In the recently announced results of the new American Council of Learned Societies “New Faculty Fellows” program, 53 recent Ph.D.s in the humanities were awarded post-doctoral fellowships. None of the initial list of winners held a Ph.D. in philosophy. This is only the most recent insult to the oldest of disciplines. Most American humanists are unclear about how the debates of philosophers are supposed to fit into the overall project of the humanities. We are ignored at dinner parties, and considered arrogant and perhaps uncouth. To add insult to injury, the name of our profession is liberally bestowed on those teaching in completely different departments. The great figures of American philosophy, lauded the world over, are passed over within American academy, in favor of lesser known lights. For example, in January, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a lengthy article praising two rather unknown philosophy professors, which concluded with the grandiose sentence, “They became philosophers in the grand sense that still draws young people to the subject today, until the phony logic choppers drive them away.”
Humans organize themselves into societies, cultures, nations, religions, genders, and races, and employ art and literature to represent their character. According to one view, the humanities should explain the nature of these formations – how the cultural artifacts the groups produce represent their respective identities. In so doing, we seek to advance a more sympathetic understanding of the differing veils humans adopt. The decades have taught us sensitivity to the risks of colonialist methodologies. Therefore, many humanists are members of the communities they seek to understand. The work of the humanities has also become ever more important, as we are brought in closer connection with once-unfamiliar groups. Confrontation with the other has become a necessity of modernity, and humanists have settled into playing a role as our arbiter with the unfamiliar.
Philosophy stands apart from this emerging consensus about the purpose of the humanities. Its questions – which concern the nature and scope of concepts like knowledge, representation, free will, rational agency, goodness, justice, laws, evidence and truth – seem antiquated and baroque. Its central debates seem disconnected from the issues of identity that plague and inspire the contemporary world. Its pedantic methodology seems designed to alienate rather than absorb. Whereas humanists have transformed into actors, using their teaching and research as political tools, philosophers have withdrawn ever more to positions as removed spectators, and not of life, but of some abstracted and disconnected realm of Grand Concepts.
That philosophy has become estranged from the humanities is ironic. Philosophy has shaped the modernity in which its role has been supplanted by the anthropology of the other. In his grand volume on the subject, Jonathan Israel argues that Baruch Spinoza was largely responsible for the intellectual framework that led to the enlightenment ideals of freedom of speech and thought.
Nor was it exclusively the political writings of the philosophers of the modern era that led to the drastic rethinking of human relations that has enabled science and modern forms of government to flourish. Descartes never had any political writings – it was rather the “sweeping reverence for philosophical reason,” Israel writes, that pervaded the intricate metaphysics of his Meditations on First Philosophy that was considered so threatening that the Pope banned his work in 1663. However, appealing to past effect is no help in understanding current importance. Maybe the fact that we now occupy modernity, and no longer need to establish it, has made the discipline of Philosophy otiose. There is perhaps a place for the history of Philosophy – investigation into how abstract reflection on grand concepts led to the modern world – but no more use for the abstract theorizing of a Descartes, Kant, or Spinoza.
The activity of philosophy is also foreign to many American humanists. Fiction writers, artists, and directors create works generally outside of the academy, for audiences outside its walls. That work is studied inside the academy by humanists seeking to gain an understanding of the period, place, or identity it reflects. Like the fiction writer or the artist, and unlike her fellow humanists, the philosopher is focused on creating her own body of work, ideally a novel attempt at a solution to the on-going philosophical problems. But unlike the fiction writer or the artist, there is hardly an audience anymore for philosophy outside of the academy. Few bankers care to hear about the latest views on rational agency or vagueness. Humanists are used to studying cultural works created outside the academy for audiences outside the academy. Philosophical work is cultural creation formed inside the academy for an audience that is now largely inside the academy.
Philosophical problems also have a childlike grandiosity. When a philosopher announces that she is working on the nature of truth, she sounds like a teenager discovering the world of ideas for the first time. The notion that someone could come up with a new way to show that (say) we know that we are not brains in vats must seem infantile, even more so when the methods seem so dry and dilettantish. As the philosopher David Hill has described the discipline, it is “the ungainly attempt to tackle questions that come naturally to children, using methods that come naturally to lawyers."
The view that there is no proper place anymore in the academy for the theorizing of figures such as Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, and Kant is well-reflected in the relative success philosophers achieve in competition with fellow humanists for various fellowships. To take a representative example, there are 17 American historians who have won the prestigious MacArthur “genius” grant. In contrast to this subfield of history, there are six philosophers who have won MacArthur awards, and they are an odd group. None of the great American metaphysicians or epistemologists of the last 40 years are among them, despite their world-wide influence and acclaim.
Perhaps philosophy has fallen into disfavor among humanists because philosophy has not been true to its roots. According to one sort of myth of this sort, traditional philosophers were commentators on culture. In the 1920s, philosophy was then ruined by the Logical Positivists, who created a new, dry, vision of philosophy. In their quest to declare the traditional questions of metaphysics meaningless, they divorced philosophy from the broader connections with culture and politics that give it life. The Positivists lost favor on the continent, and obtained posts in the barren intellectual wastelands of Chicago and New Haven, bringing their dry, logical methodology with them from Vienna.
This story is false in every detail. Logical Positivists prized the deliverances of mathematics and science (as did Aristotle, Descartes, Leibniz, and Kant). But nothing follows about a lack of political and cultural presence. Core members of the Vienna Circle, such as Carnap, Feigl, and Neurath, all lectured at the Dessau Bauhaus. As Peter Galison has emphasized (“Aufbau/Bauhaus: Logical Positivism and Architectural Modernism,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 16, No. 4), what united the Logical Positivists and the members of Bauhaus was a desire to create an alternative vision of social relations than the one promulgated by Volkisch thought – the intellectual representative of National Socialism.
The Positivist repudiation of metaphysics must be understood in a cultural context in which the self-described “metaphysical” philosophers were arguing that the German Volk were ontologically prior to the members of the Volk. In the face of the anti-enlightenment ideology of the National Socialists, the positivists, together with allies in the art world, sought to articulate a progressive, rationalist vision of society that transcended ethnic and national divisions. The Positivists, like Descartes and Spinoza before them, played the role that philosophers are supposed to be play in society – challenging powerful social forces that appeal to mysticism and faith for support.
Logical Positivism, in its embrace of the transformational power of science and reason, does not mark a break with traditional philosophy. Rather, it is a continuation of it. Nevertheless, while contemporary philosophy shares positivist enlightenment values, the positivist anti-metaphysical program has fallen into disfavor. Many leading contemporary philosophers have achieved their status precisely because of defenses of metaphysical views. When the Wykeham Chair of Logic at Oxford University is writing a book defending the view that everything necessarily exists, it is safe to say that grand metaphysics is back in vogue.
In short, philosophy has not changed. David Lewis writes very differently than Nietzsche. But the unusual figure was Nietzsche, and not Lewis. The great philosophical works have always been difficult technical tomes, pursuing arcane arguments in the service of grand metaphysical and epistemological conclusions. None are easy reading for laypersons, and few base their arguments on anthropology or sociology. The conclusions they draw, and the methods they employ, are the same that one finds in the work of philosophers today. There are many philosophers working today who embrace and argue for Hume’s skeptical conclusions, just as there are many philosophers today arguing for Descartes’ view about the relation between the body and the soul in the Meditations. It is Slavoj Zizek who is markedly out of place in this tradition, and not Saul Kripke.
But given the role that the Humanities have adopted in modern civilization, what role does philosophy have to play? A thoroughgoing defense of science and reason is perhaps not now needed, and in any case it is quite clear that current philosophers are not engaged in this project. Rather, they have returned to the traditional philosophical questions one finds in classical philosophy – the nature of persons and rational agency, the status of free will, the nature and reality of material objects. Is addressing these questions now a defunct and pointless enterprise, in an era in which issues of group identity have leapt to the forefront?
Most humanists challenge preconceptions by confronting students with alternative cultural identities. The philosopher instead focuses on the beliefs that constitute a religious or cultural identity. Instead of teaching Christians about Hinduism, the philosopher addresses the abstract structure of the problem of evil, thereby confronting the Christian student with some of the consequences of her system of beliefs. Instead of teaching the middle-class American person about the actual poverty and oppression in her society, the philosopher forces her to reflect on abstract problem cases in which that person’s intuitions lead her to condemn the behavior of someone who is in fact behaving in all relevant respects similar to her. These are different methods of confronting complacency, but they are no less effective.
A typical humanist might be somewhat interested in the philosophical views of a certain group, but is probably more interested in the identity that results. The philosopher is interested in the logical consequences of the basic doctrines. Hence, many humanists find the discipline of philosophy baffling – the very project of investigating philosophical questions in isolation from historical context seems odd, like doing the mathematics of religious belief. Nevertheless, if the purpose of the humanities is to challenge preconceptions and basic beliefs, in the service of forming a better and more tolerant citizen of a diverse and globalized world, the methods of the philosopher and the methods of the historian are equally necessary.
Jason Stanley is professor of philosophy at Rutgers University.
