Institutional Amnesia: Modernity, Philosophical Professionalism, and the Practice of Forced Forgetfulness.
Actually, as Winston well knew, it was only four years since Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia. But that was merely a piece of furtive knowledge which he happened to possess because his memory was not satisfactorily under control. Officially the change of partners never happened. Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore, Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. The enemy of the moment represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible. (George Orwell, 1984)
In response to two earlier pieces written by Z (see here and here), I would like to elaborate on one phenomenon that—I think—has contributed to an intellectual climate where important philosophical ideas are often ignored or actively ridiculed.
This phenomenon is institutional amnesia, a special type of amnesia that is actively promoted throughout different academic cultures, and institutionalized in rules, regulations and tacitly accepted norms that structure acceptance patterns.
Now, this seems like a rather heavy claim, but I also think that I can provide some good arguments in favor of it.
To start off with an anecdote.
Some months ago, a long-standing German friend of mine (an engineer, in his 50s) told me that his PhD in biochemistry had been based on experimental work carried out in Russia around 1915.
He explained that because nowadays few people in Western academia read or speak Russian and/or German, this knowledge had simply faded from the collective consciousness.
He then went on to claim that if someone were to build critically on the wealth of undiscovered science done in the early 20th century in the former Eastern bloc, we wouldn’t be reinventing the wheel, but instead would be able to develop far more advanced science in the fields of chemistry, chemical engineering, physics, and biochemistry.
Let us suppose that this anecdote is true. Then its implications are quite radical.
First, the dominance of one language can easily limit the scope of knowledge and materials that academics can access.
Second, if it is possible to do a PhD in the late 20th century based on work from 1915, we may not have advanced as much as we thought.
The upshot is that knowledge that could perfectly well help us in achieving better scientific understanding is forgotten, because linguistic, geographic and academic barriers limit access to it.
Partially, this is a case of passive forgetting: some knowledge ends up in an archive or drawer, and only accidentally someone opens it, only to find out that some perfectly good science was forgotten.
This is unfortunate, but we may regard it as a misfiring side-effect of the production of science.[i]
However, this is also a case of active forgetting: the Second World War and the Cold War did not exactly help to foster friendly ties with the Russian-speaking world, and it seems fair to say that science in the former Eastern bloc and science in the West largely went their separate ways.
In this case, ideology, geopolitics, and representing Russia (or, more broadly, communism) as the absolute evil have maintained a barrier that is hard to overcome, and that undermines universal scientific progress.
What makes this type of forgetting active are of course political agendas that are executed by setting institutional guidelines.
In a world where few western academic speak or read Russian, cooperation with the Eastern bloc is kept to a minimum, prejudices are fostered, and the Russian-speaking world is portrayed as “the Other,” institution-induced forgetfulness is in full force.[ii]
Now it is time to turn our analysis to the West itself as well: to what degree are we the victims of institutional forgetfulness? And to what degree is this amnesia fostered, directed and used?
Or, to put it in Orwell’s terms: is professional academic philosophical memory under control?
I argue that it is.
On multiple occasions, we (at APP) have directed attention towards an intellectual climate in academia that effectively undermines genuine critical thinking that passes well beyond tacitly accepted limitations.
The first tacit limitation is the idea of progress itself: once the selection procedure of rival theories has been completed, we will finally converge on a small set of theories that jointly explain the origin of the universe, our place in it, and a full scientific account of our subjective experiences.
If we adopt such a belief in scientific progression, the number of plausible theories narrows down as we approach the Truth. Every theory that does not contribute to this progress can be safely discarded, as taking it seriously is just wasting time.[iii] Once a theoretical problem has a solution, all other attempts to explain it are best left behind, especially if they do not conform to Ockham’s Razor.
In this way, the notion of continuous progress implies an ever-growing heap of waste: discarded ideas, theories, categories, thinking systems, viewpoints and ideals.
The tragic result is that contemporary science and philosophy pay lip service to the ideals that “we should be open-minded,” or that “we should be critical and questioning,” but this is a mere surface effect of the academic reality.
