November 15, 2014

Institutional Gluttony

There is a skill which I value tremendously, which I wish I possessed more and which I think is essential for the world becoming a better place. I will call this skill critical institutional self-awareness.

A person who has this skill possesses an awareness of how the very institutions one belongs to are perpetuating conflict and violence in the world, even as one is aware that this is a feature of all institutions and that one always lives within some institutional structures or the other. A person with critical institutional self-awareness is someone who sees that the way to change the world is to start from the institutions one is a part of and to thereby enable the ripple effects that would have in the broader society. Such a person develops a healthy detachment from the institutions one is a part of, so that they are able to see the contingencies of oneself being in this or that institutional structures, and is able to view all institutional structures with an equally critical gaze.

Someone who lacks critical institutional self-awareness is an institutional glutton. For this person the institution one belongs to and with which one identifies is the light of the world, the best of the best, the hope of humankind, the only pearl in the midst of general decay and backwardness. The institutional glutton transposes right and wrong onto existing institutional structures, and identifies the institution one belongs to as the beacon of the right and "opposing" institutions as the army of the wicked. He thereby treats institutional fights as the necessary and inevitable way for the right to defeat the wrong. He identifies himself, his well being, the well being of those close to him, and in fact the well being of the world as a whole with the well being of the particular institutional structures he belongs to. For the institutional glutton there is no divide between where he ends and the institution begins, so deeply as he merged his own will with that of the institution, assuming that thereby he is morphing his individual identity into that of something greater and steadfast and eternal. Of course, all that is needed for  the world to remain perpetually at war is for there to be institutional gluttons identifying with different institutions set against each other.

Institutional gluttony is all around us, and everyone partakes of it in some fashion or the other. But some people are so gluttonous that they stand out as examples of what we should avoid. And some kind of institutional gluttony is particularly ironic, as when one is a glutton regarding institutions which trumpet precisely the virtues of overcoming institutional gluttony. A church inquisitor, such as Bernado Gui as depicted in The Name of the Rose, is an example of this. Gui sees the world divided into the Church he is protecting and the heathens he is trying to conquer, and yet at the root of the Church is a figure, Christ, who never belonged to any institutions and who in fact argued that institutional gluttony is the primary vice which keeps us locked in battle against each other. In this sense, one can naturally say that Bernado Gui is not really a Christian. For all the things he upholds of Christianity, in an important way he has misunderstood the core value of the institution he is fighting for.

Brian Leiter is the Bernado Gui of the philosophy profession, and a prominent institutional glutton of academia in general. If philosophy is a way of cultivating critical institutional self-awareness and so a way of fighting one's own tendencies towards institutional gluttony, then Leiter is not a philosopher. There is no big paradox in what I mean by this: Leiter is not a philosopher just in the way that someone like Gui is not a Christian. This isn't to deny that Leiter is a philosopher of law or a Nietzsche scholar, anymore than one can deny that Gui was a Christian in that he was a Bishop and a member of the Church. But it is to say that aside from the job or the social identity Leiter has as a philosopher, he is not a philosopher in the more colloquial sense of someone who aims to rid oneself of institutional gluttony. To the contrary, Leiter doubles down on the gluttony, almost as if he is proud of it and as if to try to be a philosopher in the more colloquial sense, other than the merely professional sense, is a delusion of the masses. The way that Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor says that the stuff about Christ is all well and good for the masses, but when the rubber hits the road, what really matters is keeping the Church going.


In his essay "The Paradoxes of Public Philosophy", Leiter focuses on two questions: 1) why is academic philosophy not more prominent in the public domain? And 2) Can academic philosophy play a more prominent role and contribute to a kind of public philosophy? 

Leiter's answer to (1) is: because the public is stupid. He writes, "We philosophers labor at the margins of public life, public life being dominated by irrational emotion and Tribalist prejudice." The masses are dumb and they don't know better. They know so little that they don't even know how little they know and they don't want to change. They are stuck in brute tribalism, which academic philosophers are enlightened enough to have gotten beyond. Because the masses are stuck in tribalism, they don't want to listen to voices of reason.

