A few minutes into the conversation she asks the inevitable question. “So, what are you working on?” You say, “nothing.” Or to make it perfectly clear, you say, “I am working on nothing.” You are met with a suppressed shock (without the awe) that barely obscures your companion’s dark thoughts: you are living “dead wood,” worse, someone who has the gall to admit it. ...
No doubt this motivational desert was in part created by personal and familial challenges, as well as the extraordinarily disturbing current political climate. But I’ve become convinced that my deepening disappointment with professional philosophy is what broke the camel’s back. The solution might have been to sever all ties with professional philosophy—people do—but I’ve been part of this discipline for too long and know too many people. It remains part of my identity. It’s worth mentioning that I didn’t stop all writing. There were blog posts (some relating to the philosophy profession), as well as miscellaneous unpublished writings. But no traditional scholarship in philosophy...
Academic disciplines in our time have been subjected to a productivity principle: more is better, and a lot more is even better than better, giving rise to a kind of productivity syndrome, in which “more is better” becomes one’s modus operandi. Alternatives to this MO come to seem unnatural, and quantitative measures take center stage. For example, while we may rail about the importance of quality, the reality is that for tenure and promotion decisions, as well as a host of other professional perks, quantity rules the day. Honestly, how often have you heard of someone not receiving tenure because his or her colleagues said that the quality of the work was unacceptable? Of course this happens, but I am asking you to consider how often. Having served on many internal and external reviews, my take-away is that quantity, and prestigious venues, are typically what win the day. Yet, there is no guarantee that a book or article published by a prestigious press is of high quality. We all know that weak or mediocre books slip through, for various reasons. Quantity is so much easier....
Academic culture has become monomaniacally infatuated with productivity as a marker of accomplishment, of a successful academic life, of a successful life, and quantitative measures have become increasingly important in determining what counts as success, as we see, of course, in other sub-cultures of endeavor. It’s increasingly difficult for people in America to consider non-productivity markers as acceptable indicators of a successful life, and academics are not immune to this productivity syndrome. Quite the contrary. Although they can be found resisting (mildly) the measurements of productivity foisted on them by university administrators, they also enthusiastically measure themselves. It’s hard not to impress oneself by the number of one’s publications. ...
Philosophy was supposed to be different from other disciplines, or so I thought some 45 years ago when I was hooked. Philosophy has been deeply committed to the honing of critical skills for millennia, as well as to enhancing our capacity for thoughtful and sustained reflection on matters public and private. Philosophers were supposed to be the fearlessly critical ones. The ones who wouldn’t be sucked in. The ones who stood back and said, look, don’t uncritically buy into the values of your society. Question. Reflect. Think. Are these values truly those of a good life? Socrates was the archetype. Sadly, too many philosophers have decided to set old Socrates aside, embracing the productivity principle with varying degrees of fervor. And to make matters worse, a lot of these people have highly visible positions, which makes them, even more unfortunately, the face of the profession.
I was naive to have believed that philosophy would be different—that philosophers would be more vigorously critical (even about their own professional activities) than those in other disciplines—but I never fully gave up on the hope over the years. Today I am close to despair on this front–hence the motivational crisis. I don’t want to be part of the productivity system. I don’t want to be identified with academics or philosophers who suffer from the syndrome....
I left Penn State for Juilliard....You don’t get a more competitive crowd than Juilliard students and faculty, and yet there are significant differences from traditional academia. There is an intense investment in quality, but few ways to translate this quality into numbers. It’s not how many Haydn quartets you have played. Rather, it’s how well you are playing this one. I am not saying that there isn’t careerism. But that careerism isn’t tied to quantifiable productivity in the same way it is in academia.
Where were the philosophers who should have been saying that philosophy doesn’t play the productivity game?!? The unexamined life is not worth living. And living as a vehicle for production—as an instrument of production instead of as an instrument of action, of life—must be resisted, must be fought. And fought in the name of philosophy.
None of this speaks to the deeply personal and tradition-bound reasons we have for wanting to write philosophy. But we must find a way to separate the activity of expressing ourselves from the commodification and commercialization of that expression, which is at the heart of the productivity syndrome.
Here is another suggestion: stop writing philosophy for publication for an extended period of time. Announce this decision to colleagues. Be willing to say that this is for your good and for the good of philosophy. Acknowledge that you need time to reflect on what the productivity preoccupation is doing to philosophy and to you as a philosopher.--Mitchell Aboulafia "The Productivity Syndrome (or why I stopped writing philosophy)"
Aboulafia's piece resonated with quite a few friends and was circulated widely on social media. While the piece touches on many issues along the way that I ignore in what follows, in it he offers at least six competing visions of philosophy. Let me list these first:
- The Socratic one, which involves "thoughtful and sustained reflection on matters public and private" and is willing to be critical of ruling values..
- Philosophy as self-expression (in the context of a tradition).
- The sophistic one, that focuses on productivity and is incentivized by measures of these.
- The artistic model focused on quality of performance.
- The dilettante who writes blog posts and other occasion pieces.*
- The teaching of philosophy.
It is a bit unfortunate that Aboulafia runs the question of professional philosophy and the question of philosophy together. Perhaps because I spent a good part of my professional-scholarly life writing about men and women who were never employed in universities or by the Church [Descartes, Hume [who tried to get a position], Hobbes, De Grouchy, Margaret Cavendish, Toland, Mandeville, Spinoza [who declines an offer], Du Chatalet, Leibniz, J.S. Mill, Wollstonecraft, Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau, etc.], I think it's important to keep track of the difference.
