To Me Good Philosophy Writing Is Thematic Density, Composing, 16/08/2013

And that’s good fiction writing to me as well, but I want first to concentrate on my philosophical writing. I spent much of Thursday afternoon editing the third chapter of my ecophilosophy manuscript. One of the reasons why editors are skeptical when someone pitches them a manuscript based on a dissertation is that dissertations usually stink. They’re written on a highly specialized, extremely technical topic, and their purpose isn’t to be readable or approachable to the public, but to demonstrate that the writer knows how to do research and organize ideas in a reasonable manner. 

I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want to write a doctoral dissertation like that. In part, it was because of my ego: I didn’t want to write a work of such a size and investment of time that would only have an audience of my committee, examiners, and my mother. But it was also a pragmatic calculation. I was entering a labour market where the only successful people are the ones who distinguish themselves from the crowd as soon as possible. To thrive in academia, you have to become remarkable.

I got a decent amount (not a lot) of advice throughout my doctorate that the best way for me to have a good career was to go to conferences only in my exact specialty, and have a very tightly focussed dissertation that was very deferential to the major names in my specialty. In other words, be a good little student and don’t stand out. You can guess that was the advice I didn’t take.

A useful book for the
sadly normal.
I think it’s with this bad advice in mind that the book From Dissertation to Book was published. It’s a guide to do exactly what it says in the title, and from the first time I approached editors or other university-based authors about what I wanted to do with my dissertation, I was told to read this book. I did. I’m always open to good advice. And it offered great advice. Most of it, I had done already in conceiving of a complex, politically relevant project that would be interesting to a wide intellectual audience. Precisely because so few doctoral candidates approach their dissertations this way is why such a book is needed.

Chapter three is a case in point of my aim for a wide audience from the start. The ecophilosophy project, like everything I write, is pretty complex. I could summarize it in a blog post pretty easily, but I don’t really want to right now. I prefer to tease the blog with my big projects. But chapter three focusses on what I call, in its title, “Two Paradoxes of Practical Philosophy.” Paradox one is that environmental philosophy emerged from a tradition of political activism, but as the environmentalist movement caught on throughout so much of our society, the style of philosophical discourse actually alienated environmental philosophy from the activism that gave birth to it. We were still talking, trying to figure out how best to change the world. Meanwhile all the disciplines that were later adopters of environmentalist conscience had surpassed philosophy in actually working to change the world.*

* Yes, this is the one Thesis on Feuerbach Marx wrote that most people actually remember. But I don’t want my ecophilosophy project to be pigeonholed into Marxism, because only other Marxists read Marxist books. My eye was on the general audience.

Paradox two examines another aspect of philosophical styles of discourse and their incompatibility with practical action: the niggling nitpicking of philosophers. We write our theories of moral philosophy paying intense attention to nuance. Our texts (and blog posts) become longer as we consider all the possible interpretations of our simple statements, and continually add qualifiers and counterfactuals to make our ideas more precise. But the practical politics of social movements like environmentalism are motivated by simple slogans and images that inspire popular anger and empathy. People aren’t motivated to action by a complicated moral investigation; they’re motivated by sloganeering and advertising. The nature of philosophical discourse isolates us from the political engagement that environmental philosophy was developed to be part of.

I examined these paradoxes in the context of a wider problem in philosophy: the perception of philosophy’s irrelevance to the world and to other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. So I had written the chapter not only to examine this problem I saw in the sub-discipline of environmental philosophy, but to make a larger point about philosophy as a whole in the present time. The chapter also introduces my solution (which can be one of many, it just happens to be the idea I thought of), a solution whose structure maps out the entire rest of the manuscript. 

If I had written a manuscript that focussed only on a single specialized problem and didn’t include any reference to wider relevance, I wouldn’t be able to make the points that I did. Instead of writing a perfectly serviceable but unremarkable dissertation about a specialized problem in environmental moral philosophy, I wrote a manuscript thematically dense enough to touch on wider aspects of our knowledge institutions. That’s how you stand out.


  1. Let me say how much I enjoy your frank discussion of ego in the intellectual career -- you are like Kanye in his first album blowing the lid off of (in this case, not Kanye's) our posturing as ego-less altruists.

    There's definitely a continuum in the balance between speciality interest and broad appeal. I certainly have no idea of the right balance, but like you would like my book to be read.

    One issue that occurred to me in your specific example is the role of legitimation and co-optation in social movements posed by disciplinary philosophy. It seems that on one hand philosophy is legitimated by engaging with topical issues and it legitimates in turn the pursuit of those issues by middle-class, respectable people. I know that I (for one) have an automatic skepticism toward activists who talk in terms that are entirely foreign to and incompatible with philosophical analysis. But in the process of translating and redefining and then ultimately nitpicking activist notions into philosophical discourse, there's also a co-opting of the presuppositional framework that undermines the standing of the original activists. It seems to me that one of the original things that you're pointing out is that the sort of argument I'm making here way over-emphasizes the efficacy of philosophy, which is really quite weak on the side of feeding information and shaping presuppositions in the activist community.

    So what's it all for? What does the philosophical chatter matter for the environmentalist movement? Just a gloss of legitimacy and then business as usual or is there some deeper enriching (or impoverishing), some fundamental transformation unfolding through philosophical work? Very provocative stuff and I can see how you landed on this issue as a leverage point.

    1. That's basically the centre of both paradoxes (really it's one paradox considered from two different perspectives). The first innovators in environmental activism were scientists, like Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson. Philosophers wrote books and articles that systematized and helped to publicize the issues these early scientists were concerned about, while most of the rest of the scientific and industrial fields ignored the early warnings. The first paradox is that philosophers still write as if they're trying to wake people up when the movement has already taken off and significant sections of the professions that once scoffed at environmentalist have now incorporated environmentalist norms.

      The second paradox is that environmental philosophers consider themselves activists, but their language disconnects them from the activist community. Philosophers argue, refine, and dissemble with this recurring sense of terrible urgency that something must be done, but activists get shit done. And they largely don't need the conceptual refinement of philosophers because, as I say in the chapter, you can have different justifications for your beliefs, or even different beliefs, but those conceptually divergent systems can lead you to similar enough actions that the divergence doesn't really matter. Philosophers are left mapping divergences that don't matter.

      And that's the larger problem philosophy faces as well: the perception of our irrelevance. Many people in other disciplines don't understand why philosophers concentrate in such large numbers on the problems they do. When I tell J & A my closest sociologist friends about the premises of most debates in epistemology, their mouths drop open because many ideas about the public nature of knowledge that the social sciences have long accepted are still controversial minority views in philosophy.

      Some of my edits to chapter three added some later research I had done for my social history of philosophy project, Michèle Lamont's empirical investigation into why philosophy received so few grants from multi-disciplinary peer review panels. And it's because no other discipline understands philosophy's technical languages or the relevance of philosophical problems. Philosophy has become socially isolated from other humanities and social science disciplines, and our language has therefore become insular. Even worse, Lamont discovered a widespread attitude in philosophy of "So much the worse for them!"

      Philosophers (at least in North America where she did her research) arrogantly dismiss other disciplines as not "rigorous" enough, or otherwise behave as if nothing of real importance happens in literature studies or social science. And they don't seem to associate this attitude with the widespread disrespect and lack of interest philosophy is coming to receive from potential students, university administrations, industry, an general culture.