A Reflection on the Introduction of Josh Waitzkin’s “The Art of Learning” and the State of Academic Philosophy

the-art-of-learning-Josh-WaitzkinI was rereading Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning[1] the other day, and it resonated with me much more so than when I read it in 2007.  I suspect part of this has to do with the fact that I was studying physics at the time, and, by now, I’ve spent quite a bit of time in philosophy departments and at workshops/conferences/get-togethers with graduate students in philosophy.  In the introduction, in addition to recounting some of his experiences as a young chess sensation —perpetually the highest rated chess player in his age group from the very beginning—, he talks about his experiences in Columbia University’s philosophy department from his days as an undergraduate student.  His discussion includes the frustration of having to deal with philosophers (i.e., philosophy professors) who constantly deride certain ideas, take on a smug countenance when presented with difficult to verbalize ideas, and switch to a mode of think that is anything like serious whenever faced with an idea that is not easily resolvable in focus, especially vague terms, terms that are moderately or extremely mystical, Eastern in philosophical disposition, and so on.  Waitzkin says, ‘Whenever I had an idea, I would test it against some brilliant professor who usually disagreed with my conclusions.  Academic minds tend to be impatient with abstract language— when I spoke of intuition, one philosophy professor rolled her eyes and told me the term had no meaning’ (p. xvi).  This is the thing that bothers me about the circles I have roamed in, to this point, and maybe things are different in different departments, but I my experience corresponds to this.  The student of philosophy very quickly learns what cannot be said around the tenured professors.  Admirably, and no doubt partly due to his undergraduate naivety and partly due to his willfull nature, Waitzkin didn’t seem to go down without a fight when such instances arose.

Philosophy departments certainly have their pluses: there is no department that endows more rigorous thought and analysis than in this discipline, and I have found that philosophy attracts the greatest of minds because of this rigor of thought.  Even Waitzkin speaks to this effect, saying ‘The need for precision [demanded by philosophy professors] forced me to think about these ideas more concretely.  I had to come to a deeper sense of concepts like essence, principle, intuition, and wisdom in order to understand my own experience, let alone have any chance of communicating it’ (p. xvi).  The demands placed upon thought by the field of philosophy are to be found nowhere else.  Even at that, the remarkable rigor of the discipline, there seems to be something that is being rejected by the proper field of philosophy.  I say that with the thought in mind that, no matter how well Waitzkin conveyed those Eastern and organic ideas, which Waitzkin, almost without a doubt, was synthesizing anew, as is the case when a Western mind subsumes, assimilates, and understands Eastern thought —we are not talking about a Mattieu Ricard, here, where a Western philosophically minded person completely becomes Eastern in thought, but someone more like Alan Watts or Robert M. Pirsig, and this generally means highly original synthesis of thought, as evinced by the unusually marketability of their work.  What is it that’s being rejected by the field of philosophy that is getting so much attention otherwise, and where are philosophy departments going wrong?


I have a long and, I think, well-thought-out explanation for what’s going on.  I will only give a small sample of my thought on the matter at this time: I think the field of philosophy is experiencing “science envy” (which is much worse, in fact, than penis-envy among men), and so philosophy has some sort of bizarre Oedipus complex when it comes to the science.  The objective of philosophy, it seems, has become the wish-fulfillment of resembling science in content and stature.  I think all of this is quite bizarre, because science really doesn’t understand much of what it is doing, completely fails in ethical matters, and is in every way inferior to the intellectual products of philosophical thought, only being driven in any real sense by the money of a corporatist capitalist machine gone mad, and propagandist chants of “Wissenschaft über Alles” and “Progress! Progress! Progress!” —though, in strewth, no meaning has ever been given this word.  These sorts of things are always on my mind, since I work largely in the philosophy of science.  Then I was asked a couple of weeks ago by a philosophically-minded English grad student and close friend, ‘Why is it, do you think, that Latour is read so much more in English departments than in Philosophy departments?’  I didn’t remark, but added further observations that there might even be more continental philosophy done in English and other departments than in Philosophy departments.  I could say even more, throwing in Eastern philosophy.  He responded to his own question, which he asked because I am one among few “real philosophers” who study Latour, saying that he has a colleague who has suggested that analytic philosophy has pushed anything like continental philosophy out.  True.  At once, I knew that this was so, but had not come to the conclusion myself.  It’s odd to have these realizations which, while probably lurking in one’s own subconscious, simply never reared its head in conscious, self-aware thought.  Of course, this was true: it’s not like science, so, the Philosophy-department mentality asseverates, it’s got to go!  Immediately, names of philosophers like Tim Morton and Arkady Plotnitsky (even though Plotnitsky’s work is very science-minded) come to mind.


