Consider an academic philosophy book, say John McDowell's Mind and World. What is it to understand this book? Here are three kinds of understanding:
1) Biographical: We learn about McDowell's life and how he came to write the book. We understand the book by seeing how it came to be written in the course of his life.
2) Conceptual: We think about the arguments and reasons McDowell gives in the book (about conceptual content, second nature, etc.). We understand the book by tracing his ideas in the book to ideas of other authors, evaluating his ideas, trying to improve on those ideas, etc.
3) Institutional: We consider the institutional forces which shaped McDowell's writing of the book, such as who he sees as his interlocutors, which philosophers and philosophies he is able to ignore and still be taken seriously, how the book fits into his standing in the profession, and so on. We understand the book here by seeing it as shaped by broad institutional structures, many of which McDowell as the author might himself never have thought about.
Conceptual understanding is a standard way of understanding philosophical texts; standard at least in the kind of departments I was educated in and taught at. The skills concerning this kind of understanding are what I was taught in my classes, and which I was supposed to exhibit in articles I was to publish.
What was also standard in my education is the idea that biographical understanding is irrelevant to conceptual understanding. Just as the biography of a mathematician is irrelevant to evaluating her proofs, so too the biography of a philosopher is supposed to be irrelevant to evaluating her ideas and arguments. This view is plausible only if we take the product of philosophical thinking to be ideas independent of how one lives one's life. For if how a philosopher lives her life can be evaluated, then certainly knowing something about her biography, the trajectory of her life, would be relevant.
But even if we focus just on the ideas and arguments, it is amazing that in my education we never explored institutional understanding. As a student I was presented with essays and books as if the forms of production of those texts - the networks within which they were written, the role the texts played in considerations of tenure or promotion, etc. - were altogether irrelevant. As if there were thinkers independent of any institutional pressures who were thinking pure thoughts; as if the essays I held in my hands merely put me in touch with those thinkers' thoughts; and as if my task as a fellow thinker is to free myself of any institutional concerns I might have and engage with those pure thoughts.
Often when reading a book like Mind and World, I wondered to myself, "What is this collection of pages, and how come institutionally they have such power over my mind, and over my formation as a thinker? How does this book get such institutional power?" The blurbs on the back or the preface of the book sometimes gave some clue to how the book came to exist, but beyond that, there were no clues to be found. The more the book seemed important, and the less there was any institutional understanding of the book, the more the ideas in the book seemed to glow and shine, as if whatever halo surrounded the book was just due to the power of the ideas within it. And yet, the prestige of the book or the author suggested that clearly institutional forces were at play.
What kind of questions are relevant to an institutional understanding of, say, Mind and World? Here are some examples.
1. From within what networks did the text arise? In the book McDowell engages with the work of Strawson, Davidson, Evans, Sellars, Gadamer and so on. Strikingly, most of these thinkers, perhaps with the exceptions of Sellars and Gadamer, are people whom McDowell knows and with whom McDowell must have had quite a few, ongoing conversations. Here there is a big difference between McDowell's situation as an academic, and that of most academics: in writing the text McDowell is engaging with some of his close peers, and making sense for himself of where he is similar to them and where he is different. Here is a luxury McDowell has that most academics cannot have: he can think about the people he engaged with closely in the course of his career, never think beyond those interactions, and yet produce a text which is widely influential. Why? Because the circles in which McDowell moved, and moves, set the stage for many of the debates in analytic philosophy in the past forty years.
This raises all sorts of interesting questions: Can one produce better work when one personally knows top thinkers and so one is able to understand those thinkers' ideas within the context of human interactions? For example, one might ask, "Does McDowell properly understand Strawson or Evans' work?" In practice this question is hard to take seriously (though certainly possible), if one knows that McDowell was a close student of Strawson's, and that Evans and McDowell were great friends. Here the awareness of the human relationships affects the amount of leeway one gives McDowell in thinking about whether he is getting things right. With a marginal thinker the reader might be quick to dismiss the author's interpretation. But when we are aware that the author personally knows the thinkers he is engaging with, one reads with greater patience, holding oneself back from being critical as quickly. This is one kind of advantage one gains by going to top schools and getting to know, however minimally, the famous thinkers. One thereby acquires a certain cache which people who went to less well known schools don't acquire as much.
None of these kinds of institutional facts show that McDowell's views in the book are wrong or flawed. Of course not. But institutionally what is more basic than whether a given view is right or wrong, justified or unjustified, is whether that view or debate is seen to be pertinent or interesting. Naturally nothing of these institutional facts settles the issue of whether perception has conceptual content, or what kind of naturalism is right. But is our sense of the most pressing questions prior to, or are they themselves dependent on, our sense of who are the most important thinkers? Which comes first?
2. Are some ideas only taken seriously if they are articulated by someone well known and/or tenured? One of McDowell's key claims in Mind and World is that many questions taken seriously by contemporary philosophers are in fact confused; they have to be not answered, but in fact overcome, or dissolved. This Wittgensteinian claim was part of what drew me to the text. But as with Wittgenstein, this kind of claim is taken seriously in top departments only if it is articulated by somebody from the inside. That is, if the thinker has already proven themselves from within that they are a capable thinker. This raises all sorts of interesting questions. What does it say about the profession if there is a distinction between possible pre-tenure views and post-tenure views? Could it be that institutional momentum precludes raising certain kinds of questions and views before one has tenure? If so, are there other views which cannot be raised not only pre-tenure, but even post-tenure? If there are such views, could they be invisible from within professional philosophy, and would require being out of academia to articulate and think through properly?
3. To what extent must a thinker lay out the institutional implications of his views? Given that McDowell endorses a form of quietism in Mind and World, according to which the aim of philosophy is the dissolution of questions, in what ways can he be a traditional philosophy professor? McDowell argues that the Cartesian understanding of nature is confused, and that there is a mode of naturalness (second nature) which is missed by Descartes and many subsequent thinkers. Given that he believes this, and given that most introductory classes in philosophy teach Descartes in the traditional way which McDowell opposes, is it incumbent on McDowell as a professional philosopher to outline what can be an alternate and better way of introducing philosophy to students? Intuitively, it seems like McDowell has such a responsibility. After all, if you think X is confused, and you are a teacher, then you would want to do whatever you can to make sure that X isn't taught to students. Which leads to yet other questions: If McDowell as a thinker does not commit to changing professional philosophy in this way, is he guilty of a kind of practical contradiction? Furthermore, what kind of alternate modes of teaching philosophy can McDowell foster? Is there some sense in which the institutional momentum makes it hard to make such changes? If so, is professional philosophy a space in which all philosophical views and their implications can be equally and dispassionately considered, or do institutional structures always themselves favor some philosophical views over others?
These kind of questions, which concern institutional understanding, aren't more important than questions which concern conceptual understanding. Of course one can read Mind and World to think just about the myth of the Given or how to interpret Davidson's views. Those are important, and they aren't secondary to issues of institutional understanding. But to engage with philosophical texts only to gain conceptual understanding seems to me to vastly underestimate the potential of those texts. Many more interesting philosophical questions can be raised by going beyond the questions raised in the text to thinking about the text itself and how it functions within various institutional contexts. Insofar as my education was silent about questions concerning institutional understanding, it failed to introduce me to many ways of doing philosophy.