November 26, 2014

"The Barbarians at the Gates"

In a previous post I considered the idea of institutional gluttony in academic philosophy by reference to Brian Leiter. But in order to see the wider structures of institutional gluttony, we need to look beyond any one individual. We need to see how similar moves take place in different contexts among different philosophers.

Consider, for instance, MM McCabe's talk on the event of her retirement from the philosophy department at King's College London (it begins at 9:00 in the video below). The speech is an impassioned plea for academics to resist the commercialization being "imposed" on them by academic administrators. McCabe exudes moral indignation in every phrase and gesture, as if barely able to contain her righteous anger against those who are seeking to destroy academia, and thereby to destroy civilization itself. It is a powerful performance. Honest. Passionate. Yet, in the end, a bit hollow. For it is a performance of institutional gluttony, which can beget nothing other than more gluttony, both from those she sees as her allies and her opponents.




At the heart of McCabe's argument is a simple idea: Just as Socrates was killed by the Athenians, so too academic administrators who are giving in to market forces are killing academia. McCabe articulates this idea in some choice language:
"[Socrates] confers a public good in allowing the Athenians to understand just how much they don't know. To develop critical reflection of what they think and do, and to make dissent possible and politically functional. The barbarians were at the gates then and for this the historical Socrates was executed by poison in 399 BC. As we defend ourselves from the barbarians now, we might think why Socrates thinks these conversations [i.e. philosophy] matter so much."(At 13:10)  
The key move in this line of thought is one which McCabe hardly highlights. And this is the assumption that contemporary academic philosophers are doing what Socrates did 2,500 years ago. It is this idea of the similarity between Socrates and current philosophy professors that fuels McCabe's indignation. What is at stake is not just her vision of academia, but rather the very history and meaning of philosophy, since what is happening now is a reenactment of what happened with Socrates. Back then the Athenians gave Socrates the hemlock. Now the administrators and the know nothing business suits controlling the finances are giving the hemlock to the philosophy profession. She is putting the question to her colleagues, They killed Socrates then. Are we going to let it happen again?

At first sight, this is a strange argument, for the differences between Socrates and philosophy professors seem all too obvious. After all, it wasn't Socrates' profession to go around questioning Athenians. Nor did he expect people to come to his classes in order to learn from him. Whether or not one takes it at face value, Socrates claimed to not know anything and that he was asking questions so that he could learn; hardly a form of conversation that we see philosophy professors engaging with their students, and even less so when they step out of their classrooms. Moreover, at least as depicted by Plato, when he says to the Athenians that their putting him to death will harm them more than him, he seems to mean this. The wrongness of killing Socrates isn't mainly that it harms Socrates, and so Socrates doesn't speak from moral indignation. And yet, that is the main tone taken by McCabe, as if her and her kind are being oppressed by the barbarians. Would Socrates have given the speech McCabe did? Seems unlikely.

Beyond the issue of whether philosophy professors are doing what Socrates did, there is an even more intriguing question raised by McCabe's argument, and that is: How can the situation of an institution (the philosophy profession) be compared to the situation of an individual (Socrates)? Most of the speech is taken up by McCabe drawing what she sees are parallels between Socrates and academic philosophy. Socrates provided a public good by teaching Athenians how to question themselves and to love inquiry for its own sake. Professors: check. Socrates stood back from the pressures of conformism and faced opposition from society. Professors: check. Socrates emphasized dialogue and the importance of listening as a moral virtue. Professors: you betcha.

McCabe's argument suggests that Socrates came along and created something new. She even uses the trope that Socrates was the first person to ever think self-critically (Really?). Then more and more people started doing what Socrates did, and in that process they created the institution of academia. Professors are thus the living embodiments of Socrates. They are the link between the past when there was only one Socrates and the distant, ideal future where hopefully  all members of society will be able to think like Socrates. Academics are the mid-wives to that future, a world where everyone is able to be self-critical just as Socrates was. Hence the barbarity of the administrators: they are severing the link between the past and the future, and unwittingly destroying the very hope of humankind.

