Paglia v. Philosophy

Camille Paglia attempts to explain the absence of women in the BBC's ridiculous philosopher popularity contest.

I feel women in general are less comfortable than men in inhabiting a highly austere, cold, analytical space, such as the one which philosophy involves. Women as a whole – and there are obvious exceptions – are more drawn to practical, personal matters. It is not that they inherently lack a talent or aptitude for philosophy or higher mathematics, but rather that they are more unwilling than men to devote their lives to a frigid space from which the natural and the human have been eliminated.

OK. There may be something to this. But she goes deeper.

Today's lack of major female philosophers is not due to lack of talent but to the collapse of philosophy. Philosophy as traditionally practised may be a dead genre. This is the age of the internet in which we are constantly flooded by information in fragments. Each person at the computer is embarked on a quest for and fabrication of his or her identity. The web mimics human neurology, and it is fundmentally altering young people's brains. The web, for good or ill, is instantaneous. Philosophy belongs to a vanished age of much slower and rhetorically formal inquiry. Today's philosophers are now antiquarians.

Fascinating. But as far as I can tell, philosophy as traditionally practiced is at its high water mark. If I had to bet, I would put money on the claim that more books of philosophy were published in the last ten years than in any other ten year period of history. There are, without a doubt, more people well-trained in rigorous methods of philosophical inquiry than ever before. And as travellers to this little piece of the information superhighway may be aware, philosophical conversations and debates can be conducted over the internet, and they are. It's probably a good bet that there were more words written last year in online discussions of philosophy than were written about philosophy in any other year of human history.
Now, Paglia wants to say that philosophy is no longer as culturally central as it once was. I think she's right. But then again, nothing that used to be culturally central is as culturally central as it once was because we've got a more polyglot decentralized culture. At her AEI talk a few months ago, Paglia seemed panicked by the breakdown of institutions of cultural hegemony. Hollywwod films aren't what they once were (and nobody cares about the Oscars). Elite universities have become so so. You can't get classical music over the radio in Buffalo. Etc. She was agitated because, apparently, she passed into old-cooterism some time around 1994 and evidently doesn't grasp that the age of centralization and hegemony is definitely over, doesn't understand the new institutions and mechanisms of cultural transmission (other than the fact that this mysterious revolutionary thing, the internet, exists, and matters), and so sees the decline of HOLLYWOOD, and THE IVY LEAGUE, and NETWORK TELEVISION, and BROADWAY — the old familiar institutions of centralized cultural hegemony — as symptoms of general decline. The fact that philosophers aren't being interviewed by Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News means that philosophy is more or less invisible to Camille Paglia, despite the fact that it is flourishing by any historical standard, and despite the fact that women, such as Martha Nussbaum and Christine Korsgaard, are at the absolute top of the game.
Now, I agree that academic philosophy is insufficiently engaged with the public, and could hold a more priveleged place is the fragmented popular consciousness. And I think this is due to straightforward institutional reasons. Academia as it is presently constituted does reward a kind of bloodless scholasticism. One reason I decided to drop out of academia was that I thought direct engagement with current policy debates and cultural concerns would make me a better philosopher. Greats like Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Mill, Marx were not academics, but men involved in thinking through the practical political matters of their day. Our political philosophy would be more publicly engaging if more philosphers were directly involved in politics. We would be more likely to produce American BHL's and latter day de Beauvoirs and Rands. But that is a long, long way from the claim that philosophy is a dead genre.
[Link from Chris Sciabbara, who brings out the Paglia's comments on Rand.]

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center