On Philosophical Failures.

Eighteen months ago, in “‘Failed Academics’: Schopenhauer, Peirce, and the (D)evolution of University Philosophy,” APP wrote about the meta-philosophically fascinating phenomenon of great philosophers who are also notable social “failures,” and in particular “failed academics.”

We focused on Schopenhauer and Peirce: but we might just as easily have written about Diogenes, Socrates, Spinoza, Kierkegaard, Thoreau, Marx, Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin, or Simone Weil.

The upshot was that philosophical greatness–which I’m taking to be objective brilliance of philosophical ideas (i.e., ideas that objectively manifest outstanding intellectual creativity, insight, and originality, open up a new way of looking at a large domain of concepts, facts, phenomena, theories, and/or other information, and would have significant impact and influence if they were widely disseminated and adopted) PLUS their actual importance (i.e., their wide dissemination, together with their depth and breadth of influence, sometimes long after a philosopher’s death)–and social success, especially success in the social institution of professional academic philosophy, are often, perhaps even inherently, in conflict with one another.

To be sure, there have been a few great philosophers who were also highly successful in social life and professional academic life.

But what about all those other Big Wheels, forever spinning, spinning, spinning, yet ultimately connected only to the advancement of their own “brilliant careers”?

Hence it appears that success in social life and professional academic philosophy are in fact much more likely to be combined with philosophical mediocrity and intellectual normalization, than they are with the objective brilliance or actual importance of those philosophers’ ideas.

If so, then it is professional academic philosophy that is the failure, not the so-called “failed academic.”

In that connection, a week or so ago, on 24 September 2017, The Los Angeles Review of Books published a most excellent, beautifully written article on the meta-philosophy of failure, “Why We Fail, and How,” by Costica Bradatan.

Many different thought-provoking ideas emerge from the article, like oranges tumbling out of a dropped shopping bag.

But for my purposes here, I want to focus on the first few paragraphs and the concluding paragraphs–

DIOGENES THE CYNIC (c. 412 BC–323 BC) apparently had to flee his native city of Sinope because he was caught in a scandal involving the defacement of Sinopean currency. He managed to save face, though, and switched from a failing career in counterfeiting to a more promising one in philosophizing. Diogenes would always remember fondly his early life of crime. When, years later, in Athens, someone reminded him of the re-stamping scandal, he hit back proudly: “But it was because of that, you wretch, that I turned to philosophy.” The two career paths didn’t always stay separate, however; Diogenes would boast, for example, that his skill at re-stamping coins came in handy when he embarked on his great philosophical project of reevaluating all the values of Athenian society.

An impecunious life may not be exactly a counterfeiter’s dream, but Athens offered Diogenes precisely that. The irony must not have been lost on him: here he was, in one of the wealthiest places on earth at the time, which offered anything that money could buy, and yet the former minter of coins was penniless, reduced to a life of begging and scraping. But Diogenes was nothing if not imaginative. Soon enough he must have figured out that he could turn destitution into philosophical vision and begging into an art form. And that, in so doing, he could beat Athens at its own game: in a city that placed such a high value on excellence in any form of human endeavor, Diogenes could excel at the art of doing nothing; he could be the best of idlers, an aristocrat of the dregs. With the cult of success permeating every aspect of Athenian life, he must have realized he could make a fabulous career in failure. Of his master, Antisthenes, Diogenes once said, glowing with gratitude: “This man turned me from a rich man into a beggar, and made me live in a storage-jar rather than a spacious house.” Antisthenes deserved praise, he thought, for turning him into a social failure and thus a great philosopher.

Diogenes found Socrates wanting: lukewarm and compromising, still too attached to things. Socrates had a pleasant commerce with the world, and submitted to its temptations: success, reputation, followers, social appearances. Diogenes, the former minter of coins, complained that Socrates “had lived a life of luxury; for he had devoted too much concern to his little house, and his little couch, and his sandals.” In Diogenes’s eyes, that made Socrates suspect of selling out.

And so Diogenes took it as his philosophical mission to push Socratic ideas to their breaking limit. When Plato called Diogenes a “Socrates gone mad,” he may have said more than he meant to. Diogenes actualized much of what in Socrates was only virtual. From Hypatia to Thomas More to Jan Patočka a number of thinkers have died a death like Socrates’s, but fewer, if any, have managed to live a life like Diogenes’s. That many of his sayings and deeds are apocryphal is not relevant here; if anything, the fact testifies to the hold this figure has had over our imagination and to the veneration we’ve grown to have for his “failure.” Diogenes placed failure, firmly, at the core of his philosophical project. He made failure his element, and fish don’t drown.