The amazing thing about this line of thought is the ease with which it is assumed that what Socrates did can be replicated. Duplicated. Passed on. Turned into an institutional activity. As if there is a script for doing what Socrates did which can be internalized through one's education, and then merely applied in one's life. And that in fact contemporary philosophers are doing just this miracle through their day to day work of lectures and articles. That when McCabe gives a lecture to a class of undergraduates forty years younger than her, she is doing the same thing Socrates did when he went around challenging people similar to him in age and stature. Yet there is the obvious question: how can one replicate a gadfly? For all the pious references to Socrates, McCabe is surprisingly silent on this crucial question.

***

Building up to the moral center of her argument, McCabe says:
"Our institutions have sold their souls to the market... I refuse to sell my soul too. Socrates prefers death to giving up philosophy and he insists that his kind of inquiry is not a private good but a public good. Follow the argument where it leads. What does it involve? ... Socratic argument is unlimited in scope... That was Socrates' final point: he will follow the argument where it leads, even to death... So following the argument where it leads requires that we can expose any thought at all to scrutiny. Of course that had better not mean that everything is up for grabs all at once... But it does mean that anything is up for grabs. There is nothing that we cannot inspect or discuss or ask or assess or criticize or condemn in the course of the argument. Now notice the scope of follow the argument where it leads. For it is in fact a fundamental principle of academic freedom. It suggests that thought does not have, should not have constraints or boundaries... Indeed, it is a principle which chimes with, even if it is stronger than, the holding principle... about the nature and role of university funding. Follow the argument where it leads matters deeply because it points to how the ways of inquiry that Socrates advocates are not such as to be restricted by external pressures or constraints."(37:30)
It is a great articulation of a widely held idea in academia, delivered with force and rigor. But if we stop to reflect on it for a moment, what jumps out is how two very different things are being run together.

On the one hand there is Socrates questioning everything, and in order to do so, he is resisting any external pressures on him. "You are going to put me in jail? No problem. You are going to kill me? Go ahead. You can't hurt me, you are only hurting yourself." What Socrates suggests is that there is a mode of self-reflection such that nothing can stop a person from engaging in it, no matter what circumstances she finds herself in. That if you commit to questioning your beliefs and emotions, then no matter what other people are doing, or doing to you, they become secondary to your self-reflection. And the more a person questions herself, the more power she gains, for the more she becomes free of the tyranny of defining oneself through other people.

Now if we treat Socrates and academia as analogous, a strange idea starts to form, one which contorts and deforms the Socratic ideal. For one then wants to say, as McCabe does, that just as Socratic thinking requires being self-sufficient in reflecting on one's own beliefs and not being moved by external forces, so too academia should be self-sufficient and not be moved by external forces. That just as Socrates was great because he refused to give into public pressure, faculty should do the same thing and not cave into pressure from the administrators and business suits.

But is the sense in which Socrates was self-sufficient the same as the sense in which academia as an institution can be self-sufficient?

Socratic self-sufficiency means that a person doesn't have to make demands on others about how they ought to engage with her. For Socratic thinking suggests that irrespective of how others interact with a person, that person has the ability, through self-reflection, to be self-sufficient. This is why moral indignation is nowhere to be found in Socrates, and Plato's literary skill was to depict how someone can be critical of society without falling into self-righteous anger. For the indignation and anger suggest that the person is still looking to others as the ground of one's own activities, as if others could displace one from one's space of peace and serenity. The radicalness of Socratic thinking is the suggestion that there is a mode of reflection, and a way of being, where no such displacement can get a foothold.

