The End of the Humanities University? Composing, 08/03/2016

I was originally going to write something about Antonio Negri’s take on how the concepts of sovereignty and state-centric war changed in our era of globalization, and in the context of the W years. Multitude came out in 2004, when the madness of George W was at its height. It couldn’t be avoided.

Whatever issues you may have with the mistakes and
problems that have come up in the wave of student protest
this year, like this example from Yale, that students are
so universally driven to direct protest action is a sign of
a deeper rot in the system.
But I decided to lay off that for now. Maybe tomorrow.

Because I wanted to develop my ideas for my panel at the Canadian Philosophical Association this May about Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity. I only ended up doing that for a little bit at the end of yesterday’s posts. Sometimes, I’ll write just a prologue.

And save the details for now. Or at least the riffs that, once the final presentations and panel talks are prepared, will become the details. That’s one thing I’ve always used the blog for – preparing my ideas in a free-floating form before their presentation structure is hammered down.

So the discipline of academic philosophy – the professional field of study in the modern university system – faces a serious crossroads today. University management in the West has pretty universally embraced new liberal values. That makes the university very ill-suited today to what philosophy has tried to be over the last couple of centuries.

Philosophy has tried to be two things. One is the leisurely study of a particular canon of intellectual writings, which slowly adds to that canon. This is what Richard Rorty meant when he said (and I paraphrase) that he was paid to sit around pleasant lecture halls and eateries all day at Princeton, read wonderful books, and write about them.

That was never really the case except for the most prestigious academic philosophers – the ones whose professional reputations allowed them to kick back their way through seminars. But it’s still the governing ideal of the profession in its practice.

Bertrand Russell agitated for progressive political causes
all his life, from his years in prison for standing against
the First World War to the last years of his life that he
spent agitating against nuclear weaponry and the
invasion of Vietnam.
Second, philosophy has aimed to be an academic discipline in the humanities. Since its institution in the modern university system in the 1800s, philosophy and the rest of the humanities developed along the same model of the sciences.

I’m being incredibly simplistic here – I’ll remind you that I’ve already identified this as a riff.

But what’s common to these approaches is the separation of the order of philosophers from the masses of humanity. Let’s be absolutely honest when I say that the ideal of the philosophical vocation that Rorty described isn’t work. 

While organizing philosophy in parallel to an empirical science is certainly work, the society still becomes a realm of specialized professionals. An elite with more special and rarefied cognitive powers than the rest of us.

No wonder humanities PhDs have a popular reputation as self-absorbed blowhards. 

The new liberal governance models that run the university system today, though? It’s made professors of all disciplines into working stiffs. Just look at the sad fate of most adjunct teachers today. And even more income-secure professors are often under terrifying pressure from governments that make their education institutions into corporate servants

Yet the ethical ideal of philosophy revolves around fighting public ignorance, bringing sanity and reason to the wider world. That’s how philosophy is pitched to undergrads, but it’s forgotten once the ivory tower closes around the professors.

Antonio Negri spent more than a decade in prison on
fraudulent charges from the Italian government that he
was a secret leader of the Brigate Rosse. Where are
philosophy's most notable names today? Fleeing to
or retiring in disgrace after sexual harassment
and exploitation of students.
And that ivory tower prevents professors from understanding themselves as working stiffs. Jumping from contract to contract and curb-stomping colleagues just for a shot at a permanent position? That’s the mercenary, solidarity-breaking attitude that oligarchical types encourage to stop union movements. 

With the discipline’s institutions turning against its practitioners, I’d say that it’s time to ditch the institution – if not attack it from the inside and agitate to end these unjust demands on practice.

This is what I mean about maintaining philosophy as a tradition beyond academic walls. Writing works whose purpose is to agitate and educate, instead of carrying on arcane arguments in technical language. The institutions have betrayed the ideals of the philosophical tradition. 

An act of betrayal breaks the trust anyone would require to live together, wouldn’t it?

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