The Problems of Philosophers



I have been a professional philosopher for forty years, teaching on both sides of the Atlantic, at University College London, Oxford, Rutgers, UCLA, USC, and elsewhere. People have been talking about the problems of “the profession” (as if that wasn’t about individual philosophers) and I thought it might be useful for me to give my take on the question. Before I became a philosopher I was a psychologist, and I have observed certain differences between these groups. I will simply give a list of the problems I have observed, in no particular order. Warning: there is much that I have not liked. Some of these problems have been more prevalent on one side of the Atlantic than the other. I have not noticed (with a couple of exceptions) much variation among the various groups that make up professional philosophers.


  1. Conformity


  1. Resistance to new ideas


  1. Clubbiness


  1. Fatuous self-importance


  1. Snobbery (especially institutional)


  1. Narrow mindedness


  1. Dishonesty, intellectual and moral


  1. Cowardice, intellectual and moral


  1. Prejudice


  1. Male insecurity


  1. Competitiveness


  1. Professionalism


  1. Complacency


  1. Moral obtuseness


  1. Herd mentality


  1. Malicious gossip


  1. Immaturity


  1. Boringness


  1. Fear of the alien


  1. Envy


  1. Petty ambition


  1. Insincerity


  1. Bullying (real and attempted)


  1. Social snubbing


  1. Lack of humanity


  1. Rule worship


  1. Snideness


  1. Hero worship


  1. Bad writing


  1. Rude questioning


  1. Status obsession


  1. Schadenfreude


  1. Favoritism


  1. Bad clothes and hair


  1. Literal-mindedness


  1. Sycophancy


  1. Factionalism


  1. Nastiness


  1. Absurdity


  1. Lack of judgment


I could go on. I have not seen any improvement in these faults over the years: if anything, they have worsened. Of course, there are plenty of exceptions, but it seems to me that these faults are fairly pervasive. Overall there is a culture of enmity and backstabbing.




6 replies
  1. Ted Talbot
    Ted Talbot says:

    “Professionalism” is often regarded as a virtue in any profession. What negative sense do you give it?
    Also, do you think the attributes in your list are jointly peculiar to philosophers by and large, or are they generally typical of homo academicus?

  2. Colin McGinn
    Colin McGinn says:

    I really mean excessive attention to professional protocol. I don’t think philosophy is a profession (like law or medicine); it is a calling (like priest or artist). The features I list are fairly common among academics, but I think they are much worse among philosophers, probably because of the nature of the subject.

  3. diane saunders
    diane saunders says:

    Your list of characteristics is fairly exhaustive and absolutely correct – but not limited to academic philosophers. I work in the arts and I can assure you that after 25 in Higher Ed in the UK I have never experienced work in a place that didn’t exhibit the characteristics you describe. There is a famous phrase about this, but I can’t remember it exactly –something about the politics of academia being so nasty because there is so little at stake. It’s amusing and sort of right but profoundly wrong in another. There’s much at stake, now and always.
    I’m working only part-time now and have never been happier. Time to read, write and pursue my own life. I am hoping that you are also beginning to enjoy the distance from academia. Your work has inspired me many times — keep on!!

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      Maybe it comes in degrees. I wonder whether those responsible would recognize themselves in my list. I am certainly getting a lot more work done now that I’m not a professional academic, but the manner in which this occurred was totally wrong in every way.


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