In the last post I said I prefer speaking just as a person over speaking with authority about philosophy. And I said when one speaks just as a person one is speaking “like one of the multitudes, one in the crowd. [The] aim is for us to speak as equals, as two people sharing our observations. Nothing more.”
Is this a matter of temperament or personality? Do you have an aversion to philosophical authority the way a person might not like carrots?
No. I think I have the desire to be seen as an authority as much as others do. Moreover, in my life I have often looked up to philosophical authority and put myself in the position of the earnest student. So both from the perspective of the speaker and the listener, by personality I have been very much drawn to philosophical authority.
My preference to speak just as a person goes against strong elements of my personality. That’s why its challenging – and also exciting, laced with a sense of personal growth and an expansion of horizons.
If it is not just a matter of your temperament, are you saying that philosophy professors are wrong to speak from authority?
Yes and no.
Let me start with “no”. In one very clear sense, the authority philosophy professors have comes from those wanting to listen to them as authorities. Lots of people, inside and outside academia, clearly enjoy and benefit from listening to philosophy professors as authorities on philosophy. That is a way they learn and grow. When there is genuine learning and growing, that is justification enough for philosophy professors to speak from authority. If someone is enjoying speaking as a professor and another person is enjoying engaging with that professor as an authority, it’s silly for a third person to say, “That’s all bullshit.”
In fact, speaking just a person means precisely not making these kinds of judgments about what benefits others. It is to treat people not as defined by their roles (professor, student, politician, parent, etc.) but that for every person there is, behind the roles, an individual trying to make sense of their life as best as they can. It is a contingent fact that the structures which didn’t work for me work for many others, and in some cases work enough for them to stay in and try to change it from within. One of the reasons I like speaking just a person is because it helps me remember this.
Still, in another sense my answer is “yes”. I don’t listen to philosophy professors as authorities anymore. I see them as people pursuing their interests embedded in structures which help others listen to them as authorities.
In this regard, I think of them like priests. What gives priests authority to speak about religion? Not from God as an outside force which underlies the priests’ authority over everyone. Priests don’t have any authority over me unless I find their speaking from authority helpful to me. If you find religious texts important for your life and you find the way priests talk about them helpful, of course it makes sense to listen to them as authorities. But if you don’t, you don’t. Similarly, if you certain philosophical texts interesting and find it helpful to listen to people who spend talking about them as their jobs, great. But there is no claim of authority underwritten by something other than the listeners who find it interesting such as “the philosophical tradition”, “the nature of philosophy”, “the rational mind” or “thinking clearly”.
I gave all those kind of justifications for academic philosophy when I was in academia. A good deal of my tension back then was I didn’t entirely believe it even back then.
So are you now a relativist who thinks any philosophical view is as good as any other?
No. I have beliefs about many things: religion, philosophy, mind, politics, future of humanity, etc. Part of having these beliefs, as with any beliefs, is believing them to be true. Or at any rate trying to justify one’s sense that they are true. I also believe some texts are better to trying to understand these topics than other texts, some authors more interesting and more incisive than others.
What I don’t believe is that the contemporary academic philosophy structures are either necessary or the best way to channel and engage with philosophical texts. Not only because, say, American philosophy departments for the most part ignore other traditions. But because they are misinterpreting even Western authors like Plato and Descartes.
Western academic philosophers like to trace their origins to Socrates. But in a sense modern academic philosophy is only 250 years old. Even modern philosophers like Hobbes, Spinoza and Hume predate it. The first great modern philosophy professor was Kant (1724-1804). Current philosophy departments are the result of at least four forces which came together in the second half of the 1700s in Europe:
1) the rise of modern universities linked to the industrial and political revolutions of the time;
2) universities moving theology from the center of the intellectual life to make room for the scientific revolution;
3) philosophy departments as the self-conscious expression of the best of human civilization, encapsulated in a hierarchy with European philosophy as the most rational; and
4) philosophy departments as the spaces which navigate in between religion and science by investigating the nature of knowledge.
The academic philosophy of Kant and Hegel which brought together (1)-(4) was a new transformation in its time. But it has now become antiquated.
(1) is being challenged as we move from the industrial age to the information age, and as that has implications for our political structures. So there is no reason to think the way Kant was a philosophy professor has to apply to our time. (2) is a done deal. There is no need anymore to justify the scientific revolution. The technological revolutions of the last 300 years justify it on their own, and even if they need some justification, that it is incompatible with parts of religion is low on the list of priorities. (3) is hard to believe shorn of the white supremacy which Kant and Hegel believed.
(4) is now the main remaining link between academic philosophy in Kant’s time and now. But (4) was really buttressed by (1)-(3). In Kant’s time religious, scientific, political, economic and colonial institutions were all being rethought. Kant’s great institutional achievement was to connect all these changes to philosophical questions and so to mark philosophy departments as the place in the university where meta-reflection on these changes happen. It was a great rethinking of philosophy and its tradition to make it fit into the new academic structures and the rapidly changing society of that time.
I respect Kant’s achievement. I just believe we need to do that now in our own time in our own way. Our societal changes are no less radical than those in Kant’s time, and our changes are overturning the very institutions set up in Kant’s time. It’s not obvious what the future of work will be, or the way people communicate, or share information, or how colleges more generally will be transformed. It is strange to think that in the midst of these huge changes, academic philosophy nonetheless can retain its identity from Kant’s time.
