Which Brand Do You Identify With?

Brand Loyalty as Discrimination in Professional Philosophy.

Originally published 24 July 2015.

Are you Analytic-coke, or Continental-pepsi?

Are you Femininist-Tareyton, or non-Feminist-Tareyton? Would you rather fight than switch?

Now remove ‘coke’, ‘pepsi’, and ‘Tareyton’ from those all-too-familiar professional-philosophy labels.

Do you now see how essentially stupid, rationally unjustified, or even immoral it is for you to identify yourself with one brand of professional philosophy than another? Or to alienate someone else by imposing the counter-label to yours on them?

“Oh, she’s just nothing but a pepsi-philosopher! We couldn’t possibly hire someone like that.”

“Let’s expose him as an anti-Tareyton-philosopher, and get him fired!”

By “brand loyalty” I mean the discriminatory, moralistic self-labeling or Other-labeling that is practiced by professional philosophers, that disguises itself as value-neutral sub-disciplinary classification and description.

This practice is essentially stupid and rationally unjustified. Therefore we should stop doing it.

One would like to think that there are four individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions on the success of the career of professional philosopher (i.e., a philosopher who works primarily in a university, whose major philosophical work is completed under the banner of that university (i.e., who puts the name of some university in their email signature and whose published papers bear the name of some university), whose main source of income is provided by a university, whose “title” is professional philosopher):

(i) Her research is of a good quality.
(ii) Her teaching is of a good quality.
(iii) Her departmental service is of a good quality.
(iv) She has that certain je ne sais quoi required by her department-mates.

I have italicized “good” in (i) — (iii) because it is entirely unclear what the criteria for “good” any of these things is.

In fact, we have recently seen the ambiguity of this term used as a bludgeon to harass, coerce, punish, fire, ruin, or otherwise treat very badly philosophers in particularly public cases. I leave this issue aside in this essay.

I have also italicized “je ne sais quoi” in (iv) because it is, by necessity, inarticulable. A good department-mate is one you just know when you meet her. We have also seen the ambiguity of this term used as a bludgeon to harass, coerce, punish, fire, ruin, or otherwise treat very badly philosophers in particularly public cases. I also leave this issue aside in this essay.

However, there are two other necessary conditions on the success of the career as a professional philosopher:

(v) She participates in public rituals of subservience.
(vi) She is of the proper brand.

It is no secret that in order to be a successful academic, one must lick the boots of those bureaucrats appointed or elected to run universities. What’s worse, is that this bootlicking must be public; the display isn’t merely one of subservience — it’s one of public self-flagellation.

The academic, in order to be successful, must, in view of colleagues, lords, and consumers (i.e., the parents of our students), apologize for being academics and demand acceptance and redemption from an administration whose academic bonafides are slim, to be hyperbolic.

We’ve seen a number of cases recently where exceptional academics with too much self-confidence and pride to play this game have been sacrificed on the alter of decorum — a simultaneous display of omnipotence on the part of those who allow us to be academics and a cautionary tale for the rest of us. I further leave this issue aside in this essay.

The true disgrace in contemporary academia is that we academics, we thinkers and researchers and writers and teachers, we who carry on the spirit of the enlightenment, we who are the intellectual descendants of — pick your favorite philosopher — are destroying ourselves from the inside. Shame on you, shame on me, and shame on us.

Of course, there are the petty destructions, the professional snipings, the vying for job opportunities. In a non-capitalistic system, or even better, a non-system of academic philosophy, we wouldn’t need to worry about career advancement as something that might infect the legitimate goals of our compatriots and take down colleagues whose only failing is not playing an immoral game well enough.

But at least there’s some means-ends rationality here. Some philosophers, either ignorant of the possibility of behaving appropriately toward their brothers and sisters in arms, or well aware of the immoral state of the profession and willing, nonetheless, to be the best immoral colleague they can be, adopt means that are appropriately suited to the end of career advancement.

But this is not an essay on the falsity of consequentialism in all of its forms. If you decide to make lemonade from offered lemons rather than declining the lemons at all, more is wrong with your priorities than can be addressed in a few pages.

The real cancer manifesting itself from within our discipline and slowly eating away at the possibility of unity and progress within philosophy is merely political distinctions used as tests of loyalty to non-rationally chosen philosophical brands.

