Dictating Freedom Epilogue: Thought In History, Composing, 01/09/2016

For all the links to the Dictating Freedom series, check these out.
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Call this a concluding note on philosophical method.

I’ll be honest. I actually always found it quite difficult understanding what precisely is going on in Rousseau’s conception of general will when I first read his political philosophy more than a decade ago. Professors have been similarly perplexed. We always read it by looking at the text alone, trying to parse its meaning with close reading.

Balibar is the first I’ve read to have worked out a clear explanation of what’s going on. He did so because he rooted it in the material concerns Rousseau and European intelligentsia were dealing with at the time – a political alternative to the absolute rule of monarchies and the people’s subjection to them, which would enable a freer society.

Knowledge has to be bent and fit into weird and congested
spaces if you want to fit it inside a classroom.
My own first philosophy book was conceived like this. By the time I was ready to write this kind of work, I knew I had to root my thinking in the concerns of my time. That paramount concern was the global destruction of so many of the ecologies that kept humanity alive. 

So Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity was an attempt to help develop the concepts that humanity would have to live by if we were to have a future. And Utopias continues that trend by being an explicitly political philosophical work about the relationship of our social and ethical ideals with our political institutions.

Yet so much of the academy shies away from that kind of engagement. Not completely, of course – it isn’t as if no one writes political theory or no one writes about social issues. But the norms drive academics into insularity instead of engagement.

Tenure and promotion committees look more kindly on publications in heavily paywalled, prestigious professional journals. Sometimes even more than books that are available for public purchase, and typically take far more work to research, develop, and produce.

As well, the style of academic writing turns off intelligent non-academics. It’s not news for me to say that overly-technical writing filled with discipline-specific jargon isn’t exactly casually accessible to readers. 

A magnifying glass and intense,
singular focus isn't always the best
way to see the world. No shit.
Over-saturation by citations doesn’t help matters either. It amounts to a kind of academic pissing contest – writing to demonstrate how much you’re read to the detriment of developing anything interesting or enlightening to say.

Specific to the discipline of philosophy, that problem of narrow focus on texts causes problems too. It’s a problem of relevance, for one. If you focus all your interpretive energy on a text itself, you’ll find yourself straining to show how any of this cognitive gymnastics has anything to do with the life of someone who isn’t directly invested in those texts themselves. 

But there’s another problem in that focus on texts alone, which I sketched at the start of this post. You can actually mystify yourself – you can get lost. 

A friend of mine once attended a conference of Immanuel Kant specialists and had an interesting, but not very productive, time. All the professors has written papers defending their particular technical interpretations against the critiques of all the others. 

Their interpretations had staked out intellectual territory for themselves, but offered nothing more enlightening than sessions of meticulous nitpicking. It’s apparently even worse in studies of ancient Greek philosophy. 

There, the cumulative weight of literally thousands of years of scholarship means that arguments over the particular meaning of a single sentence (or even a piece of a sentence, or even a single word!) will take years or decades to unfold.

The thoughts have lost their connection with the world where they take place. Unrestrained, they collapse in on themselves. 

Definitely not that Napoleon. That's Marlon Brando. It
wasn't a good movie.
When I was a young undergrad of about 18 or 19, a lot of my professors would tell us never to count real historical events in our analyses of philosophical works. They presumed that we’d reduce the complexity of the books and essays we were studying to simple reflections and commentaries on the events that surrounded them.

The Phenomenology of Spirit is all about Napoleon.’ Some of us would really think this way about what we were reading. I’d never see them in another philosophy class.

You can’t reduce a complex work of conceptual engineering to some historical event to which it responds. But you also can’t reduce a complex historical event to some simple, dogmatic definition. Philosophical writing is about pushing people to expand and develop their minds, so they can handle more and more complex ideas and methods of thought.

That thinking is powerful when it’s useful thinking – when it engages the problems of the world and history in all their real complexity.

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