Making Friends Is How You Influence People, A History Boy, 04/08/2013

Two of my best friends are sociologists. And I don’t really know that I would have been able to achieve what I have so far without them. In 2009, I got word of a very cool multidisciplinary conference happening at University of Edinburgh, and in coming up with an idea that I loosely categorized as social philosophy of knowledge, I asked J & A if they had any pdfs I could borrow. That conference presentation turned into my first peer-reviewed publication. Not my first to be sent out, but my first published. That project has gotten two additional articles published in that conference affiliated journal in 2010, 2011, and 2012. It’s taken me to Edinburgh, Switzerland, Oregon, and Las Vegas, and it almost took me to Philadelphia. Expanding those ideas into a book-length study of the material history of North American philosophy was my first shot at a SSHRC-funded post-doctoral grant. That project will still be a book or a series of either academic or popular press articles at some point in the future. 

Ever since then, an important part of all my philosophical analyses is paying attention to the social shapes of the disciplines themselves. The default mode of writing the history of philosophy is to write solely about the ideas, analyzing the arguments, considering the epoch-making concepts. But even philosophical history has its material dimensions. Those concepts are published in books. It’s easier to get a book published and read widely among the community if you work at Princeton, Cambridge, or the Sorbonne than at a less prestigious university. The central reason (aside from all that cocaine) that Charles Sanders Peirce, for example, never systematized his genuinely revolutionary thought into a single magnum opus was because he made the president of Harvard so incurably angry at him, that he pulled all the strings he could get hold of to make sure Peirce never got a stable university position that would have allowed him the peace and time to write a long work. Just a couple of examples of material phenomena that have genuine impact on the development of our abstract discussions.

I have to say that there probably isn’t a single philosophical project I work on that doesn’t have something to do with the material processes of getting knowledge out in the world doing work. I think it’s a great benefit to my work, and that I understand the problems of particular philosophical concepts and debates better because I’ve researched and trained enough to think along those lines. And it’s relatively rare in philosophy to ask material questions: Who did this person know? Who read this article when? How did this feud start? How did this figure get shunted into one sub-discipline instead of another? And I understand that the philosophical concepts themselves are often shaped by this social dynamic, which I don’t know that a lot of philosophers like to admit, at least officially.

Philosophy can get hifalutin sometimes. Well, he said in his best Tenth Doctor voice, I say sometimes. 

But the point is, sometimes we as philosophers can focus a little too much on the concepts, abstract structures of the arguments, and logical analyses. And we can sometimes forget that all of those arguments and concepts and analyses are made by people living material lives where contingent social links and structures matter to whether we can make those abstract thoughts at all, and whether we can find anyone to listen to them. 

And I think I have a good handle on it because of two material social connections that I’m very happy to have.

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