APA Conferences, Bullshit, Racism, Ethnic Hatred, Guns, & How Contemporary Professional Philosophers Might Change Their Lives

In the Theses on Feuerbach, Marx wrote that “philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways; the point is to change it.”

Now I completely agree with Marx that an essential aim of real philosophy is to change the world, not merely interpret it. But I also sharply disagree, in that I think that the primary aim of real philosophy, and its rational practices of synoptic reflection, writing, teaching, and public conversation, is to change our lives. Then, and only then, can we act upon the world and change it in the right way.

Marx wrote that in 1845.

But in 2015, one hundred and seventy years later, most philosophers are neither changing the world nor changing their lives.

They’re going to conferences instead. Big fucking conferences. For example, the three American Philosophical Association (APA) yearly conferences: Eastern, Central, and Pacific.

In yesterday’s New York Times, Christy Wampole, who’s an academic humanist (French and Italian, at Princeton), although not a philosopher, published a very amusing critique of big academic conferences, with a more serious underlying point: they’re complete bullshit.

More precisely, such conferences exemplify all the worst aspects of the professionalization of the humanities in general and of philosophy in particular. Their only value is accidental to them—as opportunities for socializing, if you’re a social animal, or walking around cities you might not otherwise find the time to visit, instead of attending boring, pointless talks, if you’re an unsociable animal like me.

An important qualification: I distinguish sharply between (1) big fucking APA-style conferences, and (2) small, 2-day Euro-style workshops, where 20 or so philosophers working on closely-related topics informally present papers to one another, talk endlessly and seriously about the topics, and actually derive some intellectual benefit from the exercise. The former are a complete waste of time in themselves (leaving aside their accidental benefits), but the latter are often well worth doing.

Now Wampole, tongue-in-cheek, proposes a list of personal resolutions, which, if accepted, would make big conferences in the humanities more meaningful.

But I think it’s an obvious conclusion from her critique, and from what we all know about big philosophy conferences, that the correct conclusion to draw is that we should either start boycotting such conferences, and spend the money we personally waste on them more intelligently, or, as members of The APA, collectively vote to stop organizing such dumb-ass big conferences, then have The APA take the money they currently waste on them, and spend it more intelligently. Or both.

How might such money be spent more intelligently? And how might contemporary professional philosophers change their lives so that they begin to change the world in the right way, whether by individual action or by collective action via the social instrument of The APA?

Here is where the third, fourth, and fifth topics of this diary post kick in: racism, ethnic hatred, and guns.

I’ve been thinking lots recently about anti-Afro-American racism and anti-Hispanic ethnic hatred in the USA, and guns, because of the recent riots in Ferguson and Baltimore, all-too-reminiscent of the Zoot Suit riots in LA in the 1940s, of the less well-known Moody Park riots in Houston in 1978 (also, as it happens, right after Cinquo de Mayo), and of the Rodney King riots in LA in the early 1990s.

And when I was in Budapest for three months this past winter, I was also thinking lots about contemporary anti-Roma (a.k.a. “anti-Gypsy”) ethnic hatred in Hungary, in relation to fundamental issues in the philosophy of mind, primed by this recent New York Times article.

Now it seems to me that in the USA, everyone needs to be thinking long and hard about the causes of virulent, continuing anti-Afro-American racism and anti-Hispanic ethnic hatred, and even more deeply about the nature of race in relation to the nature of being a human person, and also about the culture of trigger-happy violence produced by the possession of guns by private individuals and policemen, and especially about the Second Amendment. From this long and hard thinking, they might also conclude that the possession of guns by private individuals AND by policemen is immoral, other things being equal, and correspondingly that the Second Amendment needs to be repealed. That NOBODY has the moral right to bear arms, other things being equal. How “crazy” is that?

(I was once reported by a student in one of my big Introduction to Ethics classes, and reprimanded by my department Chair, for daring to criticize the Second Amendment in class, and what was even worse, for shouting “Fuck the Second Amendment!” although I was merely portraying how a visiting foreigner who said “eh?” after every sentence, might react to it, in the course of carrying out an ethical thought-experiment. But that’s another story for another diary post.)

And it also seems to me that in Hungary, just as in the USA,  everyone also needs to be thinking long and hard about how bad racial and ethnic stereotypes are cognitively created and robustly sustained, even when people already “know better.”

So this is what contemporary professional philosophers might do.

First, they might start thinking, writing, teaching, and publicly conversing about racism and ethnic hatred from the standpoints of metaphysics, the philosophy of mind, and epistemology. Then combine that with work already done on racism and ethnic hatred from the standpoints of ethics and political philosophy.

And in order to do all that, they could spend the money they save by boycotting the APA conferences, by organizing many small, 2-day Euro-style workshops on various aspects of those issues.

Second, they might undertake collective action by coming out publicly against the uniquely American phenomenon of trigger-happy gun culture and the Second Amendment, via The APA, and then by traveling to Washington, DC, and marching. Philosophers Against the Second Amendment. Or whatever.

And this could be funded, at least as far as airline tickets and marching-signs, etc., were concerned, by The APA.

So that’s how APA conferences, bullshit, racism, ethnic hatred, guns, and how contemporary professional philosophers might change their lives, were all rolling around together in my head today, and seemed to be importantly interconnected.

Or am I even “crazier” than Marx? What do you think?

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About Z

Z is a 50-something cosmopolitan anarcho-philosopher, and previously was a tenured full professor of philosophy at a public university somewhere in North America, but still managed to escape with his life.