Philosophy in a Newer Key: Outside the Professional Academy and Inside the Real World, #2.

Mr Nemo
8 min readMay 30, 2022

By Otto Paans

Cover art for Philosophy in a New Key (1941), by Suzanne K. Langer

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This is the second of two installments, the first of which is HERE.

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Philosophy in a Newer Key: Outside the Professional Academy and Inside the Real World, #2.

II. Philosophy in the Adjectival Key

Granting all [that I’ve argued already], then real philosophy outside the professional academy is bound to take on a radically different hue that its institutionalized counterpart. Liberated from the pressure and social-institutional demands posed on it, real philosophy organically develops into shapes that not only cannot thrive inside the professional academy but are in fact actively discouraged and even strangled inside the professional academy. Above all, there is open space for one’s own personal style and viewpoint to color and direct the main philosophical projects and themes of one’s work. No longer are administrators, so-called “colleagues,” and editors in charge of the aims, content, and form of one’s work, but instead only the authors themselves.

I was reminded of this recently when I read an essay by Josh Billings on the characteristic features of Russian thought in the 20th century:

A lot of the time it doesn’t seem like “philosophy” at all, which is no doubt one of the reasons why [Mikhail] Epstein is careful to specify that his books’ actual subject is actually the broader category of “Russian thought.”

In Russia, philosophy is less a noun, a self-sufficient entity (a field, a discipline, a profession) and more an adjective, an attribute or a property of various philosophical activities; the philosophically oriented humanities, or philosophically inspired cultural creativity, or philosophical aims of sociopolitical undertakings.

Detached from traditions of rigor and accountability, such “adjectival” philosophy runs the risk of pointlessness: if philosophy can be everything, then how does it avoid being nothing?[i]

Philosophy is something that can be woven into every activity, and this is a neo-organicist idea that strikes me as comfortably close to my interests and preferred mode of expression. To sit in a room and think about the conceptual problems that a professional academic community regards as important holds no attraction for me whatsoever. Instead, to think is to move. But sometimes also, to move is to think. One let’s one’s mind roam while walking, gardening, thinking about practical problems, while designing — and all of a sudden, a philosophical idea pops up, seemingly sprouting from the substrate of another idea.

We have not yet begun to appreciate this effect fully, but Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche exploited the generative philosophical potential of daily activities to enormous effect. Not coincidentally, Lebensphilosophie in its familiar guise starts with them. And no wonder: their philosophy emerges out of “human, all-too_human” life itself. Moreover, all of them were avid walkers. So they grasped, perhaps only implicitly, the intimate connection between thinking and intentionally moving one’s own body. Any form of thought is a form of movement, after all.

But the notion of “movement” in relation to real philosophy must be understood in a broader manner. In thinking, the real-philosophical method, woven throughout various activities, exerts its stirring, stimulating, and motivating influence. In areas where longstanding ideas and preconceptions determine the horizon of intellectual activity, real philosophy creates openings and new possibilities.

This is why the income problem can be addressed in many different ways.[ii] If real philosophy is used in conjunction with another discipline, this arrangement benefits both types of thought. The “stirring” skills of real philosophy are not only intrinsically valuable but also useful in a wide variety of contexts and processes, and the primary discipline provides real philosophy with real-world content.

Here is one practical example from my primary discipline of landscape design. We inherited from German Idealism and Romanticism a veritable treasure trove of Naturphilosophie: that is, the thought of various individuals who considered nature as an interwoven whole, as an entity about which one could philosophize. Simultaneously, we are confronted with landscape deterioration at an unprecedented scale. Large-scale agriculture, climate change, consumerist tourism, habitat fragmentation, population densities, and so-on: all these factors make the landscape crumble under their combined impact. Is this not the perfect time to recapture that integral, grand but above all neo-organicist perspective that many of the German Idealist or Romantic natural philosophers possessed? We might have forgotten how to practice this art, but prima facie, it seems clear to me that it may have a tremendous positive influence on the Anthropocene mindset. In other words, real philosophy might provide the intellectual and aesthetic resources to cultivate and develop our living environments and address our ecological problems.

So, real philosophy can be applied to a wide variety of different purposes, at least some of which can also be used to earn a living income.

But its most useful key is no doubt the adjectival one, as the essay by Billings that I mentioned above points out. In her 1941 book, Philosophy in a New Key, Susanne K. Langer presciently proposed that the Western philosophical enterprise should be re-tuned in a new key: the study of symbolization of various kinds. In proposing this, she moved away from the then-current paradigm of Analytic philosophy in the Anglo-American sphere. Her core thought was that studying symbolization was fundamental for understanding human cognition in particular and the human mind more generally.