The past three weeks have seen an international outcry at the decision by the administration of Middlesex University in London to close its small but very highly regarded philosophy program. Why were so many American academics, many of them besieged by budget crises at their own universities, so upset at this decision made so far away? Why did Middlesex matter to those thousands who so quickly became involved, and why should it matter to all American academics, even those who are only just now hearing of it?
First, it matters because the administration’s decision wasn’t just meekly accepted. The resistance to it by faculty and students at Middlesex is remarkable, and their courage and organizing skill serve as an inspiring model to academics here suffering from years of the "death by a thousand cuts" of reduced hiring and operating budgets, larger classes, increased teaching loads, and more use of precarious adjunct labor – all delivered with top-down administrative arrogance more or less fig-leafed with talk of "shared governance."
Let me sketch the outline of events at Middlesex. The decision was communicated to the philosophy faculty at a meeting on Monday, April 26. Early reports of the decision quoted the dean of arts and education, Ed Esche, as saying that the decision was "simply financial." The Save Middlesex Philosophy campaign was launched the next day. A meeting between students and university officials was scheduled for Tuesday May 4, but when the students showed up for the meeting, the officials were nowhere to be found; the meeting had been postponed. The students, many of whom had not heard of the postponement, then occupied the building and stayed until a court ordered them out this weekend. The students created a "Transversal Space" in the occupied building, in which they studied, read papers, invited speakers, discussed film and poetry, and in general went about educating themselves despite the administration. Any academic who has dreamed of having self-motivated students was green with envy and realized that whatever the Middlesex philosophers had been doing to attract and develop this kind of student – well, that deserves support!
Word of the decision and subsequent occupation spread quickly. By Monday May 10, two weeks after the decision, over 14,000 people had signed an online protest petition. Letters of protest and supportive Web posts came pouring in from national and specialist philosophical associations: a joint letter from the British Philosophical Association (BPA), the American Philosophical Association (APA), and the Australasian Association of Philosophy (AAP); the Société Française de Philosophie; the Canadian Philosophical Association; and the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP). The Fédération Internationale des Sociétés de Philosophie (FISP) circulated a link to the petition to all member societies. (A remarkable point about the national associations’ support is that Middlesex is known for specializing in modern European or "continental" philosophy, which we can safely say is not exactly at the center of the APA’s concern. But I think we should be heartened by this show of solidarity: philosophers may be notorious for squabbling about philosophical method and aims, but one thing that can unite us is resistance to administrative overreach!)
Many individual and group letters were sent and/or published, including a notable one in Times Higher Education, signed by some 30 prominent intellectual figures, among them Alain Badiou, Etienne Balibar, Judith Butler, Michael Hardt, Gayatri Spivak, and Slavoj Zizek. The blogosphere sprang into action, with Brian Leiter’s influential philosophy blog Leiter Reports helping spread the word and taking a strong stance against the decision; Facebook networks fired rapidly, with the Save Middlesex Philosophy group page quickly soaring to over 10,000 members.
But is there any real content to this response? Is it just boomer nostalgia (hey, a student occupation, cool!), the power of memes gone viral (once it gets on Facebook, there’s no resisting the wave!)? No. It’s not just bandwagon jumping, nor is it just admiration for the students and staff who are resisting. It’s also disgust at the venality and short-sightedness of the administration.
Philosophy at Middlesex received the highest rating of any program in the university in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), a periodic exercise conducted by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which determines disbursement of government funds for research. Middlesex Philosophy had 65 percent of its research activity rated "world-leading" or "internationally renowned." This put Middlesex philosophy 13th of 41 programs in the UK, at the top of all the other ex-polytechnics or "post-1992 universities," and ahead of established heavyweights such as Sussex, Warwick, York, Durham, and Glasgow. To cut such a program, while bragging on its Web site about its commitment to research excellence – that was just too much administrative hypocrisy for even many hardened American academics to bear.
When word got out that at Middlesex from 2008 to 2009 academic staff had fallen from 748 to 733, while administration had risen from 888 to 890; that the number of senior staff with total compensation above £100,000 increased from 7 to 13; and that total compensation for the VC increased from £223,000 to £246,000 – all these facts rang an all-too-familiar note with American academics as well. And it certainly didn’t help the administration’s image when people learned that consultant fees increased from £2,321,000 to £3,122,000 in that time period. (Details on these figures may be found here, in the university's financial statement.)
Another outrage was learning that philosophy produced a yearly revenue of some £173,260 for the university from its excellent results in the 2008 RAE. Incredibly, the university will continue to receive that sum yearly until the next RAE, to be held in 2014 or perhaps even 2016, even if it has closed the philosophy program! This was an all too blatant case of ripping off the labor of the philosophers. Then it came out that the "subject group" composed of philosophy (six faculty members) and religious studies (one member) contributed 53 percent of its revenue to central administration in 2009-10 and was projected to contribute 59 percent in 2010-11. The central administration requires 55 percent, so it is willing to cut its most highly rated research program for a temporary 2 percentage point shortfall. Veterans of penny-pinching, short-sighted, and arbitrary administrations winced with sympathetic familiarity at this sort of "reasoning."
Those are the immediately resonating factors for American academics. There are some differences, of course, the lack of an American version of the RAE being the most important. But that just made the situation all the more galling. After all, Middlesex philosophy was not just teaching the full-time equivalent (FTE) in 2009-10 of 112.5 undergraduate and graduate students, it was also bringing in the holy grail of "outside funding" – besides the RAE money, another grant, from the Arts & Humanities Research Council, had brought in £230,000 in 2006-9. In light of these figures, the administration’s position came to seem more like extortion than anything else: “[more of] your money or your program.”
Here American academics had a clear case of what we had been complaining about for years. For all the talk about how humanities programs cost money, the reality is that through teaching so many tuition-paying students (and/or providing cheap labor teaching assistants in the form of graduate students), humanities programs contribute significantly to the overall financial well being of their institutions. Not just breaking even, but sending money to the central administration – just not enough for the Middlesex administration’s acquired taste for spending millions in consulting fees! When a philosophy program that not only generates tuition but also brings in considerable outside funding – something that is like unto a dream for many American humanities scholars – can be pushed over the edge like this, then here we had a case of administrative greed that even the most blinkered academic couldn’t ignore.
Having laid out these immediately resonating factors, let’s pull back a little and consider the less immediate, but no doubt influential, factors that have led the Middlesex situation to be a "perfect storm" of academic resistance.
Adapting some of the points that the University of Southern Maine's Jason Read makes in his well-argued commentary, we can see that underlying the reaction to Middlesex are three fundamental factors.
First, for some there is frustration that administrators seem stubbornly not to accept (well-documented) evidence that humanities study in general and philosophy study in particular really does make economic sense, that it does contribute to producing the “ideas” people of the future that business, government, and nonprofits do in fact want, that philosophy grads get good-paying jobs and become good taxpayers, etc. A 2008 New York Timespiece about the popularity of the philosophy major and the employability of philosophy graduates enjoyed wide publicity in American academe; why didn’t administrations seem to know it was a whole new ballgame when it came to the “real world” applicability of philosophy study?
Not everyone shares this “accommodationist” viewpoint though. Among the traditionalists, then, we find the second aspect, anger that administrators want to have their cake and to eat it too when it comes to the name "university." They are happy to use the centuries of association, dating to the 13th century founding of Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge, of philosophy study and the name "university," but it seems they only want the prestige of the title, and not the content of the course of study. They want access to the market niche, but are happy to cut the philosophers loose once their "brand name" is assured. In the face of this rank hypocrisy many protest letters to Middlesex officials proclaimed that "a university without philosophy study isn’t worthy of the name."
Third, among the more radicalized faculty, there’s awareness that more is at stake in the Middlesex struggle than meets the eye. We've been told for many years – by administrators in fact more so than by leftists – that we have to tear down the ivory tower, that we have to acknowledge the integration of the university into the economy. "Accountability" to taxpayers demands no less. Well then, Read argues, let’s take them at their word: "[I]f we are living through a knowledge economy then there is no separation between the struggle over knowledge, who gets to learn, who benefits, etc., and the general struggle for the economy, for the production and circulation of wealth. To put it briefly the contemporary university is an object lesson in the inseparability of the economic and the political."
So part of the reason for the international resistance is that Middlesex has come to symbolize a high stakes battle over not "merely" education, but over the very real world of political economy. With Middlesex, we have seen to the heart of the present university – fat cat administrators, who, ironically enough, embody a top-heavy 1950s corporate structure while using 21st century slogans of "flexibility" and "relevance" to gut the humanities – and we won’t accept it. Another university, another future is there for us to build, not outside political economy, but at the center, where we find ourselves whether we like it or even realize it. Read’s piece is entitled “De te fabula narratur”: “the story is about you, my friend.” I like the demotic version: "You might say you’re not interested in politics, but you can be damn sure politics is interested in you."
Taking that to heart, let us work together so that the Save Middlesex Philosophy campaign and its superb "Transversal Space" is only the beginning of a new university, a new university we can build when faculty and students strongly resist and imaginatively organize on an international scale and in full awareness of all the stakes involved. Let’s make “Middlesex” be the name for the end of the corporate university and the beginning of the democratic university.
John Protevi is professor of French studies at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge.
