Essay on the problems with philosophy in academe

In 1917 John Dewey published “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy.” The essay consists of a reflection on the role of philosophy in early 20th century American life, expressing Dewey’s concern that philosophy had become antiquated, “sidetracked from the main currents of contemporary life,” too much the domain of professionals and adepts. While taking pains to note that the classic questions of philosophy make contributions to culture both past and present, Dewey felt that the topics being raised by professional philosophers were too often “discussed mainly because they have been discussed rather than because contemporary conditions of life suggest them.”

Dewey soon traveled to China, where he delivered nearly 200 lectures on education and democracy to large crowds across a two-year stay. Back in America Dewey commented on the public questions of the day, a role that he inhabited until his death in 1952. Since then, however, professional philosophers have followed W.V.O. Quine’s path in treating philosophy as a technical exercise of no particular interest to the layman:

Think of organic chemistry; I recognize its importance, but I am not curious about it, nor do I see why the layman should care about much of what concerns me in philosophy.

But is philosophy really analogous to chemistry, a domain of expertise populated by specialists? Or are philosophical questions part and parcel of everyone’s life, as far from a specialist’s tasks as anything can be?

Nearly 100 years after Dewey’s essay, it’s time for another reconstruction of philosophy.


While it is possible to point to philosophers who work with (rather than merely talk about) the concerns of non-philosophers, among the mass of philosophers societal irrelevance is often treated as a sign of intellectual seriousness.

This is a shame, since we are surrounded by phenomena crying out for philosophic reflection. Today we are constantly confronted by philosophic questions, in many cases created by advances in science and technology. Open your computer and you can find thoughtful exploration of issues as varied as the creation of autonomous killing machines, the loss of privacy in a digital age, the remaking of friendship via Facebook, and the refashioning of human nature via biotechnology. In this sense philosophy abounds. But professional philosophers have remained largely on the margins of this growing cultural conversation.

It needn’t be this way. Take the subject matter of metaphysics. Every philosophy department teaches courses in metaphysics. But how is the subject handled? As evidenced by a sample of university syllabuses posted online, metaphysics classes are overwhelmingly exercises in professional philosophy. Just as Dewey complained, classes begin from the concerns of philosophers rather than from contemporary problems. This can be seen in the leading textbooks. Consider as magisterial a source as the Oxford Handbook of Metaphysics, Loux and Zimmerman, eds. Their introduction begins so:

Its detractors often characterize analytical philosophy as anti-metaphysical. After all, we are told, it was born at the hands of Moore and Russell, who were reacting against the metaphysical systems of idealists like Bosanquet and Bradley…

The discussion is entirely framed in terms of the disciplinary concerns of philosophy – and only 20th century analytic philosophy at that. We find no reference to people’s actual lives, to the metaphysical issues tied to the births and transformations and deaths that we all endure, no acknowledgement that questions of metaphysics involve some of the most intimate and transcendent questions of our lives. Instead, metaphysics is a tale told in terms of professionals: Moore and Russell, Bosanquet and Bradley, Quine and Lewis.

We are not claiming that the matters addressed by such essays are insignificant. But it takes one adept in philosophy to extract the nut of existential meaning from the disciplinary shell. No wonder even the best students walk away.

Why do philosophers begin with insider topics when issues laden with metaphysics are in the news every day? The May 25, 2014 issue of The Washington Post describes a patient taking heart pills that include ingestible chips: the chips link up with her computer so that she and her doctor can see that she has taken her medicine. The story also describes soon-to-be marketed nanosensors that live in the bloodstream and will be able to spot the signs of a heart attack before it occurs. These are issues that could fall under “Existence and Identity,” one of the sections of the Oxford Handbook: at stake here are metaphysical questions about the nature of self and the boundary between organism and machine.

This needs to change, for the health of our culture, and for the health of philosophy itself. Unless professional philosophy embraces and institutionalizes an engaged approach to philosophizing, working alongside other disciplines and abroad in the world at large, it will become a casualty of history.


In our opinion, the single greatest impediment to philosophy’s greater relevance is the institutional situation of philosophy. The early 20th century research university disciplined philosophers, placing them in departments, where they wrote for and were judged by their disciplinary peers. Oddly, this change was unremarked upon, or was treated as simply the professionalization of another academic field of research. It continues to be passed over in silence today. Like Moliere’s Bourgeois Gentleman, who did not know that he had been speaking prose, philosophers seem innocent of the fact that they have been doing disciplinary philosophy, or that one might have reasons to object to this fact. And so even when their subject matter consists of something of real significance to the wider world, philosophers typically discuss the topic in a way that precludes the active interest of and involvement by non-philosophers.

Philosophers view themselves as critical thinkers par excellence who have been trained to question everything; but they have overlooked the institutional arrangements that govern their lives. The department is seen as a neutral space from which thought germinates, not itself the object of reflection. One finds no exploration of the effects that disciplining might have had on philosophical theorizing, or of where else philosophers could be housed, or of how philosophers, by being located elsewhere, might have developed alternative accounts of the world or have come up with new ways of philosophizing. In fact, the epistemic implications of the current institutional housing of philosophy are profound.

