Here is an important text by Bill Cooke (I believe it’s the person linked – if anyone knows otherwise, please let me know) on the 2014 Research Excellence Framework – its unethical abuse of individuals’ rights to privacy, its inappropriately individualised model of assessment, its dubious attempt to construct what Cooke terms a ‘tariff of suffering’, in which journal articles become a unit of currency by which to measure against one another academics’ personal ordeals, struggles and tragedies – and, consequently, why it cannot be allowed to take place.
One of the things that’s striking about the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’s white paper – which prompted yesterday’s student demonstration in London, seemingly destined not to attract any further media attention due to its lack of lovely, eye-catching, sensationalisable and demonisable ‘violence’ – is the way in which its policies actively try to disrupt solidarity within the university, specifically between students and academics.
(I won’t pretend to have read the entirety of the white paper, only the ‘executive summary’, which provides a general characterisation of the points made in the paper and a summary of how these will be translated into concrete policy. Given that this is the authors’ own summary, I trust them not to have allowed brevity to distort the key points of the document, especially not to have made the document seem more politically incriminating – presumably the point of a summary would be, if anything, to distort the document in a more favourable direction. Nonetheless, comments by those who have read the full document would be much appreciated.)
The white paper calls upon universities to put ‘students at the heart of the system’, with the threefold aims of (i) making HE more sustainably fundable, (ii) improving the ‘student experience’ and (iii) increasing social mobility. To ride roughshod over the details and nuances of how these aims are to be achieved, the suggestion is to make the character and content of university teaching more responsive to students’ opinions, facilitated by further regulation by independent bodies in the private sector. In this way, the government hopes to ‘deliver a more responsive higher education sector in which funding follows the decisions of learners and successful institutions are freed to thrive’ (p. 8; my emphasis).
Now, there are all sorts of critical remarks to be made about the three aims of the white paper – what it means for funding to be ‘sustainable’, whose responsibility it is to supply this funding, why funding should be correlated with ‘success’ and what this notion of ‘success’ means, what ‘the student experience‘ is and why it matters, how this notion fits into a more general valorisation of ‘experience’, how we’re to understand ‘social mobility’ and how it relates to class, etc. – and also about its explicit focus on teaching and the accompanying implicit subordination of research to teaching (at least, in cases where researchers can’t demonstrate concretely the ‘impact’ of their research); but, none of these is the issue I want to focus on here.
What I want to highlight is the way in which the white paper implicitly sets up an opposition between staff and students. In the paper’s agenda of making teaching staff more accountable to students, teaching staff are placed under suspicion, the quality of their work put in question, and moreover students are put in the position of those potentially at risk of receiving teaching of a less than acceptable quality, those in need of guarding themselves against the potential failures of teaching staff and of assuring themselves of the quality of teaching through stricter mechanisms of accountability. What is evident in this schema is that students are encouraged to see themselves as empowered against teaching staff, who in turn are supposed to be motivated to achieve ‘success’ by the threat of unpopularity in the eyes of their students, or rather by the threat of the consequent withdrawal of that ubiquitously sought holy grail, funding.
All of this serves to depersonalise the relationship between students and academic staff, putting mechanisms of regulation where attentiveness to the needs of other people with whom one cooperates in a shared activity should be. It also serves to distort the fact that the real threats students face are the same as those faced by academics – namely, the privatisation, commercialisation, marketisation, corporatisation, or whatever you want to call it, of the university.
The white paper talks about making universities more accountable – an accountability it will enforce through a strict management* of the flows of capital into the university – to students and to private sector employers. But what it tries to get away with all too easily is the suggestion that public universities aren’t sufficiently accountable to the public – something which is only true insofar as the state is insufficiently accountable to the public. Now, this is most certainly true, but the solution is not to open up the universities to the ultimately disempowering ‘an-archy’ of the markets, but to make the state more democratic. This is not even to mention the possibility, seemingly not even on the government’s radar, of making public institutions more independent, more local and autonomous in their internal functioning, whilst keeping them resolutely public – that is, the choice between centralised, top-down management and privatisation is a false choice, perhaps the false choice around which the whole ‘Big Society’ ideology is organised.