If philosophy professors don’t have authority grounded in the nature and history of philosophy, isn’t there going to be chaos in terms of philosophical thinking? How would we then know what distinguishes philosophy from non-philosophy, and good philosophy from bad philosophy?
Chaos is baked into human life. Every generation feels big, unprecedented changes are happening, because they are. Humans are defined by their cultural artifacts like tools, institutions, stories, identities and books, and humans are also defined by their continually changing those artifacts to their times. Culturally, humans are continually at sea, riding out the storms of transformation. This has been our fate at least since the dawn of mass civilizations and mass migrations around 6,000 years ago, and even before that from hunter gatherer life to agriculture or nomadic life.
The best way to deal with the chaos is to face up to it rather than to seek comfort in an imagined stability, either of a glorious past or a future utopia. To the extent one makes peace with the chaos, one can then ride with it, and that is the kind of stability and control we can genuinely have. But if we aim only for a stability that denies the chaos, like with any denial, it only pulls us deeper into the choas even as we live into a fantasy.
I certainly see this in current academic philosophy, which is being pulled apart by two fantasies. On the one side are those who miss the stability of the past decades, when it seemed like philosophy had a set curriculum and pantheon and method and topics, and it seemed like something which stretched from Plato to Quine (or whoever is their favorite contemporary). Of course, there was no such one thing stretching over 2,500 years and which neatly fits into philosophy departments. It was the Kantian and Hegelian achievement to create such a story which has been dominant in the West for the last 200 years. But from within the perspective of one who believes this story to be reality, the concerns raised by diversity feel like the barbarians attacking civilization. If they overtake civilization, all will be in ruins and all standards will be lost.
On the other side are those who want to embrace the diversity issues, challenge the status quo and the past and do all this from within academic philosophy. Here the fantasy is not of the past, but of the future. Can diversity be embraced in all its forms – comparative philosophy, feminism, critical race theory and so on, including deep challenges to what counts as philosophy and who counts as a philosopher, and even blurring the boundaries of inside and outside academia, and the boundaries between philosophy, politics, literature, science and religion – and yet package all that within the academic structures of intro courses, graduate education and tenure review, all the while also battling institutional problems like graduate students not getting jobs, and inequalities such as between tenure-track and adjunct professors? To me this seems like pouring – indeed, forcing – new wine into old wineskins. A valiant effort for those who want to try it, but, it seems to me, as doomed as trying to contain a hurricane in a room.
This division shows that already even within academic philosophy there is no agreed upon way to distinguish philosophy from non-philosophy, and good philosophy from bad philosophy. Accepting that philosophical authority isn’t grounded in the nature or history of philosophy isn’t a way of creating chaos. It is a way of appreciating the chaotic situation within which we already exist.
For some people Quine is an exemplar of a philosopher. For others it is Fanon. For yet others it is the Dalai Lama. Who is right? I think it’s the wrong question. Philosophy professors are forced to ask the question because of the practical issues they face as academics of determining what intro classes are taught, who gets hired and who gets the chaired professorships. The practical life of academia forces one to ask those questions – and so those questions become the trigger points in the profession, as if addressing the philosophical issues and the professional issues are the same.
If our aim is to deal with the broader chaotic situations of our lives and society in the 21st century, why should we think the way philosophy professors settle their chaotic internal institutional questions of advancement is the best, or even a good, way to do that? The world is already chaotic enough without forcing oneself to see it through the lens of an institution created 250 years ago. Sometimes it is better to step out and see things afresh.
Are you then siding with the conservative state governments who are trying to eliminate philosophy departments?
I don’t agree with their reasons for eliminating philosophy departments. They don’t want philosophy departments to be diverse. I left academic philosophy because it wasn’t diverse enough.
But since I think philosophy professors can speak with authority only insofar as people want to listen to them, I don’t object if people don’t want to listen to them. I think many conservatives, including religious conservatives, are justified to feel – as I did – that academic philosophers are not trying to speak to them. I can understand their annoyance that academic philosophers are trying to use the majesty or the essence or the history of philosophy as the justification for their authority rather than to try to gain the authority directly from the listeners’ interest.
Of course, I don’t agree with religious conservatives that instead of academic philosophy we need to go back to the church as the space of true authority. I don’t believe there is any such thing as the real institution of authority. There are only people trying to understand the world and listening to people who they find helpful. The trouble comes when we want to institutionally force others to find helpful what we find helpful.
In America the proximate cause of philosophy departments dwindling in the coming decades might be conservative governments. But we need to put it in the broader context of the internal tensions within academic philosophy and the way the Kantian model is becoming outdated. I support philosophy departments against conservative hit jobs, but I don’t thereby believe philosophy departments are essential for the future.
Current philosophy departments are like scholastic philosophy schools in the middle ages. The scholastic schoolmen experienced the new fangled philosophies of non-academics like Descartes and Spinoza as radical relativists overthrowing all standards. Of course, that’s not what Descartes and Spinoza were doing. They were rethinking philosophy and its possibilities without worrying about the internal institutional pressures faced by scholastics. By stepping out into the new, they were trying to meet the new situations and chaos head on without the weight of past institutions. I think that is a good spirit for our time as well.