Philosophers once recognized that there is something problematic about treating philosophy as simply one discipline alongside the others. It was once understood that in addition to fine-grained analyses philosophy offered perspectives that undergirded, capped off, or synthesized the work of other disciplines such as physics or biology, and then connected those insights to our larger concerns. Such work lost favor in the 20th century – dismissed as Weltanschauung philosophy by analytic philosophers, and as foundationalism by continental philosophers. But reopen this perspective and questions abound: if philosophy is not, or not exclusively a regional ontology, why are philosophers housed within one region of the university?

Why is peer-reviewed scholarship the sole standard for judging philosophic work, rather than also the effects that such work has on the larger world? And why is there only one social role for those with Ph.D.s in philosophy – namely, to talk to other Ph.D.s in philosophy?


Philosophers may have ignored their institutional placement, but for other disciplines critical reflection on the structures of knowledge production has become par for the course. Perhaps the most important site for such analysis is the interdisciplinary field of science, technology, and society studies (STS). One influential book in STS – Gibbons et al.’s 1994 The New Production of Knowledge – chronicles the shift in late 20th century science from “Mode 1” to “Mode 2” knowledge production. Mode 1 is academic, investigator-initiated, and discipline-based. By contrast, Mode 2 knowledge production is context-driven, problem-focused, and interdisciplinary. This framework is a good rough sketch of our basic point: we are tracing and promoting the 21st century development of Mode 2 philosophy.

But make no mistake. We are pluralists on this point. We believe Mode 1 or disciplinary scholarship should continue to have a central place in philosophy. But Mode 1 thinking needs to be counter-balanced by an equal focus within the philosophical community on conducting work that is socially engaged. In part this is simply recognizing a new reality: increasingly society is demanding that academics demonstrate their broader relevance. This demand has so far largely skipped over philosophy and the humanities, but this is unlikely to remain the case for much longer. Philosophy needs to demonstrate its bona fides by showing how it can make timely and effective contributions to contemporary debates. We believe that this is best done in a way that also shows that Mode 2 philosophizing is enriched by the insights of Mode 1 or traditional philosophy. 

While Mode 1 philosophy is still the reigning orthodoxy, there is a growing heterodoxy within the ranks of philosophers, sometimes lumped under the title of “public philosophy.” We call our own version of Mode 2 work “field philosophy.” There are a number of similar approaches in areas such as environmental justice, critical race theory, feminism, and bioethics that we recognize as allies. We celebrate these diverse approaches to Mode 2 philosophizing, whether they go by the name of ‘public’, ‘applied’, or by some other title. But we believe that the lack of thought given to the institutional dimensions of philosophizing has limited the effectiveness of this work. A new philosophical practice, where philosophers work in real time with a variety of audiences and stakeholders, will lead to new theoretical forms of philosophy – once we break the stranglehold that disciplinary norms have upon the profession.

It will take a community to institutionalize Mode 2 practices. As it stands now, heterodox practitioners (however they self-identify) exist on the margins and lead professional lives that run against the grain. As the feminist public philosopher Linda Martín Alcoff notes, many Mode 2 philosophers try to “walk a fine line between responsiveness to community needs and employment survival, pushing the boundaries of academic respectability even while trying to establish their credentials in conventional ways." It is these “conventional ways” that must change. We have to invent a philosophy where responsiveness to community needs (not just disciplinary interests and imperatives) is an integral part of one’s employment and is viewed as academically respectable.

In practice, this will require many changes, from revised promotion and tenure criteria to alternative metrics for excellence and impact. As these changes are implemented, it will be important to consider at what point the chasm has been reduced to a suitable-sized gap. After all, we don’t want to eliminate the space between philosophy and society altogether. Socrates was engaged, but still an outsider. He certainly was no pundit looking to score the most outrageous sound bite and rack up the most “likes” on Facebook. We need a people’s philosophy that reserves every right to be unpopular.


Robert Frodeman is a professor of philosophy and religion studies at North Texas and director of its Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity. Adam Briggle is an associate professor of philosophy and religion studies at the University of North Texas.

Editorial Tags: 
Image Source: 
Image Caption: 

Essay on how podcasts could be a way for philosophy to reach a broader public

About 10 years ago, I was an admissions officer at a university in London, where (typical of the British system of admitting major by major) I read essays from those who wanted to study philosophy. To be honest, the essays were largely indistinguishable from one another, presumably because the applicants were all given identical advice about what they should say.

But my interest peaked when the applicants mentioned what drew them to philosophy in the first place. Often, they cited a work of “popular” philosophy, perhaps Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, or something by A.C. Grayling or Alain de Botton. The students would not be reading such works once they arrived to do their degree. Rather they would read the philosophical classics – Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant – and cutting edge philosophical papers from the more recent past. They had been pulled in by popular philosophy, but at university they would experience professionalized philosophy, learning its special jargon, conceptual tools, and history.