So, the message to take away – especially as increasing fees leave students expecting more from teaching staff** (somewhat irrationally, since it has always been quite explicit that the rising fees are only a redistribution of responsibility for funding and not any kind of increase in the amount of funding universities, or teaching staff for that matter, will receive) – is that students and staff musn’t allow themselves to be divided in this way, and must focus on their real, shared problem of fighting the loss of democratic control over the character of higher education in the UK, a loss of control effected by policies like those contained in the white paper.
* This notion of ‘strict management’ must be understood against the background of neoliberalism’s opposition to state management in one sense, although of course there is a kind of state control in play here which is no less involved. Cf. Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979, ed. by Michel Senellart, trans. by Graham Burchell (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008).
** I have only anecdotal evidence of this increase in expectations of teaching staff – especially in the amount of traditional, school-style classroom teaching, as opposed to seminar-style ‘facilitation’ – accompanying increasing fees. Empirical studies welcome!
Just a little plug for the latest volume (170, Nov/Dec 2011) of Radical Philosophy, which has some really interesting pieces on the philosophy and politics of education. (I’m a bit busy for any extended commentary on any of these texts right at the moment, but I might post up some thoughts over the weekend if I get a chance.)
Most interesting from the perspective of my interests is Matthew Charles‘s article on the philosophy for children ‘movement’ (although this phrase might be a bit of an overstatement at this point) and the political consequences and limitations of the form it has taken thus far. Charles examines the organisations involved in teaching philosophy to children in the UK – The Philosophy Shop and SAPERE – considering the differences in their approaches and the shared limitations of their more or less implicit political framework. These are important issues, as teaching philosophy in schools is potentially very valuable, but only if it can be extricated from the limitations of an exclusively liberal conception of education and what it would be for education to be ‘critical’.
Also in RP 170 is a collection of articles prompted by the publication by Continuum of Emiliano Battista’s English translation of Jacques Rancière’s first book, Althusser’s Lesson. In this work, Rancière distances himself from his former teacher, Louis Althusser, the father of so-called ‘structuralist Marxism’, through a cutting critique of the latter, both his theoretical work and his pedagogical practice itself.
The collection includes a reprint of the English translation of a 1964 essay by Althusser entitled ‘Student Problems’ – introduced by Warren Montag – in which he criticises the contemporary student movement for attacking the traditional, liberal, unidirectional form of university pedagogy, grounded in an essential epistemic inequality between the teacher and the student, instead of ‘the true fortress of class interest in the university‘ (p. 13, original emphasis), i.e., the ‘ideological’ content of that pedagogy. For the Rancière of Althusser’s Lesson, this insistence on pedagogical inequality and refusal of any transformation of the very form of the university is definitive of Althusserianism, its deep opportunism and servitude to the cause of order and the authority of the Communist Party leadership.
A final note: somewhere in one of these papers – I can’t now remember which one – reference is made to Radical Philosophy‘s founding statement, a document which bears re-reading at this juncture of crisis for philosophy in the university. While I don’t straightforwardly agree with this document’s partisan stance against analytic philosophy, its concern regarding academic philosophy’s isolation from other disciplines and from ideas and activities critical of the wider political, social and cultural setting – a concern which continues in the CRMEP’s ongoing project on transdisciplinarity in the humanities – is still a crucial one for the future of philosophy today.
On Saturday 29th October there’s a screening of a documentary by Nishiyama Yuji (University of Tokyo Center for Philosophy) titled Le droit à la philosophie: les traces du Collège international de Philosophie. Through interviews with members of the Collège, Nishiyama explores this institution (set up by Derrida, among others) as a path towards a more general discussion of the relationship between philosophy and institution – a discussion which of course has broader implications for discussions of institution and the humanities in general.
Here’s some blurb that went out through Philos-L:
This is the first documentary film on the International College of Philosophy (Collège international de Philosophie: CIPH), founded by, among others, Jacques Derrida and François Châtelet in 1983 in Paris.
Through interviews with the key figures in the CIPH, the film explores the “question of the institution”, the relationship between philosophy and institutions—a topic that was central for deconstruction as elaborated and practiced by Derrida. The aim of this film is to consider the possibilities of the humanities in general and philosophy in particular under the current conditions of global capitalism.
