I’ve been silent for a while, and this post is by no means a rebirth of this blog. I simply feel that I should make public some metaphilosophical considerations regarding some issues that seem to me of extreme importance and that demand that I break my usual silence. As it happens, some of my ideas here go against the apparent consensus among friends and colleagues out there, but I mean what follows in constructive, rather than confrontational spirit.
Some may have noticed that I haven’t participated in the discussions related to ‘para-academic practices’ which took place between my fellow Speculations editors and the editors of continent. (here and at the conference in Basel last September). Why? Whilst some economic considerations made it impossible for me to be present in Basel aside, an honest answer is that I am somewhat sceptical towards the enthusiasm many out there are displaying towards ‘para-academia’.
As an undergraduate, I became enamoured with Pierre Hadot’s reconstruction of the history of ancient philosophy, and enthusiastically agreed with his indictment of late medieval and, mainly, modern ‘academic’ philosophy, The latter was, in his eyes, guilty of taking philosophy off the streets and enclosing it within high University walls, changing its very nature and corrupting its transformative power. So Hadot thought that
from the end of the eighteenth century onward, a new philosophy made its appearance within the University, in the persons of Wolff, Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel. From now on, with a few rare exceptions like Schopenhauer or Nietzsche, philosophy would be indissolubly linked to the University. We see this in the case of Bergson, Husserl, and Heidegger. This fact is not without importance. Philosophy – reduced, as we have seen, to philosophical discourse develops from this point on in a different atmosphere and environment from that of ancient philosophy. In modern University philosophy, philosophy is obviously no longer a way of life or form of life – unless it be the form of life of a professor of philosophy. Nowadays, philosophy’s element and vital milieu is the state educational institution; this has always been, and may still be, a danger for its independence.
(Philosophy as a Way of Life: 271).
So much did I embrace Hadot’s vision, that I decided to leave academic philosophy altogether, tired with the self-referential and pretentious debates I heard around me. That didn’t work out very well after all. Still, even today, I retain some of my undergraduate fervour for ‘philosophy for something’ (which does not mean to subordinate philosophy to anything, just to envision it as producing intellectual progress that eventually feeds back into culture as a whole).
It is undeniable that nowadays a lot of professional philosophy is self-referential to an angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin debate level. Last year Philip Kitcher published a provoking paper (paywalled, email me for the pdf) comparing the current institutional practice of (analytic) philosophy to that of music as practised inside peculiarly uncreative kind of conservatories. It’s easier to quote here the opening paragraph rather than summarize the protracted metaphor:
Once upon a time, in a country not too far away, the most prominent musicians decided to become serious about their profession. They encouraged their promising students to devote hours to special exercises designed to strengthen ﬁngers, shape lips, and extend breath control. Within a few years, conservatories began to hold exciting competitions, at which the most rigorous etudes would be performed in public. For a while, these contests went on side by side with concerts devoted to the traditional repertoire. Gradually, however, interest in the compositions of the past—and virtually all those of the present—began to wane. Serious pianists found the studies composed by Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, and Ligeti insufﬁciently taxing, and they dismissed the suites, concertos, and sonatas of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Prokoﬁev as worthy of performance only by second-raters. Popular interest in the festivals organized by the major conservatories quickly declined, although the contests continued to be attended by a tiny group of self-described cognoscenti. A few maverick musicians, including some who had once been counted among the serious professionals, offered performances of works their elite ex-colleagues despised. When reports of the broad enthusiastic response to a recital centered on the late Beethoven sonatas came to the ears of the professionals, the glowing reviews produced only a smile and a sniff. For serious pianists, the fact that one of their former fellows had now decided to slum it was no cause for serious concern. Compared to the recent competition in which one pianist had delivered Multi-Scale 937 in under 70100” and another had ornamented Quadruple Tremolo 41 with an extra trill, an applauded performance of the Hammerklavier was truly small potatoes. As time went on, the outside audience for ‘‘serious performance’’ dwindled to nothing, and the public applause for the ‘‘second-raters’’ who offered Bach, Chopin, and Prokoﬁev became more intense. The smiles of the cognoscenti became a little more strained, and the sniffs were ever more disdainful.
