Criticizing the Criticism: Some Reflections on Professional Academic Thought and Real Philosophy.

An edgy essay by Otto Paans

“The Critic,” by Julio Ruelas (1896)

***

I approached two other journals, one of which never responded. The other journal rejected the text and provided some feedback as to why they had decided to do so. It is this feedback that I would like to reflect on here.

For fairness’ sake, I will not divulge the name of the journal. I will say, though, that is publishes open access, and for that choice, I applaud them. It means that many dedicated individuals invest their spare time in reviewing and editing the periodical, often without due recognition. I will also state up-front that the criticism I received was generally constructive, and that I have had worse reviews in the past.

Of course, an obvious objection that can be made right away is that I am writing this piece out of spite, simply because I have an axe to grind with those that do not publish my work. I don’t. It seems to me completely fair that an editor or editorial team decides which pieces they publish or reject. For me, the only thing that is important is that my work is publicly accessible.

Furthermore, it is completely understandable that in a global academic environment so obsessively focused on publication-and-citation, there is a surplus of new material. Researchers are frantically scribbling nowadays, mercilessly driven by publication thresholds, citation indexes, and the requirements set for scholarships, research grants, and tenure tracks. The fact that the internet connects so many people only aggravates this unfortunate situation: any scholar can see at any time what others are doing and starts to realize in dismay that he or she is not the only one competing for the attention of publishers. Not only is there a rat-race going on, but one’s progress (or lack thereof) is tracked in real-time.

The reason I write this piece is therefore not to degrade or shame those who criticize me or reject my work. Instead, the reason for my criticizing the criticism of my essay is that the referee’s commentary encapsulates every single tendency in academic publishing and intellectual life more generally that we have been criticizing at Against Professional Philosophy for the last seven years. When I read the comments, a lingering conviction that I had for a very long time finally took shape: I became increasingly convinced that the future of philosophy lies not inside the professional academy, but instead that it will flourish only outside its borders.

And we may think of “borders” here not only in the literal sense, as the physical barriers between insular academic institutions and the world outside, but also we may with equal validity regard them as invisible barriers in the mind, erected to confine and demarcate a playing field known as “professional academic debate.” Only outside all the institutional and mental borders, then, will the philosophy of the future thrive.

With these preliminaries in place, let’s move on and examine some of the comments in more detail. The commentary appears in italics and is interspersed with my reflections.

This essay assembles an unusual and exceptionally stimulating set of sources from various branches of the arts — music, film, the visual arts, and literature — to reflect on the aesthetic challenges of a “world” that is “disintegrating” or undergoing “metamorphosis,” in the terms of the author. This choice of terminology already points to what I would consider the main reason why this essay, despite its many strengths, makes for a poor fit for [journal name] the endings that are under consideration here variously concern “the Western tradition” of musical composition, modern conceptions of the subject as an autonomous agent, and “the certainties of modern society” — and while “nature” presumably numbers among the latter, it appears more as an ancillary issue than as a central matter of concern.

This first paragraph is a somewhat strange comment that I have some trouble understanding. As any reader of this blog can ascertain for himself, the entire essay is about a re-conception of the culture/nature dichotomy that is so prevalent throughout modernity. Especially sections III and IV are all about a reconceptualized relationship between humanity and the forces of nature, as I see it. The idea is that Valentin Silvestrov’s musical compositions (discussed in section II) utilize an aesthetic that deals with the theme of “ending.” Not just ending in the customary sense of ceasing to exist or function, but ending as an existence that continues after a prior, main event has taken place. If anything, Silvestrov’s sound world depicts are world that lies on the other end of the Apocalypse — a world that is strangely hopeful despite its resignation and sometimes threatening presence.

In section III, the theme of ending is discussed from another vantage point, namely the innovative and gripping Southern Reach trilogy written by Jeff Vandermeer. If anything, Vandermeer turns the entire humanity-nature relationship by 90 degrees, and I can only recommend readers to read the novels and see how convincing this literary strategy works. Nature — especially in its ungraspable, immediate presence is a persistent theme throughout the entire essay, and most evidently not “an ancillary issue.” How the referee missed this point is inexplicable to me.

The discussion shifts gears too abruptly between close-readings of particular works and passages that operate at dizzying levels of philosophical abstraction.

Point taken, and my sincere thanks for notifying me. As clearly set out in the first paragraph of the essay, the subsequent sections are “close readings” of artworks (the sound world of Valentin Silvestrov in section II and the Area X novels in section III). And, if I had had more space, I would have certainly added more content. However, I completely and utterly disagree with the statement that the philosophical exegesis hovers at a “dizzying level of philosophical abstraction.” If my writing is already considered “dizzying,” I can only recommend that the referee stays as far away from Hegel, Sellars, or Brandom as possible.