Institutional self-sufficient, to the contrary, presupposes the idea that in order for the faculty to be self-sufficient they need to stand up to the administrators and not let them push the faculty around. Instead of Socratic self-sufficiency, what McCabe is advocating is holding one's ground within the institutional civil war between faculty and administrators. Irony is piled onto this contortion of Socratic thinking by McCabe's suggestion that the faculty need to stand for academic freedom the way Socrates stood for philosophy. For academic freedom is primarily a claim not about what the academic can do, but a claim about what a non-academic cannot do, namely, interfere with the academic's choice and mode of inquiry. McCabe thus treats the academic's right to self-sufficiency as a necessary condition for attaining Socratic self-sufficiency, as if by challenging academic freedom the administrators are thwarting the academic's ability to emulate Socrates. But if Socratic thinking shows anything, it is that it is not the kind of thing which can be thwarted by others at all.

This is the point of Socrates' claim to not know anything. What he means is that the kind of thing he knows is not something which someone else can disrupt or thwart. If one has knowledge of physics, that can be thwarted by destroying all the physics books and labs. If one has knowledge of carpentry, that can be thwarted if all of one's tools are stolen. In general, if the kind of knowledge one has is connected to a profession, or even more generally, to social identities which are bestowed in relation to others, then that kind of knowledge can be thwarted if the structures of that profession or social identity are threatened. Say by administrators taking away funding, or by asking professors to justify why they should get that funding. There are all sorts of reasons one can give for why such thwarting of academia is problematic and why it should not happen. But saying it would thwart Socratic thinking is not one such reason. For Socrates's point is that nothing can thwart his self-reflection, not even death, let alone administrators asking one to fill out forms or taking away funding.

Socrates' claim that he doesn't know anything frees him from getting caught within already existing institutional struggles. Is he a priest? A scientist? An administrator? A professor? No. No. No. No. This means that he can stand apart from the struggles between these groups; he can be free to think about those struggles without bringing his own professional needs and identities into play; he can reflect on the issues of the day without implicitly arguing for what would strengthen his own institutional identity. This kind of thinking, which is not professionalized, is a form of vulnerability. For Socrates gains the space of reflection by not depending on already established social identities to echo, bolster or enhance his voice or standing. He has nothing to back him up other than what might catch the interest of any interlocutor; there is no guarantee that he will be understood, nor any certainty that he can have a podium from which to speak to others. If his words and action catch on, it is because the circumstances enable it by chance, or because something in those words speaks to others. This vulnerability is the price Socrates has to pay for his reflective self-sufficiency.

McCabe seeks to have the self-sufficiency, but without the vulnerability. In fact, she is indignant that the administrators are putting her and other faculty in the position of being vulnerable, of perhaps losing their podium and their support structures. Whereas Socrates embraced his reality that he might lose everything, McCabe seems offended that she might lose the rights she feels she is entitled to. It is as if she were saying to the administrators: I am doing all this reflection for you, and for society, so have the decency to give me my due respect and to let me do my job in peace. If that were Socrates' defense in The Apology, we would have forgotten him long ago.

***

None of this is to say that academic philosophy isn't a public good or that it shouldn't be funded or that faculty have to fill out inane reports on the basis cash value of their work. Higher education is a public good, just like primary education or medical care, and a thriving society should have a thriving academia.

But it is to say that what counts as a thriving academia cannot be left just for the faculty to determine. And for the most part it isn't. In the case of the sciences or engineering or even law or business, there is a practical upshot to the academic work, so that the general public doesn't have to understand the work in order to see the benefits of such scholarly work. One doesn't have to understand quantum mechanics in order to fund the physics department, because no one can deny that advances in physics are responsible for the technological developments of the 20th century. Same with computer science or genetics and so on.

Insofar as one wants to say, as McCabe does, that the practical upshot of the humanities is the growth of one's soul, there is a glaring question facing the humanities but not the sciences, and that is: "Well, who are you to tell me what I need to do to become self-reflective and fully human?" In her speech, McCabe clubs together all the disciplines, arguing that whether one is a chemist or an anthropologist or a philosopher, all are in the same boat in fighting the thoughtless measures of the administrators. But this is convenient posturing. If I take a chemistry class, there is no obvious sense in which my chemistry professor is supposed to be a role model for how I can be a reflective person as such. My chemistry professor has some knowledge which she is passing on. That passing on is not simply mechanistic; at its best, it involves learning modes of inquiry and habits and patterns of living which the chemist exhibits. But there is no sense in which every person has to learn chemistry in order to live a reflective life. The breadth of human knowledge precludes any such requirement.

