There Is No Point to Doing Philosophy If You Don’t Care About What It Achieves, Jamming, 29/08/2013

I had an interesting conversation online with my friend P yesterday. Well, I should say it was my final conversation with my former friend P. I don’t know if this is an effect of my growing old, cynical, wise, or some blend of the three. But I no longer value universal popularity the way I used to. 

You know, I’ve never lost a friend over a philosophical dispute before. Most of the time, unless my colleagues are actively rude to me in a discussion, we consider ourselves as differing professionally and carry on as always. Even then, we quickly apologize for our rudeness once it’s pointed out, and the best of us improve our behaviour and are less confrontational next time (I do the best I can).

When I was a child, I had my friends, but I was afraid of bullies, so afraid that I hid myself away and lost all my friends. 

However, it’s fitting that P and I ended our friendship over the topic that we did, in the fallout from a conversation about a post on this blog. I knew when I started this project in July that it involved some kind of risk. I had reservations, worries that, as I hit the university job market again, prospective hiring committees would think me unprofessional for carrying on philosophical conversations in so casual a tone. But blogs like mine are one way in which philosophy can have a public profile and a public image. 

When I realized the bullies were gone, I made new friends because I had made myself terribly lonely. 

And our dispute was over what it is for a philosopher, and by extension the discipline of philosophy, to have a public image. In a facebook conversation with my friend R, who’s a political student activist, we were talking about some of the subtle distinctions of Marxist philosophy, following my post about my skepticism of the continued existence of bourgeoisie. I suggested that one of the biggest problems a Marx-inspired critique of contemporary capitalism faces is that it has such a poor public image. After all, the actual communist governments that have existed aren’t exactly paragons of political virtue, what with all the casual government brutality, systematic collectivization in dictatorial management, and a political culture of paranoia and habitual lying that would have given Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover pause to deal with their shock. So some of the generally useful critiques Marxism has offered over the years face a terrible problem of its public relations.

No one really had a problem with this suggestion that public relations was important to practical philosophy until P told me to shove it.

Nothing was more important than making new friends because I didn’t want to risk being friendless again. 

But I can’t think of philosophy as exclusively a pursuit for the life of the mind, if only because I’m trying to make a material living from philosophical work. Teaching is an inherently public activity, for one thing. Same with writing — no one is going to publish a book of philosophy if the writer isn’t interested in promoting it to a relatively wide public. And even if you do publish it without bothering with this, your work isn’t going to have an impact on philosophy as a living tradition if no one reads it. Public relations may be a crude term, but it’s required for our work as professional creators of knowledge. 

Beyond even the individual scale, philosophy as a discipline is in crisis precisely because of our public relations. Philosophy department budgets are cut, and sometimes the whole department has been threatened with dissolution (consider University of Nevada’s Las Vegas campus) because the administrators of universities do not consider philosophy to be productive or valuable to society. Michèle Lamont, the Harvard sociologist, has done research on the relation of different academic disciplines to each other, and found philosophy the most alienated, its vocabulary, central problems, and habits strange to all the other disciplines. Frankly, no one outside the discipline of philosophy itself knows what we’re talking about anymore. And in the most disgusting case, the technical language of mainstream philosophy is perverted to obfuscate and trivialize sexual harassment.

I always wanted to have somewhere to go in case someone I cared about decided not to be my friend anymore. 

In this sense, philosophy as a discipline needs a total public relations makeover, a demonstration that the discipline is relevant to human affairs and problems, that the discipline’s ideas are valuable. My own major projects bring the full weight of philosophy’s ontological, ethical, and moral concepts and traditions to bear on important problems of our time: the ecological crisis, public hostility to evolutionary biology, how to achieve political change without coercion or violence.

Public relations is incredibly important to philosophy, and any academic discipline. If we can’t demonstrate our relevance to the public, then philosophy risks becoming a lost practice, at best surviving as a metaphor. I care too much about philosophy to fix it incommunicado in the mind.

That’s a simple story that covers my life up until about 9.15 Wednesday morning. 
Some people are not worth being friends with.


  1. Sorry to read here about your falling out with a friend. This may not be the place to write about it but I think your turn to PR is very significant and want to add my vote to your continued exploration thereof (and not only because this is the focus of my own work on the Army!). Definitely enriches any account of an ecological horizon of action.

    1. If it wasn't over something that's important to my writing career, I wouldn't put it here. Ultimately, this is a problem of professionalism too. P is the guy who attacked me as an idiot for not agreeing with the (clearly and obviously to any rational mind correct) Hyppolite interpretation of Hegel. But one of the hallmarks of professionalism in academia is knowing who has the ground to critique you and who doesn't. It isn't a matter of pulling rank as much as respectful behaviour and putting your money where your mouth is. In philosophy, people disagree all the time; that's no problem. But I don't think P and I have had a meatspace conversation about philosophy where he didn't constantly interrupt me trying to refute my points before I'd even finished them. He also has a vision of philosophy where, if the public doesn't care about this high discourse and meditation on the eternal truth of being (sarcasm intended), then that's their problem. It's easy to say that when you have no skin in the game: he's an amateur who did really well in his degree, knows Hegel and Heidegger works and scholarship very well, and has no intention of a career in universities or writing at all. He's content to work effortless 9-5s, meditate on the universal, and lord himself over people at parties full of nerds. He only cares about philosophy as the isolated life of the mind. I care about philosophy as a living public tradition. Of course the public image of the discipline matters to me. He considers such worldly concerns crass and worth breaking a friendship over. I won't apologize for wanting philosophy to survive past the next couple of generations.

      The truth is, no discipline has retreated farther into the ivory tower than philosophy. When I talk about what some of the major philosophical debates are with my friends in the social sciences, they're incredulous that people would still consider this controversial. Here's a major example. I published a paper this summer on the rational disagreement problem in epistemology. This is the debate over whether it's possible to disagree on one's interpretation over a given set of evidence and still be epistemic peers with that person; only one interpretation can be the true one (or at least closest to the truth), therefore one is more rational than another. My stance on the problem is that this whole dilemma is ridiculous, and it's no problem for equally rational people to disagree over the same evidence. Their reaction to this dilemma is that I'm obviously right, and they wonder why philosophers get in so much of a stink over it.

      I think this is part of why philosophy is relatively disrespected, or at least misunderstood and shunned, by so many other university disciplines. No one can understand why we get upset over so many of our key problems, because in every other discipline, they've become non-issues. The discipline overall can't talk to others anymore.