There has long been a gulf between the public experience of philosophy and philosophy as it is pursued among the experts. Like other academics, philosophers focus on sharing research with colleagues, and draw on it when they teach the students who have shown enough aptitude (and paid or borrowed enough money) to get into their classrooms. Only a minority of academics try to speak to a broader audience, and when they do, the link to what they do in their professional life is presumed to be rather indirect. Knowledge trickles down from the ivory tower to the public sphere, but what comes out has typically been just that: a trickle.

This is beginning to change. The reason can be summed up in an unlovely, two-word phrase: “new media.” With tools like blogs and podcasts, platforms like iTunesU and “massive open online courses” (MOOCs), academics now have the opportunity to reach an enormous audience of people who need only an Internet connection and a modicum of curiosity. There are online interviews with leading philosophers (Radio 4’s “In Our Time,” “Philosophy Bites,” “Philosopher’s Zone,” “Elucidations”) and themed series like my History of Philosophy podcast. You can also find free philosophy instruction on YouTube and on iTunesU (traditional university lectures recorded and put online), while many conferences and professional lectures are also appearing on the internet (for instance from the Aristotelian Society, or the Center for Mathematical Philosophy in Munich).

It’s an unprecedented opportunity. So why don’t more academics take advantage of it? Many of the podcasters who host series on topics in history, for instance, are not university lecturers but independent scholars. I know, because I met them on Facebook (of course).

Of course there are plenty of practical explanations for this reluctance. New media projects require a certain degree of fearlessness when it comes to technology, and can be very time-consuming. With the heavy demands of teaching, research and administration, it’s no surprise that launching such a project may not rise to the top of an academic’s “to do” list. In theory, there could be rewards to balance the costs in time and energy. We are frequently asked to demonstrate the wider social “impact” of our work these days, on grant applications or in the Britain’s Research Excellence Framework survey. But “impact” is a rather ill-defined notion. When I first launched my own podcast, I was warned that it would not necessarily make a good impact case study in the REF: how exactly does one document the “impact” of a podcast? In any case, hosting a podcast is unlikely to help your career as much as writing a good journal article or two, which could easily take less time.

Beyond the practical issues, I suspect most academics still assume that media projects are inevitably “popular,” in the pejorative sense of being strictly introductory. A podcast or blog isn’t the place to do real philosophy or history – this view holds -- that happens in the classroom, or in the pages of peer-reviewed journals and monographs. But such worries miss the promise of new media. With no time limits and no editorial constraints, academics can make any ideas they choose freely available on the Internet. If that content isn’t for everyone, so what?

My own podcast covers the history of philosophy “without any gaps,” moving chronologically at a slow (some might say excruciatingly slow) rate. (Obviously this sort of thing isn’t for everyone. But my listeners are not just fellow academics and undergraduates. They are commuters, truck drivers, homemakers, retirees, high school students – as I say, anyone with an Internet connection and curiosity about the subject. We should not underestimate how widespread that curiosity might be, even when it comes to rather recondite topics.

Furthermore, just as students in a university setting helping their teachers to see things in a new way, the audience for a new media project will respond with corrections, comments, and other sorts of feedback. So there is a chance here for a democratic and open conversation in which knowledge is shared among many more people, not just those among the academic community. I believe that more and more academics will seize that chance, even if the use of new media raises questions about the role of universities and academic experts.

Why, for instance, should students pay high tuition to learn the same things they could be downloading for free? Yet this worry too, I think, is misplaced.

If anything, following a blog, taking a MOOC, or subscribing to a podcast will bring potential students to fields of study they would not otherwise have considered. I don’t read admissions essays anymore, but I like to imagine that some of the applicants say they’ve been inspired to pursue philosophy because of something they found online.

Peter Adamson is professor of late ancient and Arabic philosophy at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, in Munich, and the author of Classical Philosophy: A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, (Oxford University Press) a series of books based on his podcast series.

Editorial Tags: 

40 Years After the Nobel

Thu, 10/02/2014


3351 Fairfax Drive Founders Hall, George Mason University - Arlington Campus
22201 Arlington , Virginia
United States

Žižek, plagiarism and the lowering of expectations (essay)

As a graduate student, I devoured the Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek’s essays, articles, and, books. I did so in part because I found his analyses of the ideological subjective mechanisms underpinning the functioning of contemporary capitalism generally compelling, and more specifically relevant to my own work. I admired his theoretical acumen, but also what seemed like the sheer breadth of his knowledge.

Žižek, in other words, seemed to me at the time to know almost everything, and he was able to use that knowledge for theoretical gains. Although I, too, wanted to do what Žižek did, I was also painfully aware of my shortcomings. I would never know as much as he seemed to know, meaning that my contribution to “scholarship” would likely remain forever slight. Žižek was a superhuman genius, one of those rare individuals who could do it all; me, I was -- and remain -- a mere mortal.

Last week Žižek was accused of plagiarism for an article he originally published in 2006 in the journal Critical Inquiry. The article, “A Plea for a Return to Différance (with a Minor Pro Domo Sua),” discusses Kevin MacDonald’s The Culture of Critique: An Evolutionary Analysis of Jewish Involvement in Twentieth-Century Intellectual and Political Movements.

