EDGY SPEECH DOUBLE FEATURE 2. A Plea for Edgy Philosophy.
1. Nowadays, philosophy is practiced almost universally at universities. If you want to be a philosopher, it’s almost inevitable that you should be a “professional philosopher” working as an “academic”. I have explored elsewhere some of the harms of this association. While professionalizing philosophy looks like a good thing, I shall argue that it kills the very spirit of the philosophical reflection that has been carried out by great philosophers in the history of the discipline. See, e.g.,
2. As the term is commonly understood, “professionals” are individuals who master a certain skill, be it building houses, producing medical drugs, or playing basketball, are paid to do it, and must undergo some sort of qualification and certification process, not to mention working under the constraints of some sort of explicit or implicit “professional code.”
3. What is often ignored, however, is that being a professional is not simply a matter of mastering some skill.
You can be very skilful at a certain activity, but if you don’t do it in the right way, or if you don’t hold the qualifications or credentials that enable you to do it, or if you don’t pass or take the certification test, or if you fail to meet the constraints of the professional code, you are not considered a professional. That’s one of the reasons why people go to schools, so that they can acquire the qualifications and credentials to exercise their “profession”.
4. Now the term “professional” usually has a positive meaning in its everyday usage. One of its most common usages is supposed to convey the idea that one has done a great and generally useful things, or things, in a certain subject.
This is, however, quite misleading, and it hides a very harmful implication or use of the term.
Doing something professionally is not simply a matter of mastering a skill, but of doing this thing in a certain way, and not in others.
Thus, doing a good or an excellent job is not something that you do in itself, but rather in relation to certain standards previously established.
The professional standard is like the child’s math teacher, who seeing that the child solved a problem in an unconventional way, rebukes the young person for not doing it in the right way, the way that earns points on a standardized test.
For a professional, then, it doesn’t matter so much what you do, but infinitely more, how you do it. Or otherwise put, it’s a matter of ideological discipline. See, e.g.,
5. Consequently, the term “professional” becomes a powerful tool of peer-dismissal: one can simply ignores one’s professional adversary’s or competitor’s work simply on the grounds that it wasn’t professional enough.
Worse than that, though, is the fact that this attitude is widely and often blindly approved by the professional community at large.
6. Here is my conclusion so far: for professionals, the subject of their work, or their specialty, becomes of secondary importance.
The “what you do” yields its place to the “how you do”, and judgments about the “how you do” are mistakenly taken to be judgments about the “what you do” and even worse, about your “professional virtue,” i.e., what kind of person you are, good or bad.
E.g., being judged to have acted “unprofessionally” means that you are a bad person in the estimation of the professional community at large.
7. What does this tell us about professional philosophy?
The answer is quite simple, but it is for some reason ignored (intentionally or unintentionally) by the majority of contemporary professional academic philosophers.
Bluntly put, professionalizing philosophy kills the very essence of the real philosophical enterprise, namely its radical and free critical reflective spirit.
8. Here is how that happens.
Professional philosophical work requires a model against which the production of the professional community should be evaluated.
Quite often, this is the standard 8000-word journal article, or the 200-page book*, presented in the standard professional way. See, e.g.,
But even worse than this “style standardization”, professional philosophy also requires, as does any other professional field, that other professionals make normative judgments about the value of those works.
Thus, like virtually all professionals, professional philosophers mistakenly take the “how you do it” for the “what you do” and the “what kind of person you are.”
As I said before, being a professional is not a matter of simply mastering a skill, but of performing a skilful activity in the right way.
Applied to philosophy, this normative claim applies even more harmfully than in other professional contexts, at least as far as content is concerned.
In order to produce professional work, you need to follow a very detailed (and often highly nonsensical) set of explicit or implicit instructions. See, e.g.,
Philosophical Rigor as Rigor Mortis, Or, How to Write a Publishable Paper Without Even Having to Think.
More precisely, professional philosophy requires that philosophy be consistently restricted to the dry and invariably impersonal style of “peer-reviewed” journal articles.
This requires, in turn, adopting a very restrict vocabulary, one that is (allegedly) suited to deliver “clarity” and “rigor.”
More importantly, though, the shared and required vocabulary helps building a “professional community” by giving individuals a false feeling that they belong to a special community of highly skilful practitioners.
Consequently, professional philosophy requires that “good” philosophical work follows a very strict set of guidelines of article/book production.
Professional philosophers care more about whether you can write about philosophy professionally than about whether you can write something philosophically. “If you want to be taken seriously, you have to publish in peer-review professional journals”.
If God were a professional, this would be Her first and most important commandment.
In short, professional philosophy restricts philosophical work to an extent that good philosophical work is not to be measured by what it says, but to how it is produced, and consequently, to how well it integrates you into the professional community, as a “card-carrying” member.
9. Professional philosophy thus gives real philosophy, at best, only a secondary role.
I say “at best,” because not only must you produce your work according to professional standards, at the expense of real philosophy, but also, very often, being a “good professional” and acting “professionally” can completely override real philosophy too.
For example, Peirce was a brilliant real philosopher, but a “bad professional,” hence a failed academic. See again, e.g.,
Put another way, philosophy is only the context (or the means) for professional academics, who at some point in their lifetime happened to be interested in real philosophy, maintain their living income.
10. If you don’t find the above picture problematic, then you might just want to stop reading this now.
However, if something strikes you as problematic—if you thought, “what is wrong with this picture?—then I invite you to follow me through the next few paragraphs.
In my opinion, the reason why the above picture is deeply problematic is that those who are publicly regarded as “philosophers,” nowadays, are almost universally merely academics doing professional work, in relation to which real philosophical work is only a secondary or tertiary and ultimately accidental byproduct, that is, something that is desirable, but not altogether necessary.
