Follow the Causes Not the Office Walls, Research Time, 06/03/2018

There's a particular kind of academic thinker in philosophy departments that holds the discipline back from what it can be. I’m not sure how best to label them.

It would be one of those pithy, insulting but accurate labels. The kind of label that would make you chuckle when you’re reading Nietzsche. In my research circles, there aren’t too many of these people. But if you’ve had any experience in different universities’ philosophy departments, or been to a few disciplinary conferences, you’ll know the type.

The Skull of the Smoking Mirror, representation of the Aztec god
Tezcatlipoca – co-creator of the human world, god of time, and
the embodiment of change through conflict. I suppose you could
call Tezcatlipoca the god of creative destruction.
I could see an eccentric egomaniacal Silicon Valley billionaire
building a shrine to Tezcatlipoca in his home.
I could call them the over-specialist, but it’s connected to a term – specialist – that’s still complimentary. Maybe the disciplinary conservative, but that’s too clunky. Here’s a cheeky word – tell me what you think.


Whenever they think they’re looking outside at the world, they’re actually looking at more of what they already know. Here’s their model action, what best exemplifies the way they think.

A student brings a paper to a Mirror-skull prof for comments. The prof reads it, and among his* comments are stars written next to some footnotes, reference list items, and sources throughout the paper. They’re the places where he’s marked “Not philosophy – Remove”

* While they’re often his, sometimes they’re hers as well. One of the most insufferably (and sadly unexpectedly) such academics I’ve met is a woman.

If a work isn’t part of the academic discipline of philosophy, it isn’t worth including in a philosophy paper. For example. Say I’m writing a paper about Richard Rorty, and I refer to Neil Gross’ excellent philosophical biography of Rorty. It’s a book that threads philosophical exploration of Rorty’s ideas with an argument about how his life circumstances conditioned those ideas.

What would a Mirror-skull say? Cut it all – it isn’t philosophy.

Now, there probably aren’t this many people working in academic philosophy who embody this attitude so intensely. I’ve met a few, but they’re just the purest expression of a tendency that I’m not the only one to highlight. It’s a tendency to fly away from any kind of transversal approach to knowledge.

How can people learn from research when all the new material is
locked away where no one can reach it without paying thousands
in subscriptions or tuition?
The Review and Reply Collective has recently posted some pretty brutal critiques of the state of contemporary university philosophy. Kenneth Westphal has published an artful and artistic fist of rage against a university system that has given itself over to elitism and marginalization.

It’s a complex piece, but if I can summarize the basic message in a sentence or two, it’s like this. It’s utter hypocrisy to position your institutions as the leading edge of human knowledge when original research is so heavily restricted from the general public through the enormous paywalls of academic publishing prices.

Here’s another example. The first in a round of reviews of Taking Back Philosophy by Bryan Van Norden is scheduled to post at the Review and Reply Collective next week. The book is a polemic, following up a gauntlet he threw down in the New York Times a couple of years ago.

Van Norden is an American researcher who specializes in Chinese and Indian philosophy, specifically Confucian and Buddhist strains. He writes comparative philosophy for journals. It’s a very respectable university career.

His book is a call for diversification in philosophy departments, for basically two reasons. The one he concentrates on most is, I think, the least persuasive. That reason: North America is becoming more diverse ethnically and in cultural heritage, so departments must design curriculums to speak to the positions of their students.

I don’t think this is the most persuasive because a major movement of political revanchism in the West today is turning all the power of the state machinery to holding and reversing that diversity growth. There’s nothing inevitable about the diversification and pluralism of Western countries.

Western people can no longer treat the cultures and traditions outside
our lineage as unworthy of attention. Business leaders, politicians,
and activists all understand this. Yet there are still so many in
philosophy departments that remain stuck in their minds that have
become mirror-walled prisons.
His other reason for diversifying the philosophy curriculums of the West is more compelling to me, despite Van Norden’s relative de-emphasis. Our world is globalized. As non-Western economic centres grow in power and influence, we’ll need to study their own philosophical, ideological, moral, and political traditions to deal with people from these regions as competitors, friends, and partners.

Just as a study of Western philosophy can help you understand German, French, English, or US-American cultures, a study of East Asian philosophy can help you understand Chinese, Korean, Cambodian, and Indonesian cultures.

The Review and Reply Collective itself is rooted in the global community of Science and Technology Studies, Social Studies of Science, Social Epistemology and other sub-disciplines that – instead of narrowing their focus – expand and diversify their influences and research bases.

For about a decade now, I’ve understood that breaking through common-sensical disciplinary boundaries improves your knowledge. The causes of real phenomena don’t pay attention to the contingent structures of our university disciplines.

I got to thinking of this reading some old notes on Deleuze and Guattari, about their critique of Jacques Lacan in Anti-Œdipus. They understood how psychological states have their causes and conditions not just in the psychiatric, but in historical, social, and economic processes as well.

It seems common sense to us now, but an academic orthodoxy had fallen across French psychiatry and psychology, stating that mental health had only mental causes. Transversality often breaks with common sense – so much the worse for common sense.

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