Leiter's answer to (2) is: well, philosophers can try, but it is mostly going to be tough going and the rational mind can't much change the emotional, habitual part of us. He writes,
"That discursive hygiene [that is, philosophy] should be almost wholly absent from public debate is not surprising given the psychological evidence that people’s beliefs about matters of moral and political urgency—and, perhaps, more important, what they do based on those beliefs—are only slightly influenced by a regime of discursive hygiene; instead, their emotional and affective responses mostly determine their moral attitudes."
Here Leiter is drawing a connection between the structure of the human mind and the structure of society. Just as the rational part of the mind has little control over the emotional part of the mind, so too the academic part of society (which is the rational part of society) has little control over the masses (who are the emotional part of society). Academics are generally elevated human beings, but even they can't do much when people don't want to listen to the elevated beings but want to treat themselves as if they already possess the knowledge required for living a good life. In order for the masses to improve they have to first submit themselves to becoming enlightened; they have to be baptised in the knowledge of introductory philosophy classes and graduate seminars on Hume and Nietzsche. But in a democratic society the enlightened beings can't force the masses to become baptised in this way.

Here is a way of capturing Leiter's worldview:

So why is there so little public philosophy? On the Leiter's view, it is because we live in a democracy. It robs the elavated beings of the ability to control the masses, and in fact puts the elavated beings at the disadvantage of having to pretend in general society that they are no more elevated than the masses.

But if academic philosophers are so enlightened, why can't they find ways to engage the masses in the way that the masses can understand? Leiter comes around to this idea at the end of his essay through a defense of rhetoric. He says:
"There may be an important lesson in this fact for aspiring “public philosophers,” who should give at least as much attention to rhetoric as to discursive hygiene. We need discursive hygiene for the study and the seminar room; but in public, we need something else, something much more important, namely, rhetorical skill that will make our academic conclusions salient to a public too often influenced by emotion and Tribalist sympathies."
One way to read this is that the masses can never get beyond their tribal instincts, and so rhetoric is needed as a way to subdue their tribal instincts. It is a way to get the masses to stop being stupid without actually enlightening them, since they actually resist any such enlightenment. It is a way for the academics to exercise mind control over the masses for the general good of society and the good of the masses themselves, which they are not in a position to understand. 

Another way of reading Leiter's idea is that the academics have to use rhetoric in order to curtail the masses' tribal instincts, so that in the process the masses might become interested in rational discourse. Rhetoric is the first step towards rational discourse.

On either reading, however, what is assumed by Leiter is that the discourse of the seminar room is the paradigm of rational discourse. What academics do when they are among themselves is, almost by definition, the essence of what it is to be rational and to live reflectively. This is the foundational move of institutional gluttony: to identify some good (reason, compassion, justice, etc.) with certain institutional activities, and so to treat those activities as emblematic of what is good. In a different context, one might say this is to make an idol of God.

In effect Leiter's essay puts the reason for the lack of public philosophy on the public itself. Academic philosophy cannot be blamed because it is itself the standard by which rational discourse is measured. Can the form of Goodness be bad? No, for it is the form of Goodness; it is itself the measure by which something is good. Similarly, academic philosophy is the epitome of being reflective and not having a tribalistic mindset, and so it cannot be in any way responsible for the limitations in society; it is the solution to the problem, and can never be itself part of the problem. Leiter's essay is in essence an apologetics for academia. No, we are fine. They are the problem. And the only way for things to improve is we need to do what we are doing, and keep at it and do a better job of talking in the unenlightened language the masses can understand. If we have a problem, it is that we are too enlightened. We need to be willing to be less enlightened outside of the seminar room, and fight the necessary fight.

One can easily imagine Bin Laden saying something similar to his troops, or Rush Limbaugh to his listeners. Because at bottom, when it comes to institutional gluttony, Leiter is no different than them. In this Leiter is not alone. Many academics are like him. For nothing in an academic education or life automatically makes one any less of an institutional glutton. 

Which is to say that the skill of overcoming institutional gluttony belongs to no institution, no profession, no social identity. It is the skill of learning how to walk in between the rain drops, in between all the institutional identities one has. It is a democratic skill in that any person can cultivate it, for it belongs to no one institution.


  1. Leiter has posted a relevant question without opening comments. His use of "obvious" is, well, obvious, just as his use of "irrational" plays right into your objections.