Call it a revival, of sorts. In recent years, anyone interested in contemporary European philosophy has noticed a tendency variously called the religious or theological "turn" (adapting a formulation previously used to describe the "linguistic turn" of the 1960s and '70s). Thinkers have revisited scriptural texts, for example, or traced the logic of seemingly secular concepts, such as political sovereignty, back to their moorings in theology. The list of figures involved would include Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, Gianni Vattimo, Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, Slavoj Å½iÅ¾ek, and Jürgen Habermas -- to give a list no longer or more heterogenous than that.
A sampling of recent work done in the wake of this turn can be found in After the Postsecular and the Postmodern: New Essays in Continental Philosophy of Religion, a collection just issued by Cambridge Scholars Publishing. One of the editors, Anthony Paul Smith, is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Nottingham and also a research fellow at the Institute for Nature and Culture at DePaul University. The other, Daniel Whistler, is a tutor at the University of Oxford, where he just submitted a dissertation on F.W.J. Schelling's theology of language. I interviewed them about their book by e-mail. A transcript of the discussion follows.
Q: Let’s start with one word in your title -- "postsecular." What do you mean by this? People used to spend an awful lot of energy trying to determine just when modernity ended and postmodernity began. Does “postsecularity” imply any periodization?
APS: In the book we talk about the postsecular event, an obvious nod to the philosophy of Alain Badiou. For a long time in Europe and through its colonial activities our frame of discourse, the way we understood the relationship of politics and religion, was determined by the notion that there is a split between public politics and private religion. This frame of reference broke down. We can locate that break, for the sake of simplicity, in the anti-colonial struggles of the latter half of the 20th century. The most famous example is, of course, the initial thrust of the Iranian Revolution.
It took some time before the implications of this were thought through, and it is difficult to pin down when “postsecularity” came to prominence in the academy, but in the 1990s a number of Christian theologians like John Milbank and Stanley Hauerwas, along with non-Christian thinkers like Talal Asad, began to question the typical assumption of philosophy of religion: that religious traditions and religious discourses need to be mediated through a neutral secular discourse in order to make sense. Their critique was simple: the secular is not neutral. Philosophy is intrinsically biased towards the secular. If you follow people like Asad and Tomoko Masuzawa, this means it is biased toward a Christian conception of the secular, and this hinders it from appreciating the thought structures at work in particular religions.
One of the reasons the title of the book reads, “after the postsecular” is that we felt philosophy of religion had yet to take the postsecular event seriously enough; it was ignoring the intellectual importance of this political event and still clinging to old paradigms for philosophizing about religion, when they had in fact been put into question by the above critique. So, the question is: What does philosophy of religion do now, after the postsecular critique?
DJW: There are two other reasons we speak of this volume being situated after the postsecular. First, in our “Introduction” we distinguish between a genuine postsecular critique of the kind Anthony mentions and a problematic theological appropriation of this critique. The former results in a pluralization of discourses about religion, because the secular is no longer the overarching master-narrative, but one more particular tradition. The latter, however, has tried to replace the secular master-narrative with a Christian one, and so has perversely impeded this process of pluralization.
Yet it is precisely this theological move (exemplified by Radical Orthodoxy) which is more often than not associated with the postsecular. Thus, one of the aims of the volume is to move beyond (hence, “after”) this theological appropriation of the postsecular.
Second, we also conjecture in the Introduction that postsecularity has ended up throwing the baby out with the bathwater – that is, everything from the secular tradition, even what is still valuable. So, in Part One of the volume, especially, the contributors return to the modern, secular tradition to test what is of value in it and what can be reappropriated for contemporary philosophy of religion. In this sense, "after the postsecular" means a mediated return to the secular.
Q: You mentioned Radical Orthodoxy, of which the leader is John Milbank. His rereading of the history of European philosophy and social theory tries to claim a central place for Christian theology as "queen of the sciences." As an agnostic, I tend to think of this as sort of the intellectual equivalent of the Society for Creative Anachronism. But clearly it's been an agenda-setting program in some sectors of theology and philosophy of religion. In counterposing your notion of the postsecular to Radical Orthodoxy, are you implying that the latter is exhausted? Or does that mean that Radical Orthodoxy is still a force to be reckoned with?
APS: On the one hand Radical Orthodoxy, as a particular movement or tendency, is probably exhausted in terms of the creativity and energy that attracted a lot of younger scholars who were working mostly in Christian theology but also in Continental philosophy of religion.
In a way, those of us in this field know what Radical Orthodoxy is now -- whereas before its anachronism seemed to be opening genuinely interesting lines of intellectual inquiry, perhaps encouraging interesting changes in the structure of institutional religious life. Now its major figures have aligned themselves with the thought of the current Pope in his attempt at “Re-Christianizing Europe,” with its nefarious narrative of a Christian Europe needing to be defended against Islam and secularism. They are also aligned with the policies of the present-day UK Tory Party via Phillip Blond and his trendy ResPublica think-tank.
So, on the other hand, while its creative power is probably on the wane, it is still something that must be reckoned with -- precisely because of this newfound institutional power, and because we know that its research program ends in old answers to new questions. We have to move beyond mere criticism, though, to offering a better positive understanding of religion, philosophy, and politics, and this volume begins to do that. This means going far beyond addressing Radical Orthodoxy as such, though, and to addressing the reactionary and obfuscatory form of thought that lies beneath Radical Orthodoxy and which persists in other thinkers who don’t identity with this particular movement.
DJW: Yes, it is something broader that troubles continental philosophy of religion now – not merely Radical Orthodoxy as such, but what we try to articulate in our Introduction as the more general tendency to theologize philosophy of religion. Many philosophers of religion – even when they see themselves as opponents of Radical Orthodoxy – ultimately treat their discipline as an extension of theology. It is quite normal to attend a keynote lecture at a Continental philosophy of religion conference and end up listening to a theology lecture! This is the reason that questions concerning the specificity of philosophy of religion (what sets it structurally apart from theology) dominate After the Postsecular and the Postmodern. Such questions are not meant solely as attacks on Radical Orthodoxy, but aim to interrogate the whole zeitgeist in which Radical Orthodoxy participates.
Q: I'm struck by how your book reflects a revival of interest in certain thinkers -- Schelling, Bergson, Rosenzweig. Or rather, perhaps, their transformation from the focus of more or less historical interest to inspiration for contemporary speculation. How much of this is a matter of following in the footsteps of Deleuze or Å½iÅ¾ek?
DJW: Deleuze and Å½iÅ¾ek are exemplary figures for many of the contributors to this volume. We philosophize in their shadow – and, you’re right, in particular it is their perverse readings of Bergson, Schelling etc which have taught us how to relate to the history of philosophy in new, heterodox ways.
“Experiment” is one of the key words in After the Postsecular and the Postmodern: all of us who contributed wanted to see what new potential could be opened up within philosophy of religion by mutating its traditions and canons through the lens of contemporary speculation. Having said that, I think both terms of your distinction (“inspiration for contemporary speculation” and “historical interest”) are important at the present moment.
Ignorance of the history of philosophy of religion is the academic norm, and our wager is that through straightforward history of philosophy one can excavate resources that have been neglected, so as to begin to see the discipline afresh. It is a matter of revitalizing our sense of what philosophy of religion can do. Therefore, while mutating the history of philosophy is crucial, so too is understanding what that history is. So little has been written about Bergson or Rosenzweig’s contributions in this regard that a relatively straight-laced understanding of them is one of the volume’s most pressing tasks.
APS: In France at the time that Deleuze was studying and writing his first books, there was hegemony in the study of philosophy by the "three H's” (Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger). He followed a different path in his own work, writing important studies on Hume, Bergson, and Nietzsche (amongst others). With the rise in Deleuze’s popularity these choices in figures have taken on the character of a canon, but at the time it was considered quite heretical and bold.
While the historical canon for mainstream Anglophone philosophy of religion tends to focuses on Locke, Hume, and Kant, we hope our volume helps to establish an alternative canon that draws on more speculative thinkers from the modern tradition, like Spinoza, Schelling, and Bergson. We think that not only will this help us to address the persistent questions of philosophy of religion but will allow us to reframe those very questions.
Q: The names of a few contributors are familiar to me from reading An und für sich and other blogs. Would you say something about how the sort of "floating seminar space" of online conversation shapes the emergence of a project like this one?
APS: Many people have noted the democratic nature of blogging, which can disrupt the usual hierarchies in the academic world. While that can lead to intensely antagonistic encounters -- especially in the early days when we were all still navigating this new social space -- it can also lead to incredible intellectual friendships. I started blogging when I was 19 in the hopes of being part of an intellectual community that I didn’t have at university. This lack of a community was partly because I was a commuter student traveling four hours round trip per day, which didn’t leave a lot of time to participate face-to-face, and partly because my own interests in religion were not shared by most of the other students in my philosophy department.
The group blogs I have been a part of, first The Weblog and then An und für sich, attracted people in similar situations -- people who existed in a liminal space between philosophy, theory, theology, and religious studies and wanted to discuss these issues, but for whatever reason couldn’t do so in their immediate communities.