As numerous blogs and media outlets, including Newsweek, have discussed, the conservative blogger Steve Sailer first called attention to the article on July 9, noting that “it’s striking how much more opaque Žižek’s prose suddenly becomes when he switches to elucidating what are, presumably, his own ideas, such as they are." Later that day, a blogger gave more teeth to Sailer’s claim, posting a side-by-side comparison of Žižek’s article with Stanley Hornbeck’s review of MacDonald’s book, which had appeared in 1999 in The American Renaissance, a far-right publication known for featuring and advocating for overtly racist views.

As someone who has followed and admired Žižek’s work I was initially disappointed, to say the least. Finding out that one of your favorite authors has plagiarized is the intellectual equivalent of learning of the infidelity of one’s partner. I also, however, wasn’t surprised. Four years out of my graduate program and now in a full-time faculty position, my views of scholarship and its production are less naïve than they once were. To be blunt: it’s simply impossible for someone who keeps Žižek’s schedule, which includes various appointments and a rigorous, international lecturing schedule, to singlehandedly read and research broadly and publish as much as he does. Whether in the form of research assistants or, as appears to be the case in this instance, plagiarism, the actual production of scholarship often depends on others, whose work often remains largely unacknowledged.

Žižek himself seems to indicate as much in his response to the allegations. In response to a request from the website Critical Theory (not really known for its love of Žižek, it is worth pointing out) for comment on the allegation, Žižek expressed “regret” over the incident, but explained it as follows: “When I was writing the text on Derrida which contains the problematic passages, a friend told me about Kevin MacDonald’s theories, and I asked him to send me a brief resume. The friend send [sic] it to me, assuring me that I can use it freely since it merely resumes another’s line of thought. Consequently, I did just that – and I sincerely apologize for not knowing that my friend’s resume was largely borrowed from Stanley Hornbeck’s review of MacDonald’s book.”

Cite too much, and your work is derivative; cite too little, and you get accused of not knowing the literature, sloppiness, or in some cases plagiarism.

If my Facebook feed is any indication, many have not found Žižek’s response satisfying -- and I’ve seen more than a few make the comparison to what students say when they’re accused of plagiarism. It’s unsatisfying because it strikes us as dishonest and unconvincing, something that someone says after being caught because there is nothing better to say.

My question is why we find that response unsatisfying. Putting aside Žižek’s intentions and “what really happened” (which we can’t, of course, know), I would suggest that underneath a lot of the dissatisfaction among fans and critics are unrealistic expectations of what it means to be a scholar and to produce scholarly work. What is unsatisfying in Žižek’s response, in other words, is not the lame passing of the buck to his “friend” but the fact that Zizek relied rather heavily in this instance -- and likely in numerous others -- on the work of someone else. 

“That’s what citations are for,” someone will say -- “that’s the whole problem with what happened here.” True, Žižek should have cited his source here, and given his reliance, probably should have just put quotation marks around the whole section in question. But it’s worth pointing out that even if Žižek had done so, he would have been criticized for relying too heavily on “secondary sources” for his argument. In other words, “real” scholarship places a value on uniqueness and novelty, which requires a careful balance when it comes to citation practices. Cite too much, and your work is derivative; cite too little, and you get accused of not knowing the literature, sloppiness, or in some cases plagiarism.

Yet this balance often conceals the fact that we rely on “secondary sources” all the time without necessarily citing them (who hasn’t looked up something on Wikipedia -- without citing it -- to get some bearings?). Conversely, we often pad our arguments with citations to things we haven’t read well or at all. Not only because that’s what's expected but also because doing so allows us to cover our arguments with a supposed mastery of a literature that is virtually impossible for any one person to master. Whoever says that he or she hasn’t done as much either is lying or hasn’t published.

Despite all the talk in the humanities over the past few decades about the death of the author, the inexistence of the subject, the collective production of knowledge, intertextuality, networks of information, and so on, our publication practices and expectations haven’t caught up.

In practice, our notions of scholarship continue to assume an autonomous, substantial ego who is the author of his or her works; when that ego does acknowledge its debts to others, it does so only by citing other autonomous, substantial egos. “Theft” is a good critical concept that helps to destabilize power structures and explain the production of subjectivity -- until, that is, someone steals ideas from someone else.

All of this is not really to defend Žižek, nor is it to suggest replacing current scholarly conventions with an “anything goes” approach. In raising questions surrounding the accusations against Žižek and his response, I’m not necessarily advocating for plagiarism.

I am, rather, saying that the whole affair raises issues in how we understand the production of scholarship. We’re all mere mortals, so perhaps it would be best to lower our expectations with regard to what we do, really acknowledge our debt to others, and allow practice to catch up with theory.

That applies especially, I think, to the “star academics” who shape current discussions and fields, like Žižek. Despite the charges of plagiarism, I still admire and find value in his work, so I’ll continue to read what he has to say. That’s not to say that I’m not disappointed -- I, like other admirers, am, so I might take what he has to say with a few more grains of salt. But such disappointment is a good reminder that we’re all mere mortals, Žižek included.


