Osborne and Hallward on philosophy, disciplinarity and taking power

Yesterday evening I attended an event at Goldsmiths (organised by the Visual Cultures department) at which Pete Hallward and Peter Osborne, the two Middlesex philosophy professors who have been suspended over their participation in the Save Middlesex Philosophy campaign, had been invited to speak on the topic of ‘Philosophy and the Teaching of Philosophy in the UK’.  It was an extremely interesting event, and so I thought I’d try to get down a summary of what was said and make some comments on it.

Osborne on the (trans)disciplinarity of philosophy

Osborne began proceedings with a presentation centred around the topic of the problematic disciplinarity of philosophy.  For those of us who attended the conference on Transdisciplinarity in French Thought at the French Institute in London organised by the CRMEP back in April, Osborne’s talk was the continuation of the comments he made there in his introductory remarks (which were as a whole more interesting, so far as the theme of transdisciplinarity goes, than many of the subsequent talks at the conference, which somewhat failed to live up to the clear vision Osborne and the other organisers seemed to have for it).

Post-Kantian philosophy, in all its various incarnations, is constituted as a discipline, in its own eyes, through an engagement with its own relation to the non-philosophical.  Osborne then ventured an account of the difference in attitude towards this question of the constitution of philosophy’s disciplinarity between what he termed the ‘dialectical and post-dialectical tradition’ (which he takes to subsume so-called ‘philosophies of difference’) and ‘the analytic and post-analytic tradition’.  The (post-)analytic tradition, according to Osborne, treats its own disciplinarity as a problem in solving which the disciplinarity of philosophy is constituted.  The (post-)dialectical tradition, however – and for this reason Osborne takes it to have a more interesting approach to these issues – sees the disciplinarity of philosophy as constituted in the very process of ongoing problematisation of its own disciplinarity.

Osborne’s next major thesis was that the metaphilosophical question, ‘What is philosophy?’, is not a philosophical question, but rather a historical question concerning the historical unfolding of academic educational practices.  We discern what philosophy is, according to Osborne, by engaging with the history of how philosophy has constituted and perpetuated itself.

This constitution and perpetuation exhibits a peculiar relation that philosophy has to its own history, and its own historicality.  Philosophy constitutes itself as a teaching discipline by the teaching of its own history.  Philosophy lays out its own history as constitutive of its conceptual field.  And yet, there is an accompanying suspension of the historicality of that history, a temporal levelling such that the conceptual field constituted is flat and open.  Any area of the field is accessible to engagement and criticism in a way which is indifferent to its temporal location.

Insofar as philosophy constitutes and perpetuates itself as a discipline, then, it does so by these three manoeuvres:

  1. A constitutive relation to its own history;
  2. A suspension of the historicality of that history;
  3. A problematisation of its own disciplinarity.

In thinking about this issue of philosophy’s disciplinarity, it is important, according to Osborne, to distinguish between philosophy and philosophising (or thought and thinking, or even knowledge and truth).  The difference here is between philosophy as a constituted body of knowledge, as a teachable canon, and philosophy as an open-ended activity.  Insofar as there is something ‘special’ about philosophy (and Osborne was quite willing to entertain the idea that this is a sort of ‘chauvanism’ on the part of philosophers), it lies in this activity and its open-endedness, which overflows any constituted body of knowledge.

This overflowing is constituted by a relation to the objects of other disciplines.  Philosophy is not, according to Osborne, necessarily concerned with other disciplines themselves, but rather with their objects, to which it takes itself to have a more privileged, a truer, relation than the other disciplines do themselves.

This engagement with the non-philosophical, which Osborne takes to be constitutive of philosophy as an activity, is indicative of the transdisciplinary potential of philosophy.  While Osborne has offered us an account of philosophy’s constitution as a discipline, perhaps more important from his perspective is this transdisciplinary character.  The concept of transdisciplinarity already has a prominent existence in the academic institution as a bureaucratic concept, as part of the jargon of managerialism.  The challenge, as Osborne already posed it at the April conference, is to think a philosophical concept of transdisciplinarity.

Osborne began to take up this challenge by distinguishing two tendencies of transdisciplinarity: (i) anti-disciplinarity and (ii) hegemonic disciplinarity.  When a concept traverses a disciplinary boundary, it takes on a certain anti-disciplinary momentum.  It challenges the isolation, consolidation and constitution of the discipline into which it enters, as well as of that from which it crosses.  In these moments, the segregation of mutually relevant concepts into separated, constituted disciplinary spaces is challenged.  However, this anti-disciplinary character of concepts as they traverse existing disciplinary boundaries can easily degenerate, and these concepts come to form the basis of a hegemonic disciplinarity.  Osborne made use of the illustrative example of the Anglophone reception of concepts from post-’60s French philosophy, which quickly came to constitute literary studies as a hegemonic discipline within the humanities.

