My essay “Realism and Philosophy’s Future,” discussed yesterday, included another element aside from my critique of Graham Harman’s philosophy. This other element I consider the most important takeaway from the essay: it lays out a vision for what precisely is philosophical progress. Harman’s thought basically becomes a case to clarify precisely what my conception of progress is.
Here’s how it works in “Realism and Philosophy’s Future,” on which, despite a very bad start to the day, I’ve actually finished my post-review edits Thursday night. It’s basically a case study of the speculative realists, particularly Harman and Levi Bryant, contrasting their approaches to philosophy to illustrate a conception of philosophical progress that, in this essay at least, has two elements. 1) A social conception of progress, having the personal confidence and originality in thought to move beyond your influences. Take me, for example. My own work is significantly influenced by that of Gilles Deleuze, but I don’t like to call myself Deleuzian, and I don’t think there’s a single true perspective his writings generate that constitute the only genuine philosophical problems. Essentially, a socially progressive philosopher is a Young Hegelian, and a socially conservative philosopher is an Old Hegelian. 2) What I’ve called in the new version of the essay a conceptual conception of progress. Yes, I know it’s a little silly. But this is basically about having that originality of thought to move beyond your influences in the first place, identifying the limits of their own thinking and what has changed in the world between their time and yours which changes how you engage with philosophy.
This was the second rejection the essay had received. I had originally sent it to a top journal specializing in Continental philosophy, but within a couple of days of my sending it, the editor wrote me a very kind email saying he liked “Realism and Philosophy’s Future” very much, but that it wasn’t really in their remit, and recommended I send it to a cultural studies journal. I received the rejection from that cultural studies journal Tuesday, which included a pretty thorough critique. Aside from the usual kinds of recommendations (ex. more direct quotations instead of paraphrases) was the suggestion that I cut the conception of progress, along with major references to the other speculative realists, and make this an essay solely about critiquing Harman.
I simply do not want to do that. It’s a matter of my own philosophical priorities. I don’t just want my publications to be grist for the mill of critique upon critique upon critique. I don’t consider it progressive for philosophy to consist of people arguing against each other ad infinitum over smaller and smaller scopes. I explained earlier this week that this approach to scholarship is a major element of what drove me away from philosophy of mind. I never conceived of this essay as a list of why Graham Harman is wrong about stuff.
I composed “Realism and Philosophy’s Future” as an engagement with the speculative realists as a case study in figuring out what separates good philosophy from bad, what delineates a living, vibrant tradition of thought from a snake that eats itself tail-first. This is a continual problem for the discipline of philosophy, especially given how integrated it is today with cultural norms of disciplinary fragmentation, and undermining the confidence of young researchers in their originality. The worst feedback I’ve always had on my work is advice to think smaller, to produce nice ordinary essays that touch on a single topic in a single sub-discipline. That’s never been how I approached philosophy, and I’ll never approach it that way. I write like the people I think make valuable contributions to the tradition because I want to make valuable contributions to the tradition myself. I don’t think this is an illegitimate goal for a young writer to have.
This isn’t the first time I’ve taken issue with a peer reviewer before, although as far as "Realism and Philosophy's Future" is concerned, I'm just going to send it to a different journal next week. For my essay in Doctor Who and Philosophy on the Doctor as a Nietzschean Übermensch, one of the three reviewers said I had misread Nietzsche: The Übermensch was a revival of the ancient Greek strong man, he said.
When I sent the editors my pre-publication revisions, I told them I wouldn’t follow the recommendations of that reviewer because he was wrong. Nietzsche is very clear that you can’t go back to the uncomplicated strong man who takes what he wants. Such a figure is always vulnerable to attacks by the morality of self-hatred and resentment, so the new strong man has to incorporate noble versions of the virtues of forgiveness and generosity into his values to protect himself from reactionary Christianity. I explained my case clearly to the editors, and they agreed with me to dismiss the critiques of reviewer #2.
When I take a stand in my profession, it’s on the merits of my work, talent, and knowledge. On those grounds, if I’m engaging with people who respect hard work, talent, and knowledge, I win.