The Credibility Gap of Philosophy Without Criticism, Composing, 06/10/2014

The Utopias manuscript is going to be a very ambitious work. It’ll be the product of several years of research across several philosophical disciplines. It will combine some of the research I did for my Ecophilosophy manuscript, along with some of its conclusions and core concepts, with a more direct engagement with the philosophy of technology to emerge from the First World War. 

It will critique several aspects and strains of this techno-scientistic family of philosophies from several different angles: Ernst Jünger and Filippo Marinetti’s embrace of the mechanization of man (and to some degree, Martin Heidegger’s pessimism about our ability to reverse or overcome this trend) will face the discovery of vitality in mechanism and pure material that arose from Gilles Deleuze’s mutation of Henri Bergson’s philosophy, through his understanding of core principles of ecological science and non-linear mathematics. The directly political articulation of this critique will be an embrace of network politics, an anarchism for the 21st century, which itself stands directly opposed to the two central trends of 20th century politics: absolutist statism and neo-liberalism of the Thatcher-Reagan-Harper tradition. The reason I’m reading and reading about Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia was because it’s such a foundational text in the social philosophy and political ideology of the individualistic, libertarian points of view that ground and justify contemporary neo-liberal conservatism.

So that’s a little complicated. From one perspective, I’m actually very well-served in embarking on this long-term philosophical writing project by being outside the university system. Most of the norms of academic publishing, particularly the pressure for sub-disciplinary specialization, tend to discourage people writing books with this level of ambition and scope. But there’s a key disadvantage of being outside the university system that could cause me serious credibility issues at the level of review prior to and after publication: library access.

This isn't a literal interpretation of the university system's
ivory tower, but sometimes it sure can feel that way.
Take Nozick, for example. Anarchy, State, and Utopia is a neo-classic text, very cheap to acquire, with bootlegs especially easy to find. Since Nozick is dead, I don’t mind using a bootleg electronic copy myself. But much of the secondary material about Nozick’s libertarian political philosophy never achieved that level of popularity. The books today, where the most noteworthy ones are available, usually reach remarkably expensive prices. They’re in university libraries and so ostensibly available, but privileged access for article and electronic book downloads are restricted to faculty and students. 

Permanently outside the university system thanks to doctorate overproduction and the conversion of secure tenured positions to insecure and poorly paid contract work having passed a viability threshold, I am just one member of an entire lost generation of skilled non-fiction writers without the institutional foundation that we’ve historically depended on to produce credible works. 

Without access to university library holdings, lost generation philosophical writers will find themselves barred from access to secondary literature. Without access, we won’t know, when we’re engaging with a classical text, whether we’re repeating an argument that was made and incorporated into the general criticism long ago. We won’t be able to earn the credibility that comes with intense study of all the secondary literature in a given sub-discipline. I’ve had several ideas critical of Nozick’s work as I’ve read him, but I can’t know, because I can’t access the deep databases of university libraries with philosophy departments, whether they’re original or have been made by others already.

I’ll be in this situation with many of the primary figures that I include in my philosophical writing projects. For the lost generation to thrive, we’ll have to force a kind of tipping point of our own. One possibility is that we’ll develop new styles of philosophical writing that don’t depend on referencing the dry and minor secondary literature produced in heavily audience-restricted peer reviewed academic journals whose immense subscription prices keep them behind university library firewalls.* This is my most likely strategy.

* The movement to make library holdings almost entirely electronic, especially among journals, will especially hurt the lost generation. Even if we had no privileged access for borrowing or photocopying privileges, if we wanted to read a physical journal, nothing prevented us from walking into the building, picking up a copy, and taking notes. With electronic holdings, even just being able to read a journal will require a password and an expensive library subscription, which not everyone can afford. Not to mention that true comprehensiveness will require multiple library subscriptions, since university libraries themselves are cutting their own journal subscriptions due to budget shortfalls.