We require a similar shift in orientation, but this time from the ideal of the objective to the ideal of the adjective: in short, philosophy in a newer key. We are all monads, as Nishida once wrote. And as such, the very individuality of all of our distinct viewpoints, especially those that are in the real world, forever outside the professional academy, should be taken seriously. So seriously, in fact, that it forms the basis for a newer key to which the entire real-philosophical enterprise can be re-tuned.

But, as Billings asks, is this not an open invitation for philosophy to lose itself in breadth at the expense of depth? What we encounter in this question is nothing less than the encroaching professional academic norms on cultural life as such. Rigor and accountability! To whom am I accountable if I think for myself? What authority sets itself up to be my judge? In the end, I have to live with myself, and I have to be able to look in the mirror without flinching. If this is not the ultimate accountability, I do not know what is.

To reduce accountability to peer approval is an aberration, a social-institutional strategy that works everywhere, and that is essentially fear-and-reward based. Yes, there is such a thing as being held accountable. For instance, if I were to falsify results of a scientific experiment, that would be morally bad. No one denies this, and for this reason, such data are checked by independent experts. However, with real philosophy –especially the adjectival type — we find ourselves in an entirely different situation. No longer can the social institution claim authority. And what about our readers? They have to think for themselves as well. They have to judge whether the thoughts presented to them strike them as relevant, useful, true, stimulating, and insightful. And if they find these thoughts and ideas lacking or morally bad, they can, and should, speak out! But to impose already questionable professional academic norms on real philosophy as such is a highly debilitating strategy that stifles real thought and stops the flow of thinking dead in its tracks.

Similarly, the effect of the adjectival key in Russian philosophy had its impact on the formats of philosophical publishing, and indeed on philosophical writing itself:

Such breadth can strike the Western reader, with our penchant for specialization, as overreaching, but it places Epstein squarely in the Russian tradition of mysliteli, or “thinkers” (a word he once used to describe the similarly genre-bending writer Andrei Sinyavsky).

Like many Russian writers of his generation, Epstein came of age in an era where censorship required that certain types of writing be promulgated outside of official channels, via self-publishing (samizdat), publishing abroad (tamizdat), or even the official but restricted spetsizdat.[iii]

But why does the breadth, almost improvisational, and genre-bending character of Russian thought strike the Western reader as overreaching? Is it not simply that we uncritically presuppose certain expectations of what philosophy is and should be? How it should be written structured and published? Have we not driven Life itself out of our thinking?

Moreover, does this insistence on specialization and objectivity not betray a deep-seated fear that once real philosophy refuses to take on the trusted, familiar forms, it ceases to be what the professional academics call “philosophy”? In other words, is not our attitude all-too-often merely one of pusillanimously “refusing to take the plunge,” when it comes to real philosophizing?

The adjectival form of philosophy need not be concerned with publication in this or that journal, or presentation at this or that conference. It finds itself immersively inside the real world from the very start. It forms itself and grows gradually while walking, working, and thinking through a practical problem, or simply by sitting after a long day working in one’s primary discipline, and having a beer while musing philosophically. There is nothing wrong with this, and it is every bit as much as, and indeed moreso, real philosophy, as the works written within the walls of the professional academy.

Moreover, it is this type of real philosophy that due to its adjectival, immersive, first-person character harnesses the richness of individual experience. As such, it has the potential to truly aid us with our real-world problems. These are problems, I emphasize and re-emphasize, that do not disappear by our merely thinking about them, but that require engaged and enacted thought in order to be properly addressed.

So, there is work enough to do for the engaged and enactive real philosopher. The point of real philosophy, after all, is to change our own lives, and then shape the world, both for the better. This means not tearing down things nihilistically and then starting again from scratch, not a revolution in that sense, but instead it means wholeheartedly adopting an attitude of creative piety,[iv] and thereby practically changing ourselves, then shaping the real world, step-by-step, day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month, year-by-year….

NOTES

[i] J. Billings, “Magical Thinking: On Mikhail Epstein’s Expansive History of Recent Russian Thought,” LA Review of Books (2 February 2022). Available online at URL = <https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/magical-thinking-on-mikhail-epsteins-expansive-history-of-recent-russian-thought/>.

[ii] See R. Hanna, “Material Conditions for the Real-World Implementation of Life-Shaping Philosophy, and A Multiple-Solutions Approach to The Income Problem,” (Unpublished MS, 2022), available online HERE.

[iii] Billings, “Magical Thinking: On Mikhail Epstein’s Expansive History of Recent Russian Thought.”

[iv] See R. Hanna and O. Paans, “Creative Piety and Neo-Utopianism: Cultivating Our Global Garden,” (Unpublished MS, 2022), available online HERE.

AGAINST PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY REDUX 672

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Mr Nemo

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