Osborne ended his presentation by emphasising the need to maintain the critical, anti-disciplinary edge to the transdisciplinarity of philosophising, and of the production and use of concepts generally.  In the use of any concept, we must be attentive to whether that concept is problematising the field it occupies or moves into, or whether it is serving as the basis for a hegemonic disciplinarity.

Osborne’s talk was extremely interesting, and I am very much in tune with its general flavour.  Particularly interesting is Osborne’s characterisation of philosophy’s peculiar constitutive relation to its history.  I think this notion of a constitutive historical field the historicality of which is suspended is a pretty astute observation, even with regards to analytic and post-analytic philosophy.  Clearly post-analytic philosophy lacks the fervour for ahistoricality of the trailblazers of the analytic movement (self-professed analytic philosophers are generally far happier now than has ever previously been the case to thematise their own relation to their tradition and to the philosophical tradition in general), but even those remaining staunch analytic puritans can’t help but continue to self-consciously occupy the problematics of such named ancestors as Frege, Carnap or Quine.

Another point on which I agree with Osborne’s analysis is his emphasis on the distinction between philosophy as a body of knowledge and philosophy as a problematising activity.  This is an important distinction to bear in mind, because it is all too easy for philosophy to become simply a certain literary canon to be kept, preserved and passed on like some precious commodity.  If philosophy is simply a body of knowledge, then it is all too easy to contain it within a disciplinary institution, and philosophising, due to the sort of transdisciplinary potential Osborne highlighted, is resistant to this sort of containment.

This is something of which we need to be mindful in the fight to keep philosophy alive in the university today.  There has been a lot of talk about preserving the specificity of philosophy against managerial attempts to merge university departments into broader research schools along the lines of some bureaucratic concept of interdisciplinarity.  But is this focus on the specificity of philosophy the best way to defend the place of philosophising in the university?  This specificity is all too often understood methodologically, as if philosophers were in possession, in virtue of some disciplinary training, of a distinctive toolkit for approaching conceptual problems.  I think we should be suspicious of this notion of ‘the philosophical method’.  If we are determined to justify the place of philosophy in the university as a distinct disciplinary presence, then we need to take account of the peculiar transdisciplinary potential of philosophising, and it is this with which the specificity of philosophy needs to be reconciled in any successful account of the character of the philosophical activity.

Hallward on the philosophy of power and the power of philosophy

Peter Hallward’s talk had quite a different character to Peter Osborne’s.  Inspired, one can assume, by recent goings on at Middlesex, Hallward began by posing the question of the power, or impotence, of philosophy, and of philosophy’s engagement with the concept of power.

Hallward began by distinguishing two traditions of engagements with the relationship between philosophy and power.  According to the first (to which belong such figures as Plato and Rousseau), philosophy must take power, must be empowered, in order to overpower those who would seek to thwart its principles.  According to the second tradition (to which belong such Kant, Kierkegaard and others), philosophy must abstain from power, with a view to creating a free space for thought.

Hallward evidently takes an engagement with a concept of power as taken to be an important task for philosophy and critical thought generally, and he identified a fertile tradition of thinking about this concept in the French philosophy of the late ’60s and early ’70s, centred around the ENS in Paris and particularly around Louis Althusser and his students.  This group produced two journals, Les Cahiers marxistes-léninistes and Les Cahiers pour l’analyse, and although only the former was explicitly political in its content, the latter’s staunchly theoretical works were penned in fidelity to the Leninist maxim that there can be no revolutionary movement without revolutionary theory, and to Althusser’s belief in the necessity of theory for maintaining the scientificity of Marxism.  At this time, philosophy in France was thoroughly engaged with the question of what it would be to take power, how it could be held and how it could be used to overpower those who would use power to foster injustice.

Despite the productivity of this intellectual work, Hallward identified a gradual turning away from the concept of power as taking power and towards other modes of thinking about power, a turn which Hallward suggested was ultimately disempowering.  If philosophy has been allowed to become hegemonic, in the sense of hegemonic disciplinarity discussed by Osborne, that is, if philosophical concepts have been permitted to thoroughly permeate academic discourse in the humanities and the arts, this is because philosophy has lost the corrosively critical edge that came, Hallward argues, from its engagements with the question of taking power.

This disempowering drift has occured, according to Hallward, across the political spectrum.  On the ‘contemplative left’, discussion has shifted from taking power to becoming powerful, becoming intense, maximising potentiality etc., that is, towards a more ontological engagement with the concept of power (i.e. Deleuze).  On the ‘activist left’, we see an attempt to sustain fidelity to those Marxist-Leninist and to Maoist themes of taking power, attacking and taking state power etc., but eventually even here we see a retreat from these strategic questions of organisation and the state to more formal questions of the subject and the event (i.e. Badiou circa. ’88).  Even on the right, we have a movement from politics to ethics, to issues of responsibility, justice etc.  And at the centre (figures such as Foucault and Rancière), power comes to be understood as something constituting, something inhabited, something which ‘takes you’ but which we cannot ourselves take.

