February 21, 2015

Friendship Moderates

In the previous post I said there are two ways in which academic philosophy is being professionalized: what I called Internal Push, which is academics trying to professionalize themselves so that there are some explicit, discipline wide norms, and External Push, which is the discipline being professionalized due to the broader commercialization of academia. Both Internal Push and External Push are a threat to Protection, which is the ideal that as an academic one is given some money to basically think about whatever one wants, and which is supposed to guarantee that an academic job will have the freedom unavailable in non-academic jobs.

I also distinguished in the last post three approaches one might take to professionalization in academia. A conservative is an academic who resists both Internal Push and External Push as a way to retain Protection in its old fashioned form. A moderate is one who tries to have Internal Push but without External Push; so which tries to have autonomy as a profession from broader economic forces, but then seeks to use that autonomy to legislate laws to itself which apply to the profession as a whole. And a radical is one who embraces both Internal Push and External Push, and gives up on Protection in the old-fashioned sense and accepts that in important ways an academic job is just another job like any other.

The appeal of Conservatism is obvious: if one has a very robust sense of academic freedom, then one doesn't want anyone, including fellow academic philosophers, telling one how one should be an academic. The problem with Conservatism is equally obvious: without a push to have discipline wide norms, the status quo remains as it is, and so doesn't address the pressing issues concerning minorities, lack of jobs, etc. A conservative in this sense, like conservative Republicans in politics, can acknowledge that academic philosophy has many big problems, but sees doing anything that endangers Protection as going from the frying pan to the fire. The process of change has to be slow and individual: over time the norms will change if each person chooses to be different, but, on this view, no one should be forced to change. Forcing change, either from the administrators or from people sympathetic to, say, Feminist philosophy, is seen by a conservative as akin to coercion.

I can understand the conservative's argument, but I am not moved by it. The concept of freedom and Protection that underlies Conservatism is too extreme, and I don't think it is worth retaining. The conservative makes it seem as if the freedom as an academic is something intrinsic to each academic, as if just in virtue of being an academic one acquires a special freedom. But here intrinsic is being used just as a code word for untouchable, as if no one should disturb it. There is, however, nothing intrinsic about academic freedom in the sense that it is granted from on high, or from within one's soul as an academic. The freedom one has as an academic is bought at the cost of other academics not having such freedoms, and the ideal that every academic can have the freedoms of a Wittgenstein or a Rawls is a fantasy. Fill in here one's favorite liberal argument for welfare, universal healthcare, etc., and apply it to academic philosophy.

If one gives up Conservatism, and wants to be a moderate, then one faces a pressing question: what binds all academic philosophers together such that they can agree the laws they legislate to themselves bind them all? It can't be something as abstract as rational beings, since that would apply to non-academic philosophers as well. And it can't be something as concrete as culture, since academic philosophers come from a variety of cultures and backgrounds.

There are two broad options for moderates, what I will call friendship moderates and professional moderates. According to a friendship moderate, what binds academics together is the fact that they are friends; where friends is a concept which is more concrete than rational beings, but not as concrete as culture. And according to a professional moderate, what binds academics together is the fact that they are all academic philosophers; so, on this view, it is implicit in the very concept of an academic philosopher that there are norms that apply to all of them. 

There is of course a close connection between friendship and professional moderates, since both seek to avoid the extremes of conservatives or radicals. The main difference between friendship and professional moderates is that a friendship moderate, like a conservative, doesn't use the very concept of being a professional philosopher to ground the self-legislated laws. To a friendship moderate that would be too much like radicalism, since a professional moderate claims that there are some rules that every academic philosopher has to follow. The friendship moderate avoids this by saying that the self-legislated laws are grounded not in something professional, but rather just in the fact that academic philosophers are friends. For a friendship moderate, the more friendly academic philosophy can be made, the more change is possible in the profession without threatening Protection and saying academic philosophers are obligated accept the norms.


When I was in academia from 1995 to 2011, in the circles I was in friendship moderates were the dominant group who set the departmental cultural mode. I grew up in an Indian cultural context in which teachers are gurus, and so are people more advanced than the students, and so are people who the student should look up to. Not all Indians think this, but it is how I grew up. One of the things that surprised me the most as an undergraduate was the fact that many of my philosophy professors seemed to eschew any such looking up, and in fact insisted, even to a point that made me feel uncomfortable, that we were all just friends. Why uncomfortable? Because the idea that my philosophy professors are just like my friends never occurred to me, and in fact was contrary to how I tended to think of philosophers I admired. It's a funny thing to be told by one's teacher, who is in an obvious position of authority, that we should engage just as friends. Is this a friendly request or an order? I was never sure, and that was the source of my discomfort.