I think it is safe to say that without the blogging community the volume wouldn’t have existed. It was because of the blog that Daniel first contacted me about participating in the postgraduate conference in philosophy of religion that he had set up in Oxford and it was this conference that ultimately led to the volume. We have tried to transfer the democratic spirit of blogging to the volume, so while we do have contributions from established academics in the volume, we also have included a number of graduate students, intellectuals outside the academy, and those still searching for a tenured position (if there are any!).
Even though we don’t have a “big name” like Å½iÅ¾ek or Vattimo in the volume, we have still been able to attract interest simply on the strength of the ideas in the book, which are talked about on AUFS and other blogs. The volume has even made its way onto a syllabus already! John Caputo, formerly professor of philosophy at Villanova and now professor of religion and humanities at Syracuse, has his students reading the Editors’ Introduction for his graduate course called "The Future of Continental Philosophy of Religion," which we are really excited about.
Q: Sometimes the relationship of academic theological discourse to any creed or confession can be difficult to make out. With the philosophy of religion, obviously, such distance seems to be built right in. What are the stakes of your book – if any – for "people of faith," as the expression goes? That is, do you see this work as having consequences for what goes on at a church, synagogue, mosque, or whatever?
DJW: I tend to deploy a rather crude, form/content model on this issue: the material with which "people of faith," theologians, and philosophers of religion all deal is the same – "religion" in the broadest sense of the word. It is the operations of thought to which this material is subjected that differentiates them. What distinguishes philosophy of religion from theology or everyday religious practice is the specific kind of labor to which “religion” is here subjected. The question then becomes: Does "religion" after such transformations bear any resemblance to or (more importantly) have any relevance to the “religion” with which “people of faith” engage? And the answer is still very much open to dispute.
To take some examples: George Pattison (one of the contributors to the volume) is currently involved in a project on the phenomenology of religious life and it seems plausible that some form of this project could indeed be relevant to everyday religious practice – articulating its often implicit assumptions. On the other hand, I would be horrified if someone found a kernel of everyday relevance in my contribution on Schelling (in which I argue that names such as “Christ” or “Krishna” are literally the products of geological eruptions).
Personally (and here I am speaking very much for myself), I think there’s an element of smugness to the anti-“ivory tower” rhetoric that has emerged in the academy in the last century: the assertion that academics have something interesting or useful to say to the world imparts, in my mind, false value to what we say. In other words, I feel content to revel in the uselessness of my work.
APS: I love this answer! The militancy behind it stands against the pathetic “Theologian-Pope impulse” of so many theologians or the “Philosopher-King impulse” of so many philosophers that think the salvation for the world lies in our thought.
However, I want to nuance it somewhat, as I do think some of what lies behind what we do as academics, the reasons we take up this work, can participate in political struggles or help to deal with the very serious problems we face without our thought being directly “useful” in some crude practice of meeting targets or productivity goals. Spinoza wouldn’t have been much use as the ruler of the Netherlands, I’m sure, but when his ideas were taken up by others, and thereby mutated, they did have a real effect, and much of it positive.
The same goes for most of our great philosophers. But what Dan called the "uselessness" of our work in some sense mirrors the uselessness of religion in general. This character that religion has, identified by philosophers like Bataille, Nietzsche, and contemporaries like Goodchild, is in many ways offensive to the shape of contemporary life, where everything has its proper price, where we have to be thrifty and austere. Religion seems like a magnificent waste of time and money, unless of course it can be put to use convincing people to go to war to kill or be good little boys and girls and not harm their potential market value as workers with too much unclean living.
The same is true of this kind of academic work we do. It is useless within the parameters of contemporary society, but when contemporary society produces things like the poor and middle-class paying for massive bank bailouts and ecological disasters in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Nigeria, then maybe uselessly thinking about things outside those parameters isn’t such a bad way to spend ones life.
Q: As I've been reading your book, Republican leader Newt Gingrich and others have been arguing idea that the imposition of Sharia law in the United States is an urgent danger that must be fought. From one perspective, this looks like pure cynicism; the notion that it’s a real issue in American political life is laughable. But what do you make of it? How does it fit in any narrative of the postsecular condition, or any analysis of the strains and fault lines of secularity?
APS: Right, there is about as much danger of Sharia law being imposed as there is of French becoming the national language! This is an example of what we call in our introduction the “obscure postsecular” (again drawing on Badiou). Out one side of their mouth these politicians tell us that we must defend our modern, secular values from the medieval barbarism of radical Islam, and out of the other side they are condemning secularists for not understanding the “power of religion.”
The power of this obscure postsecular, why it gets taken seriously, is because it latches on to a kernel of truth. Frankly, many in the public sphere don’t understand the power of religion! Hell, when it comes to Islam, many of them don’t even understand the basics, let alone that within Islam there is a cacophony of different spiritual practices and, as in most religions, an internal conflict between a law-bound Islam and an Islam of liberty. This is argued for very clearly in a number of French scholars of Islam, like Henry Corbin and Christian Jambet, though it doesn’t appear to have been a lesson the ruling class have learned going by the recent idiotic, racist and completely unsecular headscarf ban in France.
So, this lack of knowledge is behind both Gingrich’s call to resist Sharia law and the ruling, which Gingrich referenced, from the New Jersey judge that a Muslim man could forcibly rape his wife because it was a religious custom; I know of a number of Islamic feminists who I’m sure would like to speak with Judge Edith Payne! With both Gingrich and Payne we have an obscuring of the postsecular: they both recognize that something has changed, but they call on some transcendent identity of Islam or America that obscures any real confrontation with that change. Notice that neither one of them recognizes that there are elements within Islam -- mainstream Islam! -- that reject honor killings, abuse of women, the murder of civilians, and the like.
The situation becomes even more obscure in the UK, where I currently live. While in the U.S. all our money declares “In God We Trust”; in the UK all money bears the image of the sovereign, Queen Elizabeth II. Surely this, a divine right monarchy, is an example of the relic of medievalism that Gingrich mentions! Yet, on the other side of the bill, depending on the denomination, you will find Charles Darwin or Adam Smith. The very figures who ushered in the forms of thought that our old narratives tell us swept away medieval superstition.
Now, to my mind this means that all our conventional narratives of secularization are inherently flawed. The classic liberal narrative of a neutral secular has been undone by the postsecular event. The liberal secular was a weapon used in the expansion of European imperialism, which tried to deny those in the colonial world resources from their varied religious traditions.
At the same time the anti-liberal narrative that secularity is to be rejected because of this complicity is also false. It has a similar political function, by creating and exacerbating divisions within a particular class but along imaginary or unimportant differences, playing into a myopic Clash of Civilizations theory that actually engenders the reality of that clash. The volume offers resources towards constructing a very different theory of the secular, of a postsecular secular, what we call a “generic secular” that goes some way towards superseding these flawed, conventional narratives.
Practically that means both a straightforward understanding of particular religions as they present themselves in their complexity, suppressing as much as possible the imperialist tendencies of the liberal secular, and deploying the same kind of bold internal, immanent critique of these particular religions that we find in the modern thinkers covered in the volume. The answer to these political problems may partially be found by experimenting with ideas from Islam and Christianity from the position of the generic secular.
One of the turning points in my life came in 1988, upon discovery of the writings of C.L.R. James. The word “discovery” applies for a couple of reasons. Much of his work was difficult to find, for one thing. But more than that, it felt like exploring a new continent.
James was born in Trinidad in 1901, and he died in England in 1989. (I had barely worked up the nerve to consider writing him a letter.) He had started out as a man of letters, publishing short stories and a novel about life among the poorest West Indians. He went on to write what still stands as the definitive history of the Haitian slave revolt, The Black Jacobins (1938). His play based on research for that book starred Paul Robeson as Toussaint Louverture. In 1939, he went to Mexico to discuss politics with Leon Trotsky. A few years later -- and in part because of certain disagreements he'd had with Trotsky -- James and his associates in the United States brought out the first English translation of Karl Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. (By the early 1960s, there would be a sort of cottage industry in commentary on these texts, but James planted his flag in 1947.)
He was close friends with Richard Wright and spoke at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s church. At one point, the United States government imprisoned James on Ellis Island as a dangerous subversive. While so detained, he drafted a book about Herman Melville as prophet of 20th century totalitarianism -- with the clear implication that the U.S. was not immune to it.
Settled in Britain, he wrote a book on the history and meaning of cricket called Beyond a Boundary (1963). By all accounts it is one of the classics of sports writing. Being both strenuously unathletic and an American, I was prepared to take this on faith. But having read some of it out of curiosity, I found the book fascinating, even if the game itself remained incomprehensible.
This is, of course, an extremely abbreviated survey of his life and work. The man was a multitude. A few years ago, I tried to present a more comprehensive sketch in this short magazine article, and edited a selection of his hard-to-find writings for the University Press of Mississippi.
In the meantime, it has been good to see his name becoming much more widely known than it was at the time of his death more than two decades ago. This is particularly true among young people. They take much for granted that a literary or political figure can be, as James was, transnational in the strongest sense -- thinking and writing and acting "beyond the boundary" of any given national context. He lived and worked in the 20th century, of course, but James is among the authors the 21st century will make its own.
