December 12, 2014

What is a Dissertation?

The first time I was a teaching assistant was in the Fall of 2001 for Warren Goldfarb's course on the Later Wittgenstein. The experience blew my mind.

At Cornell a few years earlier I had tried to write a senior thesis with Sydney Shoemaker on Kripke's interpretation of Wittgenstein's private language argument. Like my essay on Quine, the senior thesis didn't make it to completion, as I abandoned it after the Fall semester. I couldn't put my finger on it, but something about Kripke's reading seemed off, as if it almost willfully ignored Wittgenstein's meta-philosophy and his mode of writing. Combining what I liked about Wittgenstein with engaging with Kripke's text seemed too hard at the time.

My first year at Harvard was Hilary Putnam's last year before retirement, and Stanley Cavell was retired, though still teaching once in a while. As it happened, Harvard was the only graduate program I had gotten into, but I felt it was the best choice for me as I was excited to take courses with Putnam and Cavell. The excitement soon wore off. In my first year I audited a course on Wittgenstein being given by Putnam, and there was no syllabus to speak of other than a list of topics Putnam had written down on a piece of paper. It soon became clear the course was more on Putnam than on Wittgenstein, and that too with Putnam mostly speaking off the top of his head. There were the usual oppositions of how Kripke was wrong and Cora Diamond was amazing, but it didn't seem to me much insight was being generated as much as generalizations being drawn in broad strokes of who is misguided and who is deep. I dropped the course after a few weeks.

In my second year Cavell was offering a course on, if I recall correctly, Austin and Derrida. I was excited to audit the class. But when I started attending the class, the feeling I was mostly left with was that what was happening in the class was pass√©. In one of the early weeks, at the beginning of the class, Cavell described how when he was a graduate student at Harvard one day he got a call out of the blue with a job offer from Berkeley. He took it, and several years later while at Berkeley, he again got a call out of the blue with a tenured offer from Harvard. He took it again. He said he had never had a job interview in his life, and that perhaps that kind of freedom was essential to do the kind of work he does. To the class filled mostly with graduate students from philosophy, literature and other departments, he offered a somewhat sympathetic sigh and wondered what his career might have been if he was a graduate student now. It seemed to me that the graduate students listened to Cavell's job trajectory, how it happened, with disbelief, as if we were watching a mermaid come to shore. Some seemed to find Cavell's bemoaning the current state of affairs heroic. I found it evasive. If his kind of philosophy could only be done with the freedom he was given, what were the rest of us supposed to do? Since he was silent on this question, it seemed to me he was basically saying: "Tough luck." Soon I stopped auditing the course.

Against this background, being a teaching assistant for Goldfarb's course was a revelation. Cleared of all the clutter and hand waving which Putnam and Cavell seemed to do in class, Goldfarb gave meticulous, pointed, crisp lectures. (You can listen to a talk by Goldfarb here to get a sense for his lectures.) Goldfarb seemed to bring the precision of a logician to a text as unruly as the Investigations without, unlike Kripke, ignoring Wittgenstein's metaphilosophy. If anything, the main thing that excited me about Goldfarb's lectures was how, like Cavell, he insisted on taking the mode of writing of the Investigations seriously. Why was this paragraph next to that paragraph? Why did Wittgenstein write as he did rather than in an essay form? Goldfarb seemed to take these questions seriously, and he integrated them seamlessly into questions of what Wittgenstein believed, or didn't believe, or refused to believe, or allowed himself to believe, on topics such as consciousness, rule following and reference. Goldfarb's Wittgenstein class was the first time I remember feeling I really belonged in academic philosophy.
 
Which is not to say I completely agreed with Goldfarb or followed him to a tee. No doubt one of the reasons I enjoyed the class was that, being the first time I was a teaching assistant, it was the first time I got to get in front of a bunch of people and in sections express what I thought. If I was simply a student I might have been disgruntled by the overly analytic focus of the course. But as a teaching assistant I was able to integrate into the sections things which I felt were important, probably in a way which Goldfarb himself would have deemed misguided. Whereas Goldfarb connected Wittgenstein in the standard way to Frege, Russell and Moore, in section I gave myself the freedom to think out loud about how Wittgenstein connected to Socrates, Kierkegaard or Heidegger. Whereas Goldfarb seemed to ignore Wittgenstein's ascetic life style, I raised questions in section of how Wittgenstein sought to live his life and what he made of academia and philosophy professors. At the time I used to walk around with a small copy of the Tao Te Ching in my pocket, and I remember in one section opening the Tao and connecting it to something Wittgenstein was saying his text. This might seem disconnected from discussions of mind, meaning and rule following. But what was amazing was how easily with Wittgenstein one could go from talking about the Augustinian conception of language to talking about the human condition. Allowing Wittgenstein's mode of writing to be taken seriously was a breath of fresh air, and it seemed to open everything up. It was glorious.

***

The Wittgenstein class ended in January 2002. In the spring of that year I started thinking about my prospectus for a dissertation. I can't quite tell now how it started, but over that spring my desire to write a thesis on Wittgenstein morphed into a desire to write my thesis in the way Wittgenstein wrote the Investigations. From May to September of that year I allowed myself the freedom to forget about what a thesis should look like and simply write in the way I was moved to. Since I was fresh off the buzz of teaching for the Wittgenstein class and taking Wittgenstein's mode of writing seriously, what I allowed myself was the freedom to think and write as Wittgenstein did. Not because I was simply mimicking Wittgenstein, anymore than anyone who writes in an essay form is simply mimicking Russell or Carnap. But because I found in that mode of writing an outlet for my thinking, a way to free myself of what felt to be all the institutional baggage that came with writing in the normal journal format, a way to tap into whatever moved me philosophically without imposing on it structures which felt alien to me. It was a gift to myself. They were the happiest months I ever had in academia.