By invoking Socrates as the model for all academic thinking, McCabe implies that Socratic thinking is essential for everyone. This is a rather convenient move to make for a specialist in Ancient philosophy. As if she is studying the very essence of human knowledge, about what it means to be self-reflective at all, and that in some sense her inquiry is at the center of all knowledge.

Is Socrates supposed to represent the specialized activity of the professional philosopher? Or of the academic in general? Or of any person, irrespective of whether they are an academic or not? McCabe moves back and forth between all three interpretations as it suits her needs, never resting to see, or to acknowledge, that the three claims are radically in tension with each other. If Socrates is an emblem for just professional philosophers, then it is unclear why that should matter to other academics, let alone to the public. If Socrates is an emblem for academics in general, then it is unclear why that isn't just the academics talking down to the public. And if Socrates is an emblem for everyone, then there is nothing to stop the administrators from picking up Socrates as their hero as well, and treating the filling out the forms as themselves Socratic activities.

McCabe's speech is a form of institutional gluttony because she is using Socrates to argue for one side of an institutional dispute, as if the other side has no right or claim to Socrates, as if the other side has forsaken thinking and justice and all the good things in life. Hence the claim that the barbarians are at the gates. McCabe's speech hardens the divisions and lack of trust between faculty and administrators, rendering the faculty as the noble warriors for truth and the administrators as just the heathens.

But the appeal of Socrates is that anyone can read the Apology and think that they are on the side of Socrates, that his situation speaks in some sense to one's own life. By claiming to not know anything, and to not tying his inquiries to his professional identity, Socrates showed that there is a kind of thinking regarding which everyone is equal. Not that everyone exercises that capacity for thinking equally, but that everyone has equal access to that thinking. It does not depend on how much you know, or what you believe, or what side you are on in a given dispute. You might not even know who Socrates is, or you might be a professional expert on Plato's dialogues; it doesn't matter. The beauty and power of Socratic thinking is that no one - not even a scholar of Ancient philosophy - can claim Socratic thinking for themselves.


9 comments:

  1. I agree with much of what you say here - too often defenders of the humanities are unreflectively defending the *academic* humanities and thereby failing to consider how well situated professional academics are to protecting and promoting the genuine values of philosophical and humanistic inquiry.

    But I guess I want to push back a bit on the model of Socrates (whose legacy I too find some consolation and inspiration in). You say that "Socratic self-sufficiency means that a person doesn't have to make demands on others about how they ought to engage with her."

    I think this is right as an interpretation of Plato's Socrates, but I think it's false to the reality, both of Socrates's life and of our lives. Socrates was not immune to the need for others in engaging in philosophical reflection, nor was he unreliant on features of his social identity in being heard.

    First, it is surely significant that Socrates's philosophical reflections all take the form of a dialogue, which form of reflection is constitutively reliant on the participation of others. Given our human limitations we cannot reliably expect to advance in our reflections without some form of participation by others, even if we are not reliant on the assent of others. His execution by the city of Athens was itself a product of people listening to him and taking his words seriously.

    Second, it is only Socrates's status as a man, and as an Athenian citizen, and often his association with some powerful Athenian families that earned him entrance into many of the (physical and social) spaces in which his dialogues take place. After all, Meno's slave appears in a Platonic dialogue because Socrates asked the slave a question, not the other way around.