It is our gregarious human nature that leads philosophers to fail in the first place. Whether we are aware of it or not, there is a strong atavistic drive, at work in all of us, that compels us to seek the companionship of others, to form groups and groupings, and to stick to them. The group offers the promise of protection, a sense of safety, and indeed plenty of animal warmth. As long as we are part of the group, and play by its rules, we can expect to survive. In exchange, we surrender some of our freedom, our individualism and autonomy, but that is more often than not a good deal. Atavistic as it may be — we can survive alone, now — we still find nothing worse than to be left out, all alone, the one in the corner no one talks to. There can hardly be a harsher predicament than to belong to no tribe — reclaimed by none, exposed to all — and therefore be doomed to perdition. We know it instinctively: to be left out like this is to be a social weakling, and we would do anything to avoid such fate. Solitude is failure’s other name. Solomon Asch famously showed the extent to which we conform to group’s pressures, even in the smallest things.

As a group, philosophers — human, all too human as they are — play the social game as well. They always have. The -isms throughout the history of philosophy arise as much from the philosopher’s identification with a larger family of “kindred minds” as from a need to belong to an influential group — something to offer that sense of security, protection, and empowerment that only a “home” can. This was true of the ancient students who joined one philosophical school or another in search of wisdom, as it was about the medieval or early modern students who faithfully followed their magister from university town to university town. Even as late as 20th century, it was not unusual for philosophy professors in Germany to be followed by some of their closer graduate students when they took up positions at other universities. The nature of the modern university, however, has rendered philosophers’ social game particularly intense. Their playing over the last century or so has become at once more refined and more self-destructive.

Academic philosophers will rarely admit their gregariousness — we are fiercely independent, intentionally iconoclastic. We understand that we stick together because philosophy is all about debate and argument — isn’t it? — and because truth-seeking is a collective enterprise and philosophizing dialogical in nature. True enough. A dialogue, however, is a conversation between equals. And while genuine dialogues do take place between academic philosophers, the most pervading and consequential form of interaction here is a fierce — sometimes shouted, sometimes whispered, but just as often teeth-clenched silent — conversation about power. About who has it and who doesn’t, what are the best ways to get it and to keep it, who is in and who is out, and other similar interrogations. The remarkable thing about this conversation is that it is highly performative: power is being produced — gained and lost, increased or weakened — as the conversation takes place. It may start being between equals, but the conversation begets inequality: it increases the power of few to the detriment of many, it vitiates the interaction between those involved, and seriously alters the nature of philosophizing itself.

This power includes that over funds, resources, opportunities, academic credentials, positions, and recognitions, but — more subtly and more consequently for those involved — over the meaning of words. In his Memoirs, Hans Jonas recounts how once, while he and Hannah Arendt were teaching philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York, the dean of the Graduate Faculty asked some philosophers from the University of Chicago what they made of Arendt and Jonas’s work. Proud as the dean must have been of his star employees, he was in for a cold shower: “It’s not philosophy,” answered one analytical philosopher from Chicago. “It’s interesting, also good to have, and there should be departments that work on such things. I’m in favor of that. But the name for it has yet to be invented. I wouldn’t know what it should be called. I do know it’s not philosophy.” The power to give names to things, as those crushed by it know only too well, is among the greatest powers that there are: what you do, what you’ve been doing all your life — even the name of your calling — is something others who have that power can decide.

Equally important, this is also a power over the definitions of success and failure; the power to name is also the power to issue scales and rankings, lists of winners and losers. The closer one is to the site of this power — for us universities, academic journals and presses, funding bodies — the more successful one is judged to be. And since no one wants to be thought a failure, the social mobilization these definitions and rankings trigger is a sight to behold: everyone flocks there. To get there no costs are too high, no sacrifice too small, no expenses unaffordable. Most of those involved in the academic game are fascinated, to the point of intoxication, by the almost otherworldly prestige of this power. Everything that stems from it seems truthful, ennobling, worthy, and worth pursuing. What a generous giver, this power, what a wonder: not only does it confer upon you an identity, but it also gives you a sense of your own worthiness, a promise of redemption. It delivers you from your worst nightmares: the prospect of failure.