(Philosophy Inside Out: 248-249)
The allegory here is built to match the analytic camp, but with some modifications (indulgence in overtly-experimental, avant-garde arrangements rather than hyper-technical etudes) it could as well be applied to the more continental/theory kind of academic work (what’s continental philosophy’s music? Jazz?). (Summarizing his argument to the bone and glossing over its Deweyian slant) Kitcher’s moral is that
In setting high standards for precision and clarity, the Anglophone philosophy of the past half century can be valuable…—just as ﬁnger-tangling etudes can be excellent preparation for aspiring pianists. Yet unless one can show that the more abstract questions do contribute to the solution of problems of more general concern, that they are not simply exercises in virtuosity, they should be seen as preludes to philosophy rather than the substance of it.
But is this a fair assessment? Unlike Kitcher, James Ladyman defended specialization and technical proficiency in professional philosophy claiming that given the sheer breadth of human knowledge it is simply impossible to produce philosophical progress, today, without specialists concentrating their efforts on specific, and sometimes technical, problems. This is the hackneyed analytic vs. synoptic opposition: in my view, both are equally necessary. So Ladyman is correct when he writes that
It is…unwise to expect the average academic philosopher to do justice to the subject as a whole. Rather, it is important that some people become specialised in understanding exactly why we do not know the answers to specific questions many of which make sense only to experts. This may not amount to advancing our understanding of the meaning of life, but it is in keeping with Socrates’ conception of the philosopher as gadfly, asking awkward questions and exposing epistemic hubris.
And yet Kitcher’s parody doesn’t lose its bite when we consider that sometimes it is easy, within an overgrown specialized field, for certain degenerate research programs to get mixed up with those others which are worth pursuing (and indeed, remember Ladyman’s scathing assessment of contemporary metaphysics in chapter one of Every Thing Must Go). Moreover, Christopher Norris indirectly replied to Ladyman’s defense of specialization when he very cogently noted (in the last piece of metaphilosophical reflection I’m going to refer to) that
the philosopher-specialists are apt to finally disqualify themselves, as did the logical positivists before them, by imitating science but inevitably lagging behind it by any measure of substantive contributions to knowledge….Hence the unfortunate impression often given by, say, philosophers of mind or philosophers of perception, that they’re somehow hoping to bootstrap their way by sheer analytical acuity to discoveries of the sort more typically and aptly claimed by disciplines such as neurophysiology.
Where analytic philosophers tend to go wrong is not in striving for the conceptual precision or explanatory power that typifies good physical science, nor in taking scientific methods and procedures as an object of study. Rather it is in academic philosophy’s wholesale adoption of a notionally science-led research culture, where piecemeal problem-solving is the order of the day, and there is little or no room for the kind of nonconformist speculative thought that has been a regular hallmark of major advances in philosophy, as well as in the sciences. By surrendering that crucial margin of autonomy – the space for independent critical reflection on whatever engages one’s interest – philosophy aligns itself not so much with science itself, but with a markedly paradigm-conserving, conformist type of scientific activity. In so doing, it fails to make contact with the physical sciences or other regions of enquiry in a way that might yield the highest rate of mutual benefit.
I agree with Ladyman that philosophical problems shouldn’t be pursued with the explicit (and intellectually constraining) aim of delivering ready-made results to the general public (to this extent philosophy indeed is ‘not for the masses’ as per the title of his essay), and therefore that we shouldn’t aim at playing yet another Beethoven concerto just to make people happy – to stick with Kitcher’s metaphor. But I also think, with Norris, that even the most technical issues should always be capable of be seen (perhaps through a long chain of more or less direct conceptual relations) as part of an overarching project of human progress of clearly distinguishable and explainable value and oriented towards conceptual innovation (and I guess that this is where the Sellarsians will get excited, and start claiming that good old Wilfrid was precisely capable of doing both at the same time). But, importantly, here’s where the musical metaphor breaks, and this is a crucial point: call me old-fashioned, but I believe in a handful of classic Enlightenment values, among which is the progress-producing power of knowledge. I don’t believe that music, nor any other artistic pursuit, can so easily accommodate progress talk – if at all (more on this later).
