Let’s Crash Out! Real Philosophy, Anti-Professional Style, and the Right Genre and Medium for the Message. (APP’s Readers Talk Back! 2)

APP Editors’ Note: JV is a graduate student in philosophy at a public university somewhere in North America; Ishmael is a tenured associate professor of philosophy at a small private university somewhere in North America; and L_E is a PhD student in philosophy at a public university somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere.

This conversation refers to “Philosophy Professionalized: How We Killed the Thing We Loved”, to “Philosophy Leiterized: How We Reduce Vermeers to Cow Plops, and How A Measure Colonizes Our Behavior”, and to “How the Journals are Making Me Lose the Philosophical Will-to-Live”.

JV: I’m just going to say that I love the “How We Killed the Thing We Loved” Essay. I’ve been thinking of writing something similar for a while. Thanks for putting the time in.

As a first generation college student though, there is something that seems to be missing from and incompletely developed in the fourth aspect of professional philosophy, and that is the use of language. There’s something about real philosophy (that is accessible and easy to talk about with others) that gets lost through the professionalization and training. Given my disdain for professional philosophy, I make a deliberate effort to write for my friends (e.g., public policy, international relations folks) ( I do normative philosophy) and for people like my mother.

I’ve been told, however, that since my writing lacks the academic formalization and structure that I cannot be said to be doing philosophy well. Making academic philosophical writing technical and scholastic, hence inaccessible, only increases its already almost infinite distance from the reality that real philosophy struggles with—a struggle I find so inherently attractive and gripping.

Ishmael: Well, I think there is the option I followed, let’s call it entering the semi-Professionalized Academic State.

If a creative and disciplined person is, or aspires to be, a “real philosopher” rather than a professional philosopher whose actual interests are in sports, family, beer, television, or various other forms of materialist/materialistic varieties of trivial self-indulgence, he or she can teach four classes a semester at a teaching university and still find time to publish.

Since the administration of such schools does not pressure one to publish, or to publish in particular venues, one can take one’s time and write about content and in a style and at a pace that is less professional-academic in the offensive sense, and more creative and interesting as real philosophy.

A job at a small teaching university may limit one’s future professional options, but for those who aren’t interested in playing this game of advancement, but sincerely interested in real philosophy, this should not be a problem.

Imagine a vast network across the country of small “teaching” philosophy departments staffed by real philosophers writing works that through their creative form and exciting substance reach and influence a broad audience!

The philosophy blogosphere is awash these days in calls for philosophers to engage with a broader audience, but all they really want is to find a way to expand their professional-style philosophy into a broader sphere.

This approach to expansion will not succeed because professional philosophy itself is the problem, regardless of the venue in which it appears or the topics it addresses. Only real philosophy, which I associate with philosophy that is creative-artistic (in style and substance), has any hope of breaking out of the Research 1 University intellectual ghetto.

L_E: Regarding Y’s post and your epilogue, I have two comments.First, about adopting new journal procedures that might help young philosophers to build their careers. While I think that this is certainly a good idea, I still believe that it is somewhat restrictive. The reason is that it seems to me that it assumes that journal articles and books are the only way of doing real philosophy.In this perspective, I don’t see how the kind of “marginal” philosophy works which are not necessarily less philosophical than articles and books, like the ones recently described in Eric Schwitzgebel’s blog, The Splintered Mind,, could have their place in contemporary professional philosophy.I think this is particularly clear in the rejection letter you posted in the epilogue: clearly writing in a “patronizing” and “self-consciously epigrammatic tone” is seen as a negative aspect of philosophical works. I find it surprisingly odd to hear such claims given the plurality of styles that we find in philosophical prose throughout its history.Second, regarding the epilogue, if that’s really the case, then why are philosophy departments still called “philosophy departments”? It seems to me that this is a potential mistake that could be avoided with very little effort. I suspect that when one chooses to enroll in philosophy programs, one is at least hoping to learn some real philosophy, even if one doesn’t want to be a philosopher.It’s certainly not pleasant to learn after a few years of struggling to enter into graduate school that one’s effort to become a philosopher in fact led one to a path where real philosophical work is made even more difficult.

Z: Thanks so much, all of you, for your comments!

What Ishmael said about the “Semi-Professionalized Academic State” is really, really interesting, and also connects directly with some fairly serious worries I’ve been having about how anyone trying to do real philosophy altogether outside the Professional Academic State can ever manage to have students, especially young people, and teach philosophy.That also came up in a conversation with Boethius that will be published in the next installment of APP’s Readers Talk Back!, probably next week. But I want to bracket that one for further reflection, for the moment.

Anyhow, it seems to me you’re all pointing up different aspects of an extremely important and fascinating two-part issue, the dual question of:

(i) professional vs. anti-professional style in written philosophy—why is so much contemporary professional philosophy such pointless, trivial, philosophy-by-numbers crap?, and

(ii) how real philosophy should be conveyed—what are the right expressive genre and medium for the real philosophical message?