Hollis Phelps is an assistant professor of religion at the University of Mount Olive. He is the author of Alain Badiou: Between Theology and Anti-theology (Acumen 2013).

Editorial Tags: 
Image Source: 
Wikimedia Commons
Image Caption: 
Slavoj Žižek

Rutgers philosophy professor accused of sexually assaulting disabled research partner

Smart Title: 

The case of a Rutgers U. philosophy professor accused of sexually assaulting a man with cerebral palsy raises questions about a controversial communication method much debated by disability studies scholars.

Review of Frederic Gros, 'A Philosophy of Walking'

In December, the journal Brain Connectivity published a paper called "Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain," based on a study conducted at Emory University. The researchers did MRI scans of the brains of 21 undergraduate students over a period of days before, during, and after they read a best-selling historical page-turner called Pompeii over the course of nine evenings. A significant increase of activity in "the left angular supramarginal gyri and right posterior temporal gyri" occurred during the novel-reading phase of the experiment, which fell off rapidly once they finished the book -- the gyri being, the report explained, regions of the brain "associated with perspective taking and story comprehension."

Not a big surprise; you'd figure as much. But the researchers also found that an elevated level of activity continued in the bilateral somatosensory cortex for some time after the subjects were done reading. In the novel, a young Roman aqueduct engineer visiting the ancient vacation resort of Pompeii "soon discovers that there are powerful forces at work -- both natural and man-made -- threatening to destroy him." Presumably the readers had identified with the protagonist, and parts of their brains were still running away from the volcano for up to five days after they finished the book.

So one might construe the findings, anyway. The authors are more cautious. But they raise the question of whether the experience of reading novels "is sufficiently powerful to cause a detectable reorganization of cortical networks" -- what they call a "hybrid mentalizing-narrative network configuration." Or to put it another way, a long-term rearrangement of the mind's furniture.

It isn't a work of fiction, and I am but a solitary reader without so much as access to an electroencephalograph, but A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros, a French best-seller from 2011 just published in English by Verso, seems to have been setting up its own "hybrid mentalizing-narrative network configuration" within my head over the past few days. Maybe it's the weather. After so many months of cold weather and leaden skies, Gros's evocation of the pleasures of being outside, moving freely, in no particular hurry, stirs something deep within.

The author, a professor of philosophy at the University of Paris, has, among other things, edited volumes in the posthumous edition of Michel Foucault's lectures at the College de France. But the authority Gros brings to his reflections on walking comes only in part from knowing the lives and writings of ambulatory thinkers across the millennia, beginning in ancient Greece. He is a scholar but also a connoisseur -- someone who has hiked and wandered enough in his time, over a sufficient variety of terrains, to know at first hand the range of moods (ecstasy, monotony, exhaustion) that go with long walks.

It is a work of advocacy, and of propaganda against sedentary thinking. The first of Gros's biographical essays is on Nietzsche, who took up walking in the open air while suffering from migraine headaches, eyestrain, and late-night vomiting spasms. It did not cure him, but it did transform him. He might be the one spending time at health resorts, but it was contemporary intellectual life that manifested invalidism.

"We do not belong to those who have ideas only among books, when stimulated by books," Nietzsche wrote. "It is our habit to think outdoors -- walking, leaping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or near the sea where even the trails become thoughtful. Our first questions about the value of a book, of a human being, or of a musical composition, are: Can they walk? Even more, can they dance?" Long, solitary hikes such as those taken by Nietzsche -- and also by Rousseau, the subject of another essay -- are only one mode of philosophical pedestrianism. The precisely timed daily constitutional that Kant took each day, so regular that his neighbors could set their watches by it, has gone down in history as an example of his extreme rigor (one easily recognized even by the layman who can't tell his an a posteriori from his elbow). Gros adds a telling detail to this otherwise commonplace biographical fact: Kant took care to walk at a measured, even pace, since he was profoundly averse to sweating.

At the other extreme was the ancient philosophical school known as the Cynics, with its cultivation of an almost violent indifference to comfort and propriety. The Cynics were homeless vagrants on principle. They denied themselves, as much as possible, every luxury, or even convenience, taken for granted by their fellow Greeks.

That included footwear: "They had done so much walking," Gros says, "that they hardly needed shoes or even sandals, the soles of their feet being much like leather." When the Cynics showed up in a town square, their constant exposure to nature's elements gave a jagged edge to the harangues in which they attacked commonplace ideas and values. Gros sees walking, then, as the foundation of the Cynics' philosophical method:

"Philosophers of the type one might call sedentary enjoy contrasting the appearance with the essence of things. Behind the curtain of tangible sights, behind the veil of visibilities, they try to identify what is pure and essential, hoping perhaps to display, above the colors of the world, the glittering, timeless transparency of their own thought…. The Cynic cut through that classic opposition. He was not out to seek or reconstruct some truth behind appearances. He would flush it out from the radical nature of immanence: just below the world's images, he was searching for what supported them. The elemental: nothing true but sun, wind, earth and sky; their truth residing in their unsurpassable vigor."

Walking is not a sport, Gros takes care to emphasize. You don't need any equipment (not even shoes, for an old-school Cynic) nor is any instruction required. The skill set is extremely limited and mastered by most people in infancy. Its practice is noncompetitive.