What I want to highlight is that the problem, as I see it, should go under the name of self-referentiality. By this I mean both the lack of contact with the wider society and the internal loss of discrimination between progress-bound research avenues on the one hand and projects as self-flattering as fruitless on the other. Self-referentiality kills (good) philosophy because the wider public is interested in receiving and participating in philosophical education whenever given the chance (there are countless examples to bring to corroborate this claim, from small scale philosophy nights at local pubs to city-wide philosophical festivals over entire days), and ivory-tower enclosure keeps what should be an integral part of society’s intellectual life criminally inaccessible for most people.
But — and here I start treading on contentious ground — self-referentiality of the second kind (internal miopia to the effective value of one’s own philosophical scene) can easily survive, and thrive, even where philosophy has been helped to evade the Tower. Sometimes the freedom from stifling (or perceived as such) academic norms or standards is hard to manage, and often the result of such release from academic shackles is work of dubious worth because, well, it is self-referential (keep in mind that I am mainly referring to philosophy here: I don’t have the credentials to comment on any other discipline). To focus on ‘speculative’ circles, it seems evident to me that (mutatis mutandis: replace focus on texts, signs and signifiers with that on stars, monsters and cosmic darkness) many are repeating exactly the same kind of conceptual excesses and indulging in the Byzantine, affected and jargon-heavy prose we accuse minor deconstructionists of engaging in with abandon in the 1980s and the 1990s. Too much self-referentiality, and too little of that necessary ingredient of any responsible philosophy: self-criticism.
That was me being diplomatic and polite. Let me reformulate the thought in a more direct way. Some of the stuff out there, to say it with Wolfgang Pauli, is not even wrong. Too often I see para-academic work boiling down to philosophically uninteresting and sterile lucubrations on the author’s favourite topic, book or musical genre. And sometimes it is really just worthless bullshit. I know that nowadays the hip thing to think is that academic, University-based philosophy is necessarily musty, boring and inconsequential but (even if true) this doesn’t mean that we should give up on the institution of the University. Yes, often academic philosophical work is worthless bullshit too. But to think that the solution to all philosophical (internal) ills is to re-cast it all into a para-academic shape is mistaken. There is only good philosophy and bad philosophy and our main (if not unique) interest and intellectual responsibility should be discriminating between the two, whatever their provenance. So, I want to claim that
1) If we want to reform academic philosophy we cannot just abandon ship. The institution of the University, in its ideal form (more on this later) is a damn fine ship. It’s one of the most important institutions humans have created, and if today it is in a late-capitalist shambles we should feel the moral obligation to re-found it according to our best ideals (as radical an overhaul as necessary) rather than simply sneer at it as doomed to unredeemable complicity with the economic machine.
2) Even more contentiously, I believe that some form of institutional regulation, mostly in the form of training requisites, is necessary for good philosophy to be possible.
In the context of the debate between my Speculations friends and the continent. editors a lot of emphasis has been put on the Academia / University distinction (put forward by Michael), privileging the first as an ideal space of knowledge communication while denouncing the latter as an overly-bureaucratized, profit-seeking institution. I want to endorse this distinction, if with a few caveats. It is not enough to call Academia a space for knowledge exchange. I think that it is important to distinguish between the communication of knowledge and the creation of knowledge. When the other editors discuss the value of open access publications and of the myriad of ways in which everyone can today virtually attend classes delivered by the best teachers in their field I could not agree more with their emphasis on the necessity of promoting these forms of dissemination of knowledge as widely and as radically as possible. I’ve always been a committed supporter of open access publications, and I believe that the days of paywalled academic journals and of expensive academic books are numbered (or should be forcefully made so by us). Both Springer and Elsevier have recently introduced an ‘open access option’ for contributors to their journals: they just ask the author for 2000 Euros/Dollars upfront to have his or her article go open access. What is this if not the shameful, shamelessly exploitative, foolish grasping at straws of corporations terrified by the sudden realization that their source of profit is doomed to disappear? Both the dissemination of new knowledge and University education should be free (i.e., fully subsidised by tax-payers’ money). Fullstop.