If we were really so very critical and questioning, then two facts are inexplicable:
- That the beliefs of philosophers converge on so many topics. They converge all in the same way: an overwhelming majority believes one fashionable position, while an array of smaller factions believes other standpoints. Overall, there is a clear tendency towards egalitarianism, humanism, atheism or at least agnosticism, and compatibilism—a selection of mainstream ideas.[iv]
- That so many good and worthwhile ideas are neglected in favor of the mainstream ideas. The ideas that I mean here are just different explanations of central topics in philosophy: Susan Haack’s foundherentism deals with epistemology, non-deterministic, Ilya Prigogine’s non-equilibrium thermodynamics deals with determinism, the rejection of Neo-Darwinian materialism by Thomas Nagel deals with modern naturalism etc. The objection that someone may adopt a mainstream position after long reflection might of course be true. Nevertheless, it is impossible that such a majority of philosophers would tend to adopt the positions “on display” after careful reflection.
It seems that institutional structures push people towards accepting an amalgam of mainstream positions without thinking their implications through.
This development is a formal choice in Marx’ sense of the word: it looks like philosophers can choose freely from a selection of respected ideas and theories during their career, but the fact that one has to pick from that predefined selection is the very limitation that makes the choice merely formal instead of free.
Max Horkheimer perceptively notes in this regard that the very canvas of philosophy itself, namely language and concepts, are treated as machines, or as efficient mechanisms.[v]
Concepts become mere abbreviations for ideas or sets of properties, and serve as time-saving devices for thinking “rigorously” through problems.[vi]
The traditional role and use of concepts, namely the expression and connection of ideas that are not so easily thinkable, is structurally undermined by an institutionalization and formalization of conceptual content.
Ultimately, concepts are the machine-like devices that enable reproductive, template-like thinking that re-iterates existing boundaries over and over again.
This is also where the notion of memory enters in: ideas that are deemed unfruitful or distracting from the great progress towards Truth (as defined by the mainstream) are pushed out of the spotlight.
The best way to accomplish such a selection is to direct the academic spotlight towards an array of ideas that jointly provide a safe playground.
Simultaneously, threatening ideas are relegated to the periphery of the collective consciousness, only to disappear after some time, or to serve as examples of discredited, ridiculous theoretical constructs.
The relative scarcity of anarchists, Marxists, or Thomists in professional academic philosophy, e.g., is easily explained by mainstream analytic philosophers as a vindication of their own correctness: history itself has proven such questionable theories wrong, and discarding them is for that reason justified.
Or in other words, Home Sweet Soames.
Notice how this attitude rests on the same dubious metaphysics that Stalinist historical materialism utilized: historical necessity itself will select the best ideas.
In an ironic twist, the selective aspects of Popper’s epistemology are heavily Marxist in this regard, notwithstanding Popper’s antipathy towards Marx and Hegel.[vii]
The second tacit limitation in institutional structures is a much-neglected idea of Michel Foucault’s: the discursive formation.[viii]
Foucault is often portrayed as a relativist with regards to truth, as a theorist of postmodernity, and even as a figure who is opposed to science.
In fact, Foucault says very little about truth (it might be even argued that he has no theory of truth at all), but he is concerned with the conditions that cause people to accept fact A or phenomenon B as true or meaningful.
The idea underlying discursive formations is that if we study the history of ideas carefully, we might encounter a set of rules that structure our investigations tacitly, that determines what ordering we think of as a logical grouping, or how we demarcate different disciplines, and so-on: as such, Foucault endorses a “science of the logical foundations of ideas.”
What Foucault did not emphasize so much in discussing discursive formation is the issue of temporality, of fleeting attachment to a fashionable set of ideas—although he touches on it.
Marx, however, already did this in a more systematic way.
The Marxian maxim “all that is solid melts into air” is often read as a characterization of the ever-increasing liquidity of modernity, a lament on how the world seems to be speeding up, leaving the bewildered, alienated subject of modernity behind.
Nevertheless, Marx already noticed how capitalism is crucially dependent on waste and destruction, like the inhabitants of Italo Calvino’s invisible city Leonia, whose inhabitants consumers compulsively had to get their hands on something new the next day.[ix] Yesterday is discarded, and has to be forgotten.