It may be that the obsession of Philosophy departments with linguistic analysis has been the issue.[2]  The standard of thought is certainly impressive, but it becomes, in many cases, analyzing words in a way that loses meaning and focus.  The anecdote of Waitzkin’s about “intuition” is very telling in this regard.  Anything that the scientistically-minded philosophers can’t pin down goes into the bin of things that need to be explained away.  An exceptional example of this is qualia, as in Daniel Dennett’s “Quining Qualia.”[3]  Consciousness is another such concept.  The scientistic mentality has a modus operandi that identifies, attempts to pin down, and then discard these ideas, and what is so disconcerting about this is that these concepts are usually the ones most immediately recognizable to general human experience, the items that we can almost assuredly forego doubting.  The mentality is extremely hubristic: it says, though no philosopher or scientist would ever be caught saying this, that, if science cannot describe it to the “T,” then it does not exist and is meaningless.  In other words, like a little child in elementary school who cannot figure out basic arithmetic, he cries out, “this is meaningless and stupid!,” though philosophers, being philosophers, go the extra mile and negate the existence of that stupid and meaningless concept that happens to be beyond ambit of their intellectual prowess.  Professional philosophers meet the Waitzkin-type, an earnest seeker after truth, and respond with rhetorical remarks, such as “you just want there to be something beyond, something mystical, something religious or spiritual, something inaccessible,” when the reality is quite the opposite, namely, that the truth seeker doesn’t know whether there is something beyond, suspects that there is, while the professional philosopher wants nothing of the sort, nothing beyond, nothing spiritual, nothing beyond the comprehension of man’s mind, etc., etc., etc.  Farce. And so, Philosophy departments —probably not all, but possibly most—, eschewed the non-scientific (e.g., continental philosophy, spiritual philosophy, and Eastern philosophy), clinging desperately to their correlate of mathematics in the science, i.e., formal logic.[4]


For my part, I think these less scientistic and scientific philosophical researches should be invited into Philosophy departments, though I know that would only happen if scientism will die out —viva Pigliucci!  The responses one finds in even the most well thought out scientific explanations that have the function of explaining away (i.e., reducing qua reductionism) phenomena that might go beyond are pretty pitiful.  I saw an article, possibly in Scientific American, that explained that beauty in art is nothing but mathematics.  I found no intelligent response to this in rejection, philosophical or otherwise.  While there might be a relation between math and art, nobody ever asked, “why is it that I never thought painting X was beautiful, then, one day, I thought it was beautiful?”  Was it the case that the mathematics weren’t there before, then were?  Is it the case that they were there for some people but not for others?  Or is it the case that there are manifold layers of metaphysical complexity that can be uncovered, that go beyond the most superficial visual experience?  Well, that last remark was extremely Heideggerian, which is continental philosophy, and, therefore, unacceptable to the Analytic School of Philosophy; so I should stop there.  However, having just read Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, I have to echo Siddhartha’s realization as a concern of my own: contra what academic philosophers tend to think, that all truth is expressible, and there is nothing that goes beyond, what if everything that can be verbalized is only a half-truth, lacking the obverse, another half-truth that contradicts the obverse?  What if, in the Heideggerian vein, truths are not wholly expressible, the Truth never fully self-revealed?  An honest truth-seeker must accept the possibility of such potential actualities.










I will close with the paraphrase of statement, I think by Mortimer Adler, but I cannot recall where it was that I read it.  He said: Analytic philosophy asks the right questions about the wrong content, while continental philosophy asks the wrong questions about the right content.  I concur.

[1] By the way, I recommend this book.

[2] I remarked in a previous post, but I still think it is funny, so I will mention it again.  As at odds as Alan Watts and Ayn Rand were, they both diagnosed academic philosophy as being little more than thinking about thought, word games, and viciously endless word analysis that yields little fruit.  Watts was exactly the mystical dipsomaniac that Rand described, Rand the life-denying rational mind that Watts chastised as wrong-headed, yet they agree strongly on this point.  It’s extremely important to note that the two of these were philosopher who were not academic philosophers.

[3] Please note, I regard Dennett as the second greatest of all living philosophers, so this is not intended to deride him, but the mentality he and so many philosophers have embraced and proceed with.  Even the cited article by Dennett is a hardly-paralleled intellectual achievement.

[4] I can hardly ever tell whether the obsession with formal logic is a sincere desire to understand the syntax of truth or merely part of the Oedipal complex mentioned above.  I hope it is the former, but I rarely see philosophers employing it in general argument analysis, despite everyone’s being thoroughly trained in it, per graduate schools’ requirements.  Given that Bertrand Russell’s greatest project was to reduce mathematics to logic, which can be seen as the psychological equivalent of trying to reground science, through math, in philosophy and give superiority to philosophy over science, I think there can be little denying the nature of the Oedipus complex afoot.



Filed under Education, Personal, Philosophy, Science

4 responses to “A Reflection on the Introduction of Josh Waitzkin’s “The Art of Learning” and the State of Academic Philosophy

  1. PeterJ

    Great post.

    “…contra what academic philosophers tend to think, that all truth is expressible, and there is nothing that goes beyond, what if everything that can be verbalized is only a half-truth, lacking the obverse, another half-truth that contradicts the obverse? What if, in the Heideggerian vein, truths are not wholly expressible, the Truth never fully self-revealed? An honest truth-seeker must accept the possibility of such potential actualities.”

    Spot on. “True words seem paradoxical’ – Lao Tsu. They have to be take into account both half-truths.

    You seem to have summed up the whole problem, including physics-envy. Psychologists have been suffering for years, now the philosophers have caught it.

    But Dennett a good philosopher? There we’d have to part company.

  2. PeterJ

    Hmm. Can’t find a ‘follow’ button.

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