Among its many provocations, the film contrasts the notion of “intersection” established by the Collège with that of the inter-disciplinarity of Cultural Studies or Comparative Studies departments in the Anglo-Saxon academic landscape. Enlightening and provocative, this film is essential viewing for those engaged in the humanities.
“A wonderful cinematic documentary open to many contexts, an exceptional film about the topic of philosophy that demands a viewing from multiple angles.”―Naoki Sakai
The screening is part of an international symposium on ‘dialogues between cultural studies and philosophy in the post-nuclear age of critical junctures’. The symposium seeks to explore the already well-worn yet still not sufficiently addressed topic of the humanities and ‘crisis’, with the interesting (and slightly alien to a European ear, or at least a British one) expansion of the notion of crisis beyond it’s more familiar meanings of economic or cultural crisis to include natural disasters or nuclear emergencies of the sort that continue to shake Japan.
Today (or rather yesterday, since it’s passed 12 while I’ve been writing this), Michèle Le Dœuff delivered the first plenary talk of the SEP-FEP conference currently taking place at York St. John University. It was an extremely good paper, eloquent in its expression and inspiring in its metaphilosophical vision, and so I thought I’d try to summarise some of the key points and bring out the things I thought were most interesting and worthwhile.
Before embarking on this summary, however, it seems worth mentioning that Le Dœuff is clearly a specimen of that all too rare species, an extremely insightful and sharp thinker who is nonetheless a pleasant and amiable person. I shan’t offer any pop psychological musings on why intellectually sharp philosophers are so often, so it would seem to me, a bit emotionally stunted, if not downright vicious. Suffice it to say that Le Dœuff is not such a philosopher.
Turning to her paper, then – Le Dœuff posed the question of what philosophy has to offer other disciplines, other domains or modes of knowing. As a student of philosophy in France in the 1960s and ’70s, she recounted, interdisciplinarity – although the word was not yet part of the popular or academic discourse – was a ubiquitous feature of philosophical study. It was standard practice, and looked upon warmly even in examinations, for philosophers to borrow widely from other disciplines. This influx of extra-philosophical learning upon which French philosophers fed in the ’60s and ’70s was not the product of any enforced or institutionally organised policy of interdisciplinarity, but rather the product of a genuine intellectual excitement on the part of all involved parties, both those philosophers learning from their colleagues in other disciplines and those colleagues eager to pass on what they had learned to their interested friends in philosophy. ‘Intellectual excitement’, she stated, ‘is the best vector of transmission’ for ideas.
In the mid-1970s, Le Dœuff claimed, new obligations were placed on academics, and where before it had been enough to do interesting and productive work, it was now a require to work in a team, ‘and that team had better be interdisciplinary!’ As such, interdisciplinarity entered academic discourse and at the same time took on the character of a demand from above for a particular regime of organisation of research. This sort of enforced interdisciplinarity, along with the accompanying rigidity of organisation in research, is clearly something Le Dœuff reacts strongly against, and she will come back later in her paper to the distinction between this sort of interdisciplinarity, powered by external organising, and the informal interdisciplinarity, powered by intellectual excitement, which was such a dominant feature of the atmosphere of mainstream philosophy in France in the ’60s and early ’70s.
Le Dœuff attributed this attitude of interdisciplinary intellectual excitement to the atmosphere of postwar philosophy in France. The war is crucial here. According to Le Dœuff, it was WWII, the wisdom gained through the traumatic experience of war and occupation, and not any factor internal to philosophy, which led the senior figures of mainstream philosophy in France to an attitude of radical tolerance towards their students. Students of philosophy in France in the postwar period were allowed a great deal of freedom in their intellectual interactions, and this facilitated the atmosphere of informal interdisciplinarity and shared intellectual excitement.
