January 16, 2015

More Than Collegiality

Once when I was in graduate school a new tenured professor joined the department. In a kind gesture to learn about the new department he was joining, he emailed the graduate students saying that he was wondering what we think might be improved in the department and any suggestions we might have. I imagine he received many responses.

In my response I said that I thought the department could be improved by having the faculty debate each other publically. I said it was wonderful that Harvard had faculty with such diverse conceptions of philosophy (some Wittgensteinians, some not; some for whom Anscombe is a great moral philosopher, some not; some who value metaphysics, some not, and so on), but it was unfortunate that there is little open discussion regarding such differences. Often what people thought about their philosophical differences with their colleagues seemed to be conveyed by a raised eyebrow here, or a smile there, as if the differences had to be covered over by the veneer of collegiality. In my response I said that if there were monthly public discussions between the faculty about their differences, that would be fascinating. And that moreover it would have great pedagogical value. We tell undergraduates that they should disagree with their peers in a respectful way, and yet the faculty don't seem to model this, choosing to overlook in public their differences with each other, rather than be committed to engaging with each other in the hopes of making some shared progress.

My response was motivated by my persistent desire at the time to thwart the, as I felt it, "business-as-usual" attitude in the department. It seemed strange to me that faculty would travel the world to argue for their views and their conception of how to do philosophy, and yet treat the disagreements they had with fellow faculty down the hall from them as inevitable and irresolvable. I wondered: what would happen if the faculty spent even a quarter of their research time talking to each other publically (in debates and conversations open to anyone), and seeing if as colleagues they could come to some substantive convergence in their views? Or what it would mean if they felt unable to come to any such convergence, and kept disagreeing? Would that suggest that something in the mode of philosophical discourse we were pursuing was itself problematic?

Behind these questions was a broader question: could the mode of inquiry I was being taught in graduate school help to resolve the most pressing disagreements in society (between this and that religion, atheists and theists, Republicans and Democrats, etc.)? On the one hand, it seemed obvious that this was supposed to be the big deal about academic philosophy: that it was a mode of rational inquiry which could help with making progress on interminable issues which were dividing the society. Yet on the other hand, how could academic philosophy help make such progress when it seemed unclear whether it could even help make such progress between philosophical colleagues? Could philosophy help end wars when it didn't seem able to even bring two faculty members into closer alignment on their views?

I see now, in a way I didn't back then, that my response to the new tenured faculty member could be seen as a kind of challenge to the very education I was receiving. The new faculty member had perhaps something more mundane in mind when he emailed the graduate students: maybe more interaction between faculty and graduate students, or better social gatherings to foster good will in the department, or more focus on finishing the dissertation in six years, etc. As I saw it, any such more mundane (though definitely real) concerns themselves depended on a basic fact: that it was not clear if a department was anything more than an administrative unity which tied together faculty members whose primary intellectual interlocutors were people in other departments.
It seemed to me that this was a basic result of the professionalization of the subject. The primary interlocutors for, say, a philosopher of mind are other philosophers of mind, that too philosophers of mind who work on just the topics one works on. If a philosopher of mind and a moral philosopher differ on a philosophical view (say, whether the causal theory of action is right), how can they go about trying to resolve the disagreement? Or should they rather concede the issue to a philosophers of action? Add to this conceptual issue the practical issue of time, and how each faculty member is busy in keeping up with their writing commitments and their interactions with scholars around the country and the world, and it seems as if public interactions between faculty members in the department are reduced to the most minimal norms of politeness or collegiality. No wonder it seems hard to change the culture and momentum of departments. It is like a couple trying to make life altering decisions in the midst of their independent jet-setting schedules, catching each other over a dinner here or a lunch there, for an hour here or a couple of hours there.