There are at least two sorts of disciplinary distinctions we make within philosophy, one perhaps legitimate, and the other illegitimate and noxious:

(i) Distinctions between types of subject-matter and the proper methods used to investigate those subjectmatter.
(ii) Distinctions between types of philosopher/philosophical work and the methods used by that philosopher/in that philosophical work.

Examples of the first are between such types of subjectmatter as ethics, epistemology, metaphysics. Perhaps it is a shame that we have become so specialized as a discipline as to think that we can or that we should or that we must make these sorts of distinctions at all. Surely, someone might say, metaphysical concerns (e.g., those dealing with minds) are relevant to epistemology, and epistemological concerns (e.g., those dealing with knowledge of abstract objects) are relevant to ethics, and ethical concerns (e.g., those dealing with epistemic normativity) are relevant to epistemology, and on and on.

So perhaps we’ve done something wrong along these lines. If we have, then it seems to me that wrongness is purely methodological. We might be better philosophers if we stopped being so doctrinal and myopic. Fine.

My target here, however, is a sort of disciplinary distinction that is:

(i) discriminatory,
(ii) whose proper target is people and their methodologies,
(iii) which discrimination is merely politically motivated,
(iv) the practice of which is immoral both in its enactment and in its consequences

My claim, then, is that we as philosophers discriminate against one another via distinctions between different sorts of philosophers/philosophical work — not merely distinctions between different types of subjectmatter — and that this discrimination is not only immoral itself, but it has negative consequences for the discipline as a whole.

The sort of discrimination I’m talking about is manifest most strongly in terms of the so-called “Analytic/Continental” distinction, but has also recently manifested itself in terms of the so-called “Feminist/non-Feminist/anti-Feminist” distinction.

A caution to the reader: Whatever these terms originally meant, they no longer have their original semantic content.

A corollary to my thesis, then, is that familiar words have been hijacked, probably non-consciously, to support non-rational biases. The inscriptions on the page, the sounds, themselves, have been drained of their semantic content and now function mostly pragmatically as a way to identify as “not one of the Other.”

A really insidious component of this sort of semantic draining is that it is often invisible to those whose everyday speech includes the semantically drained terms. We become comfortable using these terms, unaware that their central use is merely pragmatically violent, and then, when questioned about the terms, we can always appeal back to some minimal semantic content contained within the term.

An “Analytic” partisan can always say “What I mean when I use the term is that we use the tools of logical analysis and conceptual rigor,” or whatever. But, of course, the ability to post-hoc define a term does not mean that this is how the term is generally used, or even that this is how the definer generally employs the term.

Consider: Are you an Analytic or a Continental? Are you a Feminist philosopher or a non-Feminist? Or, god forbid, an anti-Feminist?

Whatever you respond, that is a brand to which you are loyal.

Yes, you may say to yourself that you are an open-minded so-and-so and that your loyalty, while present, is thin, and would never affect your day-to-day dealings with others. But the evidence doesn’t bear out your laudable liberalism.

You, just like all of us, suffer from the well-known set of cognitive biases associated with brand loyalty — and it’s one of the things that makes professional philosophy so internally awful.

Consider the type of computer you own, or type of phone, or car, or pet, the way you get to work, the kind of coffee or tea you drink, even your partner. Before you committed with these things, you did some research. Some of us do more research than others, but you decided based on something, and you now take yourself to have decided based on at least pretty good reasons.

That’s just how we all work. Now this is fine when it comes to arbitrary components of your life, but it’s very bad when it comes to components of your life that directly affect the lives of others.

It’s even worse when it comes to components of your life that are intertwined with a public and historical good — e.g., real philosophy.

When you take yourself to have made a good choice with respect to something of yours, you internalize that choice and that thing such that you begin, at least slightly, to identify both with that thing and with your choice to possess that thing.

In well-known empirical-psychological experiments conducted at Baylor, researchers asked subject whether they generally preferred coca-cola or pepsi and then gave subjects unmarked cups randomly containing one or the other cola. Subjects then compared with a cola in another unmarked cup and then pronounced on their preference. We know that people tend to defend their choices, even if those choices explicitly contradict earlier stated preferences.

However, and this is the very important part, that’s not what happened in this experiment. When hooked up to fMRI equipment, subjects who had initially expressed a preference for one cola but then blindly said they preferred the other sort, e.g., subjects who initially said they preferred pepsi, but then displayed, when drinking out of unmarked cups, a preference for coca-cola, exhibited amazing brain activity:

Their brains really did respond as though they preferred the unmarked cola they claimed to prefer, but when told that their originally-stated preference was for the other cola, their brains stopped responding to the new cola as if subjects preferred it.