Part and parcel of this free interdisciplinarity was the lack of any felt need to ‘totalise’, a recognition that diverse interests could be entertained and explored without the need for any rigorous unification, since, after all, ’life is multifold’ and need not be subordinated to any all encompassing schema or singular governing theme or interest. This attitude too, Le Dœuff claimed, can be seen as a product of wisdom gained through the experience of war. Among the generation of French philosophers who had experienced the war and who went on to become significant senior figures, there were many, notably Georges Canguilhem, whose involvement with the Resistance had been quite independent of their philosophical work. (Although neither of them survived the war, the same gap between philosophical interests and political actions can be seen in the cases of Albert Lautman and Jean Cavaillès. In both their cases and the case of Canguilhem, Badiou disagrees with Le Dœuff’s suggestion that their philosophies were quite independent of their political action; see Badiou’s Petit panthéon portatif.)
All in all, then, in the ’60s and early ’70s in France, philosophers had the feeling that to enclose their discipline was a pointless endeavour and ultimately one which would lead to the exhaustion of the discipline. However, there were, Le Dœuff highlighted, despite all this tolerance, openness and shared intellectual excitement, ’blocked’ questions. Not necessarily repressed, but simply unasked, un-thought of. One such question, and this is the question Le Dœuff went on to explore, was the question of what other disciplines have to gain from philosophy. Philosophy clearly had a lot to gain from other disciplines, but could this process of learning be reciprocal? How might philosophers’ naturally interdisciplinary intellectual excitement become reciprocal?
(Another such blocked question in the ’60s in France, Le Dœuff noted, was the question of the place of women in philosophy, but this isn’t something she went on to focus on.)
Le Dœuff posed an image of philosophy’s contribution to other disciplines which she suggested is rather common (she focused on science but I think analogous points could be made for other extra-philosophical disciplines), namely that of philosophy as correcting a discipline’s erroneous self-understanding. So, taking the example of science: scientists’ work is not a-philosophical; it makes more or less explicitly or self-consciously philosophical claims; however, this extra-philosophical philosophy of scientists is ‘perfectly ideological’, and so requires the special expertise of philosophers to come and make sense of the scientific activity and the metaphysics it might be said to generate or support. This is philosophy as spring-cleaning, then, as policing the bounds of sense, escorting deviants back to the proper path.
This is an image of philosophy as always beginning from error, as always called for by the need to correct erroneous thinking, a philosophy that requires that someone else be in the wrong. ‘Is this the philosophy we want?’ Le Dœuff asked, and her answer was ‘no’. In place of a philosophy beginning from others’ errors, she called for a philosophy that attends to their needs. To explain this distinction and her reasons for siding with the latter side of it, she made a number of points.
Firstly, a philosophy which begins from the presumption of erroneous reasoning on the part of those working in another discipline is not sufficiently open to this other discourse to really hear it, to engage it in reciprocal and open dialogue. For Le Dœuff, this is simply an expression of philosophy’s time-honoured arrogance. As she later elaborated in response to a question from John Mullarkey, to enter into an interdisciplinary dialogue with epistemological or methodological preconception, with a pre-established set of criteria for the proper limits of meaningful interaction, is an absurdity. Research, especially in philosophy, is about entering unfamiliar territory; to delineate the bounds of such research in advance is at best artificial and at worst impossible. The demands placed on the encounter are not abstract criteria of sense or rigour but the intersubjective criteria of a mutually enriching intellectual exchange governed by genuine intellectual excitement.
An essential point here, then, is the unpredictability of problems, of the demands placed on thinking. There is always the possibility of the unforeseen. This is what makes any attempt to foreclose the limits of productive intellectual work in advance so potentially dangerous – once a programme of research has been resolutely dismissed it is painfully difficult to reconstruct, but we can never be sure that we will have no further use for it.
Having questioned the possibility and the desirability of a philosophy beginning from error, Le Dœuff gave a couple of examples of how philosophy might respond instead, and more positively, to need. On the one hand, she spoke about the valuable work philosophers can do teaching in secondary schools (which is standard in France), particularly teaching those with no intention of continuing on to become specialists in philosophy. In this setting, philosophers can encounter people with a desire, perhaps a need, for intellectual stimulation, and can help them by trying to convey and instill intellectual excitement. No error need be presumed on the part of the young people involved, only a need for critical intellectual engagement.
