October 16, 2014

The illusion of Separation

By The Academic Philosopher’s Vision, I mean the combination of the following three ideas:
1) Separation: Academic philosophy is set apart from the mundane aspects of our society. If you have a 9-6 office job, you just have to go by the norms of society and be a cog in the machine. One of the herd. But by becoming an academic you get to be separate from this. The normal rules don’t apply.
2) Reflection: Separation enables academic philosophers to gain reflective distance from the general impulses in society. Because an ordinary person is just a cog in the machine, she doesn’t have the ability to reflect on the machine as a whole. But the academic philosopher does have such distance, and that enables her to think new thoughts and be creative.
3) Change: By reflecting on society without the normal constraints, the academic philosopher is able to think more clearly than most about the direction of society, and so suggest and lead regarding how society can be improved.
Separation by itself suggests a person might become an academic philosophy just to not be a cog in the machine; and there are academics like that. Separation and reflection together suggest that a person wants to be an academic so that she can think freely for herself or for gaining knowledge and nothing more; and there are academics like that. Separation, reflection and change together suggest that there is a normative and communal dimension to separation and reflection: that they are not just benefits for oneself but lead to benefits for everyone.

But what if there isn’t really much separation at all? What if academic philosophy is itself becoming more and more part of the mainstream of society? Not in the sense that society is becoming more philosophical, but in the sense that academic philosophy is becoming more like any job, just with its special perks and struggles?
If there is in fact no separation, then the academic philosopher’s vision is actually just the Academic Philosopher’s Fantasy. In order for the vision to hold, there has to be true separation in a deep sense. But if there isn’t such separation, but only the illusion of separation, then the vision itself is nothing more than a fantasy.
In an earlier post, I mentioned the academic philosopher’s anxiety. It can now be put this was: it is the fear that the academic philosopher’s vision is crumbling and morphing into nothing more than the academic philosopher’s fantasy. That instead of there being in academia a meaningful, significant separation, there is now only the remnants of a separation, with more and more of the activities of academic philosophers resembling just tasks to be performed, papers to be submitted, meetings to be attended, things to be checked off.
But can it be any other way given that (a) academic philosophy is rooted in colleges, (b) colleges are becoming, or have become, an extension of high school in the sense that it is expected and hoped that the majority of people will attend college, and (c) the majority of people attend college not in order to be separate from society but to take their place at the heart of the institutions of society?
Sometimes this point is put crudely: “academic philosophers are just training future bureaucrats.” The anxiety behind this thought is not that most college students are going to be bureaucrats (which is just another word for people with office jobs, who have bosses, have to follow company policies, etc.). After all, isn’t that part of the point of a college education, that one can be successful and enjoy the intellectual challenges of whatever profession one chooses?
No, the real anxiety behind the thought of training future bureaucrats has to do with the people doing the training. The worry is that if a philosophy professor is training future bureaucrats, then the professor herself must be a bureaucrat, just a fancy looking paper pusher who talks intellectualease. And it is this implication that most academic philosophers recoil against.
One wants to say: yes, how silly and stupid many of these students and their families can be. All they want is to become middle managers and have their house in the suburbs. They can’t wait to be a cog. And even college administrators are just like that. They are turning college itself into a cog. But not me, not us professors! We spend all our day thinking, we are not cogs.
But there is also the annoying thought in the back that says: But then why am I so worried about not getting a job, or not being a part of academia? Why do I put in 60-80 hour weeks, and cling to my academic job and grade the hundreds of basically identical student essays, and put up with the publishing pressures? If college is itself becoming a part of the cog of society, why do I care so much to spend my life in a college setting? Could it be because I have grown comfortable in it? That academia is a machine in which I don't mind being a cog. I just don't want to be that kind of a cog, over time, with the 9 to 6 and all that? 

The academic philosopher's situation is like that of someone trying to meditate in the middle of a packed dance floor. Looking at the dancers, the meditator thinks, “these silly dancers, they don’t care about the greater things of life at all, like meditating. All they care about is bodily pleasure! What savages! Look how they are pushing me around as I try to medidate on the meaning of existence!” But then why doesn't the meditator move to a different spot, away from the hustle and bustle of the dance floor? The meditator shudders at the thought. No, I will not be pushed by these silly dancers. The significant cannot be pushed around by the insignificant! I will not budge. I will make them into meditators. 

Unable either to dance freely with the dancers or meditate peacefully within oneself, the meditator is drawn into a continual push and pull with what she sees as the foreign influences corrupting the sacred ground. But the more the meditator struggles with the dancers, the more she becomes a part of what she struggles against, and so only loses more ground.

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