Category Archives: UK philosophy

Women in Philosophy workshop @ Edinburgh

The Edinburgh Women in Philosophy Group is proud to announce its annual Spring Workshop on Philosophical Methodologies on Friday the 16th of May 2014 at the University of Edinburgh.
We have decided to address the issue of philosophical methodology, following the success of previous EWPG Spring workshops, which have respectively focused on the under-representation of women in philosophy, the ethics and aesthetics of pornography, and implicit bias. This issue of philosophical methodology has become a lively discussion point in philosophy departments and blogs due to the question of whether the nature of philosophical discourse is exclusionary either in the way philosophy is written or in the way it is done in more public events, such as conferences, seminars and workshops, not to mention in educational settings.
We hope this event will contribute to helping raise awareness about philosophical methodology and how it relates to both philosophical feminism and improving the situation of women in philosophy departments.
Confirmed speakers are:
Catarina Dutilh Novaes (Groningen)
Amia Srinivasan (Oxford)
Nancy Bauer (Tufts)
Eric Schliesser (Ghent)
For registration details, see the following page:
There is a £5 registration fee, which includes lunch and refreshments. There will also a workshop dinner for an additional £20, which will be paid on the day in cash. If you wish to attend the workshop please register by 9th May 2014.
We have a limited amount of Analysis Trust bursaries to cover postgraduate participation and accommodation, and we invite postgraduate students to submit expressions of interest to respond to the speakers’ talks. If you would like to be considered for a postgraduate bursary, please submit a short statement (max. 300 words) detailing your motivation to do so to the following address:
The deadline for submissions is the 15th of April. For more information on the Edinburgh Women in Philosophy Group, see the following page:
We would like to acknowledge the generosity of the workshop’s sponsors: the Analysis Trust, the Scots Philosophical Association, the Society for Women in Philosophy – UK, and the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences, University of Edinburgh.


Evaluating philosophy

Below is a message from James Ladyman that just went out on Philos-L about a forthcoming volume of The Monist which looks pretty interesting, on the topic of ‘evaluating philosophy’:

In the UK since 1986 funding for research as opposed to teaching has been allocated to philosophy departments on the basis of an evaluation of the quality of the philosophical research submitted by them in the so-called ‘Research Assessment Exercise’ (RAE). There have been six RAEs but they are to be replaced by the so-called ‘Research Excellence Framework’ that will incorporate a measure of the ‘impact’ of the research carried out on non-academic ‘users’ and the wider economy and society. The latter has been the subject of intense debate amid concern that evaluating philosophy in this way will discriminate against profound, esoteric and technical philosophical work that may be of the greatest intellectual value, in favour of accessible and directly applicable work, even though the medium and long term practical effects of the former may be greater although completely unpredictable. This special issue is not concerned with ‘evaluating philosophy’ in the sense of peer review for journals or presses or the routine criticism and appraisal that we engage in when we write about each other’s work, but rather with the overall assessment of the performance of philosophy individuals/departments for the purposes of allocating funding by civil servants. In other words, ‘evaluating philosophy’ for the purposes of public policy decision making, rather than value judgments about philosophy per se. The former has of course relied on the latter as in the past UK RAEs which were based ultimately on peer review although modulated by evaluations based on numbers of postgraduates and activity levels which are not judgments of philosophical quality directly.) The UK is important because it is perceived to be a pioneer in research excellence measurement and its systems have been emulated in the past. The aim of this issue is to consider the theoretical and practical merits and demerits of different approaches to the evaluation of philosophy.

The deadline for contributions, according to Prof. Ladyman, is the end of April.

Continental philosophy job @ Warwick

The Department of Philosophy at the University of Warwick (my department) has a job posting for an assistant professor in ‘continental philosophy’, a welcome move ‘to increase the department’s research strengths in continental philosophy, and to support and help expand the continental philosophy MA programme’.

Interested parties should see the application info here.  The deadline for applications is 14th December 2012.