On the other hand, Le Dœuff considered a more unusual example. It is a well documented phenomenon – and certainly I’ve encountered it amongst people I know – that researchers (Le Dœuff specified ‘young men’) in the sciences can have a very intense enthusiasm for their work, and then an equally intense feeling of disenfranchisement and alienation from their work due to the division of labour and credit in scientific research. This can lead to an anti-rationalist backlash and indeed, Le Dœuff suggested, participation in extremist religious groups and right-wing political organisations can result. Philosophy here can play the role of providing these researchers with a background of more general issues into which their work feeds, which can help them to maintain a sense of the meaningfulness of their labour against its alienation by the fragmentary process of modern laboratory research.
So, in both these examples, we see philosophy offering a possibility for liberating and empowering thinking, fulfilling a felt need for critical engagement, meaning and intellectual stimulation, rather than policing other disciplines.
All this talk of what philosophy can offer other disciplines should not lead us to forget the strictly informal character of non-coercive interdisciplinarity that Le Dœuff had outlined earlier in her talk. Perhaps, she suggested, what we need is a ‘wildlife reserve’ for those not keen on ‘organised’ teamwork, but wishing to pursue their own research in an atmosphere where interdiciplinary encounters are as occasional as one wishes and always informal, where ‘informal’ indicates that they come from reciprocal intellectual excitement and not from any institutional obligation.
Le Dœuff concluded her talk by asking us to consider what we can contribute, as philosophers, to the sort of non-coercive dialogue that might feed a free and mutual interdisciplinarity. What do we have to offer those who might have need of that which we have to offer?
I think Le Dœuff offers a provocative challenge to a wide range of contemporary philosophy. Rather than seeing philosophy as a challenge to complacency – a position which of course must presume a greater degree of complacency on the part of the extra-philosophical than on the part of philosophy itself – can we find a task for philosophy that encourages a more mutual understanding of its encounters with that which lies outside it? How – and this is an issue I’ve stumbled across frequently in running the reading group which I organise in York - can we maintain an atmosphere of shared, informal intellectual curiosity and excitement without ‘organisation’ and its accompanying perceived hierarchies undermining this atmosphere, and without the all too prevalent philosopher’s game of combative argumentation and pointscoring kicking in? These are difficult questions for those of us not happy with the present state – and particularly the present discursive atmosphere - of philosophy as a discipline. This is not to say, of course, that I agree completely with Le Dœuff on these points. But hers is certainly a powerful vision that ought to challenge us to think again about our metaphilosophical dogmas, however anti-dogmatic we might take them to be.
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:
- A constitutive relation to its own history;
- A suspension of the historicality of that history;
- 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?
Bit of a summary of recent and current happenings.
Just in York visiting friends having attended the transcendental realism workshop at Warwick last week. It was a really good event: interesting speakers, interesting discussion. Especially interesting, I thought, were the papers given by Pete Wolfendale and Ray Brassier (James Trafford’s talk was also very good, particularly in its generating rich subsequent discussion). I’m still in the process of digesting Pete’s proof of transcendental realism, but I certainly appreciated his nuancing of the concept of correlationism, and the clarification of the categories required to formulate an intermediary position between correlationism and full-fledged realism (deflationary realism). Ray’s talk was extremely interesting, as much as his intense delivery was compelling. I was already reading Sellar’s lectures on Kant, Science and Metaphysics, for an essay on perception, but I’ll read now with a renewed vigour and interest.
More than just being an interesting event, the workshop demonstrated to me – and this is something of which I think we all need reminding from time to time – that academic philosophy can deliver, that it can conduct rigorous, productive, innovative work with a spirit of collaborative exploration. There is so much dross out there, so much pointless or superficial work being done, but the workshop gave us several examples of really good philosophical work, with the Great Divide notable only by its absence. So that’s heartening.
Less heartening is the political landscape post-election. I fully acknowledge that, in the course of the New Labour experiment, Labour has – at least at the level of its leadership – thoroughly turned its back on its responsibility as the face of mainstream socialist politics in the UK. Nonetheless, we have more to fear from the Lib-Con coalition, insofar as it risks reinforcing even further the free marketeering liberal paradigm under which we have been living since the rise of Thatcherism in the 1970s.