    Third, like all of us, Socrates was dependent upon others for satisfying the basic material conditions of life that made his acts of reflection possible. As much as I admire some aspects of Socrates, I cannot use him as a model for deciding to abandon an academic career until I find an economically satisfactory alternative. He was a terrible husband, and I am unwilling to treat my wife the way that he treated his. And of course it was significant that he was killed only after years of speaking in public, and even then only after being able to give his own sort of defense speech. He was reliant on not simply being assaulted or murdered in the streets, which would have cut his reflections short at a much earlier stage.

    If there is anything to be said in favor of preserving academic philosophy, I think it has to come in relation to the second and third points. By giving professors a certain social status, we provide an opportunity to encourage students who may have more narrow career aims to pause and wrestle with philosophical problems, even if all they care about is getting a degree that will provide them with a job. And by providing for professors' material needs, the university can create spaces for a kind of independent reflection without demanding that those engaged in such reflection neglect other personal commitments.

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  2. Derek, Thanks for your thoughtful comment, which I whole-heartedly agree with. Especially regarding being careful in using Socrates as a model in deciding whether to leave academia. Great point.

    The sentence you quote about Socratic self-sufficiency can be read in two ways. First, in a material or social way, as if one can be independent of others. Second, in a reflective or spiritual way, as in one can be independent of other's opinions of us. I meant to affirm the latter, not the former.

    Certainly part of being human is making claims, or demands, on each other. "What we owe to each other". Normativity in a normal sense. Part of this human situatedness is knowing how to, and equally importantly, how not to make claims on each other. I think in order to make claims on each other in a productive, flourishing way, it is necessary to develop skills of not making unproductive claims on each other, the kind where one might say, "I am being held back by you, and you need to change before I can change." I would say wisdom is the skill of learning to let go of claims like these on others, so that other fruitful claims on each other can be made.

    What is at issue is the relation between politics and spirituality (or wisdom philosophy). One can do politics in a non-spiritual attitude, where one wants to stand up to power by saying how those in power need to change in order for me to change; this is one version of what I am calling institutional gluttony. And one can do spiritual without politics, where one says that since one can be spiritually independent no social change is needed. But there is a third way: politics grounded in wisdom. Here wisdom helps to let go of the unproductive claims on each other so that we can make productive claims on each other to make the necessary political or structural changes.

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  3. Excellent comments. I may have missed something here, but it seems to me that you're not saying much about the most obvious difference between Socrates and McCabe (and others like her). Socrates was standing alone outside of the institutions of his society. He had no official position, no publicly recognized authority on anything, no job or salary or pension plan, etc. His authority was organic, and contingent on his personal interactions with others. He was a total outsider, at least insofar as his philosophical work was concerned. By contrast, McCabe and other "philosophers" like her are insiders. They are installed as officially recognized authorities and experts. They are often largely paid by the government, in effect. At any rate, they are paid; they are selling their services. And what so outrages McCabe is not that anyone -- society, government, corporations, whatever -- is trying to prevent her from doing what Socrates did. She is perfectly free to do that, with none of the repercussions that Socrates faced. Instead, she is angry that her patrons and employers might take away some of her privileges. Maybe this is really (part of) what you were saying in your post. But to me it seems like the most ludicrous dimension of this kind of thing. Here are these powerful, rich, well-connected, pampered people who actually seem to believe that they stand outside the system (and speak Truth to Power, etc.)...

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  4. Andy, I agree, and that is part of what I was trying to say. Your last two sentences especially resonate with me. I remember a professor once saying in casual conversation at a party, "If I wanted to make money, I would have gone into business. But thinking for myself and being critical is more important to me." This from someone who was tenured at a prestigious place, making probably 150k a year or so (I am guessing). True, if he had become a business person, maybe he would have been a millionare. But the very fact that one isn't a millionare doesn't mean one is among the masses; though that seemed to have been that person's implication. Perhaps it is the implication he needed to draw to not look closely at the fact that in academic terms he is like a millionare.