Mainstream professionalized academia is all too willing to facilitate this process of willful amnesia—either by instituting oppressive rules that make any critical historical reading of the history of philosophy impossible, or by conjuring up a whole new world of progress, in which yesterday can be safely forgotten.
What actually melts into air is history itself, the very grounding of subjective existence.
How this process of institutional amnesia actually unfolds has been described in chilling detail by Eli Rubin in his excellent monograph Amnesiopolis: Modernity, Space and Memory in East Germany.
In April 1977, the GDR authorities started with the construction of Marzahn-Hellersdorf, a veritable new city on the eastern edge of East Berlin.
The urban extension of Marzahn was intended to be the model of the socialist-realist utopia, according to GDR standards: affordable houses for everyone, kindergartens, public transport, schools, parking lots, swimming pools, parks—all planned according to scientific principles.
Its scale was enormous, even for the time: Marzahn would house approximately 400, 000 people in 150, 000 housing units.
However, as Rubin notes:
[T]here was a much more profound narrative interwoven with the Marzahn project, a narrative of newness, historical amnesia, radical modernity, and rationalism, a narrative of family lives and generations shattered by war, loss, flight, squalor, and urban destruction, and a narrative of eastward colonization, utopian settlements, and, ultimately, control and power.[x]
The control and power that Rubin discusses fulfills two representative functions in modernistic architecture.
On one hand, the new, prefabricated, rational architecture represented humanity’s dominion over nature, the capability to achieve societal progress through the application of technology and instrumental reason.
And on the other hand, building projects of this type were intended to showcase State power, underlining its potential for controlling and dictating the life of every single individual in its care.
Every detail of daily routines was carefully mapped and thought out in advance, and was consequently included in building and public space design.
Note that the assumptions that were made in formulating the design guidelines were largely based on an idealized template of the GDR citizen.
The GDR authorities began by shaping the built environment, then afterwards the environment itself would shape the new individual.
The parallels between the ideas of conceptual progress in philosophy and societal progress in modernistic architecture are too obvious not to notice.
The process of institutional amnesia plays out in our built environment through the medium of modernistic architecture, but it manifests itself in out mental environment as well.
Both the architectural and philosophical narratives of modernity have shared origins in a form of positivism, and a distinctly modern trust in linear, instrumental – yet oppressive – progress.
To make this process of forced progress palatable, each step on the way has to be presented as a) necessary, b) inevitable, and c) an indispensable improvement over the former situation.
Jointly, these three points necessitate the fourth: forced forgetting of the past, regularly presented as “the bad old days.”
The past would just get in the way of progress, and is as such best discarded.
However, the break with the past has to be radical and unambiguous:
The GDR was not just building places for its citizens to live; it was building an entirely new world—a world completely free of the material traces of the pre-GDR past, projected directly from blueprints and scaled models onto the tabula rasa of the Märkisch Lebensraum. And it was meant not as an upgrade on the world of the past, but as a radically new world with no memory of the past, built entirely on the principle of rational planning, in which nothing would be left to chance and all needs would always be met.[xi]
Like the material traces of older architecture, contemporary philosophy might be well on its way to erase any theoretical traces of past mental worlds.
Historical ideas are often used as a point of departure: do you see where Descartes or Kant went wrong?
The point is not that historical figures cannot be criticized, but that the way in which our engagement with historical ideas is established is of vital importance.
If historical ideas are used to justify philosophical findings done in the last 20 years, we are unlearning the art of skillful philosophical engagement that transcends time.
Rubin’s insight that the GDR authorities sought to establish a radically new world instead of upgrading the existing one is especially perceptive: not unlike the Kingdom of Heaven, the Socialist Utopia was a place where all tears would be washed away, and where an ever-benevolent State would watch over its citizens.
Current professional academic institutional structures pre-determine the search for such a State, guided by the principles of “reason.”
Yet it is striking that various members of the Frankfurt School foresaw precisely this tendency, and warned on various occasions for the inevitable, dark consequences of such a course.
