Design a site like this with
Get started

Oh the Humanities!

There’s an old quote, I think from Megan McArdle, that media criticism dominates blogging, and the reason is because it’s easy.

I am about to indulge in some media criticism. Forgive me; my only defense is that the medium being criticized is almost philosophy, and criticism of philosophy is almost philosophy itself, so this is almost almost philosophy, and that’s better than a lot of things.

To set the stage: Tyler Cowen is a professional blogger who has a side hustle as a tenured economist. He has a podcast, Conversations with Tyler, that gathers as its guests more first-rank academics, artists, businessmen, athletes and policy figures than almost anything else of any kind – Peter Thiel, Paul Krugman, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Paul Romer, Malcolm Gladwell, Margaret Atwood, Daniel Kahneman, Camille Paglia, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Niall Ferguson, David Deutsch, Rebeka Kukla, John Brennan, Jimmy Wales, Adam Tooze, Agnes Callard, Cass Sunstein, Slavoj, Esther Duflo, Mark Zuckerberg, Acemoglu, Masha Gessen, Steven Pinker, Nate Silver, Hal Varian, Jordan Peterson, Nassim Taleb, Larry Summers, even Danticat and Knausgaard,  Annie Duke, Garry Fucking Kasparov.

I think perhaps no one else since Athens has had long conversations with that many fascinating and even historic figures across that wide a range of excellences. Except Terry Gross.

Given the guests, it always surprises me by not being better than it is, and the reason is usually because the guests won’t answer Tyler’s questions.

But today this became egregious. The guest was Amia Srinivasan, likely the biggest name under 40 in Philosophy and certainly the one with the most popular press (Kate Manne might get more, but Kate Manne sucks and everyone in philosophy agrees. In contrast, Amia Srinivasan is taken very seriously and personally liked by most people in the profession). I haven’t read her work, which is mostly on the genetic fallacy and on sex, but people I respect have read her and found her insightful and sane.

Alright now I’ve built up a mystery long enough. I’ll show you some transcript.

COWEN: As you know, disabled individuals in the Netherlands often receive a sex voucher to transact with sex workers. Is this a good idea or a bad idea?…

COWEN: It seems there’s a simple David Braybrooke-like basic-needs argument that disabled individuals in the Netherlands — there’s something very good we could do for them that also lowers the stigma from them having this kind of fulfillment or enjoyment. Then to cite this big external ideological debate and say, “Well, we’re not going to do this for you because we don’t like its symbolism in some other set of debates that we think are more important for you” — that strikes me as wrong.

SRINIVASAN: Tyler, let me ask you this: Why are you interested in the question of disabled men having state subsidies?

COWEN: I said disabled individuals, right?

SRINIVASAN: No, you just said disabled men.

COWEN: Okay, that’s what most of it has been.

SRINIVASAN: Right. Why is that?

COWEN: In my view, men and women are intrinsically different for biological reasons, including in their attitudes towards sex, and more disabled men are interested in taking up that offer than are disabled women.

SRINIVASAN: What are the biological drivers of these intrinsic differences between male and female attitudes towards sex, in your view?

COWEN: Probably, ultimately, Darwinian — the fact that there’s a different investment in child creating and child raising with men than with women, so we’ve evolved to be somewhat different.

SRINIVASAN: You think for men sex is a basic need, but for women it’s not?

COWEN: No, that’s not my view at all. I’m not always sure what “basic need” means, but I certainly think if there’s a voucher system, it should be available to men, women, other genders — however one wishes to talk about it, and not just men.

SRINIVASAN: Let me just say, you were asking — when we’re thinking about this policy question — why should we bring in a whole, completely orthogonal ideological question?… I think I will just get off at the very start, when you’re just thinking sex is this basic need for men. I think that, if we’re talking about pernicious ideology, that is very much a piece of a pernicious patriarchal ideology that thinks that, for men, sex is this basic good. It’s like food or water. The women who refuse to have sex with men are depriving them of a basic necessity. Women are both that necessity and the gatekeepers of it.

This is very hostile environment for Tyler. But more importantly, this is a bad way to have a discussion. If some Sexist Strawman Tyler had said, “Don’t you think that men have special rights to have sex with women, because women deserve to be subservient, men just need sex, and sexual coercion isn’t really that bad?” then Srinivasan’s response would be appropriate.

But it’s obvious that’s not what Tyler was saying. Beyond that, it’s not even an interesting position to argue against. It’s not something Tyler could possibly have said, because, frankly, no educated person you meet in real life would say that. And it’s not as if Srinivasan is advancing novel arguments. Her arguments are so sound, and so utterly conventional, that they are surely the reasons that Tyler (or you, or I) doesn’t adopt Sexist Strawman Tyler’s views in the first place.

That’s what makes Srinivasan’s talk bad discursive practice. It’s neither relevant to Tyler’s point nor an interesting aside. It has no elucidatory purpose whatsoever. But Srinivasan is very smart, so the only explanation is that she was trying to do something other than elucidate. But whatever she was doing wasn’t nice either. She wasn’t trying to be humorous or affable. From the text alone, it’s possible she was just letting off steam. The audio makes it clearer that that’s not the case, and she is in fact aggressing. She is making a threat that Tyler needs to back off from the topic, and, cleverly, she’s doing that with enough plausible deniability that you’d have to write a whole blog post to catch her on it.

I don’t want to obsess too much over the details of this, I just found it a particularly striking example because Amia Srinivasan isn’t some clown from Twitter, she is the doyenne of Millenial philosophy.