    The fact that some administrators are now getting paid like business people, and getting more control over what used to be controlled by the faculty, complicates the situation. Perhaps as an academic one can accept not being a millionare, as long as one gets certain other perks. Now those other perks are also being challenged. I think this is what McCabe is responding to. Of course, if there is a divide between academics and the public, and administrators are not academics, then they are part of the public. That means that if McCabe wants to win over the administrators, she has to engage with them as she would with the public, namely by getting their attention in a way as to foster rational conversation, rather than demanding that attention and the perks. Instead of play acting being a rebel, if she were to accept how much she is a part of the current power structures, and how much she is not that different from the administrators, then I think she would actually be able to be a cause for more change.

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  5. I wonder what kind of "change" someone like McCabe would want, or be able to bring about. As you point out, the reality is that she (and others like her) are integral parts of the system -- the real system rather than the imaginary one that she pretends to be resisting or struggling against. It's not clear to me that she would want anything to change within that system, or that she could want it given who she is and the role she occupies.

    Derek says it's good that the system affords "a certain social status" to academic philosophers (or rather "philosophers") so that they can do something called "independent reflection". And that is supposed to be good for others, because their students will then be able to "pause and wrestle with philosophical problems" even if in the end they just go on to jobs and careers that have nothing to do with philosophy or "reflection". I'm very skeptical of this line of thinking. Just in order to acquire the "social status" in question, a person has to go through a very long and rigorous vetting process. People who are inclined to truly "independent reflection" -- as I understand that concept, anyway -- are very unlikely to make it through. Like you, they are much more likely to become discouraged and disillusioned. In the end, they will tend to keep their "independent" thinking to themselves or else they'll get stymied long before "a certain social status" is conferred upon them by their betters.

    So the end result, predictably, is that those who have the job, in theory, of engaging in "independent reflection" are almost invariably people who never actually do so. What they do, for the most part, is to fiddle around a bit at the edges of some unreflective ideological consensus -- the same one that they had to accept, or pretend to accept, in order to get "a certain social status". Their thinking and way of life is not in any important sense "independent" of what their patrons and employers expect and want from them. And then, of course, whatever they do is labelled "independent reflection" in the Socratic style. How do we know that's what it is? Well, it's apparently taken to be that by the people to whom we assign a special status as independent reflectors. The mere fact that the establishment creates and sustains and legitimates this special status and "space" for "independent reflection" -- that the space is entirely dependent on that kind of support and funding and legitimation -- makes it very unlikely that it can be what it is supposed to be.

    If we want independent reflection, we need some way to make it _independent_ of the institutions and powers that we're reflecting on. And, of course, that's not at all what McCabe wants.

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  6. Andy,

    First let me know that my claim was (sincerely) conditional. So if you're right that academic institutions don't succeed at enabling independent reflection, then they just can't be justified on these kinds of grounds.

    So let's turn to the more substantive question - should we believe academic institutions can do that. I think you raise good reasons to worry that academic institutions may fail to provide a space for truly independent thinking. But I think there are three points worth considering that suggest these reasons may not be decisive.

    1. What is the comparison class? Do academic jobs allow *more* genuine opportunities for independent thinking than other jobs? Or than not having a job at all? It certainly seems better than many jobs and, for those who are not independently wealthy, it seems better than no job at all. But I'm very open to the idea that there might be better social spaces for fostering such thinking and, if so, philosophers and other humanists have good reason to abandon academia for those spaces. I just don't know what they are yet.

    2. I like to think of myself as an independent thinker, but maybe I'm not. But surely we can both agree that whatever an independent thinker is in this context, Bharath counts. But both Bharath (from what I've read of his blog) and myself came to this place in part as a product of spending a number of years in academia thinking about philosophical questions. So it seems that, at least for some of us, universities are (or were in the recent past) places where such thinking could take place.