But in a paradox that gives the book much of its force, we don't all do it equally well. It's not just that some of us are clumsy or susceptible to blisters. Gros contrasts the experience of a group of people talking to one another while marching their way through a walking tour (an example of goal-driven and efficiency-minded behavior) and the unhurried pace of someone for whom the walk has become an end in itself, a point of access to the sublimely ordinary. And so he has been able to give the matter a lot of thought:

"Basically, walking is always the same, putting one foot in front of the other. But the secret of that monotony is that it constitutes a remedy for boredom. Boredom is immobility of the body confronted with emptiness of mind. The repetitiveness of walking eliminates boredom, for, with the body active, the mind is no longer affected by its lassitude, no longer drawn from its inertia the vague vertigo in an endless spiral.… The body's monotonous duty liberates thought. While walking, one is not obliged to think, to think this or that. During that continuous but automatic effort of the body, the mind is placed at one's disposal. It is then that thoughts can arise, surface or take shape."

As for the clumsiness and blisters, I hope they will disappear soon. It's the practice of walking, not reading about it, that makes all the difference. But no book has rewired my bilateral somatosensory cortex so thoroughly in a long while.

Editorial Tags: 

Essay on Colin McGinn, reviewing, and the perils of paraphrase

Intellectual Affairs

In some fields, the ground tone of reviews is normally subtle and soothing: the sound of logs being gently rolled. Poets are especially prone to giving one another gold stars for effort. Journals devoted to contemporary art have cultivated a dialect in which even the syntax is oblique. The reviewers’ judgments (if that is what they are) resist paraphrase.

Philosophy is another matter. Extremely critical and even brutal book reviews, while hardly the norm, are at least an occupational hazard. The drubbing may be delivered in measured terms and an even tone. But the really memorable assessments nip near the jugular vein, when not ripping it wide open. Consider, for instance, this classic, from a notice appearing in the venerable British journal Mind, in 1921: “[The author’s] method of exegesis consists, in fact, of a combination of the suppressio veri with the suggestio falsi, both, of course, practised in the absolute good faith which comes from propagandist enthusiasm unchecked by any infusion of historical sense.... It is because Mr. Urwick's book is one long dogmatising without knowledge that I feel bound to put it on record that of all bad books on Plato his is the very worst.”

In a subsequent issue, Mr. Urwick called it “a delightfully abusive review,” which in the science of fistics is called “taking it on the chin.”

An enterprising publisher could put together an anthology of the such colorful passages of philosophers shellacking one another’s work. The anthologist would need to limit the scope to reviews from professional journals; invective from blogs or general-interest publications render the volume unwieldy. Another challenge would be limiting how much space it devotes to reviews by Colin McGinn are included.

As aggressive in the stately pages of The Philosophical Review as when writing for The New York Review of Books, McGinn set a new benchmark for philosophical savaging in 2007 with his comments on Ted Honderich's On Consciousness. But his published opinion of the book (“the full gamut from the mediocre to the ludicrous to the merely bad.... painful to read, poorly thought out, and uninformed”) is by no means as rough as it could have been.  “The review that appears here is not as I originally wrote it,” reads McGinn’s note accompanying the piece in The Philosophical Review. “The editors asked me to 'soften the tone' of the original; I have done so, though against my better judgment.”

The men were once colleagues at University College London, as it is somehow proves unsurprising to learn, and they have a long history of personal and intellectual hostilities, during which Honderich gave as good as he got. (Honderich is now professor emeritus of philosophy of mind and logic. McGinn was professor of philosophy at the University of Miami until his recent resignation.)

The review, and its prehistory and aftermath, inspired an interesting and unusual paper in the Journal of Consciousness Studies. It elucidates the technical questions at issue involved while also bringing the distance between gossip and intellectual history to an all-time low. McGinn is prolific, and I have not kept up with work in the two years since writing about The Meaning of Disgust in this column. But in the meantime, certain of his writings have generated even more attention and commentary than his phillipic against Honderich did.

The prose in question took the form of email and text messages to a research assistant in which he allegedly told her he “had a hand job imagining you giving me a hand job.” (Here is one account of the matter, behind a paywall, though you can also find a PDF of the article for free at this site; and here is another.) I attach the word “allegedly” per protocol, but McGinn has defended his use of the expression “hand job” as part of the philosophical banter around his work on a theory “that ostension and prehension are connected and that the mind is a ‘grasping organ,’ ” as the abstract for a lecture he gave last year puts it. Hence, most forms of human activity are -- ultimately, in a certain sense – “hand jobs.” He has issued a manifesto.

The new issue of Harper’s magazine reprints, under the title “Out on a Limb,” a blog post by McGinn from June 2013 in which he explains: “I have in fact written a whole book about the hand, Prehension, in which its ubiquity is noted and celebrated… I have given a semester-long seminar discussing the hand and locutions related to it. I now tend to use ‘hand job’ in the capacious sense just outlined, sometimes with humorous intent…. Academics like riddles and word games.”