But so far we’ve only touched the issue of the communication/exchange/dissemination of knowledge, not that of its creation. If no good philosophy is created, it doesn’t really matter how widely it gets circulated or how freely one can access to it (in fact, when bad philosophy goes viral it’s only for the worst). There sometimes seems to be the tacit assumption that a greater circulation of ideas will necessarily produce more quality. Perhaps this is my very own temperamental attitude speaking, but I’m someone who, against this assumption, fully subscribes to Deleuze’s famous considerations on philosophical conversations:
philosophy [doesn’t] find any final refuge in communication, which only works under the sway of opinions in order to create “consensus” and not concepts. The idea of a Western democratic conversation between friends has never produced a single concept.
Every philosopher runs away when he or she hears someone say, “Let’s discuss this.” Discussions are fine for roundtable talks, but philosophy throws its numbered dice on another table. The best one can say about discussions is that they take things no farther, since the participants never talk about the same thing. Of what concern is it to philosophy that someone has such a view, and thinks this or that, if the problems at stake are not stated? And when they are stated, it is no longer a matter of discussing but rather one of creating concepts for the undiscussible problem posed. Communication always comes too early or too late, and when it comes to creating, conversation is always superfluous.
(What is Philosophy?: 6, 28)
I’m no Deleuzian, but Deleuze is actually an excellent example to introduce my general point: someone who has undoubtedly been one of the most original, daring, creative and speculative philosophers of the XXth century, and someone who can hardly be accused of academic conservativism. But his most speculative moments were always supported by his frighteningly deep knowledge of the history of philosophy (and history of science), the product of the most classical French University training married to an exceptional mind (and the same, of course, goes for all of his great French contemporaries). To think that we should simply remove all academic constraints and gatekeeping to sit back and witness a thousand speculative flowers bloom in occasional workshops or collectives (or the blogosphere) is to be (at least) dangerously optimistic.
I’ve read somewhere an argument to the effect that the lack of academic patronage in people like Leibniz, Hume, Diderot and other philosophical protagonists of the pre-Kantian philosophical scene somehow proves that, even today, we don’t need academic affiliation to create original thought. This argument, I’m afraid, is at best historically naïve. Sure, these philosophers were not ‘professors’. But they were, pretty much invariably, rich, white males living in a pre-capitalist society and with enough personal wealth to allow them to securely entertain the leisurely activity of philosophizing. When’s the last time you’ve seen a rich, well-educated diplomat writing metaphysical treatises while on business trips? Times have changed, and to look back at the good ol’ times when the ‘everyman’ was a philosopher will not help. Academia, in its idealized (but not utopic) institutional form (that is, organized in Universities) I’m referring to here, should precisely be an environment protected from economic, sexual and racial inequalities and accessible only on the base of intellectual merit. Once again, we cannot give up on this ideal just because its current shape is tragically less than ideal. We need Universities, and that fact that nowadays philosophy is bound to decadently bureaucratized institutional conditions should only encourage us to renew it, and create better Universities (a task which is arguably inextricably bound with a larger-scale renewal of our society and its economic organization). To corroborate this point, look at the phenomenon of ‘philosophical counselling’ which, often explicitly endorsing an Hadottian call to bring philosophy out of the University and back to bear directly on people’s lives, really boils down to a commodification of ‘philosophical’ self-help paid by the hour.
I endorse all of my friends’ reflections on the necessity of ‘opening the gates’ of academia when it comes to democratizing its output of knowledge, but I think that some gatekeeping is necessary when the goal is to maximise the quality of production of new knowledge. Paul Boshears recently wrote that ‘when it is impossible for any one person to distinguish signal from noise, reliable signal markers are necessary. This promise is implicit in the vetting process that underwrites accreditation’. Indeed. And my point is: if nowadays the accreditation process has been reduced to more of a monetary exchange between ‘prestigious’ institutions and debt-ridden students (converting monetary capital into symbolic capital, as Bordieu would have it) than to a question of objective merit, it doesn’t follow that we should throw the baby of the vetting process out with the bathwater of a corrupt, McDonaldized University system. So here’s my most conservative line: no good philosophy gets created without very good training (methodological and historical), a training that takes time, effort and humility and, crucially, training that needs to be delivered in an appropriate institutional setting. To be completely honest, I’m not even so positive as I used to be towards the internet-based ways through which anyone can now rise to sudden philosophical fame. To re-employ the image used by Paul above, the signal to noise ratio gets so unbearably high that it becomes humanly impossible to tell the wheat from the chaff and, in the worst cases, theorizing of low quality but high intellectual marketability gets more attention than it deserves (a phenomenon someone would call an ‘online orgy of stupidity’). It seems to me too high a price to pay to break out of the—admittedly slow and archaic—academic journal avenue of publication (and these considerations partially explain why I retreated from the blogosphere). In the meantime, open access journals with a quicker turnaround and wider distribution (like Speculations and continent.) are a better compromise between quality control and wide dissemination, but even this is no ideal solution. I think that an interesting route would be open access peer-review: for a period of time a given paper gets posted on an internet platform where a large number of (perhaps anonymous, perhaps not) reviewers (from a pool of selected editors, not just anyone) can comment according to a pre-defined format which emphasises constructive comments strictly relevant to the argument, with the clear aim of delivering, at the end of the review process, a publishable and final piece of writing (I don’t believe in continuously updatable pieces of writing: that’s a late deconstructionist/1990s hypertext-cyberculture ideal which is just impractical and ultimately useless).
