The more I realized this, the more I got angry. Not mainly at my committee, since they started to seem to me like mere mortals who didn't know what to do. I got angry at Wittgenstein. I thought about what Goldfarb said about me not being Wittgenstein, and I realized he had a point. Not about my philosophical capacity, but about the sociological fact that I wasn't seen as a genius, and so I couldn't write the way Wittgenstein did. The more I thought about my prospectus, the more Wittgenstein's hypocrisy became clearer to me. He leveraged his being categorized as a genius to be in academia without in any way taking responsibility for improving academia or even thinking about how others might continue on his path. Seen from this light, the special halo around the Investigations started to seem rather different; that it seemed unique because it was unique, literally unreplicable because the kind of leverage Wittgenstein was able to have as an academic was no longer possible. I realized Wittgenstein still shines brightly because the sun is setting on the way he was able to do philosophy, assuming that he could do philosophy, get to its "deepest impulses", without talking once about the institutional structures which made his writings possible. From this angle, the very thing I loved the most about Wittgenstein's writing - its steadfast individuality and challenge to hierarchy - seemed like an illusion, that the text in a sense was the height of privilege, because it could pretend as if it was written outside an institutional context, as if it was just a person thinking to himself.--Bharath Vallabha "What is a Dissertation?"
My eighty-page (or so) preliminary essay, "On The Puppet Image of Plato's Laws 644d," was composed as a line-by-line commentary on an image that had already gripped my imagination when I had taken a graduate seminar with Nathan Tarcov at The University of Chicago. At the time (second half of the 1990s) the so-called preliminary essay -- defined loosely, I think, as 'a publishable paper,' -- was the final hurdle (in lieu of comps that had been abolished a few decades earlier as some of the older faculty would recount) before one would select a committee and write a dissertation prospectus. After a tough transition during the first six months in graduate school, my best friend gave me a Bullmastif (Saggy) [recall] I was thriving at Chicago: I loved soaking up all the books, talking endlessly with other more brilliant grad students from other departments, and meeting stimulating minds from across the university in dog-park. The late Ian Mueller had agreed to chair my preliminary essay, but he was ambivalent about my overconfident choice of other readers: he could not imagine that it would be easy to satisfy Howard Stein and Martha Nussbaum simultaneously. He respected them both immensely, but knew better than I did that their sensibilities might pull in different directions. I admired them both, and was thrilled to have them as a captive audience for my musings.
During my research and drafting of the preliminary essay, there was only one premonition of danger ahead. One Summer I had returned to Amsterdam, and in a moment of foolish haste I had put my copy of England's 1921 commentary on the Laws of Plato under my cycle's back-binders. When I parked my bike alongside a canal, my heavily annotated England slid into the water outside my reach.
When I finally turned in my essay, things did not go as I expected. Mueller was decidedly lukewarm about the final product but willing to pass; Howard Stein gave me the highest compliment I have ever received on any of my writings; and, much to my horror, Martha Nussbaum strongly implied that my work really wasn't (professional) philosophy.* Not realizing the gravity of the situation, I dug in, and argued something to the effect that if Plato is philosophy then a commentary on Plato would also be philosophy. I had assumed that this would clinch the case with the author of a commentary on Aristotle's De Motu Animalium. But it didn't, and my career in professional philosophy came close to ending.
I did eventually pass (with the lowest possible grade) after some cosmetic changes to my essay,* and Martha Nussbaum, whom I continued to admire, and we made our peace later. Arguably, she was trying to do me a favor by getting me to professionalize--something I resisted for a few more years until it was almost too late (recall).
My memories were prompted by Vallabha's essay.
Vallabha is unfair to Wittgenstein, although, perhaps, not the Wittgenstein as taught at Harvard in his time. This is not to deny that the underlying thought of Vallabha -- his anger directed at those privileged academics who fail to take "responsibility for improving academia or even thinking about how others might continue on" their "path" -- is unjustified. (I recognize the anger and it has fueled much of my polemical blogging during the last half decade.) It is not: it's quite possible that the present generation of professional philosophers (I do not exclude myself) fails miserably on this score. We think badly about institutions and think worse about our discipline's survival (as constrained by demands of justice); as the water is rising one vainly searches for generous and magnanimous souls while the life-rafts leave the underemployed and unlucky behind. Perhaps philosophy's future is in the hands of those like Vallabha, who have turned their backs on the academy--true philosophy's spirit is not essentially tied to the university, and it is possible that it finds shelter in places overlooked by those within the discipline.
Even so, on reading and re-reading Vallabha's fascinating essay, I noted that the key word in it, echoed like a refrain, is 'freedom.' But in Vallabha's hands it is, surprisingly enough, given the criticism of Wittgenstein, a freedom that is coupled with a gift (that is, in his conceptual framework one receives freedom from others or gives/allows it to oneself). Now, I am not suggesting that freedom cannot be so-given--after all, it's the kind of freedom that a paradigmatic Lord (or The Lord) provides to her subjects. To paraphrase Wittgenstein this is like "a gift in a fairy tale;" it feels good from inside, but from afar it looks less impressive. Don't misunderstand me: I have nothing against a gift economy (for all I know it's superior to the one studied by Samuelson, Arrow, et al.); it's by no means obvious that this (freedom as gifted by some deus ex machina without or within) is a freedom worthy of philosophy (if we understand this as an activity that only owes roosters to Asclepius). I prefer an 'analytics' of the gift, where giving proceeds in terms of a (unfolding) relationship of trust (for details see here). Given that so much of the modern academy is structured around zero-sum-goods, each island of mutual trust within it is a little miracle (and a lot of hard work).
* I lost the UBS stick with my copy in the snow in Syracuse. The title of my post is a nod to Dotson.