Some more than others, clearly. McGinn then considers the complexity of the speech-act of one professional glassblower asking another, “Will you do a blow job for me while I eat my sandwich?” The argument here is that nothing he did should be regarded as sexual harassment of a graduate student, and the real victim here is McGinn himself: “One has a duty to take all aspects of the speech situation into account and not indulge in rash paraphrases. And one should also not underestimate the sophistication of the speaker.”

Nor overestimate the usefulness of sophistication as a shovel, once one has dug oneself into a hole and needs to get back out. McGinn subsequently thought the better of this little essay and deleted it from his blog, but the Harper’s “Readings” section preserves it for posterity. Life would be much simpler if good judgment weren’t so tardy at times.

The whole matter might reveal its true philosophical depths once Prehension is available. But Amazon doesn’t list it as forthcoming, and lately McGinn’s name seems to come up most often in discussions of sexual harassment, or of the tendency of philosophy as a discipline to resemble the Little Rascals’ treehouse.

But a recent review in Mind ( the journal that gave Urwick such delight in 1921) might shift attention away from McGinn’s alleged peccadillos and the hazards of paraphrase. Arguably it raises the bar higher than even his critique of Honderich did. It starts out with relatively understated and rather donnish clucking over the author’s transgression of specialist boundaries. By the end the end, the gloves are off:  

“As was said of the Sokal hoax, there is simply no way to do justice to the cringe-inducing nature of this text without quoting it in its entirety. But, in a nutshell, Basic Structures of Reality is an impressively inept contribution to philosophy of physics, and one exemplifying everything that can possibly go wrong with metaphysics: it is mind-numbingly repetitive, toe-curlingly pretentious, and amateurish in the extreme regarding the incorporation of physical fact. With work this grim, the only interesting questions one can raise concern not the content directly but the conditions that made it possible; and in this connection, one might be tempted to present the book as further evidence of the lack of engagement of metaphysicians with real science — something that has lately been subject to lively discussion (and I myself have slung some of the mud). But I would insist that to use this work to make a general point about the discipline would in fact be entirely unfair...

“For all the epistemic faux-modesty that this book purports to defend, the image that persists while grinding through its pages is of an individual ludicrously fancying themselves as uniquely positioned to solve the big questions for us, from scratch and unassisted, as if none of the rest of us working in the field have had anything worth a damn to contribute. It will however be clear by now that I take the reality to be substantially different. For me, then, the one pertinent question this work raises is why all of this went unrecognized: this book, after all, issues not from one of the many spurious publishing houses currently trolling graduate students, but Oxford University Press — a press whose stated aim is to ‘publish works that further Oxford University’s objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education’. So why did they publish this?”

The reviewer ventures an explanation: The author of the offending volume “is a ‘big name’; and if that is sufficient for getting work this farcical in print with [Oxford University Press], then shame on our field as a whole.” The book could well provoke a worthwhile discussion, though sadly one focused on concerns rather different from those he himself had in mind.”

I came across this takedown within about an hour of reading the blog post reprinted by Harper’s. The author is Colin McGinn – the author of the book in question, that is, Basic Structures of Reality: Essays in Meta-Physics (Oxford, 2011). The reviewer is Kerry McKenzie, a postdoctoral fellow in philosophy at the University of Western Ontario. The piece in Mind is only her second review-essay, but I’d say it’s one for the anthology. (Note: This essay has been updated from an earlier version to correct Kerry McKenzie's current institution.)

Editorial Tags: 

Review of Julia Haslett, 'An Encounter with Simone Weil'

Philosophers have lives; saints have legends. No miracles are associated with Simone Weil (1909-43), and a glance at reference books on philosophy finds her listed alongside Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, her classmates at the  École normale supérieure. But she looks odd in their company -- in any company, really. Frail but indomitable, she was in the world but not quite of it. 

French intellectuals of her generation wrote essays on Marxism and the Spanish Civil War, while she worked in a factory and went to the front as part of an antifascist militia. She had an extraordinarily acute (some would say morbid) awareness of the depths and the extent of human suffering; it made comfort seem like complicity. Combine that sensitivity with her conviction that our world is the diminished or faulty image of a realm in which truth and justice are real and absolute – a Platonic notion, flecked perhaps with Gnostic elements -- and you have someone with a vocation, rather than a career.

Weil died at the age of 34, under what seem to have been suspiciously beatific circumstances: she succumbed to tuberculosis after months of refusing to eat more than the rations available to the French compatriots under German occupation. Her collected writings, which run to several stout volumes, range from pacifist essays and interventions in trade-union debates to reflections on atheism and mysticism (not entirely antithetical terms, in her experience) and studies of classical Greek literature and philosophy. Most of this work remained unpublished during her lifetime, apart from scattered essays in journals of no wide circulation.

At a couple of points in Julia Haslett’s film  “An Encounter with Simone Weil,” the camera focuses on a few lines of a manuscript, the words in French and Greek. Her handwriting appears small, precise, and highly concentrated – like Weil herself, by all accounts. “She was apparently unacquainted with doubt,” wrote Raymond Aron, a philosopher and political journalist who knew her in the 1920s, “and, although her opinions might change, they were always thoroughly categorical.” His choice of words may allude to one of Weil’s nicknames from their student days: “The Categorical Imperative in Skirts.”