And that’s precisely where we fail. For all this flocking is fundamentally foreign to the genuine quest for truth; it falsifies the nature of philosophy and turns the philosopher into something else. Caught up in this game, a philosopher becomes a politician, a courtier, a clansman, a henchman, a tribe chief — anything but a thinker. The political game alienates a philosopher from what philosophy is fundamentally about, causing what is said (or much of it, anyway) to be dictated not by the exigencies of philosophizing, but by an alien force. The lodestone has shifted from truth to power.

When this happens, rather than coming from existential problems or philosophical obsessions, an authentic impulse to communicate something important, writing becomes all strategy: the attempt to signal the writer’s presence within a certain power structure, his willingness to play along and not to cause trouble. The philosopher chasing success works on a wide range of trendy topics, open-minded, flexible, ready to bend and adjust as needed in order to court those in power, to please them, to silence adversaries, and to win over new adepts, to be a good soldier. Obviously, this is all done between the lines — for otherwise the writing is about obscure topics in metaphysics, new arguments for free will, trolley problems, the greatest good in Plato, or the latest developments in the philosophy of mind. But it is written politically, not philosophically. Its success is its failure.

This of course is the case not only with philosophers. Scholars from other fields fail precisely in the same way; their work is political in that it serves purposes alien to the quest for truth itself. What makes the philosophers’ failure particularly crippling is the fact that, beyond its moments of sociability, philosophy, at its core, is a profoundly private exercise. There can hardly be anything gregarious about the way one’s self puts itself in order, struggles to find meaning in a senseless world, and strives to understand itself and its workings. Philosophizing happens when we are at our most intimate, and it is vital that this encounter takes place in the right setting. Michel de Montaigne talks of a “room behind the shop” (arrière-boutique) as the proper stage for this process. For him the space of this encounter is so private that not even family members are to be allowed in:

We must reserve a back shop all our own, entirely free, in which to establish our real liberty and our principal retreat and solitude. Here our ordinary conversation must be between us and ourselves, and so private that no outside association or communication can find a place.

Outside the “room behind the shop,” philosophy occupies a social space where it can still operate authentically. After all, thinkers seek each other’s company; philosophical companionship is as old as philosophy itself. Yet this space is well defined and rather narrow; once the philosopher has stepped outside her circle, troubles can start at any moment. For, to remain authentic, philosophy has to be critical, outspoken, unflattering. If true philosophizing is “thinking against oneself” — done systematically, mercilessly, with no safety net and no escape routes — then what kind of treatment should others (including fellow-thinkers) expect from the philosopher? In an important sense, then, to the extent that she is bound to practice parrēsía — to be outspoken — the philosopher is doomed to find herself, sooner or later, in a perilous position: cutting an odd figure, going against the current, singled out, defended by none, exposed to all. The philosopher often finds herself to be precisely “the one in the corner no one talks to.” She then becomes a social failure not by accident, but as a matter of personal calling.

If she now surrenders to the power of the group, the philosopher fails twice. First, she fails because in the eyes of the others she is already a failure — a weakling, an outcast. Then she fails because she doesn’t know how to be a failure: how to use the outsider’s privileged position for philosophical purposes. For, philosophically, to be a failure is a very important thing to be — almost a blessing. Far from being crushed by her social failure, the philosopher could put it to excellent use: to gain insight into the workings of the mind, into the affairs of the human society, the abyss of the human soul. Provided that she knows how to exploit it, the philosopher’s social failure could make her a richer, more penetrating and original thinker.

For it is originality that is the primary victim here. To play the political game, philosophers have to be a “good sport,” as they say, to avoid standing out and to tune down their idiosyncrasies, their personal oddities, the “crazy” ideas and grain of madness so vitally needed in philosophy. No longer eager to challenge the received wisdom, to puzzle and annoy, caught up in the play, the worst thing that can happen to them now is to attract the derision and mockery of their peers — that would be the end of their game. The long-term result is the vast expanse of blandness in academic philosophy, as conspicuous as it is depressing, even as the attendance at conferences grows. The philosophers’ gregariousness comes with its own punishment. You can’t be philosophically original and politically smart at one and the same time; you can’t have your integrity and eat it too.

