The Schizophrenia of Authentic Philosophy, Part 1

There are authentic and inauthentic philosophers in the professional philosophical world. An authentic philosopher is one who, at the very least, does philosophy without regard for what the profession as a whole decides is right or correct simply by fiat. In other words, an authentic philosopher is one who does not let the prevailing biases of The Profession ruin what they see as real philosophical progress. Now, being an authentic philosopher means being an anarcho-philosopher, as the blog’s manifesto has proposed. But what anarcho-philosophy requires of us might seem confusing at first. At once, an anarcho-philosopher must be committed to life as a professional philosopher (on pain of giving up the whole game), and s/he must also actively subvert the automatic and unwarranted assumptions, expectations, and demands that come from professional philosophy. How does a sane, rational philosopher live an authentic philosophical life under these demands? Here I will say something about what it is like to be a struggling authentic philosopher, and then I will take a first stab at describing how one might begin to live life as an authentic anarcho-philosopher without succumbing to the anxieties of juggling both an adherence to The Profession and a commitment to philosophical authenticity.

As an example of this sort of anxiety, consider the problem that I will call the fear of rational discourse:

As a graduate student in philosophy, my life is structured by the activities, demands, and expectations of professional philosophy. More specifically, The Institution of professional philosophy has a large hand in the way things go for me both professionally and personally. Many philosophers, including myself, have felt (or worse, constantly feel) marginalized or otherwise pushed to the sidelines for either explicitly holding unpopular philosophical views or for feeling, privately, that we are not allowed to fully express ourselves philosophically. Ironically, philosophy is the discipline that most prizes rational discourse, including an emphasis on arguments, evidence, reasons, and charity. Despite the explicit endorsement of rational discourse, professional philosophers actually tend to eschew rational discourse when it becomes convenient for them to do so.

Sometimes this happens because philosophers have a mistaken view of how philosophical progress happens. The view might go like this: philosophical progress is akin to scientific progress; there are at least many problems in the history of philosophy which have been solved, and there is considerable agreement among philosophers that this is the case. Just as one would be laughed at for being a behaviorist in psychology or an evolution-denier, one would be laughed at in many large philosophical circles (the ones that tend to rule The Profession) for taking seriously Berkeleyan (subjective) idealism, solipsism, panpsychism, Zeno-type proofs of the non-existence of motion, transcendental and absolute (objective) idealism, existentialism, forms of pragmatism, and on and on. (Of course one can comfortably hold these views or at least take them seriously in some philosophical circles, but there are important and quite large philosophical circles that tend to run the show.) It is as if these views have been conclusively refuted and that everyone worth anything in philosophy knows that they have been conclusively refuted.

But it is highly implausible that the history of philosophy is structurally similar to the history of science (and surely they aren’t identical). At the very least, we can all recognize the conditional or restricted validity of certain philosophical points of view, even if we think they are wrong, given some of the a priori background that underlies the views in question. And most of us also recognize that there are mutually exclusive a priori background views that are all nevertheless compatible with our more or less single and shared scientific understanding of the world. Therefore, deciding on which of these philosophical views to hold is often (perhaps always, according to who you talk to) a matter of doing a priori conceptual work, and that is very different from the prevailing scientific methodology.

Thus, it seems that there is no sound basis for condemning philosophers simply for holding unpopular views. Given this, philosophers who participate in the practice of such condemnation are violating the basic principles of rational discourse – namely the ones that they also explicitly endorse. This is the basis of one of the deepest anxieties some of us have about being part of The Profession – namely, the fear of rational discourse. The inconsistency that many mainstream philosophers practice in the real professional philosophical world with respect to the principles of rational discourse amounts to a kind of oppression. The suppressed but implicitly held thought is that rational discourse is worth our time only if we are considering the right sort of philosophical questions or views, where the rightness of views is decided by the most influential mainstream philosophers. But this, of course, is a strike against not only academic flourishing, but against the personal and professional freedom to explore and to grow philosophically.

So how do we move forward, out of this anxiety, without giving up our philosophical authenticity? I will explore this question next time.

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About X

X is a 20-something graduate student doing her/his PhD in philosophy at a university somewhere in North America. Different people will contribute to X’s diary. So X is a philosophical persona composed by several real persons.