  2. Anonymous, It's amazing to see how Leiter thinks. His post about why people are being so irrational is the kind which would have really bugged me in the past. Because back then I falsely and naively assumed that Leiter uses words like "rational" as they are normally used in philosophy classrooms. In the classroom "rational" is used to separate evaluating what someone said from the social roles that person has; in this way a rational discourse is meant to level the playing field between people even in a hierarchy by trying to bracket that hierarchy.

    But for Leiter, as he uses "rational" often on his blog, there is no such bracketing function. In fact, for him "rational" is meant to capture what "the most rational people" say, where "the most rational people" are the people at the "top" departments as captured by PGR. In this sense, it is a tautology and obvious that the people down the hierarchy are irrational, or less rational than those at the top of the hierarchy. Hence his question: why are people so irrationally opposed to being evaluated (by the people at the top)? Which is to say: why are people so dumb as to resist the chances for improvement being given them by the people at the top, by the paragons of rationality?

    A reason it is hard to pin down Leiter is because he continually equivocates between these two senses of "rationality". He uses the classroom sense when he wants to seem kind and a good sport, and the hierarchical sense most of the time. I imagine that for him the two senses of "rational" have merged together in a way that he has a hard time telling them apart; which is to say, that is what institutional gluttony looks like.

  3. The gluttons, however, often issue the pay checks and book chapter invitations. Faced with this, many talk like Howard Roarks while walking like Peter Keatings.

  4. Bharath,

    Thanks for your response (and for your excellent blog). Cards on the table, I am a Nietzschean-Deleuzian-Foucauldian, so I'm suspicious of claims that advocate a hard distinction between the senses of rationality parsed here. That's not to say that leveling-sense rationality is a myth, but it's to say that it becomes an oppressive tool in problematic situations (such as the Leiter/PGR situation). I think that "gluttony" is an apt descriptor (my inner Nietzschean smiles), since institutions, after all, are temporal, and thus susceptible to caving under their own weight over time, as their influence grows, creating power. But this means they are also adaptable, as we've seen Leiter attempt to continue to secure PGR hegemony in light of recent criticisms. It's funny, actually, given how the Leiter so advocates "expert" opinion. Has he read Plato? He's read Nietzsche, for sure, in the most ironic of twists.

  5. Anonymous at 3:31, thanks for bringing up the Nietzschean point. I agree. I think it is helpful to distinguish at least three senses of rational:

    1. Already-universal-reason: on this conception, there is a timeless mode of reasoning, and some special activities of the present partake of that. On this view, a rational person is one who embodies the eternal mode of thinking, as if even though they might be contingently in power struggles, as rational beings they are able to bracket any such struggles.

    2. Always-local-reason: on this conception, reasoning is always rooted amidst power struggles, and so it never transcends or brackets them. Being rational, like being beautiful or rich, is just another category through which power is displayed and exercised. On this view, the idea of reason as helping moving beyond power struggles is a myth.

    3. Making-the-circle-bigger-reason: on this view, reasoning is the mode of going from one set of power relations to another, where the latter is a wider circle and is more inclusive. The sense of the wider circle is a regulative ideal, and there is no timeless sense of it. Making the circle wider is always a local affair, as one is trying to make this or that circle wider and more inclusive. On this view, being rational is not to pick out something one can achieve all at once in a moment, let alone as a timeless thing, but as improving one's life and society a bit at a time, without ever being to be free of power dynamics.

    My sense is that the philosophy profession often suggests (1) and that is a power ploy. Leiter sees the limitations of (1), but then falls back just onto (2), as if denying (1) means that one can just embrace the power that comes through appearing rational. And it is definitely ironic that he uses Nietzsche to underwrite his defense of (2). One reason I find Leiter's reading of Nietzsche simplistic when compared to someone like Foucault's reading is that Foucault struggled with how to see the limits of (1) without simply falling into (2). One way Foucault did this was to embrace a life of pushing the institutional limits he belonged to and so pursuing (3), whereas Leiter has used his reading of Nietzsche to double down on the status quo, as if Nietzsche gives him the conceptual tools to say it is ok to care just about enforcing power. I find reading Nietzsche or Foucault inspiring, in a way that reading Leiter on Nietzsche just isn't. For they were struggling with the issue of power through pushing their individuality and marching to the beat of their drummer; Leiter is pretty far from being individualistic in that sense, and in fact, he is always supporting himself through the opinions of others and the institutions he belongs to, protecting himself through mass opinion, even if it is mass "elite" opinion.