One of the key ideas of Cavell's, and Goldfarb's, interpretation of Wittgenstein is that key moves in philosophy are often the ones made at the very beginning, in the very way a debate or a question is set up. Partly inspired by my reading of Derrida at the time, I decided to take this Cavellian idea seriously, and literally. I took Putnam's classic essay, "The Nature of Mental States", and focused on its introductory paragraph. Six sentences. Three questions. Filled with normal philosophical uses of words like "pain", "know", "other people", "analysis", "concept", "philosopher of mind", and so on. By that point I had studied a fair amount of philosophy of mind, having taken courses by Shoemaker, Ginet, Boyd and others at Cornell, and having just finished my second year paper at Harvard with Richard Heck on McDowell's Mind and World. I was going to be a philosophy of mind person. I knew how I was supposed to engage with Putnam's essay, to evaluate his arguments for functionalism, to see his view in relation to the standard alternatives like identity theory, dualism, eliminativism and so on.

Writing like Wittgenstein gave me a new entry into this terrain. I didn't have to focus on whether Putnam's functionalist view in that paper was right. I was free instead to pursue my deeper interest, which was a kind of understanding of the activity of philosophy. I wanted to understand how Putnam's essay got to have the sense that it is merely thinking through ideas, that it is somehow universal. As with most of my thinking at the time, I was desperate to get a handle on what kind of an education I was getting, of what I was being inculcated into and what I was being implicitly asked to leave behind. Most often I had a sense of being suffocated, of being forced into categories, dichotomies, arguments and narratives at a feverish pitch. I wanted to step back from it all and get my bearings, gather my thoughts. But the flow of courses, semesters, books, articles seemed to yank at me, pull me along as if in a torrent. What I wanted most was to gain perspective on what was happening, to take a time out, but in a philosophical way. Writing like Wittgenstein enabled this. No longer did I have to look at Putnam's essay and think only about how it relates to qualia or to externalism. I could look at the essay, breathe out and ask whatever question I had about the essay. Even if they are questions which might not get me a job, or make me sound cool, or scientific. I could ask the questions for just one reason: because they were real questions for me. That's it. Thinking about Putnam's essay, the main questions I had were: how does this essay have the power that it does, that it makes its thinking seem so obvious and intuitive? And yet why do I also feel bored by it, as if it were missing something crucial, as if it were covering over something and there are crucial confusions here under the surface? What I wanted to understand was both the pull I felt towards the essay, but also my need to resist it, to not be pulled too much into it.

Until the Wittgenstein class I didn't have the vocabulary to connect these institutional questions I had with the standard questions in the philosophy classes I was taking, such as "How is the mind related to the body?", "How is free will possible?", etc. It seemed as if questioning the questions themselves was somehow off the table, as if it showed that I didn't really understand the questions after all, that I must be a philosophical dunce if I didn't accept that the questions were well formed. Hence the revelation and excitement of Goldfarb's Wittgenstein class for me. Here was a space within academic philosophy which was allowing me a chance to raise precisely the kind of questions of disruption of the standard practices which I longed for, but in a way which was also clearly engaging with the impulses towards the standard philosophical questions. After the class it was no longer enough for me to simply read Wittgenstein that way. If it was good enough for Wittgenstein, I felt it ought to be good enough for anybody, including me.

For four months I let myself live into a world where it was perfectly natural that my prospectus could be written in the Wittgensteinian way. I didn't have a central thesis I was arguing for, since the reflections were my attempt to understand my own push and pull with regard to Putnam's essay. As Wittgenstein said in the preface of the Tractatus, the appeal of what I was writing would be for people who had similar thoughts, and found it helpful to have them expressed. I didn't engage with other texts of Putnam, or reference other authors. No quotations, no unnecessary padding, no bibliography. I didn't do anything I didn't want to do. I worked on each sentence and each paragraph, crafting the writing as if I were sculpting. Putting in ideas here, and taking them out there. Writing like Wittgenstein made it clearer why it was so natural for him to write his ideas on cards. Freed of the essay format, he didn't have to treat his writing as having a linear, one-directional form. Each paragraph instead could be treated as a node, which can lead to nodes in any number of directions. In the midst of writing like this, it felt like a world I normally saw in two dimensions was opening to me a third dimension, that connections and links could be seen and drawn which became hidden and buried in the flow of the march of an argument going just from point A to point B.

I wrote about thirty five pages like this, pursuing ideas in the myriad directions my mind took me. I was happy. But could a prospectus really look like this? I didn't care. I felt protected by one thought: If Wittgenstein can write like this and it can be great, why can't others write like this also?

***

In September of 2002 I gave my prospectus to my committee at the time: Warren Goldfarb, Richard Moran and Susanna Siegel. I informed them in an e-mail that my prospectus was on the first paragraph of Putnam's essay, and that the dissertation would consist of my similarly thinking through Putnam's whole essay. I put copies of my prospectus in my advisors' mailboxes. And I waited.

After a month or so I met with Siegel about the prospectus. She said she found it interesting, that it was not linear but was going in different directions at once. She wondered if this could be accepted as a prospectus. Not knowing myself, I didn't say much. For the most part, being a junior professor at the time, she seemed content to let the senior members on my committee make the call of whether it is suitable prospectus. I thought I saw her give a faint smile, as if she were amused thinking of the halo of Wittgensteinism that was still prevalent back then in Emerson hall and wondering what the resident Wittgensteinians would say.

Another month or so later I met with Moran. He gave me back my copy of the prospectus with thoughts written by him in the margins. A few places I saw he used words like "brilliant" and "exciting". We talked about the different temptations in thinking about the mind, and whether I had captured this or that temptation correctly. It was a fun conversation. Engaging. For a while I thought that perhaps I could write my dissertation like this. But on that key question, Moran also seemed unsure. Goldfarb, being the main Wittgenstein scholar at Harvard, was the head of my committee, and Moran was content to let Goldfarb deal with the administrative issue of whether this can be a dissertation.

