The Conditions of Philosophy
The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes
Particular academic disciplines do not institute bodies formally charged with the maintenance of ethical standards, as do such professions as medicine and law whose services have a more immediate practical interest. But they do develop some sort of agreement about the line between respectable and less respectable ways of practicing the discipline in question. (At times there is the unfortunate situation of competing doctrinal schools each trying to draw the line so as to put all who are outside the school on the wrong side of it.) This agreement will not exert itself through an explicit apparatus of courts and condemnations. But it has sanctions at its disposal; exclusion from posts, a unanimously dismissive style of reviewing, the conspiracy of silence.
There are three main offenses against academic respectability and they are found and penalized more often, for obvious reasons, in the humanities. They are the pursuit of money, the propagation of ideology (political or religious), and over-weeningness, in other words, biting off more than any ordinary scholar would regard as possible to chew. Money is best pursued by popularization, the enlargement of the market. The offense here is to conform, against one’s better judgment, to the expectations of the herd, to eliminate the intrinsic difficulty of a subject, to make it congenial and attractive at the possible expense of its proper intellectual values. Sir Arthur Bryant, Gilbert Highet, and the late C.E.M. Joad have been subjected to attack on these lines. In recent years the possibilities in this area have been much enlarged by the industrialization of popular enlightenment with large illustrated volumes for the coffee table, encyclopedic works issued in weekly parts with their munificent “editorships” for men of proved academic distinction, or, at any rate, reputation. But this, as the case of A.J.P. Taylor shows, can be survived. It is, after all, a mode of enrichment that can be indulged in on a part-time basis. It is permissible to pick up some money on the side but not to make it the predominant object of one’s efforts.
The offense of ideological commitment is less disastrous, provided that it is not combined with employment by an ideological institution, a church, or a political party. Philosophy is obviously relevant to religion, history and social science to politics; literary study stands in a slightly more remote relation to both. Philosopher-priests are most respected when they avoid the philosophy of religion, politician-historians when they stick to the study of the reasonably remote past. Over-weeningness, even more than ideology, tends to be associated with the achievement of financial success, even if not with its deliberate pursuit. It must be their status as best-sellers that has exposed Toynbee and Teilhard de Chardin to such aggressive comment. In a way there is something disarming about the explicit pursuit of money. The dun-colored and respectable, secure in the armor of their cloistered virtue, can afford to dismiss straight money-makers with moderately indulgent raised eyebrows. Those who achieve wordly success …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.