My Future in Philosophy and Philosophy’s Future: The Optimistic Case, Jamming, 24/05/2014

You didn’t seriously expect I’d just plain give up, did you?

What are you trying to say, I'm crazy?
When I went to your schools, I went to your churches,
I went to your institutional learning facilities?!
So given the current transformation of the university system along Thatcherian principles, I do believe that philosophy’s continued existence in this system is doubtful. The discipline has had a wonderful run ever since Kant’s day when it was first institutionalized in the modern disciplinary university system of Germany, whose framework provided the template for modern educational/research institutions. At the time, it was the natural home for higher learning — in elite institutions. The democratization movements of the 20th century brought these elite institutions to ordinary people as taxpayer-funded public services. But the institution has changed as its priorities have shifted from public service to profit-making. We’re all familiar with the other conception of ‘institutionalized.’ After all, the system is getting more than a little crazy.

So if institutionalized philosophy has already begun its long, painful road to being squeezed out of a university system that has no place for research that can’t be monetized, where should the discipline go? Just because this particular practice of philosophy is running out of resources doesn’t mean the tradition itself should disappear. Philosophy has great social value as the incubator of critical thought, dissent, fostering ideas and plans for justice in society, and creating new concepts to understand the world. It had a home in universities for a long time, so long that many practitioners (including myself for quite a while) thought that the only way to practice philosophy was in a university setting, and that the only way to continue philosophical innovation was through engagement with academic discourses.

After the Ghost of Thatcher in the job market and the departmental downsizing of contemporary academia hit me in the face last year, I slowly began to formulate a response. A discipline is a specific set of norms for the reproduction of research, evolving through a slow process of piecemeal modification and segmentation into sub-disciplines, usually within the framework of an institution. A discipline that loses its institutional home is dead. But a tradition is much more amorphous, and so more immune to attack.

One thing we often forget in our disciplinary pursuits in philosophy is all those people who enjoyed our classes, may have done well or decently, but ultimately decided to pursue some other course in their lives that doesn’t necessarily have much to do with philosophy. But they still find it interesting, still read, and would still like to read about concepts and theories to understand the world. A discipline speaks only to an audience of other disciplinary professionals. But a tradition talks with anyone who’s interested, and continues through that interest.

That’s why I plan on finding work in publishing over the next year. I think a lot of people in my graduating generation of doctoral philosophers (and in other academic disciplines as well) are leaving university work entirely for other careers. The website Versatile PhD is a gathering place for people with doctorates who are trying to transition into non-academic work. It can be quite useful, but one of my first visits was a very demoralizing read through a forum thread about people joyously selling off their personal libraries and shredding or burning all their old notes and other research material. 

This is a shame, because these are the people who, if my new plans for the next few years work out, would be the sources of books that I would publish. With my own career as a fiction writer beginning, I’ll be like a lot of authors who haven’t hit a Franzen-level public profile of sales figures: a writer with a day job. I think there can be philosophers like that too, researching and publishing engaging books on traditional and new philosophical problems that are conceptually provocative and can be read by other professionally trained people as well as those folks that we would have been teaching, who are interested in reading philosophy, but do something else for a living. 

This audience wouldn’t read some of the books that clutter too many academic presses today, those which are little more than a series of responses to a series of quibbles directed at a previous article that a major journal published. I would like to publish and promote genuinely creative, accessible philosophical works, books that create new concepts to live one’s life and understand the world where we live.

Spinoza, a former political radical who wrote philosophy
and corresponded with the leading institutionalized
figures of science while working a day job, may be the
best role model to continue philosophy as a tradition.
This isn’t about publishing Timecube Men across the country, which is probably the first derisive comment I’ll hear about this idea. There are already plenty of intelligent people with the research skills and careful thought and expression to write credible works of philosophy from outside the university system. The last couple of decades of overproducing graduate students has resulted in thousands of people who have the personally disciplined research and writing skills to produce genuinely engaging works of philosophy. We should not let Slavoj Zizek and Steven Pinker be the only best-selling philosophers in the world. Not that there’s anything essentially wrong with their books, but they could use a little competition. 

There are few groups of people with more potential to upset the established order of things than a generation of energetic, dedicated youth who have had their opportunities and ambitions upended. Part of what I’ll be doing at the CPA this coming week is running this proposal by young philosophers, and veterans who are better established in the university system, whose support we’ll need to get started. We’ll need to start organizing contacts with publishers over the next few years, and in some cases (like mine), training in the publishing business and starting work with these companies. Despite the neo-liberal assaults the discipline of philosophy will face over the next generations that will likely do it irreparable harm, the tradition of philosophy can continue.

Who’s with me?

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