I chose the more creative strategy because the only alternative I can think of is to pressure university libraries to go completely open-source: make your electronic holdings accessible to anyone who wants them, for free. This, however, is practically impossible, as it requires overcoming enormous institutional pressures to austerity that result in raising prices to access and restricting access to encourage more paying customers. 

Frankly, I think it’s more likely that we’ll change the way philosophy is researched, written, and read before we’ll even have a hope of changing how institutions manage their philosophical material. 


  1. This is also on my mind. I'm currently proposing a book to a publisher, and I'm relying on friends to let me use their library logins and even to get me hard copy books. This is an inconvenience and liability for these folks, and I don't expect it to last forever. It also makes me wonder whether I want to even publish with this (academic) press, since it is part of a world that now excludes me.

    It looks like we will have to create a philosophical culture where (1) we ignore academic secondary literature while (2) building the very extra-academic literature that we now lack. In doing so, we might invent a more vital and interesting philosophical community, while making strictly academic philosophy appear even more isolated and desiccated than it does now. Not clear what exactly such a community will look like, though.

    1. We think very similarly on this issue. Over the next few years, I hope to build a network of independent philosophical writers who have the talent and ambition to write and publish powerful, socially engaged, experimental texts. I think by now, university-based philosophy and the wider humanities have passed a tipping point after which the disciplines can't really be stopped from sliding into social irrelevance. It will be up to outsider non-fiction philosophical writers to keep the tradition vibrant and creative now that the university system is no longer a safe home for critical and innovative works. Get in touch with me via my Twitter (@adamriggio) and we can keep each other in the loop regarding our evil plans.

  2. Isn't there a physical access point (a PC) inside the building? It seems ill-advised to me to ignore a body of literature only because it's difficult to access. Usually, if you're willing to wait a few days, even your public library can get a hold of a journal article. I don't think this is really about the lack of electronic access for the lost generation.

    I would certainly be wary of reading a book that openly announced that it let something as arbitrary as library access decide how deep its reading went.

    1. Public libraries do not have access to academic journals because their subscription rates are ridiculously expensive. Even if a public library can acquire journal articles from a nearby university, that university itself may not have access to the content you would need.

      I don't think you understand how restricted academic journals are today by their extremely high price, so restricted that major academic publishers have faced community boycotts across multiple disciplines (ex. mathematicians against Elsevier). My own undergraduate alma mater Memorial University actually doesn't carry the premiere philosophical journal in environmental ethics (the conveniently named Environmental Ethics) because it doesn't have room in the budget. This means that no Memorial student can access this journal at all, except through extremely unreliable piracy. This despite the strong focus on environmental studies in their science and many humanities programs.

      Electronic holdings do not have physical access points precisely because they're often password-protected and only paying customers (whether through tuition or expensive individual library subscription rates) can receive a password. The access problem is real, and it causes a significant disadvantage to those who are outside the university system. Your point, expressing that a book published without its author having had access to many academic publications, would be unworthy of being read, and denigrating its author as too lazy to to his proper research (the implication of the writer letting the depth of her research be determined by something arbitrary), demonstrates the hostility that anyone trying to publish a non-fiction book from outside the university system faces. Their research must go outside purely academic sources in order to be credible. For the humanities, new research paradigms are necessary for the task because so much of our disciplines has made its only home a university system that no longer has room for the number of humanities researchers it produces, and is becoming increasingly hostile at the corporate and administrative level toward critical humanities research generally.

      I am not writing excuses to publish works motivated by ignorance, and am a little insulted that you'd believe this was my point. If you are ever stuck having to do research for academic journals, and satisfying the demands of peer reviewers that presume you have full access to every journal and article ever written on the subject, without library access as a student or faculty member, you will understand the access problem much better, and I hope sympathize a little with the non-university philosophy writer.

      My point is simply that, given the economics of modern academic publishing, of which the access problem is a key element, innovative humanities research that happens outside the university system will have to develop new paradigms to earn credibility. All while established figures in the university system denigrate the new community of writers for being outside that system and not enjoying its institutional advantages.

  3. (Well, I wasn't trying to insult you...but since we're swapping insults, I can assure that I know a great deal about the cost and mechanics of journal access...)

