Hyper-Disciplined Minds: The Professionalization of Philosophy and the Death of Dissent.

1. Recently I’ve been reading and thinking about an amazing book, Jeff Schmidt’s
Disciplined Minds. It was published in 2000, so 16 years ago, and I was gobsmacked that I’d never heard about it until last month.

Here’s a good, short summary of the book.

For my purposes, what matters is Schmidt’s main thesis, which is that professionalism is all about “ideological discipline,” i.e., thought-control and behavior-control, even in those domains that seem most abstract, pure-thought driven, and critically self-aware—and his primary example is physics, because that’s his background and training.

Most of the book spins out and defends that thesis in detail, with lots of cool empirical data.

But Schmidt’s argument applies even more directly and poignantly to professional philosophy, than it does to physics.

If professional physicists are, essentially, “disciplined minds,” then professional academic philosophers are hyper-disciplined minds, as per these APP posts:

Philosophy Leiterized: How We Reduce Vermeers to Cow Plops, and How A Measure Colonizes Our Behavior.

Philosophy Professionalized: How We Killed the Thing We Loved.

Why Does Conscience Make Cowards of Us All? The Tenure-&-Promotion System as an Extremely Effective Device for Thought-Control.

Perhaps most interestingly and relevantly to the case of professional philosophy, the last part of Schmidt’s book offers many concrete suggestions about how dissent, resistance, or subversion from inside the system might be possible–what he calls being a “radical professional.”

This is very close to APP’s idea of anarcho-philosophy, which then nicely generalizes to the notion of an “anarcho-professional.”

To my mind, the only thing Schmidt doesn’t adequately address about radical professionalism or anarcho-professionalism is the fairly obvious point that anyone who sets out to resist in the way he suggests either

(i) isn’t going to survive graduate school, or
(ii) will never get a permanent or even contingent faculty academic job, or
(iii) will be fired from, or hounded out of, any permanent or contingent faculty job s/he already has.

And in fact, it’s totally ironic, because although Schmidt himself managed to get through graduate school and get his PhD in physics, he never got a permanent faculty academic job, and was fired from his journalism job at Physics Today for writing and publishing Disciplined Minds.

2. Again recently, one of APP’s readers sent me this:

Have you heard the story that for decades the CIA promoted modern art and artists, including many known communists, because of the Cold War? Here are some relevant links –

The CIA and the Cultural Cold War

Unpopular Front

Modern Art Was CIA ‘Weapon’

As you know, some regimes in the past have executed intellectuals to suppress dissent, while some regimes have incarcerated them.

It now seems that the most effective way to suppress dissent from intellectuals is to establish institutional employment and highly technical standards for them in which obscurity and irrelevance are the highest virtues.

In conjunction with this, you have to foster the impression and assumption that the only people qualified to speak on those subjects are “the professionals” in the field.

3. Zap. What Schmidt was saying and what my correspondent was saying, suddenly fused into a single line of thinking.

i. Coercive statists have a strong interest in maintaining ideological control by promoting professional academic intellectual busy-bee activity, writing, publishing, and teaching that presents itself as “critical free thinking,” but really isn’t.

ii. On the contrary, as clever and dialectically sharp as it may be, such professional academic busy-bee-ness is nothing but high-powered intellectual displacement activity, running on powerful implicit sub-mechanisms of ideological control.

iii. Professional academic philosophy since WW II has exemplified this coercive statist strategy paradigmatically, even moreso than physics, since philosophy is supposed to be the reflective, critical, free-thinking, synoptic discipline par excellence.

iv. But as John McCumber’s Time in the Ditch persuasively argues, professional academic philosophers during the McCarthy era were almost universally silent and submissive, although professionally very busy.

v. And even in the late 1960s and early 70s, with widespread student unrest and a sudden rise in radical thinking, only less than a handful of American academics with strong philosophical interests actually spoke and wrote out against what Schmidt so aptly calls “the military-corporate-university complex” (p. 175), e.g., Chomsky, Marcuse, and Robert Paul Wolff. Yet Chomsky and Marcuse weren’t even in philosophy departments, and Wolff eventually quit professional philosophy and moved over to a different, not-so-hyper-disciplined academic discipline, Afro-American Studies, in the early 90s.

vi. As for the rest of academic philosophy since World War II, and especially in the 2000s, ever-increasing professionalization and its intellectual hyper-busy-bee and good-little- do-bee activity have, in effect, completely smothered any serious dissent or resistance to, or subversion of, the military-corporate-university complex, or the larger economic and political structures of capitalism, (neo)liberal democracy, and statism, not to mention any serious critical reflection on the powerful ideological sub-mechanisms at work inside professional philosophy and higher education themselves.

vii. The ideological discipline of professional academic philosophy permits and even encourages “sanitized” social activism and “sanitized” social criticism. Sanitized philosophical social activism  and social criticism are when professional philosophers, with the explicit permission of their administrators and political overlords, focus narrowly on one or another officially “good” social causes–e.g., environmentalism, animal rights, abortion-rights, feminism, gay and lesbian rights, anti-racism, famine relief, etc., etc.– or critically attack some obviously reprehensible socio-cultural Other (say, ISIS), without also raising deeper critical questions about what really lies behind all these issues and problems (namely the military-corporate-university complex, and the larger economic and political structures), and the non-trivial extent to which professional academic philosophical busy-bee activity itself is actually complicit in their underlying causes.

viii. Does this ideological discipline really exist in professional academic philosophy? How would you like to be ward-churchilled? Did you feel that fear in the pit of your stomach? I rest my case.

4. In retrospect, then, and ironically, it’s now obvious to me that the reason I’d never heard about Schmidt’s book is that for all those years I was too busy, busy, busy, getting tenure, then promoted, publishing and teaching my ass off, trying desperately to be a real philosopher and live my life according to my own principles, and yet also somehow survive inside the intellectual, moral, and political gulag archipelago, with invisible bars and summers off, that is professional academic philosophy since World War II, without turning myself into a self-censoring replicant.

5. But the process of exiting professional academic philosophy before you’ve actually turned into an “emeritus”-model self-censored replicant, is also a serious exercise in ideological deprogramming.

6. So it is absolutely clear to me, now, that the true calling of real philosophers is to be rational rebels for humanity.

7. Given what I’ve argued in 1-6, however, it follows that this is really possible only outside professional academic philosophy.

8. Acting on his beliefs about civil disobedience and rational humanitarian dissent, and imprisoned, Thoreau reportedly said to Emerson: “What are you doing outside prison?” And Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” made the same point.

9. But for not dissimilar reasons, I’m saying: what are you doing inside?

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Z

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.