Notably, Horkheimer’s insight that modernity as manifested in its instrumental rationality has the potential to treat both people and concepts as things (or even commodities), is deeply disturbing.
No less disturbing is the recourse of professionalized social groups to precisely these regulative forms of rationality, with the excuse that they are “highly functional.”
The modernist formula in Marzahn delivered the highly functional results it promised—at least on the material level.
Mass housing in the GDR was warm, clean, usable, and well ahead of its time.
But when we critically analyze such environments, we must question what they left out by the very fact of what they included.
Everything material was taken care of, but what about those aspects that were not so easy to satisfy materially?
The same problematic presents itself with regards to philosophy: undoubtedly, academic philosophy has delivered some tangible and valuable results in some areas (decision theory, epistemology, philosophy of mind), but at what price? It’s Home Sweet Soames all over again.[xii]
Like Rubin, I think that a plethora of historical ideas is all too easily overwritten by trendy topics of the day.
Worse, these trendy topics have become mandatory study material for a new generation of philosophers—and for current ones, only to be forgotten when the next trendy topic emerges.
This situation institutionalizes a kind of collective, mandatory professional academic amnesia with regards to the past.
Daniel Dennett may have been right when he deplored the establishment of “trendy topics” among academic philosophers.[xiii]
Such topics are pursued only because they offer a chance of increasing citations or scientific credits.
However, pursuing those topics as career choice results in an academic philosophy that is infinitely wide, but remains on many worthwhile topics incredibly shallow.
The task of real, serious philosophy is to alter this developmental direction. It is intellectual depth that should be rewarded, not shallow, glossy surfaces.
This depth is not just specialization in on one tiny topic at the expense of other. Instead, it is a refined insight in how ideas are historically connected, a search for questions that are worth pursuing, and a relentless examination of presuppositions.
In pursuing this theoretical depth, we cannot afford to forget that institutional amnesia is not even remotely an option.
And we can even make this into a handy slogan:
Whoever wants to philosophize with their memories still intact: you must resist allowing yourself to be institutionally lobotomized.[*]
[*] My sincere thanks to Z for editing this essay.
[i] Or not. I think that there may be grounds to question the undirected, global, massive production of scientific texts and ideas, motivated by oppressive publication standards. How many good ideas are forgotten or overlooked because they have to compete against an overwhelming production of mediocrity?
[ii] This is not to say that there are no problems in the Eastern bloc, to defend certain Russian political motives, or to maintain that the current regime in Russia should be exempted from criticism. The point is merely that systematic exclusion of a significant part of the world does not seem conducive either to: I) human wellbeing, II) scientific progress, or III) political stability.
[iii] I discuss this in two other pieces on APP, namely The Pre-Structured Professional: Vocabularies in Action and Shrinkwrapped Profundity: The “2-for-1” Package Deal of Professional Philosophical Bullshit.
[iv] See for a more detailed discussion and exposition the survey by David Bourget and David J. Chalmers, What do Philosophers Believe? (2013).
[v] Max Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013) p. 13.
[vi] Not to mention the fact that the problems themselves are often carefully selected from a range of acceptable topics, or that problems are defined by reference to the tolls we have at our disposal.
[vii] As expressed in The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) and Conjectures and Refutations, chapter 9 on Hegelian dialectics (1963).
[viii] Foucault touches on this topic throughout his work, but it is most clearly expressed in The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969).
[ix] Zygmunt Bauman, Wasted Lives (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004) p. 1-3.
[x] Eli Rubin, Amnesiopolis: Modernity, Space and Memory in East Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016) p. 29.
[xi] Rubin, 2016, p. 32.
[xii] See Scott Soames’ essay “Philosophy’s True Home,” published in The Stone, 7 March 2016. The essay can be found here: [http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/03/07/philosophys-true-home/?_r=0]. Soames argues for recognizing the success of contemporary professional philosophy, but his plea invites the question about the price that the discipline has to pay in order to stay successful in certain selected areas.
[xiii] See for example Daniel Dennett’s 2006 paper “Higher-Order Truths About Chmess,” in which he discusses the emergence and pitfalls of trendy topics. The paper can be found here: [https://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/dennett/papers/chmess.pdf].