Briefly Noted: Briggle and Frodeman on The Problem with Philosophy

Now these two fellows have gone to meddlin’. In their recent article in The Chronicle Review, Adam Briggle and Robert Frodeman argue American philosophy departments are out of touch with reality, and will soon be out of business, if they cannot foster an environment in which philosophers can be generalists instead of specialists, and public philosophers instead of isolated eggheads.[1] Those are my words, not theirs, but that’s the gist of it.

Briggle and Frodeman write, “We are saddled with early-20th-century modes of philosophy. In the 20th century, philosophy abandoned its Socratic heritage in favor of a disciplinary model of practice. Rather than engaging citizens in all walks of life on the issues they faced, philosophers spoke mainly to one another about problems of their own invention.” (B11) This recent development is problematic; it is irresponsible, and politically and economically unsustainable.

The ever-increasing specialization of philosophy is politically and economically unsustainable because such specialization comes at the cost of cultural insignificance. Public perception is that philosophy is a discipline for irrelevant egg-headed navel gazers who make no real contribution to society. “Of course, philosophy is secure at America’s elite universities. But what of the vast number of universities whose future is tied to the decisions of state legislatures or other financial considerations?” (B10) The authors imply that state legislatures and community college CFOs will not long put up with philosophy unless philosophers learn to “go public” which means that there must be a role for generalists.

Thus, “It is time to reclaim the public role of philosophy.” (B11) Rather than operating under a paradigm in which philosophers must focus narrowly on one or two of the philosophical subdisciplines, why not train some philosophers as generalists so that they can work in the public and private sectors?  (B11) “Why, for example, are philosophers housed in philosophy departments? Should groups of two or three philosophers be placed in departments across campus, to draw out the philosophic aspects of chemistry, economics, and business? Why is there no ‘lab’ or ‘field’ component for philosophy courses?” (B11)

In light of these critiques, they offer three areas of reform: “First, we need to reconsider what counts as expertise, rigor, and excellence–the single-model of specialization that keeps us writing philosophy papers for each other…. Second, a new philosophy calls for new types of philosophers trained with the skills necessary for being ‘interactional’ experts…. Third, the case for reform made here involves an appeal to prudential self-interest–devising ways to survive in a harried, impatient, and increasingly market-driven age.” (B12)

I could not agree more with Briggle and Frodeman, and I would expand their critique beyond philosophy to the other academic disciplines, including theological studies. As I see it, both generalists and specialists are needed for the health of academic disciplines such as philosophy and theology. When our universities and seminaries foster an environment in which one must be a specialist in order to be hired or promoted, they (unintentionally) also create a situation in which they are (or, at least are perceived to be) increasingly irrelevant to society and culture at large.

One of the reasons the French existentialists (e.g. Sartre and Camus) were so successful in their day is that they were able to write both for the academy and for the general public. They published not only academic tomes (e.g. Sartre’s Being and Nothingness), but also fiction and drama (e.g. Sartre’s Nausea and Camus’ The Plague), and public opinion pieces in newspapers, magazines, and so forth. Likewise, one of the reasons Abraham Kuyper was so successful in his day was the fact that he was a generalist able to articulate the significance of Christian theology for every dimension of human life and every sphere of culture.

Thank God for the generalists. May their tribe increase (though not at the expense of the specialists).

[1] “A New Philosophy for the 21st Century” by Adam Briggle and Robert Frodeman in The Chronicle Review (December 16, 2011): B10–12.

Briefly Noted: On Infanticide and the Imago Dei

God help us. In a recent edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education Tom Bartlett makes us aware of two prominent Australian bioethicists who promote infanticide. In his article, “Champions of Infanticide? 2 Bioethicists Find the Question is More than Academic” (March 16, 2012: A3-4) Bartlett examines a recent paper by bioethicists Alberto Giubilini (University of Melbourne) and Francesca Minerva (Monash University) in which they argue that “it would be morally permissible to kill a newborn if that newborn might be an ‘unbearable burden'” (A3).

Now, this argument is not new. Peter Singer (Princeton University) has made such an argument before about severely disabled infants. But, Giubilini and Minerva “were talking about perfectly healthy newborns that for some reason-financial, psychological, whatever-would pose a problem for their parents or society” (A3). Thus, the authors claim, their deaths would be “morally irrelevant.” In the midst of rampant backlash (duh), even death threats on the authors, the editor of the journal has written a defense of the paper claiming academic freedom and quality, and finding more fault in the “online invective” directed at the authors.

In response to Giubilini’s and Minerva’s degenerate point, I agree with Arthur Caplan, bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, who offers a sane counterpoint: “When you publish you have the freedom to write anything you want. But if you’re going to write about the virtues of cannibalism, you can expect a pretty heated response” (A4).