Real philosophy, however, is MUCH more than publishing articles in well-respected journals, or having a book published at “top” university press.
Good and especially great real-philosophical work comes in a tremendous variety of forms, styles, and vocabularies.
This is something hardly disputable once we attend to the works of the great philosophers.
As a result, I propose a shift from professional philosophy to what I call edgy philosophy.
By this, I mean the kind of philosophical work that is produced freely, is provocative in nature, and has no constraints from outside the leading norms of real philosophy itself:
(i) truth, (ii) insight into the human condition, (iii) productivity in that it inspires real philosophical thinking in others an the creation of real philosophical works by others, and (iv) it addresses important and fundamental issues, whether it is true or false.
Edgy philosophy should reflect what the philosopher is thinking in the exact way that s/he is thinking about it, and not what or the way others expect him or her to think.
Accordingly, real philosophical work should be evaluated in relation to its edgy aspect: that is, according to whether it satisfies the four norms of real philosophy, and with polymorphic individuality, by which I mean that the author creates and presents it in any presentational structure that best suits him or her, and best expresses what s/he is trying to say.
Edgy philosophy is thus a combination of real philosophy and presentational polymorphism, plus a forceful denial of professionalization.
I’m not suggesting that professionalization is necessarily a bad thing per se (although that may well also be true, at least in certain respects), but I am saying here that when it comes to philosophy, professionalization is an inherently bad thing.
Free real-philosophical reflection requires complete freedom in all respects, under the four basic norms of real philosophy.
Thus, whether a philosopher does estimable or high-quality philosophical work should not be evaluated according to its professional aspect, but rather in terms of its edgy character.
Bluntly put, you don’t need a PhD to be a real philosopher. And this was known more than 100 years ago, at the very beginning of professional academic philosophy. See, e.g.,
Surprisingly, all you need is to think and create well, philosophically!
11. The “card-carrying” professional academic philosopher, however, will not accept this.
As a “good little do bee” professional philosopher, s/he will say that this is just a failed, inane, and pathetic attempt to legitimize “bad work.”
Good academic work requires clarity and rigor; this is what promotes good scholarship and keeps the wheels of human intellectual development going.
We are privileged to be a part of such a golden age in philosophy! Get with the program!
If doing good or even great philosophy is only a matter of promoting “good” or “great” professional academic scholarship on some hot topic, then I give up.
But if you think philosophy is more than that, if you think that real philosophy is not nothing but professional academic philosophy, then you should care for edgy philosophy.
The reason is quite straightforward: only edgy philosophy can promote real philosophy according to its four inherent norms.
12. But how is that possible?
I propose that we take a moment of self-reflection, as the good Christian who has sinned, or as the good analytic professional philosopher who has read Derrida, and look carefully at how much of our time has been spent thinking about real philosophy.
That is, what portion of your week has been dedicated to real philosophy, as opposed to choosing the right words to appear on your article/book, or to figuring out the best structure of your paper so as to please your teachers, supervisors, or “peer-review” colleagues?
This is precisely what professional work does to real philosophical work.
It shifts our attention from the really important issues, to meaningless but really, really time-consuming, energy-absorbing tasks.
It thus kills the edgy aspect of real philosophy, and feeds the largely mechanical and mindless processes of “professional academic philosophical activity.”
13. Your average good little do-bee professional philosopher certainly won’t be convinced at this point, and may even be quite angry about this. See, e.g., FS’s abusive letter to APP, quoted in
Abusive Speech vs. Edgy Speech: Professional Philosophy’s Fanny Squeers and Professional Philosophy’s Lenny Bruce.
Indeed, your average good little do-bee professional philosopher believes that it is a real and perhaps even prime virtue of one’s work to be as “clear” and “rigorous” as possible.
The less you require of your reader in terms of effort, the more professionally good your work is. Have we forgotten the true meaning of being an analytic philosopher?
S/he then goes on to say that philosophy is a public enterprise, and that good professional academic philosophical work has to take this into account.
We have to be professionally careful about how we say things!
14. But I want to say that clarity and rigor are context-dependent values, and that, as such, there is no absolute question as to whether a certain piece of writing is “clear” and “rigorous.”
The right question to ask is whether some piece of work is clear and rigorous for someone or some group.
Thus, it comes as no surprise that the larger public generally lacks any interest whatsoever in what is being churned out in the Ivory Tower.
The “clarity” and “rigor” of professional work, the “precision” of “good scholarship,” is of little to no interest to outsiders.
Professional work is only of interest to professionals who want to maintain the status quo and exert normative, ideological control over other professionals.
Moreover, professional work is historically-bound.
The professional philosopher cannot be assured that his work will still be “good professional work” in half a century, or even in ten or fifteen years.
Hence, good professional work now is not necessarily good professional work in the future, and therefore not necessarily good real philosophical work. Indeed, all things considered, good professional work now is very likely not good real philosophical work.
15. In view of all that, I offer what I call the historical argument for doing edgy philosophy, and for not doing professional philosophy.
(1) Philosophy is inherently historical.
(2) Philosophy produced today will be “history of philosophy” by tomorrow morning.
(3) “Good professional work” is not inherently valuable, but instead is strictly relative to context-dependent social values.
(4) So what is now considered “good professional work” need not have been so considered and probably will not be so considered in the future.
(5) Therefore, given the inherent historical aspect of philosophy, only edgy philosophy can fully promote the highest values of real philosophical reflection.
16. Now looking at professional academic philosophy, especially as it is practiced by “card-carrying,” good little do-bee members of The Fortune 500 Philosophy Club, i.e., the 500 or so tenure track faculty members at the top 30 or so philosophy departments in the Philosophical Gourmet Rankings, I want to say: “We sure don’t need to conform to this.” See, e.g.,
17. Edgy philosophers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your jobs!