Yet another month or so later, I met with Goldfarb. For most of our meeting we talked, as with Moran, about the content of what I wrote, about whether I was capturing accurately this or that temptation, this or that intuition, this or that motivation. We were coming to the end of our meeting, and still no word on whether I could write my dissertation like this. At one point we were talking about one paragraph I had written, and Goldfarb was trying to point out that I seemed to be confused in something I was saying. I defended myself, saying that perhaps Goldfarb was misreading what I meant, and that if we could see how this paragraph relates to that other paragraph, the connection will be clearer. Somewhat exasperated, Goldfarb said, "I am going to go through the trouble of making sense of Wittgenstein because he was a genius. But you are no Wittgenstein."

Something in the way Goldfarb made that remark made me think that he was not speaking about me in particular. He seemed to mean that none of us are Wittgenstein, that only the great man can write the way he did, but for the rest of us mortals our lot is to interpret his text in the standard essay form. I wanted to ask back, not how he knew I wasn't a Wittgenstein (since I was already pretty sure he was in no position to make such a judgment), but how he knew, and why he thought and acted as if, he wasn't a Wittgenstein. More than a put down of me, his remark seemed to me to open up the limits of his confidence in himself as a philosopher, as if he had long resigned himself to being one of the head honchos in the interpreting Wittgenstein game, but that he sensed there was a vast chasm between himself and Wittgenstein.

I should have realized right then that I couldn't write my dissertation that way. After all, the point of advisors is that they are ahead of you in some sense, and can offer guidance on a path which they have traversed and which you are starting to traverse now as well. But how could Goldfarb or Moran advice me in a mode of writing or a mode of doing philosophy which they themselves never seemed to have pursued, and which they might have sensed to be only possible for someone of Wittgenstein's genius but not for more ordinary professionals? Goldfarb's remark suggested that he believed Wittgenstein was better than him as a philosopher and so he Goldfarb couldn't presume to write that way. But given that I was presuming to write that way, it seemed to him as if I were presuming to be a better philosopher than him. In the normal scheme of things, the hierarchy was supposed to be: Wittgenstein, Goldfarb, me. But how can Goldfarb be my advisor if he places himself below Wittgenstein while I place myself along side Wittgenstein? This was one of the puzzles raised by the prospectus.

The main puzzle, however, was that my advisers could say neither 'yes' nor 'no' to the prospectus. They couldn't say 'yes' because the very thing I valued most about Wittgenstein's mode of writing - its utter focus on the individual philosopher's processing of her own thoughts - threatened to undermine the structures of hierarchy within the profession. If philosophical writing was each philosopher's expression of their intellectual journey, how could such writing be ranked? And without rankings, how could it be determined who is a better philosopher than whom, and so determine who gets to have the top jobs? The idea of a meritocracy depends on the idea that there is an objective way to determine where people fall in the hierarchy, as if one's worth as a philosopher is as strait-forward as who can run the fastest. Wittgenstein's mode of writing was, and is, a threat to this idea, since it forgoes the idea of evaluating philosophers altogether, and treats philosophy as each person's journey towards the clarification of their concepts in order to gain peace. This doesn't mean one can't say philosopher X is better than philosopher Y. But it does mean that such judgments are themselves always open to being questioned, and have no institutional grounding. Wittgenstein wasn't interested in the least in how philosophy could function or survive as a profession (he was undeniably a hypocrite in this regard), and he pursued and wrote his ideas accordingly. This is hardly a model for graduate education. For all of Goldfarb's, and Cavell's, emphasis on taking seriously Wittgenstein's way of writing, as academics they could never take this non-institutional nature of Wittgenstein's writing too seriously.

Yet my advisors couldn't say 'no', since there was still, at that time, in the air at Harvard a sense that it was one of the bastions of Wittgensteinian thinking. That unlike the majority of the profession, which was seen to be mired in scientism and problem solving, Harvard cared about depth rather than cleverness. Whereas schools like MIT and Princeton were pushing their graduate students through in 4, 5, 6 years, at Harvard at the time there was still a sense that 9, 10, 11 years was ok. Because what mattered was intellectual depth and a holistic vision of philosophy, rather than whatever it was that was supposed to be silly about Princeton. In Goldfarb's class, as in Putnam's and Cavell's classes, one way this difference was brought out was in the supposed shallowness of Kripke's reading of Wittgenstein, in contrast to the depth of Cavell and Diamond and the later Putnam and Goldfarb, who took seriously how the art of the Investigations as a text was inseparable from its contents. If I was a graduate student at Princeton or Rutgers, perhaps my advisors might have said that the days of Wittgenstein are over and I need to write my thesis in a professional way. But Goldfarb could hardly make this point, and that was the rub. Since I am emulating the grand master's mode of writing, he couldn't dismiss the prospectus just based on how I wrote the prospectus. How then could he dismiss it, if that mode of writing didn't lend itself easily to being graded? I was practicing what he preached in his Wittgenstein class, and so he couldn't dismiss the prospectus out of hand.

If you can't say 'yes' and you can't say 'no', what can you do? Stall. Push away the moment of making a decision. And that is what Goldfarb settled on. At the end of our meeting he said that the committee would need to see more writing of this kind before a decision can be made. I agreed to write some more and give it to them. So I spent the next three to four months writing another twenty five pages on another section of Putnam's essay. And I gave it to the committee.

And I waited. and waited. Three months passed by without a response. I spent my entire fourth year in graduate school, starting from when I gave my committee the first part of my prospectus, waiting to hear if this would work as a dissertation. By the end of the year I was exhausted by my waiting. I wonder now why I didn't make a bigger deal back then and rush into their offices and demand a 'yes' or 'no' answer. But it is clear why I didn't: because I knew as well, deep down, that there was no way that prospectus could be a dissertation.