It’s easy to see now why some of the most original and innovative figures in modern thought, from Spinoza to Kierkegaard to Thoreau, came to work outside the university. His university made Nietzsche sick — literally. And it left Schopenhauer with a life-long loathing for “philosophy professors.” In 1928, a group of distinguished academics from the Goethe University Frankfurt found Walter Benjamin’s Habilitation dissertation seriously wanting, which denied him access to a teaching career. Simone Weil found many careers — that of a factory worker or agricultural laborer, for example — more fulfilling than that of university professor. With characteristic self-irony, Cioran enrolled at the Sorbonne as a doctoral philosophy student with the sole purpose of having access to the university’s inexpensive cafeteria; he quit the doctoral program when they no longer let him have his meals there. All these academic “failures” turned out to be profoundly original philosophers. They’ve compelled us to look at the world, and ourselves, with new eyes; we don’t remain the same after we encounter them. But if they managed to bring out something authentic, it was in spite of the university, not because of it.

Needless to say, a good amount of high-quality philosophical work comes from the university environment. Academics have for centuries produced major works of philosophy, and important philosophical movements have originated in university circles. And yet. When one considers the sheer amount of people involved, and the time, resources, opportunities, and talent they have at their disposal, the result is rather disappointing. The American Philosophical Association, for example, has more than 9,000 active members, roughly the same size as the entire Army of Ireland. The ancient Greeks invented the field, and managed to formulate almost everything essential in it, with just a handful of people, less than a platoon.


One day a mocking Athenian reportedly said to Diogenes, his disdain barely disguised: “You play the philosopher without knowing anything at all.” The Cynic replied with an ironical smile, we can imagine: “Even if I merely pretend to wisdom, that is itself the mark of one who aspires to it.” Our small hope, then: even though what we do may not be the real thing, only a failed imitation of philosophy as Plato, Aristotle, and Nietzsche understood it, we needn’t throw away the baby along with the bathwater. To move from the copy to the authentic, we have to redefine our relationship to failure. We need to domesticate failure and place it where it belongs: at the core of what we are.

And for that Diogenes is an invaluable master: we can learn from him not just how to defeat failure and live with it, but even how to thrive off it. For fish don’t drown. Far from it.

There are two crucial points I want to extract from Bradatan’s argument, briefly elaborate, and also extend.

The first is that social failure, and in particular, social failure in the sub-world of professional academic philosophy, can also embody and express objective philosophical brilliance.

Let’s call that brilliant failure–e.g., Peirce.

And the second is that social failure in an essentially alienating, politically oppressive world, and in particular, social failure in the sub-world of professional academic philosophy, can also embody and express–

(i) a fundamental critique of those worlds,

(ii) an individually and collectively liberating exit from those worlds, and also

(iii) a vision of essentially better versions of those worlds.

Let’s call that diogenic failure–e.g., Diogenes himself, Marx, or Simone Weil.

Of course, the pragmatic and prudential costs of being a social and professional academic philosophy loser are all-too-obvious–

(i) no job, little or no money, few friends, little or no social status, and figurative or even literal homelessness,

(ii) in more extreme cases, also being an object of public shaming, ostracism, and blacklisting, acquiring a Scarlet Letter-like reputation for “unprofessional conduct” or for having “mental health issues,” etc., etc., and,

(iii) in the most extreme cases, also imprisonment or even–as in the case of Socrates–death.

Nevertheless, we must also recognize that brilliant failure and diogenic failure jointly constitute an essentially more authentic and profound kind of philosophical triumph that is also rebelliously in the face of the merely pragmatic and prudential kind of philosophical success.

Let’s call such philosophers promethean losers:

The painted veil, by those who were, called life,
Which mimicked, as with colours idly spread,
All men believed or hoped, is torn aside;
The loathsome mask has fallen, the man remains
Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but man
Equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless,
Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king
Over himself; just, gentle, wise: but man
Passionless? — no, yet free from guilt or pain.

(P.B. Shelley, Prometheus Unbound, Act 3, scene IV, lines 190-198)

Promethean losers don’t win million dollar prizes doled out by billionaires.

Instead, they get their guts eaten out.

But they also bring the creative, godlike fire of real philosophy down to earth, as a priceless gift to a mostly heedless, yet still deeply needy humanity.

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