So it is appalling to learn that the C.L.R. James Library in Hackney (a borough of London) is going to be renamed the Dalston Library and Archives, after the neighborhood in which it is located. James was there when the library was christened in his honor in 1985. The authorities insist that, in spite of the proposed change, they will continue to honor James. But this seems half-hearted and unsatisfying. There is a petition against the name change, which I hope readers of this column will sign and help to circulate.
Some have denounced the name change as an insult, not just to James's memory, but to the community in which the library is located, since Hackney has a large black population. I don't know enough to judge whether any offense was intended. But the renaming has a significance going well beyond local politics in North London.
C.L.R. James was a revolutionary; that he ended up imprisoned for a while seems, all in all, par for the course. But he was also very much the product of the cultural tradition he liked to call Western Civilization. He used this expression without evident sarcasm -- a remarkable thing, given that he was a tireless anti-imperialist. Given his studies in the history of Africa and the Caribbean, he might well have responded as Gandhi did when asked what he thought of Western Civilization: "I think it would be a good idea."
As a child, James reread Thackeray's satirical novel Vanity Fair until he had it almost memorized; this was, perhaps, his introduction to social criticism. He traced his ideas about politics back to ancient Greece. James treated the funeral oration of Pericles as a key to understanding Lenin’s State and Revolution. And there is a film clip that shows him speaking to an audience of British students on Shakespeare -- saying that he wrote "some of the finest plays I know about the impossibility of being a king.” As with James's interpretation of Captain Ahab as a prototype of Stalin, this is a case of criticism as transformative reading. It’s eccentric, but it sticks with you.
Harold Bloom might not approve of what James did with the canon. And Allan Bloom would have been horrified, no doubt about it. But it helps explain some of James's discomfort about the emergence of African-American studies as an academic discipline. He taught the subject for some time as a professor at Federal City College, now called the University of the District of Columbia -- but not without misgivings.
“For myself,” he said in a lecture in 1969, “I do not believe that there is any such thing as black studies. There are studies in which black people and black history, so long neglected, can now get some of the attention they deserve. ... I do not know, as a Marxist, black studies as such. I only know the struggle of people against tyranny and oppression in a certain political setting, and, particularly, during the past two hundred years. It’s impossible for me to separate black studies from white studies in any theoretical point of view.”
James’s argument here is perhaps too subtle for the Internet to propagate. (I type his words with mild dread at the likely consequences.) But the implications are important -- and they apply with particular force to the circumstance at hand, the move to rename the C.L.R. James Library in London.
People of Afro-Caribbean descent in England have every right to want James to be honored. But no less outspoken, were he still alive, would be Martin Glaberman -- a white factory worker in Detroit who later became a professor of social science at Wayne State University. (I think of him now because it was Marty who was keeping many of James's books in print when I first became interested in them.) James was the nexus between activists and intellectuals in Europe, Africa, and the Americas, and his cosmopolitanism included a tireless effort to connect cultural tradition to modern politics.To quote from the translation he made of a poem by Aimé Cesaire: “No race holds the monopoly of beauty, of intelligence, of strength, and there is a place for all at the rendezvous of victory.”
Having C.L.R. James’s name on the library is an honor -- to the library. To remove it is an act of vandalism. Please sign the petition.
I've heard of a cartoon that appeared in the Iranian émigré press following the crackdown against last year’s widespread protests against the government. It shows a couple of young people in a prison cell. One of them says something like, “We’re philosophy students and they’ve thrown us in prison! Now what do we do?”
And the other says, “Calm down. We’ll just continue our studies. After all, our dissertation director is in the next cell….”
It is against this background of repression that the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization will be holding a conference to honor World Philosophy Day in, of all places, Tehran. Celebrated each year on the third Thursday in November, the event was proclaimed in 2002 “to reaffirm the true value of philosophy, that is to say the establishment of dialogue that must never cease when it comes to essential matters, and of thought which gives us back a large part of human dignity whatever our condition.”
When bureaucracies are ironic, it is always unintentional. In this case, one can well imagine that someone at UNESCO had honorable intentions that were overtaken by events. A few years ago, the existence of a rich philosophical scene in Iran -- with leading figures from around the world visiting to lecture, and their books appearing in Farsi translation with some regularity -- was an indicator of the cultural gap between young Iranians and their elders. The country has a long history of highly cosmopolitan intellectual life, if one marked by unhappy interruptions. But the reports coming out of Iran, say, five years ago sounded exceptionally energetic.
Since then, philosophy has gone from being a precarious but flourishing enterprise to a special target of repression. After last year’s street protests, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned about the tendency of foreign ideas to undermine faith. The country’s supreme ruler reopened the old charge against Socrates -- that of corrupting the youth.
In January, the Italian cultural journal Reset published an open letter opposing the Tehran conference, appealing for support from writers and intellectuals around the world. It drew the support of Jürgen Habermas and Seyla Benhabib, among others. UNESCO did not change its plans, however. Nor did it do so when President Ahmadinejad replaced Gholamreza Aavani, the director of the Iranian Institute of Philosophy, with Ali Haddad Adel -- whose most important qualification is that he is one of Ayatollah Khamenei’s in-laws.
The combination of nepotism and theological correctness was too much for the German philosopher Ottfried Höffe. Originally scheduled to be one of the keynote speakers at the World Philosophy Day event, Höffe told the press this summer that he had looked forward to the high level of discussion to be expected from his Iranian colleagues. Now, he said, the growing repression made it impossible to sanction the event's taking place in Tehran -- though he said hoped there would be “radical change” there in the not-too-distant future.
Other protests against the conference have appeared, including a number of forceful statements by Iranian intellectuals living abroad. Several appear at Reset’s English-language website.
Until recently, though, that seems to have been the extent of it -- a few articles here and there, calling for nonparticipation in an event that (with all due respect to the busy staff at UNESCO) not very many people were aware of in the first place.
But there has been an interesting development over the past few days. Following a meeting at the New School in New York City, plans are under way to hold a parallel conference on World Philosophy Day -- not in a particular city, but through online activities among philosophers around the world in solidarity with their colleagues in Iran.
Things are very much in the preparatory stage now. More on that in just a moment. But first, a few words about how welcome this change of course seems.
It is possible to feel complete agreement with the grounds for a protest against World Philosophy Day being held in Tehran while also having reservations about whether calling for a boycott of it is an effective or appropriate response. The fact that many Iranian intellectuals are unable to return to their country for the event is a compelling reason why others might want not to attend, of course. At the same time, it is possible that philosophers attending the conference could manifest opposition to the regime -- either by explicit statements criticizing it or through the force of their example (that is, by arguing freely).
Whether or not to boycott the event is, it seems to me, a question of tactics, not of absolute principle. But denunciations of the World Philosophy Day event often imply a simple, immediate relationship between philosophy and political context.
This came through very clearly when I asked a couple of people whether any good could even conceivably come from philosophers going to the UNESCO gathering.
Ramin Jahanbegloo, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto who was imprisoned by the Iranian authorities for four months in 2006, responded: “By accepting to go to Iran and participate at this conference, any philosopher from the East or West will be betraying the critical tradition of philosophical thinking and will legitimize a regime that neither accepts international laws and rights nor respects philosophy and philosophers.”
Which would be true, of course, if philosophers did nothing but praise their hosts and make no challenging or embarrassing points. But that was not what I asked about -- on the contrary.
Nadia Urbinati, a professor of political theory and Hellenic studies at Columbia University, made a similar argument in a more dialectical idiom: “Philosophy, since it [first] existed, cannot be manageable according to the interests of the ruler; so, not to go to Tehran is not a negation but an affirmation of philosophy, which has one responsibility only: allowing the thinker (every human being) to think with her mind. If a regime cannot allow this basic freedom of thought, there is no philosophy there, regardless of a UN office that decides to hold a conference.”
This is rhetorically compelling but historically untrue. Sartre worked out Being and Nothingness while France was under Nazi occupation. Most of Jan Patocka’s work was written while Czechoslovakia was a Stalinist police state. The question is not whether philosophy can be done under such conditions, but where it is done, and by whom. There is also the issue of whether it can then reach an audience. It may be that someone coming back from the UNESCO conference will be smuggling out manuscripts that would not be circulated otherwise. So to repeat: Whether or not to participate in World Philosophy Day in Tehran is an issue of tactics and not of principle.
Fortunately another tactic is now available.
On Monday of this week, a number of philosophers and activists involved in the protest held a press conference at the New School. As it turned out, no reporters actually attended. Or so I heard from Danny Postel, the author of Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran (University of Chicago Press, 2006), who called after it was over.
The meeting had instead turned into an open-ended discussion. A turning point came when Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University, suggested doing more than just denouncing the event in Tehran. Instead, he proposed holding a “shadow” or “parallel” World Philosophy Day conference. “As soon as he said it,” Postel told me, “it shifted the discussion among everyone in the room. It was a game-changer.”
I got in touch with Dabashi -- though not before trying to figure out why his name seemed familiar: a few years ago, he made David Horowitz’s list of the country’s most dangerous professors. His other credentials are also impressive. A volume called The World is My Home: A Hamid Dabishi Reader is due out from Transaction soon, though it is evidently behind schedule.
