Rod Dreher Against the Philosophers?
Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is well worth reading. Among other things, it reacquaints Christians with the riches of the monastic tradition, calls churches to focus on faithfulness over fashion, and provides a detailed articulation of one option for being a faithful Christian in a post-Christian world. It is an earnest attempt that deserves careful study. It is a shame that some have cast the book aside without due diligence. A responsible critic aspires to the heights of intellectual charity, and at least rises to the level of fairness. Thus, I was taken aback when I read Dreher’s recent post, “The Self-Murder of Academic Philosophy.” In this piece, Dreher displays the same lack of care for which his critics are rightly scolded.
Here’s the backdrop. Rebecca Tuvel (Rhodes College) recently published an article in the feminist philosophy journal, Hypatia. Tuvel argues that certain commonly accepted arguments for transgender rights can be sensibly extended to transracialism—a position supporting an individual’s decision to change races. (Recall the Rachel Dolezal case.) Tuvel’s article sparked outrage among some academics, including some philosophers. For instance, in a public Facebook post, Nora Berenstain (University of Tennessee) writes:
Tuvel enacts violence and perpetuates harm in numerous ways throughout her essay. She deadnames a trans woman. She uses the term “transgenderism.” She talks about “biological sex” and uses phrases like “male genitalia.” She focuses enormously on surgery, which promotes the objectification of trans bodies. She refers to “a male-to- female (mtf) trans individual who could return to male privilege,” promoting the harmful transmisogynistic ideology that trans women have (at some point had) male privilege. In her discussion of “transracialism,” Tuvel doesn’t cite a single woman of color philosopher, nor does she substantively engage with any work by Black women, nor does she cite or engage with the work of any Black trans women who have written on this topic.
A group of academics incensed with Tuvel wrote an open letter to Hypatia’s editorial board, demanding that the article be retracted—despite its having passed a rigorous review process. The board complied with the request, issuing an apology for publishing Tuvel’s piece. This move was met with resistance among philosophers, many of whom have sought to defend Tuvel against the attacks.
Meanwhile, Rod Dreher has flipped his lid. He seems to think the Tuvel case—taken together with last year’s dustup involving Richard Swinburne and the Society of Christian Philosophers—suffices to justify dismissing an entire discipline.
Dreher begins his piece by asking, “Can somebody please tell me why anybody would choose to go into academic philosophy?” Apparently, he can imagine no satisfying answer.
In her own statement responding to the events, Tuvel laments,
Calls for intellectual engagement are also being shut down because they “dignify” the article. If this is considered beyond the pale as a response to a controversial piece of writing, then critical thought is in danger. I have never been under the illusion that this article is immune from critique. But the last place one expects to find such calls for censorship rather than discussion is amongst philosophers.
Dreher responds incredulously:
I’ve gotta say: really, Rebecca Tuvel? By this late date, you think that the “last place” one expects to see censorship is among philosophers?! Humanities faculties are the first place you’d expect this garbage.
Then, in response to pervasive and powerful political correctness, Dreher muses,
It will be a great day when this particular venomous snake finally devours its tail, and it becomes safe for people who actually care about philosophy as the search for truth to come out and do their vital work.
Until such a time, Dreher recommends his own solution—The Benedict Option:
[W]hy not form alternative institutions where people who want to do true scholarship and teaching can enter a classroom with colleagues and students who want the same thing, as opposed to joining the impotent clerisy of ideological crackpots who have nothing better to do [than] deploy weaponized jargon against each other.
For those weary and wary of illiberal “liberalism,” Dreher’s words may come as a breath of fresh air. But on the whole, his piece is neither well-argued nor helpful. Let’s review Dreher’s case against academic philosophy and the institutions that house it. The argument appears to go like this:
- There have occurred two lamentable incidents in recent academic philosophy—cases in which cowardice has impeded the pursuit of truth;
- Academic philosophy is a lost cause;
- Academic philosophy should be abandoned in favor of new, Benedictine institutions in which scholars and students can pursue the truth until the barbarian horde disperses.
Let us accept step (1), just for the sake of argument. (This is not the place for a substantive discussion of the Tuvel and Swinburne cases. Others have written a great deal about them, and we will not enter into those debates here.) So suppose, with Dreher, that we accept step (1). Are we then led inexorably to step (2), or to Dreher’s main conclusion, step (3)? No.
Start with the move from (1) to (2). Two incidents, we are to suppose, justify us in thinking that academic philosophy is a lost cause. To call this a hasty generalization would be a severe understatement. And even if Dreher could appeal to a dozen similar incidents, the generalization wouldn’t be much better. Every year, there are thousands upon thousands of good interactions within the philosophers’ guild. Quality journal articles pass review and are published without negative repercussions. Students and professors pursue the truth together in countless classroom discussions. And so on. These incidents don’t make the news. But surely they are relevant to a summary judgment about the field’s intellectual health. When we account for them, the scale tips overwhelmingly in the positive direction. Not to account for them is like ignoring airline safety statistics and basing our view of aviation safety solely on our knowledge of a few horrific crashes. Arguments that parallel Dreher’s—there are pockets of corruption in a field, so the field itself is beyond repair—could be used to dismiss most any profession (lawyer, doctor, conservative Christian blogger, cultural analyst, etc.). Such inferences deserve all the neglect we can give them.