The more I realized this, the more I got angry. Not mainly at my committee, since they started to seem to me like mere mortals who didn't know what to do. I got angry at Wittgenstein. I thought about what Goldfarb said about me not being Wittgenstein, and I realized he had a point. Not about my philosophical capacity, but about the sociological fact that I wasn't seen as a genius, and so I couldn't write the way Wittgenstein did. The more I thought about my prospectus, the more Wittgenstein's hypocrisy became clearer to me. He leveraged his being categorized as a genius to be in academia without in any way taking responsibility for improving academia or even thinking about how others might continue on his path. Seen from this light, the special halo around the Investigations started to seem rather different; that it seemed unique because it was unique, literally unreplicable because the kind of leverage Wittgenstein was able to have as an academic was no longer possible. I realized Wittgenstein still shines brightly because the sun is setting on the way he was able to do philosophy, assuming that he could do philosophy, get to its "deepest impulses", without talking once about the institutional structures which made his writings possible. From this angle, the very thing I loved the most about Wittgenstein's writing - its steadfast individuality and challenge to hierarchy - seemed like an illusion, that the text in a sense was the height of privilege, because it could pretend as if it was written outside an institutional context, as if it was just a person thinking to himself.

Flooded with these thoughts, I stared at my prospectus and wondered what this thing was that I had written. Wittgenstein is unintelligible to most of the public, and even to most academics, and yet he is praised to the heavens because philosophy professors hail him as a genius. What I wrote most academics wouldn't be bothered to read, and to non-academics it would not be an expression of freedom and equality, as it felt to me as I was writing it, but rather the height of academic arrogance. A whole dissertation on one essay, that too analyzing this word and that, without references, just one person working his way through his thoughts! What is the point? I knew what the point was, because I knew the elation and excitement I felt in writing it. But I also started to realize, to my horror, that the very individual exploration I had prized had rendered my writing into something that possibly only I could really understand, or care about. It was a beautiful expression of my mind, an expression so unique that perhaps only I could see it as something meaningful. Because Wittgenstein had the halo of being a genius, he could write a text in the form of a diary, and have other people dedicate their lives to deciphering the code. But when I, without the institutional halo Wittgenstein had, wrote like Wittgenstein, what I ended up writing was merely a diary of my thoughts. A beautiful diary but without any institutional grounding or home. I had created a private document in what turned out to be in effect a private language. With that thought, my attachment to my Wittgenstein prospectus was cut. Anger turned into disappointment into self-loathing into confusion into a need to distance myself from the prospectus and from Wittgenstein. I threw away the copies I had of the prospectus, and deleted it from my computer.

In the summer after my fourth year I hastily put together a prospectus on the mind-body problem, written in essay form, and gave it to my advisors. The new prospectus was soon approved. My advisors didn't ask me why I changed my mind about the Wittgenstein prospectus, or how I felt about leaving it behind. By that point I didn't care to talk about it with them. Or think too much about it myself.

31 comments:

  1. Do you still have copies of the prospectus drafts?

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  2. Andrew, Unfortunately, I don't. I got rid of any copies I had, including electronic copies. At the time I felt I couldn't have even a trace of that prospectus in my mind if I were to continue in grad school, and I wasn't then ready to leave grad school; so the only option felt to be completely cutting myself off from that prospectus.

    I see now that I got rid of the prospectus because it made me feel as if I were weak. The whole episode of the Wittgenstein prospectus was me basically confronting my philosophy education, and trying to bring out its limits. In retrospect, I see what I wanted was to push my committee to give me reasons why I couldn't write my dissertation that way. I was hoping when they tried to give such reasons, that would open up a conversation about the institutional structures of graduate education; it would force the hidden structures to become more explicit. Contrary to the idea prevalent in my classes that one can study in academia any aspect of philosophy and in any way that is philosophically relevant, I felt that many things I cared about where nowhere to be seen, or even mentioned, in my classes. There was a narrative of complete openness, but a reality of sharp boundaries of what is and is not allowed. What I thought I found in Wittgenstein's way of writing is a way to bring up the fact that there are sharp boundaries in academic philosophy. Here seemed to be one: "you can't write a dissertation in the Wittgensteinian way." This boundary is so pervasive and deep seated that it doesn't even seem like a boundary, as much as mere common sense. So I unconsciously latched on it as a way to say to my professors, "So, this is a boundary, right? You are not going to let me do this, right? Academic philosophy isn't open to everything, right?" Like a kid who tests the limits of the boundaries set by the parents, I was implicitly testing the limits of my graduate education to see where the line will be drawn, where it will said "this is not allowed". I wanted to get to that line, and see what reasons Goldfarb, Moran or Siegel could give for that line. And I wanted to challenge the reasons they would give, and question if those reasons can hold up to rational deliberation.

    But what all this required is that they actually give a response, say "yes" or "no". They did neither, and evaded confrontation. By simply refusing to say "no", they kept up the illusion that the graduate education I was receiving was completely open, as if they wouldn't do anything as authoritarian as draw a line in the sand just because they have the power to do it. But their power showed through anyway by the fact that they refused to give an answer, to take a stand. By not getting back to me, they forced me to decide how long I was going to keep this up. After a year, I couldn't keep it up. When I changed my prospectus to the essay form, in a way I let them off the hook, and allowed the happy illusion to persist that I could do anything I wanted in academic philosophy, and that I just happened to change my mind about what I wanted to do for my thesis.

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  3. Bummer, Bharath.

