenure decisions. Why? Since most scholarship is of the “history of garbage” variety, while presumably teaching the next generation of young minds is of obvious and immediate social value, shouldn’t their relative importance be switched in the minds of faculty and administrators alike? (Service, which is unfortunately usually interpreted as internal to the university, not catering to the community at large, certainly deserves to be left in third place.)
The other telling fact is that the number of courses one is expected to teach while also pursuing scholarship is referred to as the “load.” No such derogatory appellative is attached to the word scholarship, or even to service. Again, why? By speaking of teaching loads we immediately send precisely the wrong message to our young faculty: teaching is a necessary evil, a burden to be disbursed as quickly as possible, and which can even be — literally — bought off by applying for research grants. (A practice that has exacerbated yet another shameful malaise of the modern academy: the plague of part-time teaching adjuncts. But that’s another story. )
The second realization strikes closer to the very point of Scientia Salon, as I stressed in our opening manifesto : university faculty are uniquely positioned to play a vital role as public intellectuals. They have (or should have) the brains to play that role, and they are granted highly unusual (if, to be fair, increasingly under threat by reactionary forces) privileges by society, including a significant amount of free time, decent salaries, excellent benefits and the mother of all prerogatives: tenure.
To make it perfectly clear and avoid any misunderstanding whatsoever: I am not calling for more teaching hours, fewer benefits and the abolition of tenure. On the contrary: more health and pension benefits is what we should strive to grant all workers, not just academics and a few lucky others. And job security ought also to be a major goal of our society, since having a job is crucial not just to meet the practical challenges of living as an independent adult, but is tightly bound up with a person’s dignity as a human being.
What I am saying, rather, is that my colleagues and I ought (morally) to take seriously the idea of providing high quality teaching to our students and of lending our brains and expertise to public debates on matters about which the public actually cares. Only then will we be justified in playing chess or chmess to our heart’s content, to use Dennett’s analogy (though the former is still preferable to the latter).
So here is an agreement I would like faculty at all private and especially public universities to consider pledging to, a grand bargain for 21st century academia, if you will:
“I am a teacher and a scholar, and I have the privilege of pursuing my intellectual activities within the nurturing structure provided by a private or public university. I recognize that this implies certain duties to my students, to society at large, and to my fellow academics. I therefore pledge the following:
- To my students, to provide them with the highest quality teaching that I am capable of, and to never refer to my duties in this respect as a ‘load.’
- To my fellow citizens, to devote a substantial amount of my time and intellectual energy to engaging in public debate aimed at together figuring out a way to ameliorate our problems as human beings.
- To my fellow academics, to engage in the type of scholarship that can reasonably pass the Dennett double test: i) it can be fruitfully explained to bright but untrained undergraduates; and ii) it is of the type that people outside of a narrow group of graduate students and professionals in my own field can be brought to actually care about.
This in the sincere hope that I can repay society for the privilege of allowing me to pursue my own intellectual interests wherever they may bring me.”
It will be interesting to see how many of my colleagues are willing to follow through.
Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).
 Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, by Dan Dennett, Norton, 2013.
 Of which there now is a bewildering variety, from women studies to African American studies; from Italian American studies to Puerto Rican studies; from disabilities studies to “fat” studies (seriously, that’s the name of the field, as politically incorrect as it seems).
 “Strong inference,” by John Platt, Science 16 October 1964, pp. 347-353.
 See platofootnote.org
 See “Experience and necessity: the Mill-Whewell debate,” by Laura Snyder. In: Philosophy of Science: the Key Thinkers, ed. by J.R. Brown, Comtinuum, 2012.
 On the issue of exploitation of adjunct faculty see: “The adjunct crisis and the free market,” by Rebecca Schuman, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 25 September 2013.
 “Scientia Salon: a manifesto for 21st century intellectualism,” by Massimo Pigliucci, 21 March 2014.