So what should we do? I will endorse ‘para-academia’ where that means the effort to create new kinds of Universities, organized according to different and better guidelines but where intellectual freedom doesn’t get confused with a theorizing free-for-all. (I’ve seen several references to the Public School in New York, as an excellent example of a para-academic institution to follow. As interesting as it looks, I don’t know enough about it to pass an informed judgment, but I would like to note that experiments of this sort are nothing too new: in 2013 will recur the 30th year celebrations for the founding, in 1983, of the Collège International de Philosophie, an institution founded in Paris by the likes of Derrida, Lecourt, Faye and Châtelet with the intention of reforming what was perceived to be an inadequate approach to philosophy in the French universities, and organized around the ‘principle of intersection’: of systematically mixing philosophy with the arts, sciences and law). However, I’m concerned when talk of para-academia proudly coats itself with an antagonistic tone which seems to betray more a spirit of teenage rebellion against the Dads of the University than a militant desire to draw a concrete strategy to reform an institution we all should care about. If all of today’s young and promising intellectuals self-exile themselves in short-lived and nebulously structured para-academic outfits, tomorrow’s University will remain unchanged.
Ultimately, I think that a very good case can be made that there is simply too much out there: too many ‘philosophers’, too many publications, too many conferences Here’s where I would enforce an even stricter gatekeeping: the academic market is oversaturated because, for profit’s sake, Universities have been giving away, for the last several decades, Ph.Ds to people that, frankly, didn’t deserve them (having said this, I of course sympathize with the shameful predicament into which underpaid adjuncts are forced into and with that of many friends I know with fresh Ph.Ds and no University employment – and note that I am not predicating from a safe place: I don’t even have a Ph.D yet, and when I will I’ll be adrift in the academic market like everyone else).
Indeed, given that this is delicate ground, and people’s egos are easily bruised, let me put myself on the line, lest I be accused of thinking too highly of myself. In my ideal academic world very few would be accepted into PhD programs, and only after a thorough admission test – like it exists in some European countries. In my ideal academic world, someone like me should not have been accepted for a PhD in the first place, for much higher standards of acquaintance with the philosophical tradition and of production of original thought should be required. This sort of gatekeeping would not mean deficit of intellectual freedom: those qualified enough to enter academia should be left total freedom to follow their own interest. Much of the dynamics which we are well-accustomed to and we are fond of denouncing — academic factions, fashions, clientelism, narrow-mindedness and conservativism — are fuelled by legions of lesser philosophers needing to buttress their intellectual paucity with alternative ways of self-defense. This pruned academia would feed back knowledge into society exclusively through open-access publishing, free internet-delivered lecture courses, and special programs aimed to inform and engage the public. Is this a Kantian utopia of academic freedom? Perhaps, but nothing we don’t already have the resources, today, to bring into reality. I will repeat this: I take the deliverance of free education to be a core duty of any society, on par with free healthcare. But would you want to be cured by a self-taught doctor?