    I think academic philosophy would be a lot better off if we felt more free to experiment -- in topics, texts, methods, teaching, and more. At least, I suspect we'd all be a little bit happier. Trying something new or out of the ordinary can be disastrous. But can also be really interesting.

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  4. Thanks for sharing this. Despite both being largely unfamiliar with Wittgenstein (beyond basic familiarity with certain basic ideas 'language game,' 'private language argument,' etc) and being overall more comfortable in the standard academic style, I identify with many of your worries and frustrations with the institutions of professional philosophy.

    Like you, I think of philosophy as, first and foremost, the activity of cognitively limited agents trying to make sense of ourselves, our thoughts, and our actions in the world. Given this conception, even if there are legitimate geniuses, the importance of their genius for the rest of us depends on our being able to incorporate their insights into our own thinking, using whatever modes of thought we find most conducive to serious philosophical reflection.

    The question for professional philosophy, then, is how well it serves to provide a space to foster such philosophical reflection, not only for professional philosophers, but also for our students and the public at large. Obviously there must be constraints and gate-keepers if 'philosopher' is to be the name of a profession for which one earns a salary, benefits, and a certain social status. So what philosophical benefits does such professionalization have to provide to be worth it?

    I also think the lesson for those of us who don't yet have stable tenure-track positions in academia is why we invest so much of our identity as philosophers with those institutions. Once you realize that being a philosopher, in the sense you care about, is distinct from being a professional academic, why does it even matter whether there's room for your kind of philosophy within academia? Only someone who wants a professional degree has to worry about what counts as a dissertation.

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  5. It’s worth pointing out a factors that contributed to Wittgenstein’s ability to write the way he did in the Philosophical Investigations:

    – these aren’t prospectus-stage thoughts or initial forays into philosophy; they’re the late writings of a philosopher who had already received immense fame and attention through earlier works. (To put this a bit differently, if you want a case analogous to Wittgenstein, we wouldn’t consider a student at the prospectus stage; we’d have to consider what would happen if one of the famous figures nowadays–say, Parfit or someone like that–started to jot down his musings in Wittgensteinian fashion.)
    – aside from the fact that Wittgenstein had a post at Cambridge, etc., he was the son of the second richest man in Europe (second to the Rothschilds). One suspects that this helps a bit.
    – Wittgenstein himself is famously critical of academic philosophy; it’s a bit odd to think that one should imitate his style in an effort to succeed within the earliest and most restrictive, rule-bound stages of academic philosophy (writing a dissertation)

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  6. Derek, I resonate with your comment. Especially the last question you raise. I am not sure though about your last sentence. In one sense, it is certainly true: someone wanting to be a lawyer or a mechanic doesn't have to care about the requirements in a PhD program. But in another sense, the public in general can care about what counts as a dissertation, given that the people who get the dissertations are teaching the public. If someone is going to teach me how reading Plato is going to expand my horizons, it is relevant to me as a citizen that I know how the person got to be in a position to be able to instruct me in that way, and therefore have the power required to influence my mind in that way. What I think is wrong is saying that only the people who got the dissertations are in a position to properly discuss what should count as a dissertation, and that the public should take their word for it. If there aren't some topics at least regarding academia that academics and the pubic can meet somewhat as equals to discuss, then there would just be academics talking down to the public and expecting that the public should comply for their own good.

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  7. Anonymous, Yes, definitely. I especially agree with your last point. Wittgenstein wrote as he did as a way to resist being too much a part of academic philosophy. It is hard to see how that kind of writing can be then used for entrance into academic philosophy. Though this doesn't settle the issue of why a thesis can't look like the Investigations. Wittgenstein was able to write as he did because of, as you highlight, tremendous privileges he had. But he also produced good work. One can either say that such work can only be produced by such privilege, or say that one can try to change institutional structures so that people with less privileges can also contribute to such work. I think the latter is better.

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  8. HI, Bharath. Yes, I agree with your correction to my last sentence. I meant it only in the restricted sense matching your analogies with mechanics and lawyers, but I didn't thereby mean to deny the value of public comment on the academic institutions within our society.

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  9. Hi Bharath,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I have a rather lengthy response, and I warn that it is experimental in content. The "code" says it can't be longer than x characters, I have broken it in two parts. I hope you don't mind.

    I too struggled with the rigidity of what I saw academics following up on. Academics often producing research that, while not necessarily pointless, just didn't ask the right question, go deep enough or didn't open up the "philosophical" phenomenon for study. What were they doing, I sometimes asked myself, and why were they investing so much thought into nothingness? Did they leave mistakes just so other researcher had something to do?

    For my graduate research, I spent a considerable time studying a phenomenon, and I realised that my methodology and study of the phenomenon spoke from a different form of philosophical enterprise. Not merely that I used a continental framework to produce the study - to make it fit within the academic frame - but that the phenomenon itself, while historically considered philosophical in being, is, seemingly at least, no longer even grasped by most academics as relevant or meaningful to their projects (even much of it just reflects contemporary, unquestioned and not permitted to question, certainties).

    To turn to your work, I have a question about how you went about producing your writing. And note, my reason for the question follows the question itself.

    Did you write your "Wittgenstein like" work as a dialogue? And was it between you (the philosopher) and how you would expect the author (the interlocutor) you criticised to respond and with the mistake you expect him or her to make, cleared up or left as open by the end of your dialogue writing?

    I took certain Platonic texts as containing a previous study of the phenomenon that interested me. Which meant I was able to read Plato for my work. Reading Plato is always a kind of treat in my opinion, his poetic style and giving life to a discussion between two or more - that can be richly imagined - far surpasses the dry monologue of the "academic" style. Yet, while philosophical in context, intent and expression, those texts are distinctly not in an essay style.