It’ll be exciting to see who’ll be joining us in the near future!

BLOG: Groundwork

A quick plug for a new blog (new to me, anyway) run by students at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (CRMEP) at Kingston University: Groundwork.  The CRMEP is undoubtedly a hotspot for research in “continental philosophy” in the UK, and I’m sure this blog will showcase its vibrance and conceptual productivity.

See especially this interview with the (relatively) new Professor of Modern European Philosophy at the CRMEP, Catherine Malabou, in which she discusses – it has been brought to my attention – the concept of ground in relation to Heidegger and Deleuze, for those of you who were intrigued by the connection I vaguely gestured at in my previous post.

SEP-FEP conference 2012 @ MMU

This year’s joint conference of the Society for European Philosophy and the Forum for European Philosophy will be held from 5th to 7th September at Manchester Metropolitan University.  This year’s keynotes will be Shaun Gallagher, Alphonso Lingis and Catherine Malabou – three very interesting and distinguished speakers.

There’s no specific theme this year, and the deadline for submissions is 31st May 2012.

For more info, see the SEP website’s call for papers.

CFP: MindGrad 2011, University of Warwick, 3rd-4th December

As a soon-to-be Warwick research student, I thought I’d disseminate this call for papers from Pete Fossey for Warwick’s annual philosophy of mind postgraduate conference.  It’s a good event, so if you’re a postgrad researcher working in the philosophy of mind (and it seems fairly difficult not to be working in the philosophy of mind these days if one is vaguely analytically orientated, ‘content’ being the buzzword of the day), then send something in!

** ** **

Call for Papers: MindGrad 2011

This year’s MindGrad conference will take place on the 3rd-4th of December, at the University of Warwick, UK; our guest speakers are Prof. Michael Tye (University of Texas) and Dr. Lucy O’Brien (UCL).

MindGrad is a postgraduate conference in the philosophy of mind, broadly construed; in previous years, we have been pleased to accept papers on topics as diverse as the mind-body problem, the location of bodily sensations, and personal identity in the context of dreams. We will consider well-written submissions, from graduate students, on any topic broadly related to philosophy of mind.

Papers should be suitable for presentation in 40 minutes, and prepared for anonymous review. Please use the following link to submit your paper, as a PDF, via the EasyChair Conference System:

**The deadline for submissions is October 14th**

The authors of papers selected for presentation will hear from us by October 30th at the latest. Travel and accommodation subsidies for graduate speakers will be available.

We are grateful for support from the Mind Association and the Aristotelian Society.

SEP-FEP Annual Conference – abstracts and early-bird registration

Abstracts are now available from the 90 speakers who’ll be delivering papers and presentations at the Annual Conference of the Society for European Philosophy and the Forum for European Philosophy, taking place at York St. John University between 31st August and 3rd September.  The papers are on a vast array of different topics; the conference theme is the extremely open ‘Philosophy and…’, with the organisers hoping to attract papers concerned with or influenced by the interdisciplinary potential of European philosophy. The speakers are equally diverse, with more or less established names alongside newcomers and postgraduate researchers.  There are also several panel discussions, including a panel on women in professional philosophy centred around the work of keynote speaker and noted feminist philosopher Michèle Le Doeuff (CNRS, Paris).  The other keynotes are Lacanian critical theorist Joan Copjec (University of Buffalo) and ‘object-oriented’ philosopher Graham Harman (American University, Cairo).

I’m pretty excited about this, since it’s not everyday that a major conference in your field turns up on your doorstep. Early-bird registration is available until 1st July, so if you want to attend this five-day event relatively cheaply I suggest you register sooner rather than later.  Info on registration can be found here.

Brian Leiter and “Party Line Continentalists”

A friend of mine (who blogs over at Philosophical Notes) asked me for a response to this post by Brian Leiter on his Nietzsche blog in which he distinguishes between rigorous philosophical scholarship on thinkers associated with the various traditions that have come to be grouped together under the signifier of ‘continental philosophy’ and what he terms ‘Party Line Continentalism’ (henceforth PLC).