In the interactions I had with my professors it seemed as if this mode of being friends was motivated just by the goodness of the professors, as if they had moved beyond the hierarchical structures of gurus or teachers on high, and were able to engage with me simply as a fellow human being - as a friend. What I did not realize back then, and probably neither did my professors, was that the emphasis on friendship had broader institutional causes. In particular, it was a way to argue for change in the profession without explicitly calling for change. If people stood up and said, "we think academic philosophy is insular and deeply unfair, and we need to change", then inevitably there would be a lot of disagreement in the profession, both about what the problem is and what the solutions can be. Down this road there would be an inevitable schism in the profession, where people would have differing views about what it means to be a professional philosopher and what kind of actions are deemed to be acceptable and unacceptable. 

The focus on friendship tries to avoid this by suggesting that in spite of all the possible differences all academic philosophers are still bound by the ideal of professional friendship; that as academics people care for each other and are looking out for each other. This was what made me uncomfortable with friendship moderates. For it was never quite clear what one was signing on to by saying yes, we are friends. The friendship moderates I knew wanted to change the profession, but they didn't want to say openly and publicly what problems there were in the profession, and why change is needed. If that was made explicit, then again there would be the worry of open, and painful, disagreement in the profession. So a middle ground was sought to push towards change without making the need for change too public and so too contentious.

It is relevant here that the schools I studied at were Cornell and Harvard. For better or worse, these are some of the schools that are considered among the best. I didn't realize this back then, but this meant that my professors, just in virtue of getting jobs at such departments, became representatives of success in the profession, and so became representatives of the profession. Therefore if they spoke out too openly about the problems in the profession, they risked, just in virtue of their high profile in the profession, making public the rifts which were simmering within the profession. A professor at Harvard is like a prince or a princess: in spite of whatever happens to be one's opinions, part of the job is recognizing that the position one has is one which pretty much everyone else is aspiring to. This can be a tremendous amount of pressure. I felt it as a graduate student, and I imagine it gets worse as one goes higher up the ladder. It is no wonder then that the talk of friendship between professors and students was so pervasive. For the professors it was a way to lessen some of the pressure, and to deflect the responsibility of their position onto everyone.

In the last few years, through the sexual harassment issues in high profile cases such as those of Colin McGinn and Peter Ludlow, the problems with friendship moderation have started to become evident. For, while on the one hand, friendship as an ideal draws people together and suggests that they are equals, on the other hand, friendship in interactions implies a kind of informality, one which doesn't erase the power dynamics but simply makes them hidden.

McGinn and Ludlow don't seem to me to be conservatives in the sense I define above. They seem to me more like friendship moderates: people who want to change the profession and who think that relating to colleagues as friends fosters the right attitude for creating such change. The issue of friends is at the core of both the situations. On McGinn's view, he and the graduate student were friends who were trying to change, and challenge, the norms of professional philosophy, and as friends, there was romantic interest. Similar thing is true in Ludlow's case. If a professor and a student, even an undergraduate are friends, why can't they get a drink or be physically intimate? This is the troublesome question friendship moderates confront.

Of course, to say two people are friends doesn't mean there can't be harassment; certainly there can. But it does provide a different perspective on what kind of professional culture created such situations. McGinn and Ludlow are adults, and so they bear the responsibility for their actions. And if they acted towards their students in ways that traumatized or otherwise hurt the students, then they are responsible.

There is, however, a broader question: were these cases of just some "rogue" individuals acting immorally or illegally, or was the professional culture they were a part of also responsible, a culture which emphasized over and over again how there is no deep distinction between professors and students, and how everyone is just friends? If the alleged facts are true, the female students in McGinn and Ludlow's cases were victims, and for the harm done to them McGinn and Ludlow should be held responsible. But in another, and very different way, McGinn and Ludlow are themselves also victims. Because once their scandals broke, people were critical of these individuals without bringing much into question the overall friendship culture which many of McGinn's and Ludlow's colleagues had helped to foster.

Again, McGinn and Ludlow are responsible for their individual actions. But if what they did was wrong, it wasn't because they were perverted men taking advantage of women. If anything, it is because they took the friendship culture too literally and too much at face value. What they failed to see were the broader problems with friendship moderation, and how it enables the ideal of friendship to unwittingly reenforce problematic power dynamics. This broader failure is not unique to McGinn or Ludlow, but belongs to the broader departmental cultures they were a part of.