    One of the things Mark Rowe, and others, note about Wittgenstein's (later) writing style is that the texts are partly structured as dialogues. There is an interlocutor that, for instance, makes various mistaken assumptions (often still undisclosed to them) and a voice that helps the other see where their assumption is holding them back from grasping something. Either in terms of pointing out and uncovering a phenomenon, where they had mistakenly jump on a proposition as true and don't (or can't yet) look at the phenomenon itself, or internal to a dialogue about something, where they fail to see inconsistencies in their propositions. There might of course be more ways in which a dialogue can help the interlocutor or reader overcome aporia.

    Continued below.

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  10. Continued from above.

    I asked my supervisor if I could write my thesis twice, once in an academic format to pass the assessment criteria, and once as a dialogue to pass what I envisaged a philosophical work should embody. The second thesis would have been in the form of a dialogue; the short answer was that it is a waste of time.

    Now, for a number of reasons I prefer the dialogue format for producing philosophical works. It allows for a play with language which can enrich the boundaries of the reader's play with what is said; it allows for the reader to listen in on a conversation in which they might be at the same place as the interlocutor and too need help from the philosopher; furthermore, the dialogue is a more open form of writing in which the language itself can help the reader understand what is written - and not the dry technical language of experts. Again, just some speculative reasons dialogues might be a useful format for writing philosophically, against the current mono-culture of academic essay style.

    Now, there is at least a weak tradition in philosophy for dialogue writers. Plato was a philosopher, surely Plato's writing is philosophical writing? Is it really only geniuses that are allowed to write in that form? Or is it that the academic education doesn't provide the space to learn literary abilities that would make writing in dialogues an option for most researchers? Their ability giving them the confidence to judge the quality of their students' dialogues? Is it that only geniuses can write in dialogues, the format too difficult for run of the mill academics? Again, there may be a plethora of reasons not considered.

    Is it right that Wittgenstein wrote in dialogue? Should a format of writing philosophical work as dialogues be encouraged and allowed within academic institutions? I guess I think it should, but then, I'm not a genius. I wonder if you have input to this, or whether I have missed the mark.

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  11. Erik, Thanks for sharing some of your experiences and thoughts. You raise many interesting points. I will pick up on a few.

    Re how I wrote my prospectus, you can see it in the prospectus post on this blog. I also think of the Investigations as consisting of dialogues; obviously not in the form of Plato or Berkeley, but dialogues at the level of thoughts of interlocutors. There is a kind of constant back and forth in the text which I think is enormously productive, rather than a standard essay, which is more like someone giving a lecture (which can also be useful).

    It is unfortunate that your supervisor said that writing a second thesis in dialogue form would be a waste of time. That too given you were willing to write a normal one. It seems to me that as long as the student is aware that by taking risks in forms of writing their chances on the job market are effected and is willing to do it nonetheless, I can't see a good reason why experimentation shouldn't be allowed. One reason against doing this: how it reflects on the supervisor or the department for letting its students write in the non-traditional way. But it is hard to take this seriously as a good reason, as if how some professors look to some other professors is more important than letting a person follow their passion as a writer.

    Whether, and how, there should be more diversity in forms of writing in academia is a big question. Much to be said on both sides, which links to all sorts of other interesting philosophical debates. What seems unfortunate is treating the issue of how philosophy is written as trivial or straight-forward. I think that is a way of losing sight of a whole slew of interesting philosophical questions and modes of entry into philosophy.

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  12. Bharath (if I may),

    Thank you very much for the original post. You've expressed some quite solid insights, and should be commended for having made them. The role that introspective investigation has in the profession usually eludes productive conversation, often attracting ostentatious grandstanding from partisans of various sorts. I hope that thoughtful readers will continue to take note of your autobiographical candor, your personal and professional humility, along with your careful and vivid manner of expression. There is no single take-home message here, but I especially appreciated your generalized defense of philosophical dignity.

    While I struggle with many of the same issues that you do, my struggles have caused me to arrive at different conclusions. One of the unique problems with your experience that you have pinpointed is that we need to think realistically and seriously about Wittgenstein's legacy. If we are told that we should not write like Wittgenstein, then intellectual good faith must compel us to conclude that either there is something wrong with the way Wittgenstein wrote or there is something wrong with our prohibition on writing like Wittgenstein.

    While at points you seem to be inclined towards the latter conclusion, my inclination is toward the former. Wittgenstein may have been a genius, but his writing was abysmal. He knew how to turn a phrase but not how to phrase an argument.* All the same, he was an insightful philosopher and I think his introspective approach was a productive one. So I think this is the right way to look at it: Wittgenstein's writings make for excellent first drafts, but professional philosophers ought to be interested in writing polished ones.

    * I exempt the first half of his Tractatus from this criticism.

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  13. BLS, Thanks for the positive energy and kind words. Yes, I also think that more serious reflection on Wittgenstein's legacy is needed. In order to determine if the way he wrote is right or wrong, we need to think along another dimension as well: and that is, whether one is doing academic or non-academic philosophy. It seems to me that Wittgenstein was quite confused in that he was an academic who didn't want to be tied down by any of the norms or standards of academia, that he wanted the community and resources of academia, but also the freedoms one can have as a non-academic. This is a version of wanting the cake and eating it too. I think there are lots of good things about how Wittgenstein wrote, but it is also possible, at least for the foreseeable future, that that way of writing cannot happen in academia, since it hard to know how to evaluate it in the way required within academia. And if Wittgenstein is going to be taught in academia, then again that raises similar questions of the relation between academic and non-academic philosophy. This is one of the great things about Wittgenstein's texts, in that they help raise these kinds of issue. But that is not a reason for giving the texts some special, privileged position in academia and treated as something other-wordly which only select geniuses can write.

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  14. I gather that we are not talking exclusively about academic or non-academic philosophy, but instead are out to figure out how we ought to be doing productive philosophy full-stop, and that professional academic norms that are worthy of being followed are those that help us do productive philosophy full-stop. Then there are questions about how the two relate: e.g., whether conventional strictures on publication in journals are making for good philosophy or are making things worse.