Let me wrap this up by referring directly to the case of the now-ubiquitous term ‘speculation’ or ‘speculative’, often used in these days to indicate a philosophizing method alternative (or at least parallel) to the University-based one. Make no mistake: I am a proud editor of Speculations and Paul, Michael, Thomas and Rob can (I think) testify to my thorough and earnest commitment to the journal and my positive if not ambitious attitude towards its present and future developments. I am also someone who, everything considered, is happy to save the term ‘speculative realism’ from the dustbin of modish philosophical trademarks: I think it’s a good term that can still be salvaged and re-engineered to index an ambitious and genuinely progressive philosophical realist project (and there’s a forthcoming issue of Speculations that will try to do precisely this). That is to say, speculation/speculative can be excellent words to orient philosophical practice to the extent that they are made to resonate with ‘daring’ and ‘innovative’ (meditations on a given issue). But they can also carry with them the meaning of ‘arbitrary’, ‘pretentious’ and ‘hasty’ (conclusions arrived at without sufficient justification). Speculation, in other words, should always be a means to an end, and it seems to me that all too often the end remains out of view, or insufficiently clarified. Contentiously, again, I think this is the gap which lies between philosophy and so-called ‘theory-fiction’: I have nothing against the latter, but it lacks the goal-oriented nature of philosophical thought. As such, its freedom of expression can surely deliver unexpected insights, can be a sandbox for new conceptual tools, or can attempt to express in artistic language what cannot still be expressed through rational argumentation. But it does not do, by itself, any philosophical work. It might even be a necessary part of philosophical work, indispensable for progressing through conceptual revolutions (I am cautious about this, but I’m open to this possibility), but by itself is not sufficient. Cultivated for its own sake, it is frictionless theorizing in the intellectual void. To coat one’s own personal interests with opaque philosophical jargon in order to propel it to cosmic significance and then call it philosophy is nothing but a travesty.
I take philosophy very seriously. Philosophy is not about what is interesting, nor about what is cool or hip. It’s about having the intellectual responsibility of identifying what is important to make sense of for the sake of the expansion of knowledge. It is about seeking rational explanations of human and non-human phenomena, questioning the obvious character of present presuppositions, learning from and drawing upon our best sources of empirical knowledge and engineering new concepts to help make sense of their deliverances. But conceptual engineering must be constrained by its input (avoiding vague references to some kind of intellectual intuition on the state of things) and by its goal (to feed back into a broader explanatory project). All too often free from such scruples, the recent recovery of talk of objective reality has given free rein to a new wave of speculative theorizing which — allegedly about such a reality – expresses, at every step of the way, little more than the author’s narcissistic pleasure in ranting against human narcissism.
Finally, as self-professed Enlightenment supporter, I’m pretty concerned by the current enthusiastic rehabilitation, in the name of ‘realism’, of tropes (mostly of German romantic descent) that belong squarely to the reactionary counter-Enlightenment movement running from Hamann to postmodern relativism or to mystical-irrationalist subcurrents of thought (rather ironically given the feigned hostility to precisely these stances) – something which can be perhaps be explained by a lack of historical consciousness induced by an excessive, intoxicating exposure to speculative thought. Personally, I unconditionally take a philosophically refined (naturalistically motivated) nihilism to be the only responsible and philosophically fertile intellectual stance to endorse as a background to both our inquiries into ourselves and the universe. However, while nihilistic consequences of the Enlightenment (recall how the term nihilism itself was coined by Jacobi in order to find words to denounce the perilous nature of the Enlightenment project, an attitude that survives today in reactionary thinkers like MacIntyre…or Heidegger) are to be embraced rather than evaded, I am truly baffled by certain forms of ‘militant’, indulgent, and self-congratulatory nihilism out there, engaged in what seems to me to be a particularly amusing variety of performative contradiction.
When lacking something meaningful to say, I’d rather shut up. But as I said in the opening, I decided to break the virtual silence of this blog because I genuinely care about these issues. I might be wrong in some of the opinions I’ve expressed here – these are issues I am still trying to grapple with myself. But I hope that they will be received as bearing a constructive desire to improve forms and methods of our philosophizing (to make it more relevant, more effective, and more progressive). If my tone seemed dismissive, I apologize. However, I take the pursuit of truth as more important than the flattery of people’s feelings or polite silence.
P.S. – Self-promotion time. Those looking for more critical discussion of ‘speculative realism’ can (while waiting for Speculations IV) take a look at my review essay here, where I essentially describe what SR should be, emphasising its five core commitments.