And yet, as those stories broke, at least from my perspective as a non-academic who has access only to new coverage and the philosophy blogs, it seemed as if proponents of the friendship moderation culture were content to recede into the background and let McGinn and Ludlow take the blame, as if they were outliers, and as if it had nothing to do with the broader departmental culture. Or even if broader academic culture was blamed, it was pinned on old-fashioned conservatism, as if McGinn and Ludlow, though they had been so hip and cool, had turned out to be no different from the previous generations of male academics. What was not brought out was that what the McGinn and Ludlow situations highlight is not only the problem with academic philosophy culture in general, but also, and more particularly, the problem with the friendship culture which had been adopted as a way of changing academic philosophy. It brought out clearly that there is something deeply wrong with the friendship approach, and that it is not a sustainable model for creating change in academic philosophy.

Independent of issues of harassment, there is another big problem that friendship moderates face. The ideal of friendship can draw all academic philosophers together only if the working and living conditions of academic philosophers are roughly similar. But as getting a job in academic philosophy becomes harder and harder, it is hard to reach out beyond the disparities in the situations of academic philosophers to claim that they are all nonetheless united through a common bond of friendship.


So conservatism is problematic because it doesn't enable change in academic philosophy. And friendship moderation is problematic because though it enables some change, it does so at the cost of submerging and hiding power dynamics, rather than bringing out those power dynamics out into the open and transforming them.

The options remaining are to be either a professional moderate or a radical.

The professional moderate claims that there are some norms intrinsic to being an academic philosopher, and so it is the identity of being a professional philosopher which grounds the laws which academic philosophers give to themselves. The main problem with this view is that it sounds great in theory, but there is no way to find and decide on which norms are intrinsic to being a professional philosopher other than to fight and argue with each other. If some group of academic philosophers say "professors can't date graduate students" is a norm of the profession, then other some other group can, and will, stand up and say "No, that is not a norm, and we say so because we are academic philosophers and we don't think so." Once the debate gets to this stage, there is no neutral standpoint from which it can be decided what norms are essential to being an academic philosopher, any more than it can be decided what norms are essential to being an American or a member of a family or a community. Continual factions and disagreement is the inevitable consequence. Of course, this doesn't mean that some views aren't right, and others are wrong. But it does mean that there is no institutional cache from within academic philosophy which can determine which is the right view such that everyone should follow it. This is the situation that academic philosophy is currently entering.

Ultimately, there is only one way that discipline wide change can be implemented in the most effective way. And that is from on high, from the university administration. To accept this is to be more of a radical, since one then accepts that academic philosophy is not that different from any other job. As with any job, the norms that one follows are given by one's higher ups.

This is why I think in the coming decades more and more philosophers are going to go into university administration. In the past, being a university administrator was treated by academics as if one is no longer able to do "real" work and so one is falling back onto doing busy work. But this idea from the past presupposes that as an academic you get to do what you want (conservatism), or that in general there are norms intrinsic to academic philosophy which academic philosophers can settle for themselves (the moderate view). As the problems with both of these views become evident, and as the fate of academic philosophy becomes embroiled more with the fate of academia in the broader economy, having some say in the university administration is going to be a main way to be able to create academic philosophy as one wants it to be. Then academic philosophy and the administration won't be two separate domains, but one broad domain in which the influences will run in both directions.


  1. Another fine analysis - thank you, Bharath.

    I really agree with you about the disadvantages and dangers of friendship moderation. Having also seen it operate a great deal in the academic world, it seems to me that it also harms students insofar as it undercuts the ability of their teachers to give critical feedback on their work, when it is needed. If the student is encouraged to see their teacher as their friend, then if suddenly the teacher seems to be saying their work is not very good, students can become very confused and upset. "I thought this teacher was SO nice, and now they are being really mean to me. They are actually a horrible person". At this point certain students will turn to other teachers who they perceive as 'nicer people' and 'better friends' for support, and if those teachers have personal or professional rivalries with their colleague who is trying to give critical feedback then the whole situation can become quite messy.

    I don't agree with you about caving in to the 'radical' position though. You write:

    "there is no way to find and decide on which norms are intrinsic to being a professional philosopher other than to fight and argue with each other..."

    Yes, but this *is* the philosophical task! We can do it for ourselves SO much better than administrators could do it for us. So we better.

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