As to the first question, I do think that real philosophy should be written in a direct, lucid, and totally “anti-professional” style.

I’ll freely admit, however, that I’m one of the many sinners against this ideal. For example, I was just proofreading my latest book, soon to be published under my other name, and found this sentence:

“This in turn allows me to re-interpret the realistic ontology of abstract objects described in step (4) of The Original Benacerraf Dilemma, as the weakly or counterfactually transcendentally ideal, non-platonic, Kantian abstract formal structure of time as we directly and veridically cognize it in Kantian pure or a priori intuition, as represented by formal autonomous essentially non-conceptual content, when this taken together with the weakly or counterfactually transcendentally ideal, non-platonic, Kantian abstract formal structure of any classical logical system rich enough to capture Peano Arithmetic (and Primitive Recursive Arithmetic and Cantorian Arithmetic), insofar as it can be comprehended by rational human animals via conceptual understanding or thinking.”

Shit that’s awful, even if it’s true. What I was saying is that arithmetic is built into the forms of our perceptual and conceptual capacities for cognition. Anyhow, directness, lucidity, and total anti-professionality of style are the goals we should be aiming at. For me personally, that’s what being Z is all about.

In that connection, recently I’ve been reading Schopenhauer’s “On University Philosophy,” and although he does does tend to rant a little, he makes some amazingly good points about what he calls “hegelry,” obscurantism, pointlessness, Scholasticism (in the bad sense), and triviality in the philosophical writing that’s characteristic of the professional academic philosophy of his day.

Nowadays, of course, we have our own forms of philosophical writing for philosophy journals, in “Analyticese” or “Continentalese,” that are every bit as obscure, pointless, Scholastic, and trivial as the hegelry of Schopenhauer’s day.

More generally, it seems to me that all the truly great real philosophers, and especially those outside of professional academic philosophy, like Schopenhauer himself, write with
existential directness, simplicity, and verve, and that we should all be trying to write like that!, even if it means that we can’t get published in mainstream venues.

In order to write this way so, we should particularly be looking at other models for philosophical writing: novels, poetry, drama, and so-on. Plato wrote dialogues. Epicurus and Boethius wrote poetry. Augustine and Unamuno wrote in a confessional style. Descartes wrote meditations. Borges wrote short stories in a magic realist style. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus weirdly fuses poetry, logic, and existentialism; and the Philosophical Investigations is a cross between a philosophical diary, meditations. and who-knows-what.

Camus, De Beauvoir, Musil, and Sartre all wrote self-consciously philosophical novels.

Other novels, like Melville’s Moby Dick, Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, on which Tarkovsky’s awesome eponymous flick is based, Philip K. Dick (no kin relation to Moby, as far as I know)’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, on which Ridley Scott’s awesomely awesome flick Blade Runner, is based,

are all in effect brilliant, original forays in real philosophy that have been created and disseminated totally outside of professional-philosophical formats and venues,

as this excellent book, Mark Anderson’s Moby Dick as Philosophy,and this equally excellent book, Timothy Shanahan’s Philosophy and Blade Runner, both clearly show.

But all this still only scratches the surface of what we might be able to do, if we liberated ourselves from the aesthetic and intellectual straightjacket of contemporary professional philosophical essay-writing and book-writing in Analyticese or Continentalese! It’s choking us to death.

This brings me up to the second question, that of finding the right genre and medium for the real philosophical message.

In a recent post, You are Not a Machine!, I quoted Feyerabend on why philosophers should make more movies, and then I very clumsily attempted something I call a “philosoflick.”

That took me 30 minutes to do, and no doubt it’s complete crap, but it WAS by way of trying to express real philosophy in a different genre and medium.

And whatever its aesthetic and intellectual value, it felt really good and liberating to me to try a different mode of philosophical expression, so I’m going to keep working at it,

and in fact I started posting another, longer, and (I hope) much, MUCH better philosoflick today.

More generally, it seems to me that film, TV, and video technology and styles—classical animation, stop action figures, rotoscope, traditional film formats and techniques including silent film and soundie, montage, black-and-white, color, etc., music videos, cartoons, photographs, etc., etc., are all out there for real philosophers to exploit, re-configure, adapt, play around with, and get into.

And that’s just visual media! There’s also music, instrumental and voiced, and dance.

To be sure, a FEW real philosophers–for example, Adrian Piper–have already been creating new real philosophy in different genres, media, and styles.

But NOT ENOUGH philosophers are trying to do this, and NOT ENOUGH new real philosophy is being created in different genres, media, and styles.

We need to be seriously creating LOTS of new real philosophy, in LOTS of different genres, in LOTS of different media, in LOTS of different styles. What the fuck! Why not?

Who knows what we could do if we liberated ourselves from the aesthetic, intellectual, and moral State penitentiary that professional academic philosophy has become? Let’s crash out!