Moreover, step (2) (the philosophy-is-a-lost-cause-step) is demonstrably false. And crucially, the demonstration can stem from premises Dreher himself should accept. First, the very roots of the Benedict Option lie in the soil of academic philosophy. In his introduction to The Benedict Option, Dreher lauds philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre as the prophet who first foresaw the need for a withdrawal from the West’s uncultured barbarism. Without MacIntyre’s After Virtue, we would not have Dreher’s Benedict Option. Instead of condemning academic philosophy, perhaps Dreher should be writing it a Thank You note.
Now perhaps Dreher will reply that MacIntyre wrote After Virtue in 1981, and it’s only since then that academic philosophy has taken its nose-dive. This leads to a second point: If he would look a bit harder, Dreher would find allies even among today’s philosophers (a group that still includes MacIntyre himself). Throughout The Benedict Option, Dreher emphasizes the importance of objective truth and moral character formation. These are the very same values that many philosophers defend. As a recent survey reveals, relatively few philosophers depart from traditional (objectivist) notions of truth and knowledge. As for character development, in addition to the sizeable literature in virtue ethics inaugurated by MacIntyre and friends, there are large-scale efforts like the Templeton-funded Character Project and The Beacon Project. Goodness and truth? We philosophers are big fans.
Some of the scholars currently involved in defending traditional notions of truth and character are Christians, and some are not. This has been the case since Augustine utilized Plato’s work in crafting his Christian metaphysic, and since Aquinas assimilated Aristotle. It has not ceased to be so. Dreher asks when philosophy will ever become an activity of shared truth-seeking. But for many Christian philosophers and their non-Christian friends, that is precisely what it already is.
Third, Dreher’s dismissal of the discipline implicitly condemns a lot of excellent work produced by Christian philosophers over the past five decades. We’re not talking about token contributions here. We’re talking about work that is published in the best journals in the field, and with the best academic presses. We’re talking about a body of work that, over the course of a generation, has made a real difference in the academic landscape. As recently as 1950, most philosophers thought that God-talk was simply meaningless. And outside of Catholic universities, hardly anyone was “out” as an orthodox Christian, let alone publishing academic philosophy on Christian topics. But today, thanks to the work of, among others, Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Richard Swinburne, William Alston, Peter van Inwagen, Marilyn McCord-Adams, Robert Adams, Eleonore Stump, Robert Audi, Steve Davis, William Lane Craig, and Linda Zagzebski, Christian philosophy is a live and lively intellectual field.
Hundreds of academic philosophers espouse traditional theism. In characterizing the state of the discipline, atheist philosopher Quentin Smith remarks, “God is not ‘dead’ in academia; he returned to life in the late 1960s and is now alive and well in his last academic stronghold, philosophy departments.” Alvin Plantinga, the Dean of Christian philosophy, just won the Templeton Prize. These are not signals for Christians to abandon the field. To be sure, the discipline remains largely non-theistic, and there are pockets of anti-religious bias and militant political correctness. But to characterize the whole field as anti-Christian—let alone bereft of goodness and truth—would be a disservice to Christian philosophers and to the many non-theists who have never treated Christianity anything but fairly. In making his summary judgment about academic philosophy, Dreher ignores all of these developments.
I fear that Dreher’s careless remarks will discourage Christian philosophers who seek to occupy a place of faithful presence in the academy. Instead of getting a pat on the back for laboring in hard ground, these scholars find dirt kicked in their faces. Instead of carefully setting them apart from those he thinks are undermining Western society, Dreher implicitly lumps Christian philosophers together with those he considers barbarians. And when someone with Dreher’s stature and influence places philosophers in the bad group, even implicitly, you can bet that their pastors will do the same—to the detriment of those individuals and to the church.
Finally, suppose we were to grant, with step (2) of Dreher’s argument, that academic philosophy is a lost cause. Why go to step (3) and think that everyone, especially Christians, should give it up and run for the hills? Would the corruption of a discipline mean that the Benedict Option is the only option? This is at best unclear. Under such conditions, withdrawal might be a wise choice, and it would probably be important for at least some Christians to take it. But to think it is the only option is to assume that, as far as the temporal order is concerned, Christians should never take up lost causes. Why think that?
Dreher likes to talk about monks and priests. So let us recall those medieval priests—not the ones who founded monasteries in the 6th century, but the ones who remained in plague-ridden communities in order to comfort the sick and dying in the 14th century. There was nothing they could do to reverse the course of the dreaded disease. There was no realistic prospect of saving large numbers of sick patients. The plague would run its course. But when faced with the decision to flee and save themselves or stay and do what good they could, they stayed. Perhaps there could be an equivalent for today’s philosophers, even if things are as bad as Dreher says they are. To complete the analogy: perhaps some are called, not to comfort those sick with the plague, but to foster good thinking among individual students who must navigate an increasingly thoughtless world. Such a possibility seems at least worth considering, because individuals matter—irrespective of which way the culture lurches.
To be candid, I hope I’ve got Rod Dreher wrong. I hope his considered view of academic philosophy is more friendly and nuanced than my reconstruction suggests. But nothing in “The Self-Murder of Academic Philosophy” invites such a reading. There are no hedges, no ways out, no counterbalancing considerations. Instead, the piece appears to make an about-face from the more measured, cautiously appreciative view of philosophy that appears in The Benedict Option. It seems a few isolated incidents have drastically changed Dreher’s opinion of the whole discipline. If they haven’t, let the above serve as an invitation for him to say so.
Nathan King is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Whitworth University. He is currently at work on his first book, The Excellent Mind: Intellectual Virtues for Everyday Life, an introduction to the intellectual virtues for a popular audience. His website may be found here.