The Promise of Philosophical Entrepreneurs, Research Time, 28/05/2014

The Congress President's reception took place the other evening after the various sessions. I spoke about some of the philosophy that I saw Monday already, which demonstrated that there were still young people and well-established professors in the university system doing remarkable research. But I've also met with several philosophers and historians already who have been doing remarkable work, suited for public consumption beyond the disciplinary audience.

There was one Scarborough-born researcher who had a manuscript about the first uses of personal computers in astronomical science, and a Waterloo-based historian who had a brilliant manuscript on the work and difficult lives of Arctic scientists and military men during the Cold War. The latter, I think, has definite potential for extreme popular success. Some of the stories he told me of these people that was included in the manuscript reminded me of the people you find in Werner Herzog documentaries.

I've also spoken to several people who are secure in the academy, but who understand the economic shifts the university system faces, which is creating this lost generation of scholars and writers. The fact that they nod sadly or with great irony when I use the phrase 'lost generation' is a sign that I have found an ally, someone willing to lend their institutional support to help my project of independently successful and respectable philosophical, cultural, and historical research and writing get off the ground. My SST Records full of doctorates.

I had a feeling the CPA would be an excellent place to find such people, especially as it has become something of an underdog in philosophical conferences of late. Many graduate students submit papers to the CPA and present them there, which according to the traditional measures of academic prestige harms the reputation of the conference itself. Of course, the presupposition of this status evaluator is that the work of those who have not completed doctorates or had not yet won tenure-track positions is inherently inferior to that of those who have. It's a hypocritical view of course: if the younger scholar is so inferior, and lacks the potential to present their work at the same level as established figures, then they presume that all younger scholars are inferior and inadequate to take on their positions after retirement.

Even more than this, the very practice of the CPA's referee system fights such hypocrisy. Part of what genuinely impresses people in other societies of Congress about the CPA is that we actually select papers for the conference by peer review of the whole papers themselves. Most other societies only review papers by abstract. A wonderful-sounding abstract may result in a terrible paper. I've seen, at other associations, utterly boring research that justifies the dismissive attitude toward student work which was accepted because the abstract described a very interesting subject.

But because the philosophical association reviews the entire paper, every final product of an applicant has to pass the same test. This year, the CPA peer review process accepted a paper by a distinguished emeritus professor with a 60 year career and a bright, promising student in his mid-20s. They faced the same test, the toughest possible test, and passed it.

But there is a more insidious dismissal of the CPA that I think the association should wear with pride. At the University of Waterloo conference in 2012, I attended the CPA general meeting, where a major item on the agenda was a public challenge to the association from a very prestigious position. A prominent tenured philosopher and federal research chair at one of Canada's most prestigious universities made the argument that the CPA did not deserve his membership fees. His reason was that, as a wealthy federal research chair and tenured professor at one of Canada's most prestigious universities, the CPA could provide him no helpful services. Being no benefit to him personally, he saw no reason why he should support the association.

At the time, I listened to the conversation more than I took part, but I was hostile to this standpoint without fully understanding why. My experiences over the last two years have helped me shape what I find truly repugnant about this dismissal. If you have such a position as this man, you have essentially won the tenure game. You don't need help anymore. His position was, essentially, that because he no longer needed help himself, he need not contribute to an organization that exists, in large part, to help people.

This is one of the most pure statements of the politics that I have begun to rage against. The Ghost of Thatcher itself could have made him a ventriloquist dummy. A petty, hateful response to success is to say that no one else deserves help from me now that I have benefited from help. The noble, admirable, and upstanding response to your own success is, having achieved so much, to devote some of your energies to helping your younger colleagues achieve their own potential. The victorious and noble do not turn their backs on their fellows, or worse, look down their noses at them.

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