So, first, today it is unlikely that Socrates, who disliked writing for publication, would get tenure on his public philosophy. (The turn to emphasis on productivity is actually fairly recent, I am just old enough to remember tenured folk with very short publication records in many department.) But there are additional reasons to doubt he would be tenurable; Socrates would be a bad colleague: he would show up late for meetings, be uncollegial, and would take an unhealthy interest in the sexual lives of some of our students. In addition, his relentless willingness to scrutinize and deviate from the norms of society would make him a liability to any university. Socrates's execution is a warning that his is a high risk approach to philosophy for society and the person pursuing it.** I call this the Socratic Problem for philosophy. Nobody has solved it.
To move on: the artistic model is an attractive one because quality is grounded in technique and elite, daily scrutiny by teachers and peers. As Coetzee is fond of noting (see "What is a Classic" and my response here), these can sustain interest in relatively neglected artists, works, and approaches. We can understand literary criticism, Coetzee argues, as a contribution to a culture focused on quality. But the political economy and infrastructure that sustains such elite art, including Julliard, is ultimately rooted in performance to a wider public or rich donors. And so, in part, in uninformed opinion (which, when applied to philosophy, opens the door to the Socratic Problem). While the artistic model can be applied, in part, to philosophy [and is to be discerned in the ways that philosophers are increasingly becoming ornaments to and the in-house futurologists or ethicists of billionaire-software-entrepreneurs], philosophy faculty and graduates are not public performers in the relevant analogous sense. That is, and to be a bit deflationary, the artistic model is rooted in institutions focused on professional education (and they rise and fall with the market for these professionals). I don't deny the artistic model is worth having. I admire Robert Pirsig and, more recently, Mathew Crawford, who have both pursued it in their writings (both by pointing to it and living it). Adrian Piper is finally getting the recognition for her version of it.
Third, philosophy as self-expression within tradition has important merits. It taps into a human need, and connects and extends the past (tradition) into the future. But there are two not quite related problems: (i) few selves are really all that interesting--and, when interesting (note Socrates above), they tend to be a poor fit for department life; (ii) it's hard to see this being a promising strategy for survival in publicly funded institutions, where both financial scarcity and the need for public justification are non-trivial.
Fourth, the dilettante is by definition unprofessional. I hope it is clear I am no enemy of the dilettante (I hope i am not delusional in saying that I have a track record in which I exhibit and show a certain fondness for blogs and occasion pieces). But by definition the dilettante is not at home in a profession. It's not to deny that all the fruits of a dilettante can be turned into sophistry (I could share my blog numbers and citations, after all), but that would be self-defeating given the aims of Aboulafia.
So, that leaves teaching and sophistry which is (ahh), despite many national and institutional differences (which can make a huge local difference), the status quo for the profession. Aboulafia and I agree that teaching of philosophy is noble and justifiable, and that the sophistic model is corrosive of philosophy in various way (although it need not be corrosive to society [recall])--most of my blogging history is an attempt to document this corrosion so won't repeat today. Even so, it is a bit unfortunate that (i) Aboulafia ignores that many of us (sophists in our research) keep teaching Socrates, Plato and the other critics of Sophism (then and since) to our students (few other professions can say that!); and (ii) Aboulafia ignores some other noble and self-vindicating alternatives that can be housed in universities:
7. Together with Roger de Langhe, I have offered an ameliorative (and very broad tent) strategy (here) for those of us fated to be professionals in a sophistic system: philosophy as exploratory research. (Go read it, and tell me what you think!)
8. Philosophy as service (recall Dotson).
9. Synthetic philosophy (recall this post)
How to do 7-9 without being corrupted by the pervasive sophism is for another day.
Here I want to close with a critical thought on Aboulafia's conflation of careerism and productivity. For in his disillusionment, he loses sight of the fact that there is nothing wrong as such with people publishing lots of philosophy in scholarly journals (unless one buys into Socrates's privileging of the spoken world over the written one).+ Yes, there are some technical problems (shortage of referees, journal capture, echo-chambers, etc.), and some publications generate inductive risk to society. But intrinsically publishing philosophy is a pleasing activity that keeps all kinds of conversations going -- that just is (recall) the mark of civilization -- and is a public record of our individual and collective efforts. In addition, it is a discovery procedure of what one thinks over time (so, oddly, it contributes indirectly to (2) philosophy as self-expression in a tradition [recall!]) and, if not pay-walled, it is a public good, that is a means to discovery by others (recall).
In fact, I sense in Aboulafia a suspicion of quantity as such. That is, there is not just a veneer of careerism that hangs over quantity, but, in his hands, also superficiality, a lack of profundity and depth. Aboulafia's rhetoric is one that used to be espoused by gentlemen-amateurs in hierarchical societies annoyed at the upstarts (professional, rootless, meritocratic, etc.) who upend existing hierarchy (and the old-boy networks they sustain). But this rhetoric rests on a mistake. (Aboulafia recognizes it is a mistake -- "the system makes it too easy to substitute quantity for quality" --, but can't resist himself.) Most of the best philosophers (we know of today in our traditions) were manifestly addicted to writing their thoughts (in notebooks, letters, etc.). This is no surprise: philosophy is, in part, a written craft, which requires enormous amount of exercise even for those that have scaled -- sorry for the elitism, but I am addressing an elitist argument -- the peaks of our history. This need to practice and exercise the skill is also true for the professional journeymen/women, who publish in journals. Of course, not all of these exercises are worth publishing (that's why we have editors and referees, etc.).
Some of us are so good at writing professional philosophy that taking an occasional break from such writing can do no harm and may even advance philosophy in the broader sense. But professional writing, publication, requires exercise, and the best form of such exercise for many is ultimately regular, attempted publication.++