Monday, May 21, 2012

Some Thoughts on Carlin Romano "Is America Philosophical?"

Carlin Romano argues in an article, “Is America Philosophical?” in the Chronicle of Higher Education that America is in many respects a philosophical nation. In effect, he answers his own question, that yes, Americans are philosophical in that they are engaged in the kind of public reasoning and debate that characterizes philosophy.

Romano is certainly correct that public debate in America often centers on philosophical ideas and sometimes even addresses philosophical arguments, but he completely ignores the question of whether these debates are informed by good philosophical reasoning. If two drunks in a bar argue about marriage equality (whether same sex marriage should be legal), they are engaged in a debate on a philosophical question, but they still may fail to be philosophical. If one argues that the Bible says marriage is between one man and one woman (who are the lucky pair, I always wonder), that person is not really philosophical or a philosopher. If the other actually asks what the grounds are for moral acceptability of entering into a contractual relationship, and considers the reasons for those grounds, then that person is being philosophical. So, I will start off skeptical of Romano's claim. Americans are to some degree philosophical (in that many do reason in this way even if they don’t call it ‘philosophy’), but, so far, polls on most issues that generally require critical, even philosophical, thought, do not lead to the conclusion that a majority of Americans are good at philosophical reasoning. (This situation may be changing on the marriage equality front at any rate assuming that critical thought strongly favors marriage equality, and opposition to same sex marriage strongly indicates lack of such thought. Further, this assumes that supporters of same sex marriage are basing their beliefs on such reasoning.) So, my guess is that the majority of Americans (and even American opinion columnists) are, depending on your definition, either not very good at philosophy or not really philosophical at all.

The article is interesting but contains weirdness. Romano writes, in the course of arguing that little of Americans' insatiable media appetite is directed towards philosophers,

Despite a seemingly bottomless appetite for guests, neither the nation's better TV talk shows nor its tabloid trash fests have ever hosted America's great philosophers, even in a pandering format (''Philosophers Who Sleep With Their Ideological Opponents!!!'').

I don’t recall a lot of philosophers on talk shows, but Harry Frankfurt has been on the Daily Show twice, and just recently Stephen Colbert had Michael Sandel on to talk about his book about the limits of capitalism. I think a good part of the reason Frankfurt was on was for the publication of his book (actually a reprinted article from 1978) On Bullshit. Maybe this was just an excuse to have a guest use the word ‘Bullshit’ repeatedly on the show, but these cases appear to contradict Romano’s thesis. The examples actually strengthen Romano’s actual thesis a bit that America does provide some public space for philosophy and philosophers. Later in the article, the author does mention the Frankfurt book:

The combination of title and microsize accounted for the book's allure more than Frankfurt's reasoning, which, the retired Princeton University Spinoza scholar charmingly told one interviewer, he no longer considered cogent.

This sentence should be bronzed. The book is badly argued because the scholar no longer considers it cogent? By that standard, we should burn everything written by Bertrand Russell and Hilary Putnam. On Bullshit is a nice piece of ordinary language analysis, and I don’t think Frankfurt’s misgivings about his argument mean that it was not a worthwhile piece. Moreover, here’s the thing, Romano admits that philosophers do appear on television but invents some ad hoc justification for taking that counterexample off the table. Frankfurt was on a television interview show; hence, philosophers are given time on American interview shows. That's a clear counterexample to his claim. But, no, their appearances only count if the work is a good one (minimally indicated by the author continuing to find his/her own work cogent after 30 years). If Romano knows about the interview, how can he say that America’s great philosophers have never been interviewed? Is the Daily Show not one of the nation's “better TV talk shows”? If he thinks the Daily Show is not one of the better ones, what on earth qualifies as a better one? Or is Frankfurt not a great philosopher? After all, according to the author, he’s just a ‘retired Princeton University Spinoza scholar’. On the other hand, wouldn’t it count more strongly for the idea that talk shows interview philosophers if even not-great philosophers can get them? (By the way, I really like Harry Frankfurt but I’m not taking a stand on whether he’s great or not. Who knows what counts as a great philosopher? Romano doesn’t tell us anyway.)

Now Romano turns to critics of American culture, to those who think Americans are, on the whole, pig ignorant and even have a culture that celebrates pig-ignorance. (Does this thesis need to be defended? Does Romano own a television set?)

In Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, Charles Pierce argued that we live in the land of his title, "the America of the medicine wagon and the tent revival, the America of the juke joint and the gambling den," that we remain "the best country ever in which to peddle complete public lunacy."

Romano responds:

Pierce's prime evidence—conservative talk-show hosts and intelligent-design advocates—hardly made his case. . . Indeed, sound judgments about American culture always depend on how one sifts and looks at large swaths of evidence, not an example here or there.

I’m not following this at all. I haven’t read Pierce’s book, but if the quotation states his thesis adequately, it seems as though conservative talk show hosts and intelligent design advocates (aka creationists) provide a fairly compelling case that being professionally dumb or scientifically misinformed can be highly lucrative in America. I’m not sure that makes America the” best country ever” in which to be professionally stupid, but it appears Pierce is guilty only of hyperbole not poor statistical reasoning.

Romano continues arguing that Americans ain’t so dumb after all:

Religious fundamentalism in the United States, for instance, is seen by some as the embodiment of irrationality. But it's also possible for even an atheist to argue that religious thought persists not because believers are dimwitted, but because concepts like God and faith possess logical peculiarities that stymie disproof of religious belief in the absence of prior agreement on how one defines terms.

Does he know what religious fundamentalists believe? Has he checked the polls (or, “look[ed] at large swaths of evidence, not an example here or there”) on scientific (not philosophical) illiteracy? It’s not just that people have a philosophical disagreement about the existence of God, it’s that approximately 40% of Americans believe in the Genesis account of creation. That account is totally inconsistent with huge swaths of modern science. There is nothing about the concept of God or faith that can account for this level of scientific illiteracy. Scientific illiteracy does not imply philosophical illiteracy, but it’s hard to do good philosophy when you have no grounding in the basic scientific facts. If you really think that the Genesis account of creation is accurate (and presumably coherent with the scientific evidence), then you are not going to be open to a sophisticated philosophical argument about belief in the absence of testability.

I’m really digging the weird asides in this article. He dubs Richard Rorty, “America's most important recent philosopher”. Who does he think he’s kidding? I suppose this all depends on what you mean by “most important” and “recent”.

Romano does have a few well-chosen examples of philosophy in American popular culture. He notes the popularity of the Philosophy blog, the Stone, at the New York Times, of the philosophy and popular culture series (e.g. Philosophy and the Simpsons), and of some philosophy joke books. How does this compare in popularity to the typical Youtube video of a guy being hit in the nuts? Or a cat playing the piano? In an enormous and diverse country such as America, there are many pieces of anecdotal evidence (rather than “large swaths of evidence”) supporting either side on this question. Some Americans in some circumstances definitely have some philosophical interest and inclinations, but there is not enough support here for a conclusion as broad as Romano’s. (Maybe he includes the further evidence in his book America the Philosophical. However, I don't think I will be racing off to buy it.)

Romano concludes,

Americans have thus not so much "evaded" philosophy, in the provocative phrase of Cornel West, as they've sidestepped antiquated conceptions of it. In the post-positivist, post-cold-war, pan-Google era in which we live, America the Philosophical can be seen as a coruscating achievement in the pragmatist project that's been unfolding for centuries.

I’ll agree that there’s lively debate on philosophical issues in America, but it’s not yet a “coruscating achievement” of philosophical argument. It's more like an occasional spark.

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