New professorial challenges for those teaching philosophy

The new academic problem is the bad information spread by Peterson, Boghossian, Lindsay, that ilk. I suspect it wasn’t so bad when these ignoramuses just turned up their noses and ignored philosophy, but now they’ve decided that they completely understand it, and they don’t like it, nosir, so they’ve begun active disinformation campaigns that are infecting college-aged students. A professor writes in to Reddit to vent:

But in the past few months internet outrage merchants have made my job much harder. The very idea that someone could even propose the idea that there is a conceptual difference between sex and gender leads to angry denunciations entirely based on the irresponsible misrepresentations of these online anger-mongers. Some students in their exams write that these ideas are "entitled liberal bullshit," actual quote, rather than simply describe an idea they disagree with in neutral terms. And it's not like I'm out there defending every dumb thing ever posted on Tumblr! It's Simone de fucking Beauvoir!

It's not the disagreement. That I'm used to dealing with; it's the bread and butter of philosophy. No, it's the anger, hostility and complete fabrications.

They come in with the most bizarre idea of what 'post-modernism' is, and to even get to a real discussion of actual texts it takes half the time to just deprogram some of them. It's a minority of students, but it's affected my teaching style, because now I feel defensive about presenting ideas that I've taught without controversy for years.

Peterson is on the record saying Women's Studies departments and the Neo-Marxists are out to literally destroy western civilization and I have to patiently explain to them that, no, these people are my friends and colleagues, their research is generally very boring and unobjectionable, and you need to stop feeding yourself on this virtual reality that systematically cherry-picks things that perpetuates this neurological addiction to anger and belief vindication–every new upvoted confirmation of the faith a fresh dopamine high if how bad they are.

I just want to do my week on Foucault/Baudrillard/de Beauvoir without having to figure out how to get these kids out of what is basically a cult based on stupid youtube videos.

Honestly, the hostility and derailment makes me miss my young-earth creationist students.

I haven’t had to deal with this yet in my classes — post-modernism isn’t part of the biology curriculum, and since I address sex and gender from the ground up with genes and molecules and signaling in my genetics class, by the time we would get to cultural aspects (we don’t, they’ll have to go to the social sciences or humanities for that), they’re already accustomed to the fact that the biology is complex and plastic and variable. But I’ve definitely seen this intransigence and stupidity online. Peddling simplistic misrepresentations of science and philosophy seems to be a major money-maker for those who understand neither.

That last line, though…yeah, I’d rather deal with young earth creationists. The difference is that creationists, whether they’re aware of it or not, have a serious case of science envy. They’re all wanna-bes who are constantly trying to rephrase the Bible in sciencey-sounding terms, thinking they can explain the Flood with geology, or constraints on evolution with genetics. That’s the whole point of Intelligent Design creationism, to provide pseudo-scientific, rather than religious, justifications for their beliefs. They can’t, but it means their arguments can be spanked by somebody who understands the scientific discipline better than they do.

It’s their greatest weakness, actually. It’s why they don’t make greater inroads into academia, because everyone who is well-trained in the sciences can see right through them.

But these anti-philosophy gomers are taking a completely different approach. They don’t want to be philosophers, or sound like philosophers, because they hate philosophy and women’s studies and sociology and all those other disciplines. Rather than trying to learn just enough of what they’re complaining about to try and turn the jargon against them, they’re in flat-out denial and a total rejection of everything to do with, for instance, post-modernism. They’re engaged in simple-minded anti-intellectualism (creationists come out of a religious tradition that usually respects an intellectual foundation, or at least a pretense to one), and the know-nothings who eat that crap up won’t even listen to word one from someone who has the educational background to know what they’re talking about.


  1. Owlmirror says

    I think there is a connection between some creationist arguments, and what is described above: Those arguments which claim that evolution is grounded in and motivated by anger at God, or hatred of God. Similarly, the anti-philosophists seem to be claiming that attempts to deconstruct, criticize, analyze, on question the status quo, and in some cases to actively oppose aspects of the status quo (that analysis shows are harmful), are grounded in and motivated by hatred of or anger at all of Western Civilization itself.