Leiter suggests (or rather alludes to his having suggested elsewhere) that we are living in a ‘Golden Age’ for (Anglophone) scholarship on the history of post-Kantian European philosophy.  While this is perhaps overstating the case a bit (important recent figures, such as Deleuze and Badiou, are still quite neglected), it is certainly true that the history of philosophy has a much more considerable presence and respectibility in the Anglophone philosophical academy than it had at the height of of the dominance of the analytic movement.  Various figures have been influential in breaking with the ahistorical paradigm that previously dominated, not least amongst whom is the critically important yet still strangely subliminal Wilfrid Sellars.  In the wake of these figures, Anglophone scholarly work on Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and perhaps especially on phenomenology abounds.

On this basis, Leiter objects to the idea (which he associates with PLC) that much of this scholarly work consists in an ‘analytic appropriation’ (implicitly a misappropriation and a distortion) of ‘continental’ thinkers, obscuring the true power of their thought.  Leiter regards this notion of analytic appropriation as misguided, and suggests that we must foster ‘philosophical scholarship in the Anglophone world in which “analytic” and “Continental” as terms of partisan battle are largely uintelligible to those drawn to the problems of philosophy’.

While this is an extremely worthwhile sentiment, I wonder whether Leiter remains insensitive to what seems to me to be a real distinction in scholarship on the history of post-Kantian philosophy, one that might perhaps be seen as the real distinction of which the rightly maligned analytic-continental distinction is an obfuscatory manifestation.  The distinction I mean to indicate has been noted (although in divisive terms I find unhelpful) by Michael Lewis in his Heidegger Beyond Deconstruction (London: Continuum, 2007, p. 154):

There is no single figure one can claim to have read who will ensure that one is a ‘post-Kantian’ or ‘continental’ philosopher.  What matters is how one reacts or does not react to the event that a text presents.  Above all, analytic readers as such never believe that a thinker’s work could open up an entirely new way of thinking, an entirely new logic.  They do not believe there is one.

While I disagree with Lewis’ identification of the distinction at issue here with ‘continental’ scholarship (against ‘analytic’ scholarship), he draws our attention to a real distinction.  In studying the work of a thinker, there are two ways in which one can orientate oneself.  One can endeavour to determine how (or whether) that thinker’s work makes some interesting and novel contribution to an existing problematic; or, one can allow that which is novel and interesting in a thinker’s work to constitute a new problematic.  This is what is indicated by Lewis’ notion of opening up a ‘new logic’: a profound thinker may, whilst necessarily participating in some historically existent problematic, reconfigure that problematic to such a degree as to establish what can be seen to be a new field of problems, a new situation of questioning.  Rather than ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’, we might label these two modes of scholarship ‘situated’ and ‘open’ (with every possible effort made not to take these terms with any positive or negative connotations at the outset).

It seems to me, then, that what some philosophers interested in the history of post-Kantian philosophy see and criticise in their similarly interested colleagues (self-destructively labelling the tendency ‘analytic’) is a predilection for situated scholarship over open scholarship, that is, a preference for locating a thinker in a pre-existing problematic rather than attempting to discern in the more radical novelties of that thinker the traces of a new problematic.

If a predilection for situated scholarship has earned some philosophers the label ‘analytic’, it is perhaps because the problems they have set to thinking with the help of the history of post-Kantian European philosophy seem to have their origins in the distinctive problems of analytic philosophy, or at least in approaches to contemporary philosophical problems that trace their descent to analytic philosophy’s engagement with those problems.  For example, the recent surge in interest in the phenomenological tradition (primarily in Husserl, the early Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty) has centred around the applicability of the work of thinkers associated with this tradition to existing problematics in A.I., cognitive science and the philosophy of psychology and cognition.  (A good example of this is the workshop currently taking place at the University of Edinburgh on ‘Heidegger and Cognitive Science’, which proclaims its ‘target group’ to be those ‘interested in philosophy of mind and cognitive science’, and specifically not those interested in ‘detailed critique of either Heidegger, or phenomenology’ or ‘textual analysis of work done in the phenomenological tradition’.)  By contrast, those who think of themselves as ‘continental purists’ are more often concerned to engage with a thinker on the latter’s own terms (in a manner that can seem insufficiently critical to their differently situated colleagues) and to see how that thinker opens up new areas of thinking, rather than seeking to read the thinker into some existing debate.

