The Genres of Philosophical Writing, Composing, 14/08/2013

I've been thinking a little more about my friendship-testing argument about my interpretations of Hegel, and I don’t think my post yesterday was as clear as it could have been on what distinguishes my approach to the works of the great philosophers from the kind of advice I was getting from P and B.

However, I told a story in the comments section that reminded me of a way I thought of to map what kinds of philosophy get written. By this, I don’t mean the typical divisions of epistemology, ethics, ontology; I could call these fields or domains. And I don’t mean divisions like analytic, post-structuralist, materialist of mind, internal legal positivist; I could call these camps. The best word I can think of to describe these divisions is genre. I hope you’ll see why.

To be clear, I don't think any of these genres are better or worse than any other. It's just that I'm better suited to working in some, and less so to others. All three are essential for philosophy as a discipline to remain vital and vibrant. And it's incredibly important that professional philosophers are open to the contributions of all genres as equally legitimate.

History of Philosophy. These are communities of academics structured around a single great philosopher or group of affiliated great philosophers in history. Their discussions revolve around interpretations of those great philosophers, either with their eye on their target’s entire corpus (usually a matter for book-length works due to all the details and complexity involved) or some specific essay, work, or idea. Or even, in the case of a lot of contemporary historical work on ancient Greek philosophy, some specific sentence. They produce secondary material. The major concern of an argument in history of philosophy is to get the community’s target philosopher ‘right.’ I have occasionally encountered historians of philosophy who believe that this is the only acceptable way to do philosophy. These people are quite rare, because I think it’s pretty clear to most folks that if everyone in philosophy only did history of philosophy, then we wouldn’t produce any more works that historians of philosophy would consider worthy of study.

I think this was the source of my disagreement with P and B. I believe they interpreted my engagement with Hegel’s conception of time to occur with the priorities of the history of philosophy, when my utopias project actually works in a different genre. If you’re reading this, you can let me know, in the comments section or over facebook, if I’ve hit the cause of our argument.

Contributive Philosophy. My friend R once met a young professor at University of Alberta who told her proudly that he had never read a single philosophical text written before 1980. This is an incredibly intense and pure (so pure as to be counter-productive) example of someone who writes what I call contributive philosophy. You have the expertise and general knowledge to contribute to one or several philosophical fields. You contribute by reading the latest material in the top and middle-tier journals of your field, understanding the particular philosophical problems they are discussing, and writing articles contributing to those discussions. The articles either positively critique, spin in a different direction, or object to some previous contribution. There are books of contributive philosophy, but I find them sometimes dull to read. This is because the author will usually focus his first chapter on some interesting new idea of theirs, but then spend all the later chapters responding to objections encountered in earlier discussions of their new idea when they first floated it in a journal article. Historians of philosophy also usually write this way, but I distinguish the two genres because the historians produce secondary material, while the pure contributives produce primary material. I consider pure contributive philosophy to work by incremental advances in conceptual problems.

Creative Philosophy. This is the most rare, the most difficult, but I also think the most personally rewarding approach to philosophical writing. This is the most exemplary primary material: its ambition is to be primary material that gets historians of philosophy writing about it. The most successful of these are the great works of philosophy. The Critique of Pure Reason. Principia Mathematica. A Thousand Plateaus. Summa Theologica. Experience and Nature. A Theory of Justice. The Republic. The Ethics. Short essays and journal articles can do this too, but it’s more difficult to get article-length works of creative philosophy published. I think it’s just because journals function so much in a contributive mode, peer reviewers tend to put too much burden on writers to prove the relevance of their essay to ongoing debates. That’s difficult to do if the purpose of your essay is to change the ongoing debates or start an entirely new one. Still, every now and then, an essay like “Freedom and Resentment” or “On Denoting” drops. The other two genres aim to continue the great debates of philosophy. The creative genre aims to shift and change the great debates of philosophy. 

I see myself primarily as operating in the creative philosophy field for my larger projects, and being a minor writer of contributive philosophy for my articles. Books (of both paper and e varieties) can be pushed to larger audiences: not only other university researchers in the field, but students, and the general audience of intelligent people who like reading challenging books. 

No comments:

Post a Comment