    When addressing those questions, I think we should make a different distinction: between philosophical method and philosophical publication (i.e., what you do in the first draft vs. what you put in the journals). While there are diverse ways of doing philosophy as a method, the standard boring essay format is a useful restriction in making sure philosophical efforts reach an audience of reasonable, non-boring people possessed of intellectual good faith. Wittgenstein's writing was right as a first draft, wrong for publication; the fact that he was either unable or unwilling to tailor his style for publication is a mark against him as a philosopher.

    Because I make this distinction, I am able to say that Wittgenstein expressed *himself* best when he was writing in his idiosyncratic way, even while that style was an unsatisfactory communication of his *arguments*. Unusual formats for doing philosophy (dialogues, diaries, blogs, etc.) can be quite useful when doing a first draft, and are not at all admirable when offered as a final draft for professional work. I don't want to live in a world where professional philosophers write like Wittgenstein. It is already hard enough to live in a world where Wittgenstein wrote like Wittgenstein. And those remarks are supposed to be useful in talking about his work as a philosopher full-stop, not just his standing as an academic.

    What I like about your initial post is that you emphasize the need for introspective adventuring. In my experience, the introspective approach to philosophical investigation has not been something people are willing to recognize as a means towards doing productive philosophy. You indicate that your experience has told you that Harvard is inclined to value that intellectual autonomy in principle, though they place limitations on it in practice. But my philosophical temperament inclines me to think a tempered enthusiasm for intellectual autonomy may be to an institution's credit so long as the right balance is achieved.

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  15. BLS, I agree with you that professionals shouldn't write like Wittgenstein. In 2002 when I was in grad school I thought otherwise. But now I think that, as you say (if I understand your point correctly), Wittgenstein's writing makes it hard to have the kind of group contribution which is essential to the academic enterprise. Perhaps this is what you mean by saying it is a kind of "first draft" writing, meaning that it hasn't been put to peer review. Certainly in another sense the Investigations is not a first draft, since Wittgenstein worked on it over and over again. But yes, not in the sense of giving it for publication and getting peer review comments.

    One place we might differ is that the idea that academics shouldn't write like Wittgenstein doesn't imply, I think, that it is not a good way of writing philosophy. This is because I don't think there is one way of doing "productive philosophy full stop". I think there are many different ways of doing productive philosophy, some better pursued in academia and some better pursued outside academia. Which is not to say these are radically different ways of doing philosophy, as if academics and non-academics are pursuing different subjects. They are different ways of getting at the same issues.

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  16. Yes, I think that is a fair way of putting the disagreement. I do not think his body of work demonstrated that he was particularly good at communicating his arguments. In many places, the writing was altogether bad. Competent written argumentation is an indispensable part of doing philosophy in the modern era.

    I think that we're both pluralists about philosophical activity. I believe there are many different ways of exploring the space of reasons worth caring about. I think tolerance should be issued for a range of methods of doing philosophy, and a range of ways of writing philosophy. But that range is bounded by the expectation that the author has in fact actually produced some perspicuous arguments.

    Mind you, I don't think that academic strictures actually have to be followed *all the time* in order to do productive philosophy, but I do think there is some kind of minimal requirement to do so. Berkeley had his Dialogues, but he also had his Treatise. Hume's own Treatise may have fallen stillborn from the press, but it was in all respects the main event, and he wrote his Essay to develop some interest in the prior work. We read Kant for his Critique, though we appreciate his Prolegomena.

    Speaking for myself, I would be altogether happy if I could just get one or two publications in one of the good journals, and then spend the rest of my time writing and thinking about philosophy in other venues. I really don't need to contribute to the scholarly logjam; frankly, part of me does not even want to. But it will be difficult to think of myself as a student of philosophy if I cannot do that much.

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  17. You raise some great points. I think pluralism is the way to go. Wittgenstein would be more interesting if he had also written some essay style, journal articles, and in particular made some effort towards the communal, scholarly mode of writing. It wouldn't have taken anything away from the Investigations way of writing, and maybe would have made it more interesting by allowing his writing voice to be expressed in different ways.

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  18. Hi Bharath,

    Thank you for your reply. The discussion has moved on and I would like to move with it if I can. Apologies in advance for my ostentatious use of tone, nothing written here is definitive. The points I make about Socrates can mostly be backed in Mark Rowe's 'Wittgenstein, Plato, and the historical Socrates'.

    Briefly, to clear one point. The supervisor was partly worried about the investment in a literary work, since it wouldn't affect the academic outcome; the project’s ambition was going to be a difficult enough labour, without a literary twin.

    Here my questioning is along the theme of what constitutes philosophical activity. I am curious about what you think being a non-academic philosopher looks like. Since internal to the academic community, philosophers are simply defined as those passed into and affiliated with the community, who is in, is pretty simple to resolve, however, what about those outside the community that do not belong to a group as such, who or what is going to allow them to say in seriousness, I am philosophical in my being, or otherwise?

    Let's look at the criterion for the academic group. If I followed your discussion with Nelson, then at the very minimum, academic philosophers must be argumentative in nature and have conformed to the agreed on rigorous writing standard (and published in a *good journal), to be an accepted part of the community. I am concerned that this screens out (buries over) a particular form of philosophical being, one that needs the intellectual community (for beautiful minds) and the resources of the academic institution, but because of their artfulness, for instances, don't conform to its author itarian writing style.

    Take Socrates for example, surely he could never have been an academic philosopher, since he simply refused to publish full stops

    Would Socrates' way of being, developing himself in our period, have decide to be on the side of the predominant academic trend, "well the academic climate in this age of being requires that to be erotic I need to write things down". Or would the eros that drove his philosophical being have withheld him from writing, instead devoting his voice and time in dialogue (spoken in phenomenological grandeur)?