This distinction between situated and open scholarship is obviously an abstraction.  All scholarship is situated (otherwise it is unclear whether it would even be recognisable as a contribution to the Western philosophical tradition), and any scholar who regards some historical philosopher to be of profound interest to an existing problematic  is likely to regard that philosopher as opening up at least new areas of that existing problematic, as reconfiguring it in some significant way.  The reality of the distinction is a matter of difference in emphasis not difference in kind.  Nonetheless, I think the distinction allows us to think in a productive way about different tendencies in the scholarship of the history of post-Kantian European philosophy, a way which does not introduce a notion of ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ modes of scholarship and, relatedly, does not introduce a normative or perjorative element to the understanding of philosophical scholarship.

Furthermore, the distinction provides us with a framework to think about what’s wrong with PLC (taking it, for the sake of argument, that such a phenomenon exists).  As Leiter defines it, PLC ‘is a political effort to enforce a certain philosophical orthodoxy, namely, that which arises from a conception of philosophy and its methods that is largely fixed by Heideggerian phenomenology and developments in mostly French philosophy that involve reactions to Heidegger (such as Derrida, but not only him)’.  We can understand Leiter’s objection here as follows: PLC is a heavily situated mode of scholarship which is insufficiently aware of the degree and nature of its own situatedness (unsurprisingly, given that ‘their command of the history of European philosophy after Kant is often quite weak and idiosyncratic’).  That is, PLCists read the history of post-Kantian philosophy through the problematic(s) opened up by Heidegger and his (post-phenomenological) French respondents, whilst mistaking this situatedness for a thorough openness to the texts with which they engage.

I suggest this conceptualisation of PLC in order to try to think about the critical significance of Leiter’s comments; that is, what is wrong is PLC is that it misunderstands itself, arguably because of an insufficient grasp of the history with which it is supposed to be concerned.  However, this should be distinguished from any criticism of situated scholarship based around the problematic(s) of Heidegger, Derrida et al. It is a different issue if one thinks that such problematics are in some sense philosophically illegitimate, as Leiter’s comments seem to suggest (‘Heidegger and (most) of the post-structuralists (Deleuze is an exception) were not, however, very good scholars or philosophical expositors’).

But is there such a thing as PLC?  Is Leiter thrashing at a straw man?  Certainly there is Anglophone scholarly work being done, influenced – although not necessarily in a terribly nuanced manner – by Heidegger and post-phenomenological reactions to Heidegger in French philosophy, which is not very good.  It is not particularly illuminating or incisive, and it is inclined to regurgitate without sufficient unpacking and explanation the concepts with which it is supposed to be dealing critically.  Furthermore, such work does often exhibit an idiosyncratic and uncritical relation to the history of philosophy, limited by its having familiarity solely with the creative use of historical works made by Heidegger et al. It is also true that such work has often occured within disciplines other than philosophy, such as literary or cultural theory (although I couldn’t disagree more strongly with Leiter’s flippant remark that such philosophical sloppiness is of no consequence in the field of literary studies, ‘where lack of real depth in philosophy and its history does not matter’).

Having said all that, I think that such work is, as Leiter suggests, in decline, and that figures who have until recently been the subject of much ultimately unilluminating scholarship are now starting to receive more discerning attention (Deleuze is a notable example).  Importantly, and contra Leiter, much of this work is happening (at least in the UK) in the philosophy departments that Leiter denounces as hotbeds of PLC, i.e. the CRMEP (formerly at Middlesex, now at Kingston) and Dundee.  In this regard, then, Leiter’s target is a straw man.  I am happy to acknowledge that something like PLC exists, and has even been prevalent in the study of certain figures of post-Kantian philosophy, but it seems that Leiter is somewhat more paranoid than is necessary, casting a sharp glance of suspicion towards corners of the academy where no such accusation is warranted.

