Long before there were Silicon Valley guys in hoodies aiming to hack the world, there were toga-clad men in Athens devising philosophical theories to shift our understanding of reality.
A cult of genius can be toxic. It excuses bad behavior and allows prejudices to be cloaked in subjective assessments of intelligence and value. Today it is at the heart of the tech world’s problematic culture, and linked to many key issues: tech bros’ white male homogeneity, rampant sexual harassment, and focus on catering to the concerns of the most privileged in society. Last month, Uber board member Arianna Huffington referenced tech’s unhealthy attitude towards intelligence when she promised to wipe out “brilliant jerks.”
But philosophers are the original, archetypal “brilliant jerks.” And hundreds of years have done little to change that.
A cult of genius
The parallels between tech and philosophy are easy to find. There have been widespread reports of sexual harassment at high-profile tech companies, such as Uber and Reddit. Meanwhile, philosophy is reeling from accusations that titans of the field—Yale ethicist Thomas Pogge and Berkeley philosophy of mind professor John Searle—sexually harassed their students. Both tech and philosophy have a notable lack of diversity, and both have been accused of minimizing the perspectives and needs of those who aren’t white males. Both value intellect above all else.
Academia overall is certainly guilty of treating anointed “geniuses” as all-powerful deities, but philosophy is particularly prone to this cultish tendency. For one thing, says Miriam Solomon, a philosophy professor at Temple University, the field doesn’t have much objective data that can be used to evaluate the strength of work. Despite this, many refuse to acknowledge that judgments of others’ intellect can be highly subjective. Those with authority get to make claims about who should be revered as the next generation of geniuses, and there’s nothing to stop them simply anointing philosophers who look like them.
“‘They’re really smart,’ is used to excuse anything else,” says Solomon. “I’ve seen it used to defend hiring people when there are red flags about the candidates of various kinds, such as that they don’t have any publications. ‘Oh, but they’re really smart.’”
Philosophy also overemphasizes the importance of raw intellect, while other academic departments place greater value on studiousness. Jennifer Saul, a philosophy professor at the University of Sheffield, points to research by the Princeton philosopher Sarah-Jane Leslie showing that fields that believe in the importance of innate intelligence have the lowest percentages of women and African Americans. The Princeton study showed that philosophy places greater emphasis on natural brilliance than any other field, and is one of the least diverse.
“It damages those of us who don’t fit the stereotype of the older bearded white male genius, and so are cut out of the professional benefits that come from fitting that stereotype,” says Rebecca Kukla, a philosophy professor at Georgetown University.
The culture of genius can also deter philosophers from addressing their problem. Some philosophers, revered for their minds, simply refuse to accept that they can have the same subconscious prejudices as mere mortals.
“We have tons of really good psychological evidence that you can’t just introspect away your own biases; we know this,” says Kukla. Too many philosophers have “such high regard for their own rationality,” she says, that they assume they can’t be biased. “They’re also not reading the empirical psychological literature on things like implicit bias because they don’t think they need to.”
Boring, narrow, privileged work
Homogeneity in philosophy is not a new problem. The Western canon is focused almost exclusively on white, male, European philosophers (despite demands from students for more diverse thinkers). “White European philosophy historically has told those philosophers that they’re the best,” says Shay Welch, a philosophy professor at Spelman University. “They pretend all the other stuff isn’t there.”
Welch says students today who would rather focus on the ethics or metaphysics of, say, police brutality are encouraged to seek out political science courses rather than philosophy. The message they’re given, she says, is: “This is philosophy, and we don’t think about things like that. We think about the hard things.”
Students delving into contemporary philosophical conundrums might be put off by the field’s narrow outlook anyhow. “It’s not the case that these students don’t understand, but that they have bigger things to worry about philosophically than Plato’s theory of forms,” Welch says.
Meanwhile, contemporary analytic philosophy journals are often dominated by conversations between a small circle of philosophers, says Welch. She’s noticed that prestigious publications devote significant space to famous figures taking it in turns to respond to each other, but effectively locking out wider dialogue. This also serves to send philosophical debates down an ever-more narrow track.
Philosophy’s penchant for over-analyzing obscure and irrelevant topics could be compared to Silicon Valley’s focus on start-ups that answer the needs of just the privileged few. In refusing to consider others’ perspectives and needs, part of the field ultimately closes in on itself, responding only to the comments and values of those in the most powerful demographic.
The super geniuses
Philosophy’s cult of genius isn’t just toxic to those it excludes; it’s also corrosive to thinking. Those who gain access to the hallowed circle of super geniuses are often anointed at a relatively early age. Subsequently, they can be met with few major challenges or critiques for the remainder of their career.
Their philosophical work suffers as a result, says Kukla. “They end up producing these un-robust, shallow views and not having any material to grow and develop past them because they don’t engage with anybody else,” she says.
At its most extreme, a culture of absolute deference to “geniuses” of the field can lead to massive power imbalances, which contributes to the most heinous problem in both tech and philosophy: Too many instances of sexual harassment and assault.
In the past year, two stars of philosophy, Searle and Pogge, were publicly accused of sexual harassment. The allegations follow others from another renowned thinker, Colin McGinn, who gave up his tenured position following sexual harassment allegations.
Sexual harassment at the hands of purported geniuses is a problem across academia (and elsewhere, as a recent Girls episode explored). There’s no strong evidence on how much it varies across departments. But in philosophy, where so much depends on professor’s vouching for their students and there are few other external measures of success, younger students are certainly highly reliant on their professors’ approval.
“When people are set up as these super-powerful geniuses, they’re not even necessarily aware of the extent to which that makes other people below them not be in a position to stand up to them, resist them, or say no to them,” says Kukla.“This also contributes to the sense among victims that if they came forward they would not be taken seriously and, worse yet, might be retaliated against. In general, it contributes greatly to a culture of impunity for abusive behavior.”
A toxic culture of genius—in tech, philosophy, or elsewhere—is not the sole cause of harassment and diversity issues, but it certainly serves as an excuse for such misuse of power. And, ultimately, there’s no intellectual insight great enough to justify complete, unquestioned authority. Even among philosophers.
“I think the idea of genius needs to be abolished from philosophy altogether,” says Welch. “Good philosophers are conscientious, they read, and they think. That’s not genius.”