January 7, 2015

A Viable Alternative?

In response to my previous post, there were many great comments, both supportive and critical. There is much for me to think about there. One comment by an anonymous commentator (let's say, "Commentator N") articulated something which I have long vaguely felt, but which I have never quite been able to articulate, or to bring clearly to my consciousness. I feel there is a lot packed in it, which is worth exploring. One of the key issues is: Is there a viable alternative to the hierarchical model of contemporary academic philosophy? If so, what does it look like and how can we get there? And if not, what does that mean for the ideals of collegiality and equality within the profession?

Commentator N:
At the risk of stating the obvious, it seems to me that the most fundamental problem that Bharath has pointed out here has no solution short of a total dissolution of the whole system of academic philosophy. Setting aside the contingent forms that "exclusion" or hierarchy or whatnot can take -- to do with race, sex, etc. -- the problem is simply that the system consists in (i) a small number of people who enjoy massive privilege and wealth (at least relative to the rest of the "profession", or society), (ii) a somewhat larger middle class, (iii) a much bigger pool of people endlessly struggling to scrape by or hold on to whatever temporary and often exploitative toe-hold they may have found for themselves. 
This is the essential nature of our "profession". At least, that is its essence so long as we are talking about the kind of institution or system that fits into any larger economic-political-social world like this one. There is just no way that all or even most of the people positioned within that kind of system, and depending on it for their livelihoods, can engage with each other as authentic philosophical friends (fellow seekers of truth, moral or intellectual equals, etc.) It's impossible given the nature of the system itself (or that plus human nature, I guess). And this is why all the nice-sounding "progressive" talk -- of inclusion or equality or collegiality or whatever -- is so deeply inauthentic. The people at the top may sincerely want inclusion or whatever, or may think they want it; but there is just no way for the world of philosophy to approximate these ideals, except in the most shallow or trivial respects. 
So Bharath doesn't go far enough, in my opinion. Not only is "being nice" not enough to change the situation in a meaningful way; neither is "speaking out" clearly and forcefully. Unless speaking out leads to the replacement of the current system of massive (arbitrary) privilege for a tiny minority, the inauthenticity and alienation that Bharath is describing will still be there. If anything, it will be even worse as a result of people at the top "speaking out". Because then it will be even more obvious that (a) the things they are speaking out against are in fact the necessary conditions for the privileged positions they are never going to voluntarily give up and that (b) if anyone lower down in the system were to publicly mention this fact the consequences for him or her could be devastating. (If those at the top "speak out", this implicitly enacts and symbolizes the vast and arbitrary differences in power between members of our "community".) 
I have no solutions to offer, but I wish for more honesty from those at the top. Stop pretending that you care so deeply about equality, inclusion, etc. This is just transparently false. None of you guys are going to make any real personal sacrifices for those ideals. That's only human, perhaps. You like your jobs, the nice salaries and security and perks and travel, etc. You don't want to give up any of that stuff. Fair enough. I'd probably have the same attitude if I were in your position! But let's stop pretending that we're all on the same side, that we are facing the same "issues", concerned about the same things. Anyway I take it that this is the real source of the discomfort that Bharath is describing. In reality we live in a kind of feudal system, but an especially perverse and dishonest one where the aristocrats pretend (sometimes) to be just regular folks -- regular serfs. And the serfs had better go along with that pretense (sometimes). Let's be a little more real! At least it might simplify and clarify things for everyone. 

My response from the last post:
Absolutely brilliant comment! Yes, that is what I feel. Well, not that academic philosophy should be dissolved. Nor that the people at the top don't care. As with anything, my sense is that some people at the top don't care (are happy with the feudal structure), some care a little more, and some care very much. But the question is, which you capture really well: what does an ideal academic philosophy profession look like? Do we even have a possible, viable answer to this question? 
One thought, which is the fantasy thought, is: lets make the top open to everyone, and we are doing it! This might work in terms of letting any one come to be in the top structures. But what about all the people who nonetheless don't, and can't get in, since the top structures depend on the lower-tier structures, and want people to be down there as well? Without putting anyone down, my sense is that in the top departments (by which I mean, the most financially well off ones), there is a kind of strange attitude that somehow the hierarchy and egalitarianness have been magically combined. But how can that be, especially given, as you [Commentator N] so well put it, academic philosophy is embedded within broader academic structures which are more and more becoming a part of our overall cultural structures? I don't know the answer to this. But it is a great question.


  1. Though there is much here to think about, I am going to turn off comments for now. So many helpful things have been said in the past few days, that I would like to think about that more. Commentator N, I am sorry for starting this new post, but turning off the comments. There is much for me to process at the moment. Please know that your comment really spoke to me, and thank you for that.