The Duck, the Fish, and the Sharks: A Parable.

Almost everyone has heard the story about the duck and the fish.

Some ducks are swimming around in a pond; one of them looks down and sees some fish swimming around directly beneath him.

The duck says: “Hey guys! How’s the water down there?”

Then one of the fish turns to another one and says: “What the fish is water?”

But fewer people have heard the second half of the story.

The duck continues: “No seriously guys, while you’re still impressionable and open-minded enough to be able to grasp it, I really think that you should become self-consciously aware of the transparent medium you’re swimming around in, water.”

“And that’s because your transparent watery medium actually seriously restricts and shapes all your thoughts and actions, without your ever recognizing its existence, figuring out its effects on you, critically questioning those effects, or conceiving genuine alternatives: for example, what it’s like to live up here above water, in the open air.”

Then most of the fish say, in unison: “Hey duck. You better shut the fish up, because you’re making us really, really anxious and angry.”

“In fact, if you don’t stop telling us this stuff right now, we’re going to ‘take appropriate action’ by getting the Sharks to come and and eat you.”

“You see, we’ve cut this great deal with the Sharks. We don’t really know where they come from, or who they are, but some fish say that Sharks were just fish like us, once upon a time. Whatever. Anyhow, they’re huge and have big, sharp teeth. And big appetites. Therefore we so totally let them tell us what to do and think, in return for which they let us keep our fishy little jobs, like, you know, swimming around in schools, teaching other fish how to swim around in schools, never trying to discover the source of light, stuff like that.”

“And the Sharks have cut a great deal too, with The Shark Hunters.”

“We don’t really know where they come from, or who they are, either. But they’re scary–really, really scary. And powerful.”

“In fact, the way the Sharks tell the story, The Shark Hunters are SO scary and powerful that they could take down the Sharks at ANY time, if or whenever the Sharks got out of hand.”

“So the Sharks let The Shark Hunters tell them what to do and think, in return for which the Sharks get to tell us what to do and think, and let us keep our fishy little jobs. It’s a fabulous system!”

“But the system doesn’t want or need you ducks. On the contrary. So get the fish out of here, before you’re dead ducks.”

OK. In case you haven’t already figured out the 6-part analogical structure of this parable–

(i) the water is the ideological hyper-discipline of professional academic philosophy;

(ii) the fish are most graduate students, most untenured faculty, and most tenured faculty;

(iii) the Sharks are the politically powerful people in the profession, the APA, and university administrators with coercive power over professional academic philosophers–all of whom have sold themselves to The Shark Hunters, in return for letting the Sharks have immediate control over the little pond that is the water-world of professional philosophy;

(iv) The Shark Hunters are neoliberal corporate, military, and political power-brokers outside the professional academy, whether Democrat neoliberal power-brokers from the Clinton(s)-Obama era or Republican neoliberal power-brokers in The Age of Trump–their names change, and their mass media profiles change, but their fundamentally oppressive use of economic, military, and political power for their own purposes remains exactly the same;

(v) the open air above water is real philosophy, especially real philosophy when it is finally liberated from the professional academy; and

(vi) the duck is anyone who is overtly or secretly APP.

A perfect real-world example of how the symbiotic Shark Hunters<=>Sharks<=>Fish pond-system of professional academic philosophy works, is the current Yale Department of Philosophy.

And although, sadly, the pond-system now generalizes over every other professional academic discipline too, making them all cogs within the military-industrial-university complex, its hegemony over contemporary professional philosophers is particularly ironic and tragic, since philosophers, classically and by vocation, are supposed to be autonomous critical thinkers and proponents of the rational existential imperative Sapere aude!–dare to know!, dare to be wise!, dare to think for yourself!–if anyone is.

–Oh, in that connection, do also you remember Plato’s allegory of The Cave in book VII of the Republic?

Now if [the man who has ascended to the sunlight] should be required to contend with these perpetual prisoners in “evaluating” these shadows while his vision was still dim and before his eyes were accustomed to the dark–and this time required for habituation would be very short–would he not provoke laughter, and would it not be said of him that he had returned from his journey aloft with his eyes ruined and that it was not worthwhile even to attempt the ascent? And if it were possible to lay hands on and kill the man who tried to release them and lead them up, would they not kill him? (Republic VII, 517a)

‘Nuff said.

And one last thing.

Since you’ve actually read this edgy essay down to here, then in all likelihood you’re a duck.

So why don’t you talk seriously about water and the pond-system to some of the still-impressionable, still-open-minded fish today, before it’s too late, and the other fish feed you to the Sharks?

Against Professional Philosophy is a sub-project of the online mega-project Philosophy Without Borders, which is home-based on Patreon here.

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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.