A Philosopher’s Diary, #2 — The Vision Problem.

By Boethius

“The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” by Francisco Goya (Los Caprichos, #43, 1799)


The descriptive sub-title of this blog — Against Professional Philosophy — originally created and rolled out in 2013, is “A Co-Authored Anarcho-Philosophical Diary.”

Now, nine years later, after more than 300, 000 views of the site, this new series, A Philosopher’s Diary, finally literally instantiates that description by featuring short monthly entries by one or another of the members of the APP circle, in order to create an ongoing collective philosophical diary that records the creative results of critical, synoptic, systematic rational reflection on any philosophical topic or topics under the sun, without any special restrictions as to content, format, or length.

This second installment, by Boethius, is about the amazingly hard problem of how anyone can create and actively sustain a “vision” about real philosophy, while still working inside professional academic philosophy.



#1: Changing Social Institutions From Without Or Within


The Vision Problem

I’m coming off a long term as a department chair later this summer. In hindsight, I wish I’d kept some kind of diary. Not because of the interest of documenting day-to-day academic life against various background threats to human civilization, but for the purpose, maybe just for myself, of documenting what should have gone better. I have guilt here. The chair is in a position both to see large-scale problems for a department and the discipline, and also to see large-scale possibilities for what might be better. I could have done better at helping our wing of the factory do better. But much more importantly, as someone who leans anarchist and finds the critiques of professionalized academic philosophy compelling, one would think I’d have been able to promote what APP calls real philosophy. In my mind, that’s philosophy construed as the cosmopolitan “big-tent” sort, connected to a goal of human flourishing, and conducted with intellectual virtue. Contrast this with philosophy as more narrowly focused on whatever topics the elite deem philosophical (or more valuably philosophical), or on vocational concerns over intellectual or moral ones, or perhaps as paying just lip service to virtues like openmindedness instead of earnestly promoting the real thing. Was that a vision? I think so. Did anything change? Not substantially.

So, I want to write here about a problem I call the vision problem. If you’re ever a chair, whether your vision is to promote real philosophy or it’s to fine-tune your own department’s version of bureaucratized professionalized academic philosophy, there’s a three-part problem of figuring out that vision, getting straight on it collectively with the group, and then actually doing something substantial to make it happen. While this seems at first like a collection of good things somebody, somewhere, ought to be able to do, I found massive, possibly insuperable barriers to all three. Even for well-meaning people, “vision” just seems impossible.

On the simple-sounding issue of just having any vision at all, the painful fact is there’s no time for it. I spend whole mornings conducting email communications. I spend hours upon hours in meetings. I write reports. I write reports on other people’s reports. I do logistics for events. I create and edit and revise the class schedule. I get a never-ending stream of problems to solve: some are technical or bureaucratic or organizational, some involve minor conflicts among students and faculty or faculty and faculty, and then, on occasion — and it happens in every department — there are Very Large Problems that consume everything. I enjoy helping people, and I get help from others that I greatly appreciate. But during my whole time as chair, I never had the combination of time and energy to spend on anything like “vision” for the department. Writing this diary entry is actually the very first time. I was presumably chosen as chair because my colleagues felt I could do both the day-to-day and also help us do larger-scale thinking and acting too. But there’s no time for vision once the cognitive well is empty from the rest and you take care of stuff for your own life.

Even if I’d had time and energy for large-scale vision, it needs collective attention from the group, and then another set of barriers present themselves. People sometimes use the “herding cats” metaphor, but that’s false and pernicious. You don’t “herd” anyone, and the metaphor dehumanizes the people you’re trying to help. Still, it seems that even the most mundane proposal has to be resisted, critiqued, and talked over for hours. (I’ll use another department as an example. They apparently spent an hour arguing over the menu for the department retreat.) Unless the proposal is something obvious, it tends to go nowhere. What then of something like changing the department’s whole mindset about philosophy, teaching it, and promoting it more widely? Unlike some bureaucratic initiatives, you can’t just assert some kind of dictatorial power and then weather the storm of protest. It’s also not like something you’re told to do from above, there’s a deadline, and you have to put something together. For what I’m speaking of here, the group really would have to agree on something huge: promoting real philosophy.

