If I were an academic philosopher now, how would I handle it? What would I do differently now than I did twenty years ago when I started graduate school or ten years ago when I was a professor?
The main thing is I would keep conceptually distinct four things:
1) Seeking wisdom: the individual pursuit of becoming wiser. This is not subjective. But it is rooted in my personal path of self-improvement to be closer to God, nature and the cosmic perspective.
2) Conceptual clarification: a better intellectual understanding, broadly speaking, of ourselves and the world. This is philosophy as meta-science, conceptual clarification, phenomenology, feminism, etc. – whatever is one’s framework for understanding the mind, body, ethics, norms, knowledge, freedom, etc. This includes metaphilosophy: relation of philosophy to religion and science, the global origins of philosophy, and so on.
3) Institutional change of academic philosophy: the transformation of academic philosophy as it leaves behind its mid 20th century norms, practices and ideals to better reflect the diversity of people and interests which were opened up in academia post 1960s.
4) Public service: connecting philosophy, be it in terms of (1), (2) and/or (3), to the broader concerns of non-academics. There is obviously a lot happening in our society, be it politically, or climate change, or the rise of AI and the new information age, mass migrations and so on. The way most people on the planet make sense of these seismic changes isn’t in terms of academic philosophy. Rather, it’s through the prism of two broadly defined institutional practices – religions and science – and in particular, in terms of their particular religious or scientific institution being under threat by the other side. If left unchecked, this religion vs science framing, combined with the clash of identities, will lead to the end of humans. So the main public service of philosophers is to navigate this vast fight for the soul of humanity in a way which ennobles us and shows a path forward.
When I was an academic I constantly conflated (1)-(4). Which is easy to do because they cross-connect in all sorts of ways. But I conflated them in a way which left me constantly drained and confused. As a student and as a professor I didn’t know how to even conceptually separate the issues so that I can address them in a piece meal fashion. Instead I was always trying to do all of them at once – which led to being kind of mentally fried all the time.
I started grad school in 1999. The internet was still in its infancy. So my sense of the philosophy profession was limited to a few departments: Cornell and Harvard, and a marginal sense for close by departments like MIT, BU and Tufts. And my sense from the classes and public events in the departments I went to was that philosophy as (2) was supreme.
There was hardly any mention of (1) at Harvard back then, other than Putnam’s interest in Jewish thought and Cavell’s perfectionism – but both seemed at odds with the professionalization which had superseded them. There was even less sense for (3) and (4) – of how the profession needs to change itself, or how it ought to engage with the broader society. Mainly the feeling – at least to me – was one of the Harvard department trying to hold on to its glory of Quine and Rawls in the face of new currents in the profession. This reenforced the focus on (2) – as if one first has to fight for the correct intellectual view of academic philosophy, and all else will follow somewhere downstream.
I did have a sense that (3) and (4) were being discussed behind the scenes – at dinner parties, between friends, in groups vying for control and self-affirmation, both at Harvard and perhaps more generally in the profession. I was not moved to join these groups in part because I wanted the conversations to be completely public, and also because I felt these under the surface discussions of “how to take control” and “change things from within” were not connected to (1).
This is still my main objection to the social justice warrior mindset: any sustainable changes in (3) have to be grounded in not only (2) but also, and even more so, in (1). The emotions are too raw in (3) for us to expect that it is obvious what “the right way forward” is, and who is and isn’t a racist. There are more obvious things like curtailing sexual harrassment, or just acknowledging that feminism or non-Western thought is philosophy. But once we get beyond that to the positive question of what a diverse philosophical community looks like, there are actually many more questions to be clarified and pursued before being certain of the right moral course of action.
The main difference between when I was in graduate school and now is that (3) and (4) are now completely out in the open. Not in terms of what to do about them, but in terms of issues and problematics which cannot be ignored. Pandora’s box has been cracked opened for both (3) and (4) in academic philosophy. As more minorities enter academic philosophy and as right wing governments cut back more on funding the humanities, the box will be opened wider and wider.
Though (3) and (4) are important, philosophy and critical reflection has to begin always in a fundamentally self oriented space – in the thinker’s own needs as a thinker. When such self-focus is selfish/complicit/immoral and when it is a reflection of independence/freedom/creativity is always going to be contentious. To someone mainly focused on (3), (1) or (2) will seem naive or complicit. And seeming complicit in older racist structures will make them seem racist. But if it isn’t for the space to catch a breath and think for oneself that is implicit in (1) and (2), it is unclear how we can make reasoned, thoughtful changes in (3) and (4).
Here was the root of my own personal anxiety in academia. I didn’t identify with either the institutionally conservative wing or the institutionally progressive wing. I felt the conservatives who identified philosophy with just (2) (that too with a Eurocentric version of (2)) were complicit in structures which are outdated and wrong. So I wanted to join forces with the more progressive wing. Yet I couldn’t accept change can come while trampling on others’ sense of intellectual freedom to determine what is important and what isn’t. This is because philosophy always appealed to me fundamentally as (1) – which is perhaps even more a self oriented a way of thinking of philosophy than (2), which claims the interlocutor’s right to challenge my ideas as foundational, and so where I have to respond to others in that sense. (1) can be, but need not be, related to others even in this sense. It is a person’s individual attempt to keep improving themselves as they are moved by their internal currents. In (1) one is responsible firstly not to other people, but to God or Nature.
What I failed to realize back then was that the main philosophical disagreements aren’t internal to any one of (1)-(4). So it isn’t between dualists and materialists in (2). Or between proponents and critics of the Gourmet report in (3). Or between Republicans and Democrats, or socialists and capitalists, or atheists and theists in (4).
Rather the main – highest order – philosophical disagreements are about how to combine (1)-(4). About which should be prioritized over the other, and which is more primary. Or if in fact any of the four ought to be prioritized over the others. And if not, how they can be held together – how they can be harmonized into a cohesive, overall vision which can respect both the importance of, and the conceptual separations between, (1) – (4).
This is ultimately an issue for all people, not just academic philosophers. Even now as a non-academic I am confronted with the question of how to balance (1) through (4). To what extent I should forget about politics and focus on my personal spiritual growth, or on my desire to just better understand the mind and human history. How much I should leave the issues of (3) and the future of academic philosophy to the academics, and how much I should care about it not only as a former academic but as a citizen. To what extent I should seek my grounding only in God and whether that will make me complicit to the injustices and pain around me.
How one combines (1)-(4) reflects a life vision: a view of oneself, society and the cosmos, where it all came from and where it is going. In grad school I hungered for the expansiveness of thought that is captured in such a life vision. Unclear how to hold onto (1) – (4) at once, I conflated each onto the other, and tried to do them all at once. It was like trying to rub my stomach while rubbing my head while hopping on one leg while reading a book. And feel frustrating and angry with others and myself when I couldn’t pull it off.
But doing all four isn’t a matter of doing them at the same time. It is rather a matter of crafting a life which involves all four in a harmonious and reinforcing way. Of cultivating one’s life to be open to all four modes of reflection and fostering social structures which can enable that for others.
It begins with oneself. Finding the balance requires in the first instance feeling good about oneself and feeling that one is not simply reacting to others, be it their injustices or their inspirations. It is to be open to all of oneself, the many dimensions within oneself: the spiritual, the intellectual, the institutional and the social. When one is open to all of oneself, it becomes easier to be open to others, which in turn makes it easier to work to change things together.