What would allow a culture to somehow justify infanticide and other morally reprehensible acts that go against our most deeply ingrained instincts to protect others who cannot protect themselves? I am not sure of Giubilinia’s and Minerva’s religious commitments, but I do think that the Christian doctrine of humanity (created in the image and likeness of God) is the only perspective from which we can rightly understand humanity as a whole. Toward that end, I’ve reproduced part of an article I wrote years ago for JBMW (12:1, Spring 2007). That article dealt with atheism and its inability to ascribe to humanity its proper dignity and humility, and its inability to stem the tide of infanticide and other evils. Although Giubilinia’s and Minerva’s religious commitment may not be to atheism, a similar line of reasoning would apply to their religious commitments, whatever they may be:

The problem with atheism, as with other worldviews, is that it is not able to account for the unique nature, capacities, and ends of human existence. Inevitably, it tends toward either an enthronement or a denigration of humanity, unable to strike a proper balance.

At times, atheists tend toward the enthronement of humanity. This might seem an obvious move; if one chooses not to worship God on His throne, the next best thing would be to enthrone oneself. This can be seen in Humanist Manifesto II, which states that, “At the present juncture of history, commitment to all humankind is the highest commitment of which we are capable.”

At other times (or ironically, at the same time), atheists denigrate humanity. The glittering example of this is, of course, Peter Singer, of Princeton University’s Center for Human Values. Singer, like Nietzsche and others, realizes what a radical revisioning of mankind must take place. For him this means that we cannot base our ethics on the imago Dei or argue that our immortal soul distinguishes us from the animals. “By 2040,” he writes, “it may be that only a rump of hard-core, know-nothing religious fundamentalists will defend the view that every human life, from conception to death, is sacrosanct.”[1]

For Singer, the moral status of a human being is defined, not by his being created in the image of God, but by his consciousness and ability to function. Those humans who are most conscious and functional have more worth and moral status that those who are less conscious and functional. Healthy teenagers and middle-aged folks, then, are worth more than babies and old people, and certainly more than the mentally and physically handicapped.

For this reason, certain non-human animals have higher moral status than certain human animals. A donkey or a dog will often have superior consciousness and function than a defective human baby. It is for this reason that he believes one might find instances when infanticide is acceptable; sometimes, he thinks, it would be more wrong to take the life of an animal than to take the life of a defective baby.[2]

Furthermore, since Singer does not hold to the imago Dei, which gives a clear line of delineation between humans and animals, he has no problem suggesting that inter-species sexual activity is sometimes acceptable. In some instances, sex between a man and an animal might be mutually satisfying and, therefore, not problematic. He hurries to say, however, that with small animals such as chickens or ferrets, sexual activity might be painful for the animal and would therefore be problematic.[3]

Singer’s re-definition of humanity finds company even in popular culture. Take, for example, the movie Bicentennial Man (1999). In this movie Robin Williams is a robot who is on a two-century journey toward becoming “human.” At one point in the movie, he begins to use the word “I,” signifying that he has now become self-conscious. He is now every bit as “conscious” as human beings, and the implication, it seems, is that he has therefore achieved humanness.

Then, in conclusion:

Worldviews other than Christian theism, whether atheism, pantheism, or Islamic monotheism, cannot make proper sense of mankind-they will tend either toward the enthronement or the denigration of humanity. The imago Dei is essential for understanding humanity. It makes sense of who we are; indeed, it renders coherent the socio-cultural activities that surround us and pervade our lives. As we image forth God through our capacities for spirituality, morality, rationality, relationality, and imagination, we are able to live distinctively human lives. Our work in the sciences is possible because of our ability to reason. In the arts, we may participate because of our imaginative and creative capacities. In the public square, we may hold forth because God made us not only rational but relational beings.

As theologians, this robust Christian anthropology is our foundation; an understanding of the essence of humanity is what allows us to think through closely associated issues such as biblical manhood and womanhood. And for our broader American audience, an apprehension of the imago Dei and its implications will likewise enable them to comprehend our exposition of biblical teaching on gender roles and related issues.

Bartlett’s article, therefore, serves to remind us of the uphill battle Christians face in a society that is increasingly post-Christian, and of the deleterious consequences for a humane view of humanity.

[1] Peter Singer, “The Sanctity of Life,” in Foreign Policy (Sept/Oct 2005) 40.

[2] Ibid., “Sanctity of Life or Quality of Life,” Pediatrics (July 1983) 129. Also, in Practical Ethics (New York: Cambridge University, 1979), he argues that membership in the human species is irrelevant to moral status.

[3] Singer’s most famous treatment of bestiality, or as he calls it zoophilia, is “Heavy Petting,” published at, on March 12, 2001. Lest one think that Singer is an obscure radical with no real influence, it should be noted that he is often called one of the most influential philosophers alive. In fact, his Practical Ethics is the most successful philosophy text ever published by Cambridge University Press.