To be sure, I did make what efforts I could on this, at least in a in a way that seemed to fit my constitution. I tried to lead by example, trying different things in my classes and making it clear that trying to innovate and teach philosophy differently is welcome and good. If you wanted to go for something more real or authentic in your class, whatever that means to you, then go ahead. I thought knowing you’re more free in your classes should get people closer to doing real philosophy. For instance, I agree with an old email comment by Bob Hanna that “if you go cosmopolitan in philosophy teaching, you get DEI for free.” Most all of my colleagues are on board with the recent push for far more attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Most of my colleagues are on board with being willing, at least on the surface, to be broad-minded and open-minded about what philosophy is and how it might be “taught.” Yet hardly anyone seems to be actually making really big changes to their thinking about philosophy as a whole. Or at least it doesn’t seem like it would ever get demonstrated. Would we actually do a hire outside of our department’s (and my own) mostly analytically-oriented set of specializations? No, that’s not going to be a good fit. Would we actually change the philosophy major to give students maximal choice in their own study of philosophy (with say no “required” courses at all, since any philosophy class develops philosophy’s thinking skills and dispositions)? No, we need our classes “required” in order to justify offering them and because required courses reflect what philosophy really is. Would we actually come to terms with the fact that coercive grading practices are completely at odds with helping students learn to be independent-minded real philosophers themselves, something that requires far more autonomy for students over their own learning? No. We need “standards” and rigor. We might all say we’re in favor of thinking differently about philosophy in the broad sense. But does the thinking get realized in some action?

That’s the third element of the vision problem. After having a vision for something, and even if everybody agrees it’s a good idea, and even if it’s clear what has to happen to do it, then it still has to actually be acted on to the degree necessary. All might agree that yes, we should become more like real philosophers. We should work against the harms of the professionalized philosophy the academy tends to create. We should take the ideals of big-tent philosophy and intellectual virtue and structure our major and teach our classes accordingly. Yes, we would thereby hit some other moral goals on DEI better. But again, beyond some token moves in these directions, if any token moves happen at all, I’m not exactly seeing it.

Perhaps if my colleagues heard this, they would say, “Hey Boethius, why didn’t you argue for all of this more openly and forcefully while you were chair? Many of us might have gone for it.” Maybe. But right now, I have a meeting to get to. I have email reminders to send. I have forms to complete, recommendation letters to write, and a class schedule for next semester to create. I have students to meet. I have no time to convince everyone of anything. I have no time to formulate all of this in an unthreatening, well-argued way that in an ideal world would convince everyone. I say “unthreatening” since there’s another unfortunate fact about being chair. Anything you say to the department risks being viewed as coming from an authority, from a position of coercive power. Most anything you say will be resisted on principle. Some of my colleagues are more anarchist than they’d admit, and that comes out as resistance to anything seeming authoritarian, which is automatically true if it comes from the chair. Some though are probably authoritarians who would never get on the bus anyway, and if I’m really for autonomy in how one conducts one’s academic life as a philosopher and as a teacher of it, we would have to let them opt out.

Think of it this way. For every new content item from Against Professional Philosophy, I could have forwarded it to the department. So about every few weeks or so they’d have gotten something to think about. I wonder how that might have gone over. “He’s being authoritarian about his anarchism!,” someone would say. Or maybe, “He’s no real philosopher. He doesn’t even have any non-Western philosophy in his 101 class! He’s just as bad on DEI as he says everyone else is.” And they’d be right. But I’d also be an authority to be resisted.

The vision problem remains. Can we solve it? If not, then we have an argument for the “exit” strategy of philosophers leaving the academy altogether. The “work for change” strategy looks quixotic. But I think there’s room for the “work for change” strategy even yet. Here’s the thing though: I sincerely doubt it can be the chair who leads on it. You’d think the chair would be in the best position, but they’re not. See all the barriers above.

So where’s “vision” supposed to come from then, assuming it’s something worth having? I’ll tell my colleagues about this when I’m done, but I’m going to say I’ll be in a far better position to work for vision after I become a regular faculty member again. The mantle of authority will be gone and I can be authentic again. And I’ll know better what to do and how the factory works. I know my colleagues’ strengths and weaknesses far better now. If on the way out of the chair job I can convince a few others to form a group (a committee!) to work on really large-scale things about what kind of philosophers we should be, that might do something. Something might happen. Or, if not, at least I can spend the rest of my career figuring it out myself, agreeing with myself on it, seeing what steps to take to implement it, and then doing it. I can happily be a committee of one.


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Monday 9 May 2022

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Mr Nemo

Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.