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Reviewed by:
  • Fashionable Nihilism: A Critique of Analytic Philosophy
  • Philip Cafaro
Fashionable Nihilism: A Critique of Analytic Philosophy. Bruce Wilshire. Albany: SUNY Press, 2002. xv + 156 pp. $57.50 h.c. 0-7914-5429-0; $18.95 pbk. 0-7914-5430-9.

Philosophers owe Bruce Wilshire a debt of gratitude for this book, although in the current state of the profession that debt is likely to go unpaid. Although I do not agree with all of Wilshire's criticisms of mainstream analytic philosophy (hereafter "MAP") or all of his prescriptions for change, he treats serious issues with which philosophers should be grappling. Fashionable Nihilism provides a fine occasion to debate the nature and proper goals of philosophy.

In the first three of nine short chapters, Wilshire levels a series of charges against MAP, including:

  • • —smugness: self-assurance among MAPers that they know the real problems, the proper methods for investigating them.

  • • —lack of pluralism, and indeed active squelching of pluralism in the "best" philosophy departments (no phenomenology, American philosophy, etc.).

  • • —uncritical acceptance, amounting to worship, of the methods and outlook of science ("scientism").

  • • —no personal commitment of philosophers to pursue self-knowledge, or to live "la vie philosophique."

  • • —small thinking: a failure to take up the big questions, including questions concerning meaning and spirituality.

  • • —failure to take up philosophy's traditional role of summing up over all the special sciences.

  • • —ahistoricism and a willful ignorance regarding the history of philosophy.

  • • —professionalism and its attendant dangers of overspecialization and lack of personal commitment.

  • • —arguing away the richness of experience, rather than celebrating it and awakening us to its wonder and meaning.

For Wilshire, these baleful consequences are all related and they all add up to nihilism, which he defines thusly:

Nihilism means: to mangle the roots of our thinking-feeling-evaluating selves, to lose the full potential of our immediate ecstatic involvement in the world around us. It means to lose full contact with our willing-feeling-valuing life-projects: [End Page 257] to have a shallow sense of what is valuable in human life. It means to be arch, smug, dried out—to be a talking head among other such heads. Speak and reason as we will, we are no longer moved in our depths.


In some ways, nihilism is an unfortunate term for all this. Rhetorically, it will tend to turn off the very people (MAPers) who should be reading this book. It also arguably mischaracterizes the phenomena Wilshire wants to criticize. He has not really fingered a denial of value, or loss of all values, but rather the loss of important philosophical values and the smallness of the values that seem to have replaced them (such as professional success). The use of the blanket term "nihilism" also perhaps makes these phenomena more interdependent than they are and suggests a "take it or leave it" approach to the book's critique.

Still, Wilshire's discussion of these issues is trenchant and valuable. One of his strengths, I think, is that he discusses them not just in terms of philosophical methods or positions, but also in terms of the institutions of philosophy (graduate programs, APA conferences) and the lives that we philosophers are leading. For example, in chapter three Wilshire discusses "the pluralist rebellion" he helped lead in the late 1970s to get the eastern division of the APA to open up conference programs and official positions to non-MAPers. Many younger philosophers, such as myself, will probably not know this fascinating chapter in the history of our professional association; many of us who work on the margins or outside MAP, and who have managed to build careers nevertheless, may feel some gratitude toward the rebels. Similarly, Wilshire's discussion of the dangers of professionalization examines the institutions of philosophy in a way that should encourage critical self-scrutiny.

Another institutional discussion, however, illustrates an occasional weakness in the book: the author at times allows clever rhetoric to take the place of philosophical discussion. Examining the Leiter "Gourmet Report," Wilshire scores good points against its narrowness and self-certifying nature (who says these are the top philosophy departments? Why, members of the top departments, who do the voting!). But...


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