As Žižek has been at pains to demonstrate to us right across his expansive oeuvre, ideology is a matter of how we perceive the political spectrum, the field of legitimate political possibility. What Thatcher achieved, as New Labour reinforced and demonstrated, was to force socialism – by which I mean proletarian politics, politics by and for the working class, the oppressed and the exploited – out of the realm of mainstream politics in the UK.
A useful way to think about one’s ideological position is in terms of one’s perception of the relations between the terms of the triad: (left) socialism/communism – (centrist) liberalism – (right) conservatism/fascism/right populism. For the liberal, the enemy is ‘totalitarianism’, which is taken to encompass the excesses of both Left and Right. Whence the truism of the ‘political horseshoe’, with liberalism occupying the centre and fascism and communism meeting at either end, merging into a single rampaging state tyranny. For the Rightist, be she conservative, populist or properly fascist, centrist liberalism drifts to far towards the excessive state interventions of socialism. We see this most clearly in the US, where liberals are frequently ‘accused’ of socialism, communism and liberalism seen as part of a spectrum against which the conservative and populist Right is concerned to defend America. For the socialist, liberalism all too easily degenerates into conservatism, with the central emphasis on the citizen’s right to autonomy over the need for egalitarian social justice always a hair’s bredth from laissez-faire libertarianism. We’ve seen this time and again in recent years, especially in the immigration debate, where the liberal centre struggled to distance itself from the ‘extremism’ of Nick Griffin’s BNP; the differences were not a matter of the way the ‘problem’ was framed, simply of the severity of response.
What we could very easily be seeing with the rise of the Lib-Con coalition is the establishing of the mainstream British political landscape as one where the available positions are liberal and conservative. This is the range of acceptable political discourse: one is either a liberal or a conservative. This is a bourgeois political spectrum. Absent is the proletarian politics from the perspective of which the distinction between liberal and conservative is of little political importance.
There is of course the possibility, given the ideological triad schema set out above, the coalition could open up a space for socialism, precisely by demonstrating the ideological identity between the liberals and the conservatives. However, the only way this is going to happen is if the electorate is presented with a real mainstream socialist alternative. Otherwise, those disenfranchised and disillusioned with this paradigm will simply drift to the fringes of the liberal-conservative political spectrum, i.e. towards the far right.
There is a real opportunity here for Labour to renew themselves, to carve themselves out a niche as the mainstream face of UK socialist poltics. It remains to be seen whether this is even something they would interested in pursuing, or whether they will be contented to remain in their state of uncomfortable disavowal as regards their own past.
As I’m sure everybody knows by now, the CRMEP as Middlesex is to be closed down, with students currently occupying the building as a result of management’s failure to engage in a rational interchange regarding the future of the Centre. With the occupiers threatened with eviction, things are presently uncertain, although I have the utmost confidence in the staff and students of Middlesex philosophy to fight to the end for the CRMEP’s future. The international outcry has been encouraging, and one hopes that in the event that the closure were to go ahead, it would leave Middlesex’s credentials as an educational institution in tatters at home and abroad.
This is a sign of things to come, and we all need to be vigilant of similar decisions happening in universities around the country. The behaviour of the privatised capitalist university is the great loud warning shot for the damage done by the neoliberal economicisation of the social, and we heed it or perish
We must bear this in mind as the Lib-Con coalitiom tries to sell mass privatisation as ‘big society’.
I just wanted to draw your attention to an interesting post by my good friend and fellow traveller Chris Williams over at his blog, Stepping Outside. There, Chris distinguishes between identity and purpose in philosophy, clarifying various conflations and confusions that have marred previous attempts at metaphilosophical inquiry. Having established philosophy as having an identity but no essential purpose, although it is always de facto purposive, as a dual activity of problematisation and forcing (both, it’s worth noting, modes of opening; the role of spatial metaphors in metaphilosophy is something it’d be interesting to pursue further), Chris goes on to argue for the specificity of philosophy within the university. The identification of something like a specificity of philosophy, a purposeless identity, is essential, Chris argues, to solidarity in the face of the cynical appropriation and degradation of philosophy by the anti-philosophical forces of the neoliberal university.
Recommended reading. Comments would, I’m sure, be greatly welcomed over at Stepping Outside.