    Again, this might be just another isolated case, if we consider Socrates a genius. However, it appears that Socrates is even further from well founded academic standing than Wittgenstein; at least Wittgenstein wrote something.

    So one of the (great) philosophers, it seems, could simply not be a philosopher in the academic sense. On the basis that he could not have been granted entry into the community. However, since we now appear to have an example of a non-academic philosopher (since academics at least agree he was a philosopher), maybe we also have at least one criterion for what makes a non-academic philosopher: to be like Socrates in being. Ironically-it seems-Socratics cannot be found at the academy.

    Maybe non-academic philosophers are like Catholic Saints, at some stage the community raises the memory of the person's enacted deeds to the status of philosopher and grants them a form of immorality, coming together to say, "this (pointing them out) way of being, that is philosophy enough to be one of us." Or maybe "philosophical kinds" are tied to their age, in the Ancient period it was possible to be Socratic and academic (with different minimum standards for the academy), but today that way of being is simply prohibited (directly\indirectly) by the "correct" activity of the dominant power?

    This is one example of a concern raised by your discussion with Nelson. I am not convinced that certain individuals ought not have the freedom of their spiritual cake and be given to eat too. I could of course be very wrong in my analysis and conclusion. I would be interested in how you think non-academic philosophers can demarcate themselves from other ways of existing that lack being predominantly "philosophical" in speech and deed.

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    1. I very much agree with the idea that standards for writing productive philosophy will shift depending on the historical context. I take it that a necessary condition is that you be willing and able to expose yourself to a diversity of opinion, and in particular the opinions of informed and interested persons possessed of intellectual good faith. The Athenian square did a pretty good job for Socrates, but it's no good today.

      But where do we find a concentrated audience of informed and interested people possessed of intellectual good faith? Sometimes the answer is within academia, sometimes it isn't. It depends on whether the people who implement the formal processes of evaluation within academia are doing their best to satisfy the need for good faith exchanges, and keeping up with the latest technological and social opportunities that make it easy to do so.

      With some exceptions based on new developments (e.g., open-access journals, controlled academic blogs), I think it is clear that the journals are not keeping up. But it's also not clear that the gray literature (e.g., casual academic blogs) is always doing a very good job at facilitating public productive discussion of the sort that is required. It is catch-as-catch-can.

      Maybe philosophy in 20 years will all be decentralized blogging. (Given certain provisos, I wouldn't mind.) But I think that this is one of the things the profession will have to decide for itself. Moreover, I think the clearest writing tends to stick roughly to the essay format. I'm not convinced that the Investigations counts as clear in any historical period.

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  19. Bharath, thank you for another extraordinarily honest and self-searching post.

    On the issue of Wittgenstein and how to write, have you ever seen this book?
    Richard Eldridge, Leading a Human Life: Wittgenstein, Intentionality, and Romanticism?

    http://www.amazon.com/Leading-Human-Life-Wittgenstein-Intentionality/dp/0226203131/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1419649529&sr=8-2&keywords=richard+eldridge

    I think it speaks to very many of the concerns you explore above, so would really encourage you to have a look. It is also exceptionally beautifully written.

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    1. Cathy, I read parts of Eldridge's book a few years ago. I found the main themes really interesting. I find this kind of Cavellian reading and self-exploration more interesting than most secondary literature on Wittgenstein. Yet, the main thoughts I was left with when reading Eldridge's book were: Since he finds Wittgenstein's writing so powerful, would Eldridge rather write that way than how he wrote his book? If so, what is stopping him? If not, why not, and why doesn't Eldridge discuss this explicitly?

      This were the kind of questions I also had when reading people like Cavell or Diamond. In their writings I had the feeling that what was always in the background was being critical of certain "standard" readings of Wittgenstein, as if anything to do with Wittgenstein had to come back to how Hacker or Kripke or whoever was missing something in the Investigations. I was, and am, more interested in thinking about how to continue what I find interesting in Wittgenstein, rather than trying to highlight some special way of reading of his texts. What would a communal approach to doing philosophy the way Wittgenstein wrote look like, where we can stop worrying about explaining he did, and didn't do, and just do it ourselves? This seems to me the most pressing question re Wittgenstein.

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  20. Erik, Thanks for the very thoughtful comment. I especially like the analogy to Catholic Saints. Yes, I think that is how thinkers like Socrates, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard are treated by academics, as if the academics later bestow on them the glory of having been good philosophers after all. This is more than a little ironic, not to mention ridiculous.

    As for what I think non-academic philosophy looks like, I think there is a crucial difference between academic and non-academic philosophers. The academic philosopher makes a claim on society that she has an expertise that is unique to academic philosophy, and so other people need to be mindful and respectful of this. This is part of having the role of professor or teacher. A non-academic philosopher can make no such claim. Whatever claim she can make is due simply to some people finding what she is saying interesting and thoughtful, and giving it some attention and engaging with it. Beyond this I don't think a non-academic philosopher can lay claim to anything. This means partly that there are no special non-academic philosophers who are to be separated from non-academic non-philosophers. Anyone can be a non-academic philosopher. What matters is not what expertise they have, or what education they got. What matters is simply what they say or write or do such that it promotes thoughtful discourse in society. Naturally concerns about whether they are really a philosopher or a scientist or an artist or a politician are also not relevant. This means that the non-academic philosopher requires a certain kind of patience or commitment to waiting for others to find her interesting, and to live with the mindfulness that if one lives a reflective life, then like minded people will congregate and change becomes thereby possible through such group action.

    There is much more to be thought through about the contours of non-academic philosophy, and that is one of the aims of this blog. But I hope this at least gives a sense for what I have in mind.

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