No one ever said that philosophy is an easy subject. The reader has to think as well. A text is for engaging the reader, not for merely providing information, or as it is nowadays nauseatingly called: “content.” To make sure that the piece was not too abstract, I had some of my non-philosophical friends read it. And apart from specific references to particular works by for instance Schopenhauer or Kant, they could understand the overall train of thought perfectly well….

So my impression is that the author is trying to do too many things at the same time, and as a result is doing none of them with the requisite patience and thoroughness. Silvestrov, the Strugatskys, Tarkovsky, VanderMeer, López, Beesly, Polke — Morton, Beck, Schopenhauer — all of these artists and authors are intensively interesting, and the author convincingly argues that they have important things to say about what an aesthetics for our time should be.

Again, this is a good point from an editorial point of view, and at the same time it demarcates a thin line that the author has to walk like a tightrope. Say nothing original, and the text is judged as derivative; try to do something original, and the text is judged superficial. Since the publishing guidelines of any journal I know of are too broad to interpret with certainty, one never really knows the criteria that will be used to judge one’s work. Add to this the fact that a different people have different preferences, tastes, and opinions, and the whole idea of objectivity or even rational consensus crumbles.

But, let’s assume that the referee is correct. Maybe it is true, and the essay sets out too ambitiously — but on the other hand: has the referee ever tried to read Kant, Hegel, or Schopenhauer carefully? A single page of each of these authors’ works contains more content than most contemporary professional academic journals do in their entirety. There is a worrying professional academic tendency on display here: demanding the combination of “not doing too much,” combined with “requisite patience and thoroughness.” What do these demands really amount to? Note that these criteria — if they may be called such — are not really measurable indicators about which everyone agrees.

The wildly varying comments I have received on works I submitted at various professional academic venues only strengthen my opinion that professional academic standards –sadly — are essentially up for grabs. It happened to me that a text I submitted was simultaneously marked “A” and “C”; another one was judged as a “balanced, even-handed treatment” and “derivative theorizing”; and yet another one judged as “unoriginal” and “a thorough discussion.” Now, in all those cases, both opinions cannot simultaneously be true, and I deeply mistrust a feedback system that provides such erratic, uneven, and contradictory results. What all-too-often passes for doing things “thoroughly” or “with the requisite patience” is the translation of an idea into a professional academic jargon that I have absolutely no sympathy for.

Now I grant this immediately: I often fail to live up to my own expectations and standards when it comes to the quality of my prose and the clarity I strive for. But the very idea of “patience” or “rigor” is a professional academic notion that no one has ever defined and that is used too often, too haphazardly, too arbitrarily, and above all too threateningly. It amounts to implying that someone else lacks thoroughness or rigor. But when neither of these terms is defined clearly, such an assertion often amounts to nothing less than a polite way of saying either “I simply do not like it” or “You are clearly not one of us.” If you simply don’t like it or I’m clearly not a member of the ingroup, please indicate that. Do not hide behind obscure criteria like “patience,” “thoroughness,” or “rigor.” There is no need for such evasive maneuvers — I can take it and appreciate blunt honesty over polite deceit.

On a more charitable reading, perhaps the referee meant something along the following lines: the piece is too short to do justice to all the lines of thought that are being developed, so that the reader comes away with a sense of an incomplete coverage of the relevant issue or topic. This is indeed a consequence of (i) dealing with topics on which a lot has been written already, (ii) the constraints imposed by the practicalities of word count, and (iii) the essay format in general. Again, we encounter a fiction here: that one can say all one has to say in a single essay. But especially when one breaks new ground or introduces a new line of thought, it follows that not everything that can be said can be included in the essay. The very format of presentation prevents this.

Not coincidentally, the explicit or implicit demand for well-defined texts that end in well-defined conclusions stems from another professional academic fiction: the idea that one can reach conclusions that have been clearly and distinctly explicated in the preceding paragraphs. Sometimes, this is possible, but not in all cases. This essay in particular is not such a case. It sets out a new line of thinking, and “goes out on a limb” so to speak. No, there are no conclusions that complete the line of thought — because it has just begun and does not end dead in its tracks.

And this brings us to another — even more worrying — tendency that is on display here: you cannot be a philosophical generalist who connects two, three, or more ideas from different areas. No, you must be only and always a philosophical specialist engaging in scholastic intellectual debate. I refuse to do this. Sometimes, to focus on the details of this or that philosophy or philosopher is an intensely rewarding exercise. But in just as many — if not more — cases it is at least as, or even more, rewarding to take a “bird’s eye” perspective and connect two, three, or more related notions or ideas into a new constellation or vantage point. The issue that surfaces here is between specialization and its associated debate (“What did Kant really mean by the term X?” “What can we say about notion Y in Hegel?” “What do other professional academic philosophers say about the topic of Z in Davidson’s work?”). Almost without exception, such intellectual debates revert to a veritable scholasticism the kind of which has not been witnessed since the High Middle Ages.