    Or something like that.

  2. says

    No sympathy.

    I’ve been arguing mind/brain for a decade against a rabid philosophile.

    They quite intentionally write “code” to ensure their ongoing status and sinecure … it’s not only that outsiders can’t decipher the full meaning of the text, it’s that there IS not meaning of the text as insiders will accept club-house members and deride outsiders saying exactly the same thing.

    Worse any of their kind who writes something that can be tested by objective measures or hints that one of “their” cherished questions might be amenable to scientific investigation will be maligned and libeled most viscously. To this day other philosophers will regularly write that Dennett as one example, “denies” consciousness.

    What I’ve read outside the mind/brain arguments is if anything worse. Tried to grasp the philosophers view of postmodernism … it’s grand junk. Aside from elevation of Hegelian denial of material reality to godhead, it’s an incomprehensible mishmash.

    The irony is that the alt-righters are largely using the same anti-realist tools and rhetoric as the postmodernists, simply climbing the other side of the roof.

    — TWZ

  3. mikehuben says

    “The purpose of studying economics is not to acquire a set of ready-made answers to economic questions, but to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists.”
    Joan Robinson, in Marx, Marshall And Keynes

    The same is true of philosophy, science, religion, politics, and many other subjects where it is politically or economically profitable to pollute the intellectual environment with misrepresentations by the incompetent.

    There is no free solution: the misrepresenters always have to be fought against.

    Philosophy such as post-modernism (at its best) can be considered ways to avoid being deceived.

    I don’t enjoy defending philosophy because so much is a wasteland, but its one valuable function is to enable us to reject ideas from those who would deceive us.

  4. leerudolph says

    Terrence Zellers @2:

    “The irony is that the alt-righters are largely using the same anti-realist tools and rhetoric as the postmodernists, simply climbing the other side of the roof.”

    It follows that peak postmodernism and peak alt-rightism will be achieved at the same place, but facing in opposite directions.

  5. says

    I had this problem in reverse. I use to teach ethics/politics and my stomach use to drop if I had a sociology major in class because it made teaching libertarianism a pain in the ass.

  6. says

    Anecdotes recently related by two of my philosophy profs:
    1) An exam answer: “Dawkins is right! Believing in God is stupid!” (something to that effect)
    2) A student who complained about an assignment, because he was not allowed to consider that God might not exist. The assignment, be it noted, was to analyze one of Aquinas’s proofs of the existence of God. Prof refrained from advising student that perhaps they would be happier in economics….

  7. Muz says

    To a degree I would dispute this idea that “They’re as bad as each other” when discussing the Petersonian cult and “post modernists”.
    I have encountered a few people who would hiss at “positivists!” for daring to think scientific research could produce actionable truth, but they were so few and far between. As someone I knew back at uni put it; Post modernism/structuralism is critical position. It’s useful but to really create you have to hold to something, even if it’s ironically (I’m dating myself there. Remember when everything was ironic?)

    You can certainly find lefty activist types who will hold to doctrinaire po-mo criticisms as an apparently easy way to shut people down or superficially win an argument. But their significance has been wildly over inflated, and done so in the service of uniting this supposed ‘army of the enlightenment’ who will defend Western Civilization. And then these guys are the real problem as that spreads to everything as in the above example. Heck, I’m finding myself looking out for such moments all the time. If I see someone acknowledge that there’s some relative aspects to something, there’s a bit of a greyness, there’s some cultural specificity I expect someone to be along shortly to rail against it. And quite often they arrive. I was just listening to Archy Fantasies and they were talking about the construction of meaning and interpretation in archaeology and thinking oh hell now archaeology is going to get it (although I don’t know if they have). The point is you can encounter potential areas of attack everywhere.

    I can see the parallels people would draw between the two “sides” at their worst. But I find that even the most strident “SJWs” are pushing something new into the world that most people haven’t thought of. The saviors of western civilisation are trying to put down kinds of critical awareness and understanding of the limits of knowledge and experience that are useful and, above all, accurate. It’s profoundly reactionary and anti-intellectual and for all their hatred of supposed political correctness, they’re not interested in true liberalisation but instead supplanting one (largely fictional) political correctness with another.

