another quick note to Camels With Hammers

July 29, 2009

Camel has already responded to my response. I’ve been trying to avoid ongoing back-and-forth exchanges on one conversation, but will make two quick points here:

After the last post I thought Camels was urging a democratic free-for-all of debate to replace the current licensing and hierarchizing arrangements of academia. But in the current post Camels seems in favor of the opposite extreme:

“I have long speculated that what would be most ideal would be a philosophy-worldwide, academic messageboard, readable by all but accepting posts only from philosophy professors and philosophy PhDs. Only philosophy departments could grant and maintain access for professors and their unemployed PhDs. Maybe provisions would be made for graduate students under sponsorship of departments.”

I wouldn’t be in favor of this, since I don’t think the dominance of Philosophy Ph.D.’s in philosophy has been a good thing for philosophy. For my generation there still wasn’t a very good practical alternative, except for studying a neighboring discipline and writing philosophical books from out of that discipline– Latour would be a good example (or Nietzsche, further back). But for the coming generations, I think there’s a real chance that having a Ph.D. in philosophy, and perhaps in anything else, will sink to near-irrelevance in determining who is or is not treated as a philosopher. This feeling is based on the suspicion that universities, largely for financial reasons, are about to enter a long, cold winter with many fatalities. But perhaps I’m underestimating the ability of universities to reinvent themselves on the fly. Professionalizing disciplines does increase organization and filter out the real kooks, but it doesn’t always increase the overall quality of a discipline. Sometimes it stifles or crushes those with the most independent minds, and creates legitimized careerists. It all depends on the extent to which it’s done.

In response to my worry that it might be a bad thing to lose specific, articulated, finished projects to a ceaseless flux of real-time intellectual discussion, Camels says this:

“One of the things that I have started to wrestle with is the illusion of the great thinker or the settled position. I wonder if our present view of writing and publishing encourages us too much to harden positions.”

I’m not in favor of hardened positions. I’m in favor of discrete projects that are finished and then left behind, to be replaced by new projects that are outgrowths of the later ones. There is plenty of room for ad libbing discussion and back-and-forth discussion on topics that arise from the flow of the conversation. But at a certain point it’s important to back away from such interaction and say: “OK, here is the complete version of what I currently think.” That’s not a hardened position, because you can always change it over time, and in fact it should evolve over time if you’re doing honest work.

All right, calling it a night. Morning at the Embassy looms.

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