Continuing this line of criticism, the referee duly notes the following:

Because this wealth of material is compressed into the space of a single essay, however, it can only be presented in the most superficial manner.

Yes, but by now, we can regard this statement as merely true-by-stipulation. However, it usefully highlights the difference between: (i) breaking new ground and setting out a new line of thought, and (ii) providing an in-depth discussion of a single, specialized topic. To confuse the two is a first-class category mistake, and one that could have been easily prevented if the referee had actually read the very first paragraph of the essay carefully.

Moreover, I sharply disagree with the referee’s careless use of the word “superficiality.” A bird’s-eye perspective over two, three, or more ideas is not superficial — instead, it is panoramic or synoptic. An idea that is presented in a superficial a manner lacks the necessary depth for it to be an effective argumentative device. Its lack of detail is a shortcoming. From the bird’s-eye perspective, lack of detail (in this case: the level of detail that surfaces in professional academic scholastic-specialist discussions) is a necessary consequence of the position one purposely and voluntarily assumes: the generalist approach to discussing the relations between a range of ideas foregoes nit-picking detail in favor of the overview, so that a different type or types of relationship can be discerned. Therefore, the lack of detail is an advantage: it sees the forest instead of the trees.

In my now more than 10-year career of dealing with scientists and professional academics of all stripes in fields as diverse as physics, chemistry, psychology, material science, medical science and technology transfer, not to mention philosophy, I can confidently say that professional academics have routinely trouble in discriminating between the two types of approach. Only scientistic rigor (i.e., narrow specialization) is allowed and regarded as a safe road to reach the heights of human knowledge. And this assumption leads neatly to the following criticism:

It also prevents the author from engaging with extant scholarship on the works in question, of which there is in some cases a substantial amount (…) often arguing along rather similar lines.

Yes, and the reasons for doing so have been discussed in the precious sections. I could have certainly engaged with more scholarly material on the topic (and perhaps will in the final version of the essay), but then you end up again in a kind of “footnote fixation” (my sincere thanks to C.S. Peirce for coining that term). Because if you do, then the next question will be asked immediately: why did you not write an essay that focuses just on the Southern Reach trilogy? Well, again, that was not the idea behind writing the essay in the first place.

It would be incumbent on the author to indicate more clearly how his own approach adds to what other scholars have already said about these matters (which, I should emphasize again, it undoubtedly does).

No thanks. I’m happy to engage with debates but will do so on my own terms. This comment points towards what I’ve called “Sesame Street for professional academics.” Everything must be cut up in clearly demarcated little pieces, so that the reader has to do no thinking at all. However, if interested readers want to examine what others have said on a similar topic let them either (i) read up on related papers, or (ii) install an AI bot that is much more effective in finding catchphrases, keywords, and sentences, and in comparing debate contributions, than rational human animals ever will be.

The referee’s remark I quoted in the second paragraph above seems to me typical for academic debate in the broad sense: it is conceived as an on-going roundtable conversation among professional academic scholars. But what should be discussed in these conversations? Well, the contributions of esteemed colleagues, of course! This contrastive and comparative analysis then results solely in a kind of meta-literature about what others have said on a given topic. Although engaging with other authors is sometimes important, it is just as important to set out in a new direction for oneself. The first step in such a process is not to examine, compare, and contrast what others say and have said, but instead to dare to think things through for oneself. There will be time enough for dialogue and criticism later on.

The most obvious reply to this view of things is that such an approach is interesting, but not professional academic. But my reply is that the standard approach is professional academic, but not interesting. Even worse, it starts to approach the point where it is no longer productive, or even relevant in the larger sense of that term. It is inimical to what makes real thinking such a pleasure and actually worth doing: a sense of intellectual curiosity that extends far beyond the procedural manner of thinking prescribed by those who wish to think always and only in established and professional-academically acceptable terms. We can contrast the contemporary professional academic attitude with this metaphilosophical remark by someone who really knew how to think for himself:

[People] should only read when the source of their own thoughts stagnates, which will often be the case even with best of minds. On the other hand, it is a sin against the holy spirit to scare off one’s own thoughts, which have original force, just in order to pick up a book.[i]