    This shouldn’t be that big a surprise as Peterson is a philosophically authoritarian christian, although he goes to some lengths to obscure this. One of his lectures right around the time he blew up gave me the pretty clear impression that the problem with Post Modernists is not that they’re wrong, but that they’re right. His solution to the problems they raise is, to my ear, don’t think this stuff, don’t ask these questions!. It’s corrosive and emasculating and leads to chaos (and then Stalinist Russia. There wasn’t any cultural upheaval and civil war and so forth. Poisonous ideas need no context, nonono). Then you add in the implicit desire to hunt down and stamp out these ideas and thought patterns from wider society for the greater good. That’s something which he probably doesn’t own to (marxist hunting AIs notwothstanding), but as we can see his fans have considerably less restraint. And western civilisation is under threat goddamit.

    Call me one eyed if you like (and I might be), but this is a worse orthodoxy than anything the “SJWs” have in mind (and I’m personally not convinced they have any overarching goals in mind, in general).

  8. lumipuna says

    If these people are anti-intellectuals who think they learned everything relevant from YouTube, why do they even bother studying what they think is “entitled liberal bullshit”? Is there a lucrative job market for social science majors?

    I can just about understand why some creationists want study biology, if they’ve been raised thinking science supports creationism, or they dream of personally shifting the paradigm.

  9. says

    I can give you the very short version of why these guys have such a scunner on post-modernism: it isn’t American (primary failing, and one from which it will never recover); and it doesn’t speak of the USA (or the products of the USA) in highly complimentary terms (if the post-modernists weren’t already going to hell for not being Americans, they’d certainly be heading there for that one).

    Post-modernism as a philosophy is largely the product of post-WW2 France, the not-so-cheerful result of dealing with two world wars on the front doorstep, being invaded, losing empire and watching the Republic in which so many people had poured their hopes fail to actually live up to the promises which had been made on its creation (something which had been coming since approximately the Terror in 1790, but these things take time to build up a decent head of steam). It’s the result of watching the world being taken over by the USA, and seeing centuries of culture appropriated by advertising firms to sell cigarettes, whiskey, and hamburgers. At heart it’s pretty gloomy and cynical, unimpressed with grand narratives – all grand narratives, including the grand narrative of Marxism (too many post-modernist philosophers started out as earnest and eager Marxists, then saw what happened to Marxism when people got too close to it) – and essentially saying there are no answers, there are no morals, there are no grand truths (and there’s nothing which is going to help you get close to them), and the only thing you can really do when faced with all of this is just laugh at the sheer absurdity of it all.

    Because many of the philosophers who wound up formulating post-modernism got their start in linguistics (eg Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida) the first thing they de-constructed was language, and pointed out how language isn’t a neutral tool for conveying meaning, but rather it’s part of an overall power structure which constructs meaning out of nothing. They looked at how mediated our experience of the world is (first through our own senses and cognition; then through language and culture) and concluded there was no way of touching the “absolute truth”, and indeed, such a thing probably didn’t exist in the first place. Then they took the techniques developed by the study of the way that meaning is created in language, and turned it onto the study of how meaning (and not-so-incidentally, power) is developed everywhere else. People like Foucault started pulling apart social institutions (such as prisons, insane asylums, hospitals and so on) to see how they ticked, and comparing current ideas about these institutions with historical ones, tracing the flows of power through discourse as though they were wiring diagrams (which, to a certain extent, they are).

    Post-modernism as a philosophical position is inherently critical. It critiques all the institutions of modernism and modernity – things like capitalism (and more especially, late-stage post-Fordist capitalism), the nation-state, the use of surveillance as a tool of control, the manufacture of social consent, and so on. It doesn’t offer alternatives – but then, if you ask a post-modernist why this is the case, they’d probably ask you what we’re supposed to be building on.