Another point of contention is Leiter’s seeming identification – which seems to me contrary to his stated intention of doing away with the analytic-continental divide – of ‘real training in philosophy’ with a training in ‘Anglophone-style philosophical work’ (which it is hard to take as meaning anything other than work strongly influenced by the analytic movement).  This repeats claims Leiter has made on his Philosophical Gourmet report:

Genius, one may hope, will find its way in the world without the benefit of rankings.  But for those who want to pursue a scholarly career in philosophy, one can not do better than to pursue training in analytic philosophy [...]

It seems that Leiter may be at risk of making a similar mistake to PLC, that is, confusing his own situated scholarship with open scholarship.  By viewing a training in ‘analytic philosophy’ as providing one with a universally optimal methodology for philosophical work, Leiter seems to ignore the situatedness of analytic methodology.  To work within a particular methodological framework is a significant part of working within a particular problematic, and to suggest that any particular determinate methodological framework – especially one as historically idiosyncratic as that of analytic philosophy – is universalisable and equatable with an engaged openness to a philosophical text is confusion of the same kind as that of PLC.

Addendum: On Heidegger and the history of philosophy

Readings of key works in the history of Western metaphysics are central to Heidegger’s etymological archaeology of the history of being (which he understands in terms of a history of the ways in which being has revealed and hidden itself, a periodisation of the essential obfuscation of the question of what it is to be).  Thus, Leiter’s claim that Heidegger was an incompetent scholar of the history of philosophy is in need of comment by those of us interested in taking Heidegger’s work seriously.

It is certainly true – as anyone who has contrasted his translations of Ancient Greek texts with their established translations will have noted – that Heidegger’s readings of historical philosophical figures is idiosyncratic.  The question is whether this idiosyncracy is problematic or philosophically productive, and the answer to this question seems to me to lie in the further question of whether it is arbitrary or philosophically motivated.  The latter is undoubtedly the case.

Heidegger’s readings of historical philosophers are not idiosyncratic as a result of a lack of familiarity with the texts under consideration, nor due to a vagueness or looseness in his scholarly standards.  Heidegger is obsessively interested with the details of philosophical texts and if he draws conclusions and makes exegetical decisions that seem strange, they rarely seem too quick or arbitrarily made.

It is clear that there is an agenda at work in Heidegger’s reading, that is, his readings are acts of situated scholarship.  The situation from which he reads is not simply defined by its place in the history of philosophy, however, but by the demands of the question of being itself (or at least, such is the exegetical hypothesis we must entertain if we are to begin to read in a generous spirit).  Heidegger himself would no doubt consider this to be the epitome of openness: to read a thinker in the light of the question of being is to come to their text with nothing more than the supremely philosophical intent of thinking their contribution to the history of the question of what it is to be.  Of course, the issue that this raises is the extent to which Heidegger (as he accuses many others, including Hegel and Nietzsche, of having done) has prejudged the answer to the question of being.  The legitimacy of Heidegger’s acts of reading, by his own criteria, rests on this issue.

However, we may not wish to judge Heidegger’s contributions to philosophical scholarship by his own criteria.  We may wish to engage with Heidegger in a more or differently situated manner.  If this is the case, then we must pose another open question: Do the readings Heidegger proffers make a legitimate contribution to philosophy, given our particular philosophical problematic?  Leiter, it seems, would answer ‘no’, and this reflects his methodological commitments.  For those of us with a different philosophical orientation and temperament, Heidegger’s peculiar engagements offer a stimulating source and impetus for thinking, regardless of their fidelity to the paths of thought which the thinkers interpreted sought to pursue.

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?