“There are scores of prominent Iranian thinkers,” Dabashi said in the course of our e-mail exchange, “who for a variety of reasons (including but not limited to just political) cannot be in Iran for this conference. So a parallel conference will accept the fact that there is very little that ordinary people around the globe can do to convince UNESCO not to hold its World Philosophy Day in a theocracy that has systematically gone through successive ‘cultural revolutions’ and university purges precisely to prevent independence of thinking.”
By virtue of taking place online using websites, blogs, and Skype, the parallel conference can draw in Iranian intellectuals living abroad. Non-Iranians who wanted to express solidarity would also be welcome.
This left me wondering if making gestures of political solidarity -- important as that is -- was really the best use of World Philosophy Day. Shouldn’t the conference involve papers by people actually "doing philosophy," as the expression goes?
“Of course it MUST include something more than expressions of solidarity,” wrote Dabashi in reply. “My idea is for people to write about the link between philosophy and political freedom -- or between national sites of philosophy in an increasingly globalized world.” Participants should discuss “the occasion of this conference (political tyranny), the medium of our philosophizing (the Internet), and the modus operandi of philosophizing (collapse of national boundaries)” -- matters to be addressed “in our individual contributions in the form of short essays, interviews, podcasts, Skype presentations, Facebook distributions, etc.”
Another benefit of conducting things online, come to think of it, is that it might attract more attention from Iranians than the official event itself. The regime’s efforts to control access to the Internet keep running up against the technical savvy of its own citizens.
And as Dabashi says (perhaps with tongue in cheek; with e-mail it’s hard to tell) any UNESCO functionary ought to welcome “an Internet-based, globally-wired, inclusive celebration of World Philosophy Day that will be ‘in Iran’ in a symbolically and literally significant and undeniable way.”
For this week’s column (the last one until the new year) I asked a number of interesting people what book they’d read in 2010 that left a big impression on them, or filled them with intellectual energy, or made them wish it were better known. If all three, then so much the better. I didn’t specify that it had to be a new book, nor was availability in English a requirement.
My correspondents were enthusiastic about expressing their enthusiasm. One of them was prepared to name 10 books – but that’s making a list, rather than a selection. I drew the line at two titles per person. Here are the results.
Lila Guterman is a senior editor at Chemical and Engineering News, the weekly magazine published by the American Chemical Society. She said it was easier to pick an outstanding title from 2010 than it might have been in previous years: “Not sleeping, thanks to a difficult pregnancy followed by a crazy newborn, makes it almost impossible for me to read!”
She named Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, published by Crown in February. She called it an “elegantly balanced account of a heartbreaking situation for one family that simultaneously became one of the most important tools of biology and medicine. It was a fast-paced read driven by an incredible amount of reporting: A really exemplary book about bioethics.”
Neil Jumonville, a professor of history at Florida State University, is editor of The New York Intellectual Reader (Routledge, 2007). A couple of collections of essays he recently read while conducting a graduate seminar on the history of liberal and conservative thought in the United States struck him as timely.
“The first is Gregory Schneider, ed., Conservatives in America Since 1930 (NYU Press, 2003). Here we find a very useful progression of essays from the Old Right, Classical Liberals, Traditional Conservatives, anticommunists, and the various guises of the New Right. The second book is Michael Sandel, Liberalism and Its Critics (NYU Press, 1984). Here, among others, are essays from Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Alisdair MacIntyre, Michael Walzer, a few communitarians represented by Sandel and others, and important pieces by Peter Berger and Hannah Arendt.”
Reading the books alongside one another, he said, tends to sharpen up one's sense of both the variety of political positions covered by broad labels like “liberal” and “conservative” and to point out how the traditions may converge or blend. “Some people understand this beneficial complexity of political positions,” he told me, “but many do not.”
Michael Yates retired as a professor of economics and labor relations at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown in 2001. His most recent book is In and Out of the Working Class, published by Arbeiter Ring in 2009.
He named Wallace Stegner’s The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail, originally published in 1964. “I am not a Mormon or religious in the slightest degree,” he said, “and I am well aware of the many dastardly deeds done in the name of the angel Moroni, but I cannot read the history of the Mormons without a feeling of wonder, and I cannot look at the sculpture of the hand cart pioneers in Temple Square [in Salt Lake City] without crying. If only I could live my life with the same sense of purpose and devotion…. It is not possible to understand the West without a thorough knowledge of the Mormons. Their footprints are everywhere."
Adam Kotsko is a visiting assistant professor of religion at Kalamazoo College. This year he published Politics of Redemption: The Social Logic of Salvation (Continuum) and Awkwardness (Zero Books).
“My vote," he said, "would be for Sergey Dogopolski's What is Talmud? The Art of Disagreement, on all three counts. It puts forth the practices of Talmudic debate as a fundamental challenge to one of the deepest preconceptions of Western thought: that agreement is fundamental and disagreement is only the result of a mistake or other contingent obstacle. The notion that disagreements are to be maintained and sharpened rather than dissolved is a major reversal that I'll be processing for a long time to come. Unfortunately, the book is currently only available as an expensive hardcover.”
Helena Fitzgerald is a contributing editor for The New Inquiry, a website occupying some ambiguous position between a New York salon and an online magazine.
She named Patti Smith’s memoir of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, published by Ecco earlier this year and recently issued in paperback. “I've found Smith to be one of the most invigorating artists in existence ever since I heard ‘Land’ for the first time and subsequently spent about 24 straight with it on repeat. She's one of those artists who I've long suspected has all big secrets hoarded somewhere in her private New York City. This book shares a satisfying number of those secrets and that privately legendary city. Just Kids is like the conversation that Patti Smith albums always made you want to have with Patti Smith.”
Cathy Davidson, a professor of English and interdisciplinary studies at Duke University, was recently nominated by President Obama to serve on the National Council on the Humanities. She, too, named Patti Smith’s memoir as one of the books “that rocked my world this year.” (And here the columnist will interrupt to give a third upturned thumb. Just Kids is a moving and very memorable book.)
Davidson also mentioned rereading Tim Berners-Lee's memoir Weaving the Web, first published by HarperSanFrancisco in 1999. She was “inspired by his honesty in letting us know how, at every turn, the World Wide Web's creation was a surprise, including the astonishing willingness of an international community of coders to contribute their unpaid labor for free in order to create the free and open World Wide Web. Many traditional, conventional scientists had no idea what Berners-Lee was up to or what it could possibly mean and, at times, neither did he. His genius is in admitting that he forged ahead, not fully knowing where he was going….”
Bill Fletcher Jr., a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, is co-author, with Fernando Gapasin, of Solidarity Divided, The Crisis in Organized Labor and A New Path Toward Social Justice, published by the University of California Press in 2009.
He named Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh’s The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Beacon, 2001), calling it “a fascinating look at the development of capitalism in the North Atlantic. It is about class struggle, the anti-racist struggle, gender, forms of organization, and the methods used by the ruling elites to divide the oppressed. It was a GREAT book.”
Astra Taylor has directed two documentaries, Zizek! and Examined Life. She got hold of the bound galleys for James Miller’s Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, out next month from Farrar Straus and Giroux. She called it “a book by the last guy I took a university course with and one I've been eagerly awaiting for years. Like a modern day Diogenes Laertius, Miller presents 12 biographical sketches of philosophers, an exploration of self-knowledge and its limits. As anyone who read his biography of Foucault knows, Miller's a master of this sort of thing. The profiles are full of insight and sometimes hilarious.”
Arthur Goldhammer is a senior affiliate of the Center for European Studies at Harvard University and a prolific translator, and he runs an engaging blog called French Politics.
“I would say that Florence Aubenas' Le Quai de Ouistreham (2010) deserves to be better known,” he told me. “Aubenas is a journalist who was held prisoner in Iraq for many months, but upon returning to France she did not choose to sit behind a desk. Rather, she elected to explore the plight of France's ‘precarious’ workers -- those who accept temporary work contracts to perform unskilled labor for low pay and no job security. The indignities she endures in her months of janitorial work make vivid the abstract concept of a ‘dual labor market.’ Astonishingly, despite her fame, only one person recognized her, in itself evidence of the invisibility of social misery in our ‘advanced’ societies.”
The book that made the biggest impression on her this year was Judith Giesberg's Army at Home: Women and the Civil War on the Northern Home Front, published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2009. “Too often,” Rubin told me, “historians ignore the lives of working-class women, arguing that we don't have the sources to get inside their lives, but Giesberg proves us wrong. She tells us about women working in Union armories, about soldiers' wives forced to move into almshouses, and African Americans protesting segregated streetcars. This book expands our understanding of the Civil War North, and I am telling everyone about it.”
Siva Vaidhyanathan is a professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia. His next book, The Googlization of Everything: (And Why We Should Worry), will be published by the University of California Press in March.
He thinks there should have been more attention for Carolyn de la Pena's Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda, published this year by the University of North Carolina Press: “De la Pena (who is a friend and graduate-school colleague) shows artificial sweeteners have had a powerful cultural influence -- one that far exceeds their power to help people lose weight. In fact, as she demonstrates, there is no empirical reason to believe that using artificial sweeteners helps one lose weight. One clear effect, de la Pena shows, is that artificial sweeteners extend the pernicious notion that we Americans can have something for nothing. And we know how that turns out.”