    Now, I actually agree with at least some of the criticisms of post-modernism that are flying around – my own position on it is that while it’s very useful for clearing a lot of historical and cultural debris out of the picture, what you wind up with at the end of the process are just empty spaces. The problem with empty spaces (as any biologist, ecologist or gardener will tell you) is they don’t remain empty for long – you have to put something else in there, or the space gets filled by something you might not want (for example, hyper-nationalism comes in to fill the spaces where patriotism once grew). Or, alternatively, if you pull an institution to pieces, you can’t expect the pieces to just lay there where you dropped them – someone (usually someone with something to gain from having the institution there and providing them with access to discourses of power and control) will come along and put the whole thing back on its feet again, this time with labels in the latest buzzwords. (Hence, things like “ironic sexism” – which is basically bog-standard sexism as per the 1960s and 1950s, relabelled as “ironic” to duck under the feminist radar. Incidentally, “ironic sexism” is a very good example of how intent isn’t magic). Part of the appeal of modernity and modernism as concepts was the way they tapped into what seem to be some rather deep-seated human needs – we appear to need a narrative of some kind, and we generally prefer the narratives which tell us we’re powerful and capable of changing things over narratives which tell us we’re weak and insignificant. Post-modernism is basically replying to our inner child’s request for story-time with “stories are stupid”, which is at least part of why the overall stance isn’t all that popular.

    Most people who are teaching areas which are strong on post-modernism these days (such as cultural studies, film studies, all the “new humanities” subjects and quite a few of the “old humanities” as well) tend to be using the tools the post-modernist philosophers provided in order to analyse things, but not de-constructing things right the way down to the ground any more. There’s a certain amount of waiting around for the next big philosophical thing (which probably won’t be the “Dark Enlightenment”, but don’t cite me on this), which is currently being labelled “post-post-modernism” (meaning we’re currently in the ante-post-post-modern period… see, this is what happens when you get a movement which is started out in linguistics; people start playing games with language) until it shows up and shows us what it actually is. I suspect it might come out of moral philosophy or psychology, coming up with a way of dealing with the anomie and angst caused by living in a post-modern world, but again, don’t cite me on that.

  10. rrradam says

    Wile I do appreciate philosophy, especially the type of deep penetrating questions Aristotle espoused, I am reminded of a quote from Richard Feynman:
    “Philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as Ornithology is to birds.”

  11. Porivil Sorrens says

    What a patently ridiculous thing for Feynman to say. Were it not for philosophy of science, he’d be doing alchemy.

  12. Rob Grigjanis says

    rrradam @12:

    So many people today—and even professional scientists—seem to me like somebody who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is—in my opinion—the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.

    A. Einstein, 1944

  13. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    Peterson is on the record saying Women’s Studies departments and the Neo-Marxists are out to literally destroy western civilization

    Video: How “Cultural Marxism” became the far-right’s scapegoat (15:16)

    what cultural marxism actually is heavily depends on who you ask. Jordan Peterson, for instance, usually uses the term postmodernism […]. However, the vast majority of people who buy into this theory refer to something called the Frankfurt school as the origin of this subversive movement. […] to turn a capitalist society into a communist one. […] What they came up with was called “cultural marxism” or sometimes called “critical theory”.

    Article: Vice – Unwrapping the ‘Cultural Marxism’ Nonsense the Alt-Right Loves

  14. says

    “It’s not the disagreement. That I’m used to dealing with; it’s the bread and butter of philosophy. No, it’s the anger, hostility and complete fabrications.”

    I agree with that 100% but this article reeks of anger and hostility towards those who think differently.

    It’s kind of funny that the hardcore logical positivists and the hardcore fundamentalists agree that Philosophy is useless and dangerous and then try to use Philosophy to support their assertion.

  15. says

    “It’s not the disagreement. That I’m used to dealing with; it’s the bread and butter of philosophy. No, it’s the anger, hostility and complete fabrications.”

    I agree with that 100% but this article reeks of anger and hostility towards those who think differently and the comments are even worse.

    It is kind of funny that the hardcore logical positivists and the hardcore fundamentalists agree that Philosophy is useless and dangerous and then try to use Philosophy to support their assertion.