But the example makes a few things stand out:

  1. No academic would ever speak to a student or colleague this way about any topic other than race or sex. I’ve never seen such a thing. Academics do not generally try to scare students away from inquiry.
  2. If an academic did talk to a student or colleague this way on a less charged topic, other academics would be shocked and horrified.
  3. This is a perfectly normal thing to happen in the academic study of race and sex.

These special race-and-sex norms aren’t good norms for discovering truths about the world. In academia, as in private enterprises of discovery like economic consulting and pharmaceutical research, a community of (more or less) equals argue more or less the same way academics do. The private communities operating under market constraints have the same charitable-discussion norms that academia does. Where the goal is learning, the discourse norms are never censorious.

So the philosophy of race and sex is uniquely unhealthy. Okay, is that shocking?. Often, subfields or entire fields can be nearly devoid of intellectual value

What’s remarkable isn’t that the academic study of race and sex has bad discursive norms, but that the academic study of race and sex is increasingly the entirety of the humanities. Philosophies of Race and Sex and leftish political philosophy are rapidly growing as a proportion of new hires, and applied/social philosophy is decreasingly the world of Rawls and increasingly the world of Mills [actually, worse disciples of Mills, who was charitable, kind, and committed to persuasion!].

Now, if we adopt the old science-fictionalist’s habit of extrapolating trends and calling it the future, we might get very afraid that bad discursive norms could conquer the world.

But that’s not happening; it’s an illusion. They won’t. There are bad speech norms typical of the academic study of race/sex: the suspicion, groupthink, uncharitability, obvious politically motivated reasoning. Yes, these have taken over much of the humanities. But they have clear limits. Perhaps the failures of the limits are what makes the growth so scary. After all, it’s puzzling how they could conquer anything at all, when these speech norms are so unattractive, and the justifications for them incoherent. Since the argument offered for them is their necessity for fighting patriarchal and white supremacist powers, they become increasingly quixotic as intersectional theory becomes formidable, and even hegemonic, within the academy. Everyone sees through the ruse, so how does the conquest continue? I admit that is a puzzle, and a scary one – why are the walls breaching? How could something so apparently weak have conquered so much?

The answer to the puzzle is that they haven’t actually conquered anything at all. 

I know, that sounds dumb, but bear with me. What makes it possible for “wokeness” to seem an all-conquering colossus while really being quite weak is the total collapse of the humanities in general. As LSE Philosopher Liam Bright (Twitter’s @lastpositivist) put it:

What I think is clear though is that in general there has been a rout of high culture, that this rout has left much of the humanities without its corresponding social or cultural role, and even where we have found institutional niches we still have not regained purpose.

The thing is, intersectional theory and the Cult of Bad Discourse Norms hasn’t actually grown much in importance in the last 40 years. No one in the Bad Speech Norms culture looms any larger today than Andrea Dworkin did in the 70s. What’s happened is that the rest of discourse has withered away. Even though the share of tenure track spots in philosophy that go to feminist/race philosophy has gone from negligible to perhaps as high as 20%, there are still only about 8 per year. That’s much lower than in 1975 or 1980.

The Woke “Monster” isn’t some titan, conquering the world of letters. It’s just the last man standing. As Bright writes again (this time as blogspot’s sootyempiric), describing the growth of value theory, political theory, and intersectional analysis within Philosophy:

… rather than there being a widespread belief that there is a natural and desirable political upshot to the sort of work one might do in analytic philosophy, instead there is a belief that only by making such links to applied issues can analytic philosophy justify itself… My sense is that now what we see is a desperate scramble to show that the skills or tools we have might find some problem space wherein their, our, worth can be made manifest. As mentioned above, even though this has been where I have done my own work (and maybe all this is just me projecting my insecurities outwards!), I do not think such a problem space has been forthcoming.

The actual humanities died because they are anachronism. No one believed in the projects, so why should the norms that sustained those projects survive? What filled the gap was a sort of institutionalized activism, to the extent that anything filled the gap at all. Their poor discourse norms shouldn’t surprise us. Poor discourse is a distraction from actual inquiry, so it can only take over when no one really cares about the inquiry in the first place and everyone is content to let the distraction play itself out. Since academia has always leaned left, we shouldn’t be shocked that what takes advantage of the crisis of confidence of the Liberal Arts is a leftist moral crusade, rather than, say, anti-abortionism or Bushist foreign policy.

It’s the same in journalism. In 1995, if you wanted to pay a Columbia graduate $25,000 a year to work for a publication no one back home ever read, then you had to let them spend the day scribbling out their furious and probably leftist pensees. The same is true today. It’s just that now that’s all of journalism that’s left.

Now, there are more things that go under the heading of “woke” than the Bad Discursive Practices I’ve been describing. It’s true that youth cohorts are quite leftist and such a wide generation gap is new. I have some theories about that. But I think the Poor Discourse Norms are actually a separate phenomenon. It’s true that young people are not as bullish on civil liberties as they used to be. It’s also true that classically liberal organizations have moved comically leftward as education polarization has kicked into high gear. But the “Wokeness” that people are scared of, with the speech policing and the anti-science attitudes and the actual literal iconoclasm, remains confined to institutions that are in economic and spiritual free-fall.

Nothing that was previously healthy has been taken over by the scary kind of woke, nor any other kind of bad leftism. Not even the Democratic party. Despite a congressional office’s demographic similarities with a newsroom, what keeps these offices mission focused is that they have a purpose, and believe in it, and will fight distractions and disruptions to keep the objective in sights.

Philosophy, History, and Literary Theory do not have any objectives. Means can only outlast their ends so much.

Our former aphorist in chief is incorrect. Wokeness isn’t going to kill the humanities. Wokeness is its corpse.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: