Monday, May 24, 2004


Academic Credentials

In response to the question "How is Ayn Rand regarded by professional philosophers?", Keith Burgess-Jackson answers, "Not very well," and proceeds to give five reasons why. Here is his first reason:
She was not credentialed. While she attended college, she did not receive a graduate degree....Credentials are the lifeblood of academia. They act as a qualitative filter. If all I know about X is that X has a Ph.D. degree from a reputable university, I will think highly of X and judge X’s work worth reading. Ideally, I would read X’s work and make an informed judgment based on its merits. But life is short; there is only so much that can be read. One cannot waste time reading inferior material. So filters--credentials--are important. Rand’s lack of credentials keeps her off philosophers’ reading lists.
I don't propose to come to Rand's defense, but I would like to contrast Burgess-Jackson's first reason with what some other philosophers have said on this topic. Schopenhauer in his Parerga and Paralipomena (tr. T. Bailey Saunders) writes:
Dilettanti, dilettanti! This is the slighting way in which those who pursue any branch of art or learning for the love and enjoyment of the thing, -- per il loro diletto, are spoken of by those who have taken it up for the sake of gain, attracted solely by the prospect of money. This contempt of theirs comes from the base belief that no man will seriously devote himself to a subject, unless he is spurred on to it by want, hunger, or else some form of greed. The public is of the same way of thinking; and hence its general respect for professionals and its distrust of dilettanti. But the truth is that the dilettante treats his subject as an end, whereas the professional, pure and simple, treats it merely as a means. He alone will be really in earnest about a matter, who has a direct interest therein, takes to it because he likes it, and pursues it con amore. It is these, and not hirelings, that have always done the greatest work.
But perhaps Schopenhauer's opinion is suspect. Although he did earn academic credentials in philosophy (doctorate at Jena in 1813), his career as a university lecturer was an utter failure -- no one attended his course of lectures in Berlin in 1820. His first book, The World as Will and Representation, published in 1818, was likewise a failure at first. Few bothered to read or review it, and Schopenhauer published nothing else for eighteen years. Not very impressive credentials for a philosopher nearing his fiftieth year.

But decades later, when Nietzsche was seeking a philosophical mentor, he did not look to the universities but to the now-deceased Schopenhauer. One of the major themes of Nietzsche's essay on Schopenhauer as Educator (1874, published in Untimely Meditations) is the intellectual bankruptcy of the academic philosophical establishment. This scathing recommendation appears towards the end of that essay (tr. R.J. Hollingdale):
That is why I say that it is a demand of culture that philosophy should be deprived of any kind of official or academic recognition and that state and academy be relieved of the task, which they cannot encompass, of distinguishing between real and apparent philosophy. Let the philosophers grow untended, deny them all prospect of place and position within the bourgeois professions, cease to entice them with salaries, more, persecute them, show them disfavour -- you will behold miracles.
But perhaps this, too, was sour grapes on Nietzsche's part. Three years earlier, in 1871, he had applied for a chair of philosophy at the University of Basel, when Gustav Teichmüller resigned, but his application was rejected. After all, he did not have the proper academic credentials -- his degree was in classical philology, not philosophy.

Some might deny Thoreau the title of philosopher, but his words (in Walden, chapter 1) are worth considering, too:
There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.
After all, what is said is the important thing to focus on, not by whom it is said. If what is said is new and true and vital, should it be ignored or neglected or disparaged merely because the author has not bothered to jump through the proper academic hoops?

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