    I work at a business school library, which also has a subscription budget. In my work I sometimes need to read College English, which is part of JSTOR package that is not in our subscription. That means that I have to go through inter-library loans, which takes a few days. It's inconvenient, but not insurmountable. All our students can do as I do.

    The idea that "no Memorial student can access this journal at all, except through extremely unreliable piracy" suggests not prohibitively high fees, but prohibitively inept librarianship. NO library can afford to subscribe to all the journals that anyone could need, just as no library can buy all the books people want. But ALL libraries can participate in workable arrangements (that are perfectly legal) to share the economic burden of access.

    Like I say, I'm not trying to be insulting or say that you're using bad excuses. I'm suggesting that you don't know enough about what your options are, and I'm trying to be helpful by giving you some that you seem to be unaware of. If someone said, "I know that [Book X] is really relevant, but my library couldn't afford it, so I couldn't read it," we wouldn't take it seriously. What the journals are really charging for (and you may be right that they are charging too much) is INSTANT access to peer-reviewed journal articles.

    I think university-based researchers should be advantaged, by the way. What else would be the point of working at a university?

    I'll have another look at those access questions, at least as far they operate here in Denmark, but I really do think you're wrong about the absoluteness of the problem. Especially in a civilized country like Canada! As an experiment, I'd suggest going down to the local branch of your public library and putting in a request for an article from Environment Ethics. I really would be surprised if they can't do anything for you.)


    1. I can't speak to the Denmark situation, but here's my own experience. A public library's access to university holdings in subscription-only journals would very much depend on the public library. Many in North America don't get the level of funding necessary to correspond with university holdings as equals or even comparably. Inquiring about an alumni membership at my doctoral alma mater, McMaster, their rules were that I couldn't even access any article databases at all — only the physical book stacks. And those stacks are rapidly being depleted as its holdings are digitized. Also, I had no power to request inter-library loans.

      I suppose what my post is largely about is, since access has become so much less straightforward and involves far more screwing around than there used to be, we should all start talking seriously about the creation of alternative knowledge sharing paradigms, and start writing in styles that engage centrally with primary texts not to create secondary texts (a process which requires considerable engagement with other secondary texts), but to create more primary texts.

      My other commenter was discussing the relative dryness and superficial character of a lot of academic secondary literature. Some of my previous posts (I remember one in January talking about Daniel Smith's interpretation of Deleuze) discuss how the major research drive in a university career today is not progressive work in your field, but carving out a sub-disciplinary niche in which you can settle. As well, a large project that involves multiple disciplines sometimes can't always use the same depth of focussed knowledge in each field as a specialist in any one of them. Instead of the deep readings in concentrated topics, as academic research tends to go today, perhaps there could be targeted readings in a related network of topics. And the project itself could create the links that constitute the research network.

      I'm looking at the conundrum of the lost generation, but not asking how we can contribute to the same model of university-centric publishing and writing from the outside. Instead, I'm asking how the unique phenomenon of this lost generation can create an altogether new model of philosophical writing.

  4. Like I say, I'm curious to hear what your local library tells you. (It wasn't clear whether you were reporting on your actual attempts to requisition an actual article from an actual librarian.) I would expect most Canadian public libraries to have a deal with Library and Archives Canada, who will either have access or a further deal with the university libraries. I'm going to confer with some American librarians to see if they share your pessimism.

  5. Like I promised, I've been talking with librarians, and, basically, the verdict is that most libraries, both public and academic, have an obligation to serve the public at large. That means that if you have a university affiliation you gain ease of access, not access as such. Without an affiliation, you should be able to access all the same information, though you may have to wait a little longer to get it, or get it in a slightly less handy form (like paper rather than PDF).

    I just came across a passing remark about this in another context by a reference librarian at the University of Montana. He laments the way the Internet (and Google in particular) has led people to believe that they have to buy things that their university or public library exists precisely in order to give them free access to.See page 17 of this paper. (Which might, ironically, only be available through my on-campus access. In that case, try here)