While these more contemporary engagements with the concept of power have proved fruitful in a number of ways, they lack the critical edge of the philosophy of the late ’60s and early ’70s, and as such have left philosophy impotent in the face of encroaching globalisation, renewed ‘humanitarian’ imperialism, the rise of neoliberal capitalism and other such threats.  But Hallward ended on the hopeful note that issues of organisation and of strategy, of the state and of taking power seem to be re-emerging into philosophical space.  As philosophy finds itself under attack in the university, such strategic issues are once again rising to the fore, and this, Hallward suggests, is a valuable tendency that must be fostered.

As with Peter Osborne’s presentation, I find myself favourably disposed towards Peter Hallward’s remarks.  However, I would have liked him to develop more clearly where he sees the return to a thematisation of power as taking power in philosophy today.  I’ve come across this as a strongly emerging trend in Žižek’s work of late, but other than that I struggle to think of examples.

It would have also been interesting, given that the theme of the event was in fact indexed to the UK, to see if Hallward regarded the UK itself as having yielded anything of interest on these topics, or whether recent French philosophy has been the sole bastion of this sort of philosophical militancy.

A final comment: one was often left wondering whether anything specifically philosophical was going on in any of the essentially political theorising with which he was primarily concerned.  Does philosophy have anything in particular to bring to the discussion of taking power, or is Hallward more concerned with a general ‘critical thought’?  This brings us back to the issue I raised regarding Peter Osborne’s talk: What is the nature of philosophy as an activity?  If it is simply ‘critical thinking’ or ‘critical inquiry’ (or ‘critical theory’), then is there anything that really sets philosophy apart from activities that go on in other disciplines?  Or should the activity of critical thinking, regardless of the disciplinary context in which it finds itself, be considered philosophical?  I would be inclined to the latter view, except for the worry that this is the sort of philosophical chauvinism Osborne was concerned to avoid, according to which only philosophy can engage in problematising, critical and conceptually-productive thinking.


There were various interesting threads which came up or were continued in the subsequent discussion.

The first comment was made by the chair of the discussion, Alex Düttmann of the Goldsmiths’ Visual Cultures department.  Düttmann noted that despite the widespread teaching of critical and radical philosophical texts, self-professed ‘radical intellectuals’ often fail to take their critical philosophical discourse into their dealings with the managerial bureaucracy of the university.

Peter Osborne responded to this that university politics isn’t about about bringing philosophy into the faculty meeting, but about engaging with university practice.  He made the interesting observation that, given the supposed rise to prominence of immaterial (cognitive) labour, you would expect a general intellectualisation of labour.  But what we have seen instead is the proletarianisation of intellectual activity.

In response to this, Alberto Toscano commented that what is going on in the universities today cannot simply be captured in terms of the proletarianisation of intellectual labour; the peculiar simulating character of managerial measurement.  There is a perpetual demand for measurement and monitoring, but the information collected is almost entirely fabricated ad hoc, bearing little relation to the realities of academic practice.

Osborne made the further addendum that these developments ought to be understood at the economic rather than the political level, a remark which he took to be contra Hallward’s approach.  From this comment, a debate arose concerning the scope of student politics.  Hallward suggested that student movements could fight off the sort of managerialisation and proletarianisation being discussed by Osborne and Toscano with the proper level of organisation and mobilisation, but Osborne was keen to emphasise that educational problems cannot be solved at the level of student politics, but require a wider economic and socio-political struggle.  In response, Hallward suggested that student movements could act as a catalyst for a wider movement, although Osborne remained sceptical.

The core issue in the present struggles surrounding the university, according to Osborne, is the nature of ‘a university education’.  What is a university education?  What is it supposed to do and how is it supposed to do it?  I agree with Osborne here: this is an issue to which all of us concerned about the way in which universities are functioning within neoliberal capitalism today need to turn our attention.  Taking our lead from Althusser’s ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’, we need to consider the role the university plays in reproducing the relations of capitalist production, as well as the role the university plays in facilitating the changes in the mode of capitalist production that allow the capitalist system to convert limits into opportunities for growth and new spaces of exploitative profiteering.


To summarise, these are the key questions raised by the event:

  • What is philosophising, and how does its critical transdisciplinary potential relate to its disciplinarity?  Specifically, how should we view the fight to maintain philosophy’s distinct disciplinarity given the centrality of the transdisciplinary impetus to its critical role?  Should we be fighting instead for a transdisciplinarity on our own terms, rather than on the bureaucratised terms of the management?
  • What is the role of philosophy in the project of taking and holding state power, or in political strategy more generally?  How should we understand the Leninist maxim (no politics without theory) today?
  • What is a university education today, and what should it be?  How does the university function in neoliberal capitalism, and how might the university function as a site for galvanising wider anti-capitalist political struggle?
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