There’s plenty of worry permeating the academy at the present as post-crunch managerial capital’s tightening grip looms ever larger. Deparmental mergers (read: closures), job losses for academic staff, research funding cuts – universities are being called upon to an ever greater extent to organise themselves in accordance with principles of foreseeable payoff for financial investment. In the philosophy department (while it continues to exist, as an autonomous entity or perhaps in any capacity at all) nerves are perhaps especially frayed. For how is philosophy to accommodate itself to these principles of foreseeable payoff, of profit and product? The permeation of the university by the capitalist system in which it finds itself enmeshed is not a new phenomenon, not by any means, but the determination and machismo of the current putsch leaves philosophers’ already limited ability to lurk under the radar of managerial scrutiny in serious doubt.
These developments have not been met without resistance. Reactions have been caustic and indignant – see recent discussions on Philos-L of ‘impact’, the proposed replacement of departments by interdisciplinary schools, the impromptu dismissal of members of the KCL philosophy faculty and academic freedom generally – and calls have been made for organisation and resistance (especially from James Ladyman, who has been a constantly outspoken advocate of a militant response to managerial pressure). However, philosophy is faced with a distinctive and intrinsic obstacle to this sort of political organisation – the openness of the metaphilosophical question.
It is distinctive of philosophy that internal to its field of questioning is a questioning of itself, of its own task. This is absolutely essential to philosophy – philosophy’s reflexivity is one of its greatest strengths, one of the guarantees of the profundity of its discourse, and of the legitimacy of its capacity to open up other discourses to questioning. It is also one of the central features that renders philosophy inherently hostile to the encroachment of managerial capitalism into the university – and, insofar as the modern university is and has never been genuinely distinct from capitalism, renders philosophy inherently hostile to the university itself, to the institutionalisation of knowledge against the free(ing) spirit of wisdom.
This perpetual reflexive questioning also has as a consequence a pervasive lack of consensus amongst the philosophical community regarding the nature of its endeavour. This dissensus is essential to philosophy’s inexhaustible productivity, and yet this same dissensus functions as a barrier to any organised resistance to post-crunch capital’s endeavour to save the universities’ sinking finances by throwing philosophy overboard. The reason for this is simple, and has been evident in discussions of the appropriate response to the putsch: Without some consensus on the metaphilosophical question, what is the sense of the name under which we propose to resist, to which we maintain fidelity? Without some consensus, how are we to articulate the case for philosophy – a case which must be made, for philosophy’s worth is not self-evident within the ideological matrix of a social formation such as ours?
This is, I think, a genuine and serious concern. How are we to articulate the minimal common fidelity that binds us, or ought to bind us, as philosophers?
The tension here is between the tendency for dissensus inherent in philosophy and the unity which is essential to any organised, politically resisting collective. How can we form such a unity without sacrificing the dissensus at the core of the philosophical endeavour? Or must this dissensus be suspended in the heat of the counter-putsch?
Such a suspension of philosophical dissensus is not, I would like to suggest, a plausible scenario. It would be naive to think that it will be sufficient for the counter-putsch to be momentary. This cannot be the case. Capitalism is not going to stop colonising the university and appropriating the ‘intellectual capital’ it fosters there. Philosophy is, at its heart – in its perpetual, restless questioning – resistant to this colonisation and appropriation of thought by capital; it is this inherent resistence which needs to be central to any organised, militant response. Only this way can any sustained resistance be enacted without compromising the very thing that makes philosophy worth fighting for.
Perhaps, then, the minimal common fidelity which can bind a collective resistance by philosophers to the threats being made against the discipline is a fidelity to openness and questioning themselves. Philosophy’s great strength is to open up new areas of thought; everywhere that thought becomes enclosed within a fixed frame, philosophy puts this frame in question and thus renders it open. It is this putting in question, this rendering open, and the refusal to see only answers and products as valuable, to which we can pledge fidelity and thus unite. We can find consensus in the fostering of dissensus.
This too, of course, although I hope only very minimally, begins to close the metaphilosophical question, to reach a consensus. And as such, I fully expect to be met with disagreement; I expect even this minimal answer to be itself put into question. My hope is that this might actually serve to strengthen the point made here, however. But that, of course, is, as it should be, a matter for further questioning.