Technicism and Professional Philosophy

I recently read, with great interest, Jason Stanley’s new book How Propaganda Works. I often hoped to read a book like this: one which reorients analytic philosophy to address pressing social problems of the day. Part of the joy of reading the book was the sense that here is an author who is attempting to do just that. It might be lost on most of the public, but it would be hard for people familiar with academic philosophy to read the book without a vivid sense that this is a new, and desperately welcome, direction for analytic philosophy. Not new as in the first book to do it, since many other authors, some noted by Stanley, have been working along these lines for a long time. But new in being part of a new wave in philosophy. In this sense, the book greatly deserves the praise it has received and, no doubt, will receive.

Still, we have to distinguish between the aim of a project and its realization. The aim of Stanley’s project is fantastic. The realization, however, not so much. It perpetuates much that is problematic about analytic philosophy, and in a way that is all the more troubling because in the book it happens under the rubric of change and finally seeing the light. The book is a step in the right direction, but progressing in that direction will require being critical of many of the moves in the book.

I admire that Stanley has written a philosophical book with moral urgency. To my mind, this is a more significant achievement than most contemporary work in moral philosophy. Stanley’s concern is how it is that we as a society seem to be generally complacent about the vast levels of inequality all around us. One example in particular, among many noted in the book, jumps out: the mass incarceration of African-Americans. Could it be that even as we pats ourselves on the back for overcoming racism, the prison system has become a continuation of segregation? That though the form of racism has changed, the problem remains too much the same? And that public discourse normally covers over this fact? This strikes me as right on: there is an illusion of equality in the air where often the very discourse of equality tends to re-enforce the inequalities.

This is a puzzling situation, both theoretically and practically. Theoretically: How can such an illusion be possible, and why do we fall for it? Practically: How can the illusion be pierced so that more substantive change is possible? I share Stanley’s sense that philosophy is very much needed to address these questions.

I also agree part of what fosters the illusion is what Stanley calls, following his father Manfred Stanley, “technicism”. This is the view that “scientific expertise and technological advancements are the solutions to the problems of the human condition.”(xi) Technicism equates knowledge with technical expertise, and suggests that only people with the requisite expertise can be in a position to address social problems.

Stanley rightly highlights the crucial problem with this view: given that the requisite expertise is not something everyone in a democracy can possess, it re-enforces precisely the inequalities it aims to address. In response, Stanley suggests that philosophy broadly understood is a form of knowledge that doesn’t require that kind of technical expertise, and so is the kind of knowledge which can help even those without such expertise be critical thinkers. It is only through such critical thinking that the illusions of equality can be overcome. All this is music to my ears.

Yet, when Stanley turns to philosophy to elucidate the key concepts he is interested in – propaganda, demagoguery, ideology, the linguistic mechanisms of propaganda – he identifies philosophy with the expertise of the professional philosopher. Stanley no where in the book addresses this puzzle: how can this kind of expertise, which is as foreign to most of the public as the expertise of physics or medicine, enable the public to find their voice? For the most part the heroes in the book are contemporary professional philosophers. The methods they employ and their insights are presented as essential to fighting the illusions of equality. But how can this be if academic philosophy is itself an expertise like any other expertise?

This question looms even larger given the biggest irony of the book: it turns out what is going to help turn the tide against technicism is some of the most technical and scientific aspects of analytic epistemology and philosophy of language. Which analytic philosophers are going to help with realizing a better democracy? Could it be Rawls, Rorty, Nussbaum, Bernard Williams, Charles Taylor? Not on Stanley’s telling of the story. No doubt most of the public can’t tell the difference between Nussbaum and Stalnaker, but it is bound to surprise most academics that Stalnaker is central to a philosophical book on democracy while Nussbaum is not even mentioned.

A layperson reading the book might well wonder: Where do these contemporary philosophers coming up with these great, politically important ideas hang out? What institutional structures are they a part of? The book is utterly silent about this. As far as the book suggests, the philosophers mentioned in it might just be peripatetic thinkers walking the Earth, themselves and their ideas not in any way contaminated by, or implicated in, the injustices they seek to address.

This is all the more bizarre since one of the most exciting things about Stanley’s book is that it is part of a significant institutional shift in academic philosophy. Reading the book a layperson would have no sense for this, and might in fact think that among the most established and powerful contemporary philosophers are people like Langton, Haslanger, Mills and Dotson. After all, here is a tenured Yale professor writing how amazing and important these thinkers are, without mentioning any potential difficulties these thinkers faced, and face, within their own profession. Or even how their ideas are seen by many in the profession as highly controversial.

In any case, irrespective of which professional philosophers Stanley focuses on, the question still remains: how can the expertise of academic philosophers help the public overcome the expertise-fetishism of technicism?

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According to technicism, there are only two options: technical knowledge or ignorance. If someone is a manual laborer, the technicist claims this person simply doesn’t have the specialized knowledge required for contributing to democracy, and so, for their own good and that of the society, they ought to concede decision making to those in the know. Governing can only be done by those whose expertise is governance.

I will call populism the view that there is a form of philosophy which is an intermediary realm between technical knowledge and ignorance, and that in principle anyone, irrespective their status in society, can thrive at that kind of philosophy. Moreover, it is through such thriving that citizens can contribute to democracy.

Let’s distinguish two forms of populism, based on the question of how populism can be realized. Academic populism is the view that the way citizens can best thrive philosophically through engaging with academic philosophy. This puts a burden on both the citizens and academic philosophers. On the citizens because they have to be open to academic philosophy as a source of knowledge that is relevant to their thriving as citizens. And on academic philosophers because they have to make philosophy accessible to the public such that the public can embrace it.

Non-academic populism is the view that citizens can best thrive philosophically through engaging with non-academic structures of philosophy. According to a non-academic populist, while academic populism is obviously better than technicism, it is still too much in the grip of the professional model of knowledge. That is, as long as the public’s access to philosophy is only through those deemed as the philosophy experts, there can never be a true equality between the public and academic philosophers. There will always an implicit hierarchy which threatens democracy.

To avoid this, the non-academic populist suggests there should be non-academic structures in the public domain which can foster philosophical dialogue in the society, kind of like how public parks foster physical health without suggesting that in order to be physically fit one has to learn from physical trainers. If such non-academic structures don’t already exist in the society, then the non-academic populist suggests building such structures is the primary task of public philosophy.

Non-academic populism doesn’t imply there is no need for academic philosophy. It only denies that academic philosophy can be the primary institutional structure for fostering public philosophy. That in fact the aim of academic philosophy must be to look beyond itself and foster non-academic modes of philosophy: the telos of academic philosophy is to foster non-academic structures of philosophy.

We can put it like this. Professional body builders excel at a certain kind of physical fitness. But if we want the public in general to be physically fit, it would be pointless for them to emulate the work out patterns of the body builders. Fitness for the general public has to fit into the context and situation of their life. It has to be tailor made to the public and cannot be forced into the body builder’s model.

Stanley’s book is an argument for populism and against technicism. But in the book Stanley writes as if populism is just the same as academic populism. So much so that Stanley doesn’t even consider the possibility of non-academic populism. This is a significant and far reaching blind spot in the book, which has implications for Stanley’s views on propaganda and ideology. In ensuing posts I will discuss some of the consequences of this blind spot.

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