    3. How do you know about Socrates? How has his particular legacy been kept alive? I learned about Socrates primarily by taking academic classes at universities, followed by doing my own independent study while being supported on grad stipends by universities, and by doing work preparing to teach classes at universities. Why does anyone know who Socrates is? Because his rich friend/student Plato wrote about him, and because scholars and academics of various stripes - most quite socially privileged - transmitted his text and gave them the kind of social status that has allowed him to be used (and misused) as a model by would-be-independent-thinkers throughout the ages.

    So that brings us back to point (1): are there social spaces other than universities that can do a better job at allowing thinkers like Bharath to develop themselves and ensure that figures like Socrates have enough cultural salience to be used in the way that he is in our current conversation?

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  7. Great back and forth. I think it is helpful to separate two questions:

    1. Can independent thinking happen in academia?
    2. Is there a need for structures which reflection which, as Andy nicely puts it, are "independent of institutions and powers that we are reflecting on"?

    I am for a great big YES for (2). Though saying "yes" to (2) doesn't require saying "no" to (1). The reason for new structures of reflection need not be that no reflection is possible in the old structures, but simply that some, possibly many, forms of reflection are not possible in the old ones. What is needed for saying "yes" to (2) is to deny just that all forms of reflection can happen in the old structures.

    The very history of institutions work against them after a while. Academia is thousands of years old; the form of the current structures in America go back at least a thousand years to the founding of Oxford and so forth. Can these structures handle the social changes which have taken place in the 20th century? Maybe, maybe not. But it is not at all obvious they can, and it is an open question. And even as they try to expand through online education, could it be that they are trying to force the older framework into the newer clothing, instead of thinking from scratch about how the new technology can be used not just to update old modes of interaction, but help create completely new modes of interaction which aren't dependent on academia?

    Being outside academia now can be a bit like a sailor heading off to explore unknown territories. There is untapped potential waiting to be harnessed. This is not to deny the old structures have knowledge. But it is to say that not everything needs to go through them anymore.

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  8. Bharath: Yes, that's exactly right. I'm preoccupied with the former question, for what I imagine are pretty obvious personal reasons,. But we don't need to settle that in order to see that the answer to the second questions is clearly 'yes.'

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  9. Hi Derek,
    I'm not sure how to make the comparisons you ask about. Certainly real independent thinking does happen in academia. On the other hand, independent thinking does happen in all kinds of settings other than academia. If I try to state my view more carefully, I think it comes down to something like this: (a) when there is independent reflection in academic philosophy it is quite often happening in spite of the institutions and culture of academic philosophy rather than because of those things, and (b) it often happens that those institutions and culture prevent or distort or derail independent reflection that might otherwise happen, and (c) while many people do undoubtedly acquire important knowledge and skills from academic training in philosophy, the institutions and culture of academic philosophy do also quite often damage a person's _capacity_ for independent reflection.

    The example of Socrates, or rather our conception of him, is interesting to think about. Yes, I learned about Socrates as you did, as a philosophy student in a university, etc. But, first of all, it isn't obvious to me that _what_ I learned about him, or about philosophy, or about what it means to be a philosopher, was right or good or true to the Socratic spirit. For example, in my undergraduate education Socrates was usually presented as a kind of skeptic: he went around challenging the traditions and beliefs of his society, apparently just because these things weren't "rationally justified" and he cared a lot about reasons, etc. No doubt I'm simplifying a bit, but this was pretty much how Socrates -- and, by extension, philosophy -- were presented. Why was it important or valuable for me to hear about this? Why was I supposed to think that this kind of skepticism is valuable? What is its point? None of my teachers had any real or even reflective answer to these kinds of questions. In fact they generally seemed to think that the questions were indications of philosophical naivete or incompetence. Again I'm probably being a bit unfair, but it seems to me that the basic content or message they were trying to pass on to students was just a bumper sticker: "Question authority". If that's all Socrates was doing, I would have to seriously wonder about the value of the Great Western Philosophical Tradition that academics claim to be preserving and handing down to posterity. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure that anything really important in Socrates' life or teachings would be preserved (and maybe better preserved) without the kinds of institutions we now have.

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