One’s own thoughts have an original force in a double sense. First, they are products of the mind that thinks them, and as such are natural to it. They conform to the mind’s interests and inclinations, so that an educated and independent mind might think thoughts with that characteristic. Second, the novelty of the associations formed by authentic, serious thinking often contain a creative, original spark that stimulates one to think further, exploring the domain that lies beyond established knowledge or mere academic consensus. To be uninteresting is a cardinal sin against oneself, because it denies or even subverts the original force that our own thoughts — despite their imperfections — have. To be professional-academically acceptable and respectable means that one has to give up one’s intellectual autonomy in order to satisfy an institutional order that is defended in the name of a decaying, dusty, lifeless sense of rigor: rigor mortis. The late Sir Roger Scruton described this situation in no uncertain terms:

Nevertheless, I remain struck by the thin and withered countenance that philosophy quickly assumes, when it wanders away from art and literature, and I cannot open a journal like Mind or The Philosophical Review without experiencing an immediate sinking of the heart, like opening a door into a morgue.[ii]

Thin and withered, and above all, devoid of life — this is the type of philosophy that one wishes to avoid. And that confronts academic writers immediately with a dilemma: does one wish to be complicit in the production of an impoverished philosophy, or must one think of one’s career prospects?

So, circling back to the anonymous referee, what my approach adds to what other people have said about similar topics is up to every individual to decide — they can dare to think for themselves, or so one hopes. To “position” oneself is useful if one wants to do so, or if one is fairly sure that the text one is writing will be read for such purposes. Another, related point can be made here. When one reads up on the literature of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, one cannot but notice that the authors in these historical periods do indeed use references, but they use them in a vastly different way than is customary in contemporary professional academic literature. A philosophical idea of someone else that is deemed relevant for the discussion is often only introduced concisely and is subsequently used as a jumping board for further thought. The consequence is that the number of references is relatively small, and the ideas of the author occupy the center of attention.

With the rise of the modern professional academic journal, the situation seems completely reversed. References are used left and right, and the bewildered reader is bombarded with sources that must support and substantiate what the author claims. In this web of references, however, the content of what is being thought retreats into the background. Everything that makes philosophy interesting is the creative, original thoughts of the philosopher one is reading. Of course, one must make an exception here for compendia, reference books, critical editions, or introductory guides, whose goal it is to provide a map of a certain specialized field.

One could raise an objection here: if one reads the works of De Montaigne, Kant, or Schopenhauer, one can find references and citations left and right, so is it not the case that these authors engaged in scholarly debate? It is true — often, these authors refer to the classical works of antiquity. But again, these references are often used to highlight or even corroborate a point, and then the discussion resumes its natural course. They drive and direct the discussion in order to move forward. This is quite unlike the web of citations in contemporary professional academic journals, that more often than not refer always and only to the same circle of experts on a given topic, giving the discussion a certain institutional weight in order to prevent and stave off the charge that it is deemed unacceptable for professional academic use. Or — God forbid — the charge that one has not been rigorous, i.e. that one has not referred in a fulsome way to all and only the leading professional academic scholars in that well-defined field of expertise.

The modern use of citations appears as a virtue-signaling strategy to indicate one’s level of rigor. And in the insular intellectual environment that the professional academy has become, accusing others of not adhering to hard-won professional academic accomplishments and implicitly-accepted-yet-never-defined standards is a lethal weapon. Did you not engage the “secondary literature,” that is, the meta-literature, on this or that topic? — That must mean that anything the author has written is unscientific, sloppy, or uninformed…. Again, I can only approvingly quote (!) the incomparable Schopenhauer here, who must also have been intensely annoyed by it:

But during reading our mind is really only the playground of the thought of others. What remains when these finally move on? It stems from this that whoever reads very much and almost the whole day, but in between recovers by thoughtless pastime, gradually loses the ability to think on his own — as someone who always rides forgets in the end how to walk. But such is the case of many scholars: they have read themselves stupid. For constant reading taken up again in every free moment is even more mentally paralyzing than constant manual labor, since in the latter we can still muse about our own thoughts. But just as a coiled spring finally loses its elasticity through the sustained pressure of a foreign body, so too the mind through the constant force of other people’s thoughts.[iii]

Following Kant’s injunction, I am happy to dare to think for myself, and I am planning to avoid reading myself silly-and-stupid in the “secondary literature.” If the consequence is that my thinking does not resonate well within the circles of conformist professional academicism, I am all the happier for it. It means that I have found an intellectual freedom that those trapped inside their professional academic borders can only yearn for.

NOTES

[ii] R. Scruton, Confessions of a Sceptical Francophile, available at <https://www.roger-scruton.com/articles/284-confessions-of-a-sceptical-francophile>.

[iii] A. Schopenhauer, “On Reading and Books,” in Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena, pp. 496–505, at p. 496.

AGAINST PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY REDUX 592

Mr Nemo, Y, X, Y, & Z, Thursday 9 April 2020

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

Please consider becoming a patron!

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

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store