That is, once told that they actually preferred something to which they were not loyal, their brains, instead of accepting this new information, changed so as to retain the ability to self-conceive as, e.g., the brains of pepsi people.

What does all of this have to do with the so-called Analytic/Continental distinction or the Feminism/non-Feminism/anti-Feminism distinction?

If you think that you’re, e.g., an Analytic Feminist, then you have already predisposed yourself against Continental non-Feminists and (god forbid) anti-Feminists.

Now this would be fine if (a) you had good reasons for your initial choice and if (b) these categories described actual disciplinary boundaries, but both (a) and (b) are false.

First, you have no good philosophical reason for preferring Analytic to Continental philosophy, or the other way around.

The way I know this is that you have no idea how to articulate a non-arbitrary distinction between the two. Occasionally one of those other philosophy blogs will talk about the distinction and attempt an articulation of it, but to no avail.

It’s even further clear that there no real distinction here because ‘Analytic’ describes a style and ‘Continental’ describes a place. The closest any of us has ever seen to a cogent distinction between these two terms is that one is very bad philosophy and the other is very good philosophy.

But, of course, this is not a substantive philosophical distinction; instead, it’s an aesthetic (and not even a very informed) distinction. You further have no good philosophical reason for preferring Feminist to non-Feminist or (god forbid) anti-Feminist philosophy.

The way I know this is that you have no idea how to articulate a non-arbitrary distinction between the two, or three.

First, are we talking about first-wave, second-wave, or third-wave Feminism?Second, are we talking about normative or descriptive forms of Feminism? Third, are we talking about postmodern or non-postmodern forms of Feminism?

‘Feminism,’ like ‘Analytic,’ suffers from the problem of having both a historical and a disciplinary usage, and not only has that distinction become blurred, but most of us aren’t even up on the original uses of the terms. Any attempt by some philosopher, at this point, to claim that they’ve figured out the definition of one of these terms is facile conceit and nothing more.

Second, these terms do not describe disciplinary boundaries as ‘epistemology’ and ‘ethics’ at least have some chance of doing.

If I say that I am an ethicist to an epistemologist, she might think that the subjects of her research are more interesting than are mine, but she doesn’t say any of the following:

(i) That’s not real philosophy.
(ii) That’s essentially bad philosophy.
(iii) You’re immoral.

But, of course, this is what we hear all the time in terms of both the Analytic/Continental distinction and the Feminism/non-Feminism/anti-Feminism distinction.

For example, to an ‘Analytic epistemologist,’ ‘Continental epistemology’ is just bad or immoral epistemology, and maybe it’s not even epistemology.

What, specifically, does this have to do with professional philosophy rather than just philosophy as a whole?

Universities, as the sanctioners of philosophical activity, have only so many faculty positions.

Who fills these positions is decided, mainly (although not in some recent public cases — and that is a despicable travesty), by other members of the faculty.

So there is both scarcity of resources (jobs) and market pressure on the consumers (philosophers) to comply with the decisions of what makes for a good consumer, who is allowed to purchase the coveted product.

The particularly noxious consequences of the relevant cognitive biases are singled out and magnified by the particularly noxious essential elements of the structure of academia itself.

Certainly, fixing the problems with professional philosophy (or making it not a profession at all) wouldn’t make humans more rational with respect to this specific set of biases. What it would do is not magnify them and direct them at our fellow philosophers.

We are limiting ourselves as philosophers by a priori dismissing entire areas of philosophical research as Other. We are buying into a disciplinary structure that is undermining our true purpose as academics. And worst of all, we are treating one another very badly by insisting on incorporating jingoism into our research. Shame on us.

I call for us immediately to cease and desist using mere epithets against our fellow philosophers, epithets that not only don’t mark out actual disciplinary boundaries, but that serve a mostly violent pragmatic function of Othering our colleagues.

I further call for us to call out those who are using the terms, and to do so directly. We ought to say “That term is a term of violence and exclusion and not only do I not use it, but I won’t be around people who do.”

There’s a lot that we can’t control. This is something easy that we can.


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, and Z, Wednesday 28 June 2017.

Against Professional Philosophy is a sub-project of the online mega-project Philosophy Without Borders, which is home-based on Patreon here.



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Mr Nemo

Mr Nemo

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