Prelude to a Provocation, Jamming, 22/03/2016

For the past couple of weeks, there’s been a fight brewing in one of the communities I move and publish in, the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective. It has to do with a topic that’s quite important to me, the future of philosophy and its relationship to the academy.

Here’s my take on that fight, the perspective of one person from my own peculiar position. Rob Frodeman and his colleague Adam Briggle at the University of North Texas have thrown down a gauntlet that’s quite controversial in the academic philosophy community. 

The gauntlet: That philosophy as a community of practitioners should expand beyond the university system, and expand its discourse styles beyond academic research publishing. Philosophy works best when it blends academic intensity and the political activism that comes from engaging the wider world and popular culture.

Most of you outside that community might not find it that controversial at all. In fact, quite a few of the folks in the wider community of humanity about this general idea think it’s a great one. Things only get controversial when I bring up this idea in academic circles.

Legendary philosopher Bertrand Russell speaks at a UK
anti-nuclear weapons rally late in his life. Throughout
Russell's life, political engagement was never separate
from his philosophical pursuits. That engagement with the
wider political world has slipped away from the
community of philosophers as we've embedded ourselves
deeper in the disciplinary academy. We don't face an
either/or choice; it's a matter of how we adapt to changing
I’m presenting this idea – along with many of the ideas in Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity – at the Canadian Philosophical Association conference in Calgary this May. And I’m hoping that my presentation causes a lot of anger among the more institutionally conservative attendees.

Part of the purpose of my book panel will be to shock people. It’s the same with my upcoming contributions to the Reply Collective’s discussions of Frodeman and Briggle’s recent piece. Those contributions will also be an advertisement for my upcoming book panel.

Because what I’m preparing is a bit of a shock to the Canadian academic system. Frodeman and Briggle identify three kinds of vocations for philosophers to follow in the future. 1) The usual academic route. 2) A philosopher housed in a university department, but who regularly works as an advisor to politically active organizations. 3) A philosopher who has left the university system, but brings the skills and powers of someone in the philosophical tradition to the private sector and political activity.

Frankly, I think this is necessary, given the narrowing of career opportunities for philosophers among conventional university faculty in the current era. The third route, a philosopher who primarily focusses his career in the private and political sector beyond the university walls, is my own career path.

Ideally, I’ll bring my abilities as a political and environmental philosopher to shape the agenda of the social democratic party of Canada, the NDP. While also getting involved with local arts organizations and advocacy for refugee rights. And my philosophical skills play an important part in my communications work – developing the ideas, concepts, images, and messages that will motivate people to bring their business to my clients.*

* And I’ll always do my best to make sure that my clients are as virtuous as possible.

Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity includes several passages where I praise different projects based out of University of North Texas for their political engagement and integration with the world’s most important social movements. 

So it’s quite fitting for two writers based in that university’s philosophy faculty to have developed what amounts to a modern manifesto to kick at least one eye of the philosophical tradition beyond the ivory tower. For a ton of reasons, it’s necessary. And they’re certainly not alone.

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