The Problem: How to discern bullshit in philosophy?

One of my concerns is the existence of an enormous amount of philosophical writings, and the seeming lack of guidance in separating, as is said, the wheat from the chaff, or, truth and importance from bullshit. The situation is this. You go to a bookstore or a library to read some non-fiction . . . what should you read? One answer is: read a textbook. In fields where there is a discernable and agreed to progress, this is a wise suggestion. However, because of the proliferation of textbooks for economic reasons, there is also the problem — perhaps a minor one — of picking the best textbooks.

My field of study has been philosophy. And the situation in philosophy is — what can I say? — very fuzzy. There is, first, the problem of demarcating the field. In some bookstores, philosophy is cataloged together with religion and “new age” literature. Second, there is a vague demarcation between continental and analytic philosophy. Third, there is an avalanche of books and especially journal articles on philosophy. How does one sift through this avalanche of literature?

In 1994 I tried to do a kind of study of influences in philosophy. I was using the computer data bank of Philosopher’s Index, which has a category of “mentioned author.” So, I compiled a list of the 100 most “influential” (meaning, most mentioned) authors from roughly 1940 to 1994. You can look at my findings here.

The thing that struck me at the time — though I did not mention or pursue the problem — was that most articles were never mentioned or commented on. This is — what can I say? — weird, because philosophy, as I conceive it, should be dialectical, meaning that it should engage in critical discussions (dialogues).

This matter of ignoring philosophers and writings needs an explanation. And the only explanation that seems plausible is an economic one. The only job a philosopher qua philosopher can do is teach; so philosophers try to get teaching positions. Since there are more philosophers than teaching positions, there is a competition for jobs. And, other things being equal, what distinguished philosophers in the quantity and quality of their publications; hence, the avalanche of publications. The writings tend to be commentaries on famous philosophers, some are commentaries on contemporaries, and others offer some purported original insight.

Now, as a student of philosophy, how do I sift through this avalanche. One way is supposedly to take a course in philosophy. But, which course? given by whom?

Reading about schools of philosophy and philosophers, there was a tradition in the ancient and medieval world to flock to hear a distinguished philosopher. This was true in a small relatively homogenous community, such as the Athenian and Roman empires, and in the Latin scholarly world of the medieval world.  One also reads of students flocking to hear Hegel or Heidegger in Germany.

But this flocking to hear a philosopher is now very rare. Who are you to read or listen to? About what?  In 1986, Charles S. Yankoski made an effort to provide some guidance, but his experiment failed through lack of money and institutional support.  Take a look at this effort here.

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