In contrast to this constant hecticness, which is the standard state of faculty who are generally overworked and have to function in departments which are overstretched (even in the "top" places), in my response I was imagining a different world in which departmental colleagues turned their energies and time to engaging substantially with each other. A department like Harvard has 15-20 faculty members. What would it look like if that department was treated as a microcosm of the philosophy profession, and those 15-20 philosophers committed to engaging substantially with each other, not just in terms of coauthoring essays, but in terms of taking their disagreements seriously, and seeing if they can make headway. Against the idea that philosophical progress happens by each sub-discipline churning out truths pertinent to that sub-discipline, I was imaging what kind of progress can be made if one just put 15-20 people in a room, as it were, and told them to sort out their views on some of the central philosophical questions. Perhaps that might lead to a kind of progress which could not be found on the just talking to one's fellow specialists model.
The new tenured professor responded to my email with a polite thank you, and that he would think about what I said. I don't remember now how it happened (perhaps I sent my email to the faculty as a whole), but I got more spirited responses from some of the other faculty. One said that I was making too big a deal of the supposed differences between faculty members; that at bottom all the faculty were friends, and that there wasn't the kind of deep seated differences I was attributing to them. Another faculty member said to me that in my email I had "crossed the line"; that it was somewhat presumptuous of me to say which faculty members are more, say, Wittgensteinian than others, or to judge how faculty members do or don't talk to each other. The basic point that was reiterated to me by several people was that the faculty got along better than my email suggested, as if I were trying to suggest there were more chasms in communication between faculty than was the case.
I found this response bizarre. My point wasn't that the faculty weren't friendly to each other. If anything, my point was that they were too friendly to each other, so much so as to cover over in public the much more interesting philosophical differences which came through in their classes or their written work. As I saw it, my email had nothing to do with the personality or friendliness of the faculty. It had to do with whether certain forms of public philosophical discourse were becoming impossible in the profession.
In Oxford in the 50s, for example, it was possible for colleagues in the same department to argue that something about the other's ways of doing philosophy was confused. As was the case with Austin and Ayer. True, back then such philosophical disagreements went hand in hand with petty personal disputes. But I felt that such deep philosophical disagreements between colleagues created a kind of philosophical energy which brought to light all sorts of interesting issues and questions. What I was wondering in graduate school was: where did such disagreements between colleagues go? It seemed to me that the attitude of my teachers was to say good riddance to such unprofessional bickering, as if academic philosophy had now entered a more enlightened age of mutual respect and collegiality.
But there is another interpretation as well. In the mid-20th century it was still possible for philosophy professors to deeply disagree with each other in public about their philosophical views, even going so far as to say that the others' mode of doing philosophy is confused. This was because back then there wasn't the pressing worry that such "internal bickering" would make the philosophy profession look bad to outsiders. Thinkers like Wittgenstein, Austin, Anscombe, Quine, etc. worked at a time when the value of the philosophy profession wasn't in question, at least not to the degree it is now; their jobs weren't on the line. It is a mark of the privilege they had that they could put each other down, and still expect the funds to keep coming in to keep up their livelihood.
Things are quite different now. At a time when universities are facing budget cuts, and the value of the humanities are in question, how would it look if philosophy professors disagreed with each other and weren't able to come to some common understanding? It would look as if there are no objective guidelines in the discipline, and that would fuel the questions of the value of academic philosophy. I felt this was the root of why there weren't public debates between faculty in the department: if the internal disagreements were made too public, then there is the worry that perhaps undiscerning people would dismiss the profession as a whole as pointless.
I understood this worry. But I had the opposite feeling. I thought that if the general public saw philosophy professors honestly, openly, searchingly critiquing each other, even though they were colleagues in the same department, they would be inspired and moved by that. The public would be able to see that the root of the differences wasn't personal, as if the professors didn't like each other, but was something deeper, more intellectual, more profound. I felt that the happy, we-all-get-along collegiality was actually making it harder for the public to understand and appreciate philosophy. For if the philosophers already get along with each other, as if it was simply a matter of being good colleagues, then it seemed as if philosophy as something which we can help us overcome our differences is not needed for philosophy professors after all. Worse, it might look to the public as if philosophers were afraid of losing their funding, and so were being ultra polite with each other so as to put up a united front to the public.


  1. This is an interesting post. I have two reactions. First, are you sure that the faculty don't do some version of this? I don't have any knowledge of Harvard in particular, but at my school the faculty do have reading groups, including a group at which we read one another's papers and give comments. This isn't something that's open to an audience. It's just a group of faculty. So, to the graduate students, it might appear that there's little interaction among the faculty. But that would be false. Maybe something similar goes on at Harvard.

    My main thought, though, is that what you're imagining seems a bit different: you want some kind of debate on the basic issues animating different philosophical positions. I can see the value in that. I can see why it would be interesting for observers. But from another perspective, it is a distraction. If you think your colleagues are approaching issues from a defective way, or that they operate with assumptions you reject, etc., why think your time is best spent correcting them? Just to pick one of your examples: I think Scanlon is wrong about all sorts of things and I find his basic approach to ethics mistaken. But this doesn't make me want to spend lots of time trying to persuade him that he's wrong. Who cares if I can show him that he's wrong? There's limited value in that. I'd rather spend my time developing alternative positions that seem to me to address more interesting philosophical questions.

  2. Anonymous, No doubt at Harvard there are reading groups, and faculty read each other's work and give comments. What I had in mind was the public version of actually engaging each other's work, a kind of debate. I am not saying the faculty should spend all their research time debating each other in public. But I do think it would be beneficial if more of that happened. Re your Scanlon example, yes, as an observer I would love to see you and Scanlon debate. I don't even know who you are, but you saying you think Scanlon is importantly wrong is enough for me to be interested. And it is not about you or Scanlon convincing each other, anymore than engaging with one's critics in journals is about convincing them. It is about philosophers who are colleagues in the same department making explicit their differences and trying to engage with each other regarding those differences. If you disagree with Scanlon, a great way to make progress would be to have a conversation with him and see how, and to what extent, progress can be made. And if such conversations can be useful to the philosophers engaging in them, better to have them in public.

    If people in the same department aren't talking about their deepest differences with each other, that seems to me a tremendous waste of potential engagement. And if they are talking to each other, but only at their homes or in bars when they are by themselves, that seems to me a pointless way of keeping the public at bay.