Vaidhyanathan noted a parallel with his own recent research: “de la Pena's critique of our indulgent dependence on Splenda echoes the argument I make about how the speed and simplicity of Google degrades our own abilities to judge and deliberate about knowledge. Google does not help people lose weight either, it turns out.”
Michael Tomasky covers U.S. politics for The Guardian and is editor-in-chief of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.
“On my beat,” he said, “the best book I read in 2010 was The Spirit Level (Bloomsbury, 2009), by the British social scientists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, whose message is summed up in the book's subtitle, which is far better than its execrable title: ‘Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger.’ In non-work life, I'm working my way through Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate from 1959; it's centered around the battle of Stalingrad and is often called the War and Peace of the 20th century. I'm just realizing as I type this how sad it is that Stalingrad is my escape from American politics.”
Note: Inside Higher Ed gave the editors of the Journal of Philosophy the opportunity to respond to this article. They declined, but did confirm the change in editorial policy noted below.
What would you feel if you were informed that, for the first time in your academic career, your article was accepted for publication in the very top general journal in your discipline? Pride? Elation? A delusion of grandeur?
I had some of these feelings myself a couple of years ago when my wife phoned me one morning to tell me that I had just received a letter with the very good news from the Journal of Philosophy. I still remember how excited I was that my article "Guilt by Statistical Association: Revisiting the Prosecutor’s Fallacy and the Interrogator’s Fallacy" would appear in the journal that to philosophers is approximately what Nature is to scientists. But I also immediately became worried. Although the paper offered a completely honest and responsible analysis of its topic, there was a problem with the authorship of that wretched article.
No, it was not plagiarized. In fact, quite the opposite. Whereas plagiarizing is publishing someone else’s work under one’s own name, what I was about to do was publish my own work under someone else’s name. And this someone else did not exist.
OK, why did I use a pseudonym? Was I merely trying to be funny or amusing? Was I just fooling around like the late (and delightfully extravagant) linguist Jim McCawley who enjoyed publishing stuff under names like “Quang Phuc Dong“ or “Yuck Foo“ (a spoonerism of you know what)? Or was I perhaps trying to imitate the playfulness of philosopher David Lewis who once wrote an article in which he criticized his own views and then published it under the pseudonym “Bruce LeCatt“ (the name of his own cat)?
Not really. Although I do love this kind of humor, I had a more pressing reason for hiding my identity. The thing is that at that time the Journal of Philosophy did not have a practice of blind refereeing of submitted papers. On the contrary, it even publicly advertised on its website that decisions about publication were usually made without the submissions being anonymized: "A majority of papers submitted to us are reviewed by the members of our editorial board… Manuscripts while in circulation inside the editorial board are not blinded." (In 2010 the journal changed its policy without explanation and introduced blind refereeing.)
What exactly was the problem with my name being known to the journal editors, who were to read my manuscript and decide about it? Well, I don’t want to go into too much detail about this delicate matter. It should suffice to say that several years ago one of the editors took umbrage at my published criticism of his views and even became angry (on his own admission). Therefore, arguably, had the article been associated with my name, any lingering resentment could have easily interfered with impartial refereeing. Notice that no accusation is being lodged here, not even a hypothetical one. I am not claiming that I had compelling grounds to believe that this kind of bias would happen, but only that I feared that it might happen.
Now, even if my fear had no basis in reality, I still thought that the journal itself was to blame for this awkward situation. For if it had only adopted the usual practice of blind refereeing (the norm for most scholarly journals), the worry that troubled me could not have arisen. So although the use of pseudonyms is indeed quite rare in academic publications, it seemed to me that it could be justified in this case.
The reader may wonder why I did not deal with the worry about potential bias by simply submitting the paper to another philosophical journal that had a better policy of reviewing manuscripts. There is an answer to that. Since my article went beyond "pure philosophy" and addressed some specific issues in statistics and criminology, the Journal of Philosophy was clearly the best choice because among the top general philosophy journals it is by far most open to interdisciplinary contributions. Moreover, its officially declared purpose is to "encourage the interchange of ideas, especially the exploration of the borderline between philosophy and other disciplines." In sum, the nature of the article dictated the journal, which didn’t have blind refereeing, which in turn made the use of a pseudonym advisable.
The first step then was to choose a nom de plume. Obviously I didn’t spend a huge amount of time on that, for I was well aware from the beginning that the chance of my article being accepted for publication in the Journal of Philosophy was very low. It's not that I had any doubts that my paper was an earth-shattering contribution to philosophical knowledge. It's more that I was afraid that others might not be able to recognize that.
Anyway, the name that soon sprang to mind and won the competition hands down was "Carmen de Macedo." One of its advantages is that it really has a good sound to it. Besides, I knew that in the unlikely case that I pulled the trick off, the name could be neatly used for a catchy title (see above), if I eventually decided to tell the entire story.
After the plan was promptly approved by my superego in January of 2008, I proceeded to open a Gmail account in the name of my nonexistent doppelgänger: email@example.com. Using that email I electronically submitted the article to the Journal of Philosophy under this false name, explaining along the way, somewhat apologetically, that I (Dr. Carmen de Macedo) was not currently affiliated with any university. I gave my own Hong Kong home details as Carmen’s contact address.
Five months later, instead of a rejection letter (which I frankly expected) a thick envelope addressed to Dr. de Macedo arrived in my mailbox, with the editorial verdict "Accepted without revisions" and with all those usual pre-publication documents and instructions. Wow, I did it!
Immediately, however, I was facing a new dilemma. Should I finally disclose my identity at this point, given that the decision has already been made and announced? Or perhaps not? Indeed, did any good reason remain to continue with my clandestine authorship? Actually, yes.
It could be plausibly assumed that the editors might be annoyed by my antics, and that, if told about the whole thing, they might reconsider their decision to accept my paper. Again, I am not saying that this would happen or that this was the most probable reaction. Yet it was definitely a possibility to be reckoned with.
I asked for advice from several prominent philosophers (some of whom had been editors of leading philosophy journals), and they agreed that my disclosure might well make the editors angry and lead to their retaliation. One of these consultants told me that he would himself feel bamboozled if something similar happened to him as the editor and that he did consider concealing the author's identity ethically inappropriate. He conceded that the policy of non-blind refereeing was unacceptable but he added that, in his opinion, the fact of the journal behaving badly did not justify doing likewise.
Some other colleagues, although by no means all of them, expressed similar concerns. Yet I just couldn’t see what could be morally objectionable about continuing with the Carmen gambit. The way I saw the situation was that, first, the authors surely have a right to be protected by anonymity while their articles are being evaluated. And second, since the journal failed to provide the blind review, I simply arranged for the service myself and by using a pseudonym I effectively blinded my own paper.
In the process I may even have decreased the chance of my article being accepted for publication because it could now raise many eyebrows by being linked to an author without any university affiliation and with no public record whatsoever of any academic activity or qualifications. But if I was myself ready to pay this price (for whatever reason), what was the harm in all this?
Moving from defense to offense, isn't the official doctrine in scholarly circles that it's what you say, not who you are, that counts? What’s in a name really (I mean, in this context)? Admittedly, there are situations where the use of a pseudonym would be illegitimate, as for example if writing under a different name in order to praise one’s own work or to get around the one-item-per-author rule in some publications, etc. But under normal circumstances, it is hard to see why scholars using an alias in publishing their work would be doing anything improper, irrespective of whether they did that because of some personal quirk, or because of a fear of being exposed to a personal bias, or for some other reason.
Clearing my conscience in this way and absolving myself from sin, I concluded that I was in fact not facing a moral dilemma at all but a pragmatic choice. I just had to weigh the two courses of action open to me (the Carmen strategy and the Neven strategy) and to see which of them had a higher expected value. It was a no-brainer. The Carmen strategy (continuing with the pseudonym even after receiving the editors’ letter of acceptance) would make it virtually certain that there would be no nasty last-minute surprise and that my article would see the light of day. On the other hand, the Neven strategy (coming clean about my name at this late stage) could possibly jeopardize the whole intricate scheme that was so beautifully planned, while the only advantage would be that, if everything went well, I would get the pleasure of seeing my own name printed in the Journal of Philosophy. Although I admit that this would have been kind of nice, I easily decided that having an opportunity for such an ego trip was not worth the risk.
After the decision was reached, the only thing left to do was to sign a copyright transfer form and send it back to the journal secretary. So I went ahead and drank the magic potion that helped me transform from the evil Mr. Hyde (or better, Mr. Hide) into the good Dr. de Macedo, and I then signed the form in her name. I felt a bit uneasy entering “my” new signature for the first (and last) time. For some reason, I even tried to make my handwriting look different from usual, although I was not quite sure why I really bothered. The article appeared a few months later in the June issue of 2008.
Alas, now it’s time to say good-bye to that formidable woman Carmen de Macedo, an incredibly low-profile person, an exceptionally silent collaborator and a highly elusive philosopher who just didn’t manage to make that crucial step and spring from nothingness into being. Thanks for everything, dearest Carmen, and I must say it’s a great pity that you don’t exist. For if you did, I’m pretty sure you would be quite a gal!
Neven Sesardic is a professor of philosophy at Lingnan University, in Hong Kong.