“An Encounter with Simone Weil,” billed on its Facebook promotional page as “a documentary by Julia Haslett,” made the rounds of film festivals in 2011, and in the meantime the director (a visiting associate professor of cinema and comparative literature at the University of Iowa) has screened it at two dozen colleges and universities throughout the United States. It will be available on DVD and various digital platforms sometime in the next few months. Upon request, the director sent me a screener, indicating that she had just finished work on the French language version. The film is already available in Italian, with the German and Japanese translations due out this fall, and a Korean version in the works.

“Encounter” is at least as much a personal essay as a biographical portrait. Haslett’s fascination began when she came across a quotation from one of Weil’s letters: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” It was an ideal point of entry, given how often Weil’s aphorisms sound like one of Pascal’s Pensées, and also how much moral and intellectual significance the word “attention” turns out to have in her work.

But it also carried a strong personal connotation. In the voiceover Haslett tells us of her father’s suicide when she was young, and in a video clip her brother discusses his struggle with anxiety and depression. “My father's death taught me that if I don't pay attention, someone might die," she says -- an enormous burden to have to carry.

Although Weil cannot be said to lighten the load, she at least understood the stakes. “The capacity to give one's attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing,” she says in another passage that Haslett quotes. “It is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.”

In short order she read Francine Du Plessix Gray’s biography of Weil (published by Penguin in 2001) in a single sitting. "Here was this brilliant, deeply ethical young woman speaking truth to power, putting her body on the line for her convictions, and providing such an incisive critique of political and economic power,” she told me an in e-mail exchange. “And yet I'd never read her. That despite studying philosophy, religion, and history at Swarthmore College -- an institution that embodies the Weil-like values of rigorous intellectual inquiry and a deeply held commitment to social justice.”

In recounting Weil’s period as a left-wing militant in the early years of the Great Depression, “Encounter” shows Haslett going over film footage of mass demonstrations in the archives of the French Communist Party – searching, almost desperately, to catch a glimpse of Weil in the crowd, but with no luck. She visits the apartment building in New York where Weil lived for a few months in 1942, and interviews the (very) few remaining people who knew Weil, as well as one of the editors preparing her collected works.

The effort to establish a connection with the philosopher even extends to having Soraya Broukhim (an actress with some resemblance to Weil) read enough of Weil's work to improvise responses in a mock interview. The sequence is odd. By the end, the situation has become unmistakably awkward for both parties. When Broukhim complains that Haslett seems to want answers she can’t give, the effect is strangely revealing. For a moment, it’s not quite clear whether she’s doing so in character, as Weil, or in real life.

To call Haslett’s quest a kind of pilgrimage would be tempting, if not for the most striking thing about the film: its emphasis on her as a secular figure and an activist. Most people who become interested in Weil do so through the theological side of her work. Even her appeal for nonbelievers, such as Albert Camus, comes in large measure from an awareness of her "tortured prowling outside the doors of the Catholic Church, like a starving wild animal,” to borrow the poet Kenneth Rexroth’s apt characterization.

Weil’s spiritual writings “are certainly the reason she gets studied in this country,” Haslett acknowledged by e-mail. “For example, many of the annual meetings of the American Weil Society are held at theological seminaries and most participants are religious scholars or at least people of faith.” But for the director, “it was the way she combined such an incisive critique of power and her willingness to sacrifice everything to tell the truth as she knew it (by directly experiencing that about which she wrote) that drew me in so completely.… She became a guide for me through the very dark first decade of this century, when our politicians were dispensing with the truth and our media wasn't holding them accountable.”

The film gives due attention to Weil's religious passion, but suggests that her mystical turn came after deep disillusionment with radical politics. Haslett seems largely uninterested in the very difficult matter of Weil’s relationship to Judaism. (Her parents were so completely assimilated into French secular culture that they neglected to mention this element of her identity until she was about 10 years old). And the director treads lightly around the topic of Weil’s mental health, although she does briefly consider the possibility that the final period of self-denial may have been a kind of suicide by self-starvation.

Haslett makes her resistance to certain aspects of her subject’s life and thought explicit, saying in one voiceover that she felt “betrayed by Weil’s turn toward God.” This does not detract from the value of the film in the least.

On the contrary, ambivalence and discomfort are essential to any meaningful encounter with Weil. To borrow a remark by T.S. Eliot, whose grounds for admiration were as different from Haslett’s as they could be: “I cannot conceive of anybody agreeing with all of her views, or of not disagreeing violently with some of them. But agreement and rejection are secondary: what matters is to make contact with a great soul.”

For more information about the film, or to arrange a screening, see the Line Street Productions website.

Editorial Tags: 

APA forms committee to tackle sexual harassment in philosophy departments

Smart Title: 

Disturbed by reports of gender discrimination in philosophy, the American Philosophical Association announces a new study, including site visits to some departments.


Subscribe to RSS - Philosophy
Back to Top