“I am not a donkey,” Max Weber once said, “and I do not have a field.” And yet it is always possible to label Weber as a sociologist without unduly provoking anybody. Things are decidedly more complicated in the case of the American thinker Kenneth Burke (1897-1993). Situating such Burkean treatises as Permanence and Change (1935), A Grammar of Motives (1945), and Language as Symbolic Action (1966) in cultural and intellectual history is a task to test the limits of interdisciplinary research. His theories concerning aesthetics, communications, social order and ecology took shape through dialogue with the work of Aristotle, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Bergson, and the American pragmatist philosophers, to make the list as short as possible. (And Weber too, of course.) It’s still hard to improve upon the assessment made by Stanley Edgar Hyman, the literary critic and Bennington College professor, more than 60 years ago: “He has no field, unless it be Burkology.”
The triennial meeting of the Kenneth Burke Society, held at Clemson University over the Memorial Day weekend, drew a diverse crowd, numbering just over one hundred people -- with at least a third, by my estimate, being graduate students or junior faculty. The Burkological elders told tales of the days when incorporating more than a couple of citations from “KB” in a dissertation would get you scolded by an adviser. Clearly things have changed in the meantime. Tables near registration were crowded with secondary literature from the past decade or so, as well as a couple of posthumous collections of KB's work. The program featured papers on the implications of his ideas for composition textbooks, disability studies, jazz, environmental activism, and the headscarf controversy.
There were also Burkean discussions of “Mad Men,” Mein Kampf, and the Westboro Baptist Church. Unfortunately I missed it, but Camille Kaminski Lewis gave a paper based on her continuing analysis of the history and ideology of Bob Jones University, where she once taught. (Her book on the subject did not meet with the institution's approval, a matter she discussed in an essay for the Burke Society's Journal.)
The range of topics would sound bewildering to anyone uninitiated into KB’s work; likewise with the vocabulary he created along the way (“dramatism,” “logology,” “terministic screen,” “socio-anagogic interpretation”). But people attending the conference received commemorative tee-shirts bearing excerpts from KB’s “Definition of Man” -- an essay attempting to reduce his thinking to a succinct formula, devoid of any jargon:
"Man is the symbol-making animal, inventor of the negative, separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making, moved by the sense of order, and rotten with perfection."
Quit a bit is going on within that nutshell. (The phrase “rotten with perfection,” for example, is Burke’s idiosyncratic take on Aristotle’s idea of entelechy.) But an academic organization devoted to an esoteric thinker who fits comfortably in no particular departmental pigeonhole would seem unlikely to have much potential for growth. On the final day of the conference, David Cratis Williams told me that when the Kenneth Burke Society formed in 1984, he suspected that it would for the most part appeal to people who had known KB personally. And that small circle was bound to shrink over time, as people retired.
Something else has happened instead. There was more to it than a few then-young Burkologists becoming institutionally well-situated – though that no doubt made a huge difference. Williams, for example, is the director of the graduate program in communication and media studies at Florida Atlantic University. (He is also working on a biography of the maverick thinker.) And David Blakesley, who organized the conference at Clemson just a few months after arriving there to assume an endowed chair in English, is also the founder of Parlor Press, a peer-reviewed scholarly publishing house. The name of the press is taken from a passage in which Burke describes the world as a parlor where an unending conversation unfolds.
Having a few well-placed and entrepreneurial Burkeans has certainly helped to consolidate the Society. But I suspect that other factors are involved in the continuing vitality of the KB scholarship. Three things stood out about the conference: the crowd was multigenerational; many of the younger Burkeans have a strong interest in archival research; and the scholarship is now orienting toward digital media, not just to study it but to use it.
These tendencies seem to be mutually reinforcing. Since the early 1990s, Jack Selzer, a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University's main campus, has not only been doing archival research on Burke’s involvement with a number of literary and intellectual circles, but encouraging his students to use the Burke papers at Penn State as well. One of his graduate students was Ann George, now an associate professor of English at Texas Christian University. In 2007, the University of South Carolina Press published Kenneth Burke in the 1930s, which situates its subject in the political and cultural context of the Depression. (While specialized and extremely suggestive to the longtime Burkean, it’s also the book I’d be most likely to recommend to someone new to KB.)
Now students of both Selzer and George are digging around in the 55 linear feet of Burke papers at PSU -- and sometimes taking trips out to the farmhouse in New Jersey where Burke lived and worked, full of still more manuscripts as well as KB’s heavily annotated library. Besides his correspondence with other literary and academic figures, they’re finding unpublished manuscripts and notes showing his concern with economics, music, and other areas relatively neglected by earlier Burke scholars. One senior figure told me that the influx of graduate students was both encouraging and anxiety-inducing: “I really have to finish the project I’ve been working on because now it’s just a matter of time before one of them beats me to it.”
The value of having digital editions of his writings seems clear -- especially in the case of works that Burke revised from edition to edition. In the meantime, two graduate students are digitizing "Conversations with Kenneth Burke," which consists of eight hours of interview footage with Burke conducted by Clarke Rountree at the University of Iowa in 1986. (He is now a professor of communication arts at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.)
Joel Overall, who is one of Ann George's students at TCU, told me about it. "Our project involves upgrading 8 hours of interview footage from VHS to DVD format,” he said. “In addition to upgrading the graphic design of packaging materials, DVD titles, and credits, we're also working on transcriptions of the interview that will be included through subtitles and a searchable pdf file. This is a particularly valuable contribution since KB was somewhat difficult to understand at the age of 89.“ (The other member of the project, Ethan Sproat, is at Purdue, where he worked with David Blakesley before DB's move to Clemson.)
The DVD will be released by the Society within the next year. “Since [Burke’s] written works are often difficult when first encountered, these interviews allow us to hear his voice and see him in cinematic motion, providing us with extra-textual elements that are crucial to understanding his work.”
Following the conference, David Blakesley pointed out another development in the Burkological world. While he was a polyglot as well as a polymath -- reading and translating work from from French and German, and an ardent student of Latin literature as well -- Burke's reputation has long been almost exclusively confined to the United States. But Belgian and French scholars were at the conference.
“They, too, felt welcome, “ he said, “and are excited about their prospects for future work on Burke. In fact, Ronald Soetart (University of Ghent) wants to organize a European Burke conference now. The French contingent was eager to see that as well since there appears to be a groundswell of interest in Burke throughout Europe. I noticed that when I presented on Burke and visual rhetoric at the International Association of Visual Semiotics in Venice last April, too.”
I attended the conference as a keynote speaker, and also delivered a paper -- and so was sitting there feeling mildly fried when I was invited to participate in another multimedia project. A group of Clemson graduate students in the master of arts in professional communication (MAPC) program were conducting a series of interviews for a video on the field of rhetoric. (That is rhetoric understood as the well-established study of effective communication, rather than in the modern sense of a technique for evading reality.)
Drew Stowe, a second-year student in the program, explained that the project would “show the importance of rhetoric for modern students, in the modern university, and to lay audiences such as parents of prospective students, the board of trustees and other corporate partners who recruit graduates from the MAPC program.” Burke is considered one of the most innovative thinkers in rhetoric since antiquity, so scouting the conference for talking heads made sense.
In front of the camera, I aspired to coherence rather than eloquence. My main point was that KB’s work is a toolbox of ideas useful for analyzing the messages with which everyone is bombarded. As someone who’s read a few of Burke’s books until they’ve worn out -- my hardback copy of the first edition of Philosophy of Literary Form (1941), for example, started falling apart during the conference -- I take his continuing relevance as a given. But where did it come from?
“I've always sensed that KB lived at a particularly interesting cultural moment,” wrote Jack Selzer to me by email, following the conference. “Major wars were changing international affairs fundamentally, new communications technologies were so important, and of course postmodern and post-Nietzschean philosophies (and the linguistic turn) were troubling modernist and rationalist assumptions. Somehow he was brilliant enough to perceive the vitality of these changes even as he was living amidst them, and he was able to theorize and meditate on things so productively -- even though (or because?) he was so close to them. As a consequence, what he has to say remains very contemporary. It was wonderful to see the younger scholars drawn to his work in every way imaginable, and I think it has to do with how shrewd KB was about such important intellectual currents.”
Ann George described teaching Burke in a couple of courses over the past years and finding that students “were struck with, and even a little dispirited by,” the parallels between Burke’s motivating concerns and the present scene. “His political, economic, and environmental insights are remarkable: American exceptionalism and the war in Iraq; 'socialization of losses' via government bailouts, 'rereadings' of the Constitution, Ponzi schemes -- it's all there. Of all the theorists we read in the modern rhetoric course … though, students felt Burke offered more answers -- or more hope -- because he didn't idealize human motives or overestimate how much we might be able to change things for the better. “
That’s a very good point -- and there is a profoundly humanist vision that emerges as the pieces of Burke’s theoretical jigsaw puzzle come together.
He put it best in Attitudes Toward History (1937): "The progress of human enlightenment can go no further than in picturing people not as vicious, but as mistaken.
“When you add that people are necessarily mistaken, that all people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools, that every insight contains its own special kind of blindness, you complete the comic circle, returning again to the lesson of humility that undergirds great tragedy.” Studying Burke is sometimes difficult, but there are moments when it makes the world seem a little less mad.