At first, what appears below was a humorous response to Liam Kofi Bright’s post over at Sooty Empiric, which received some helpful and sympathetic hints from Eric Schliesser. Then, the post got away from me in the very same way that philosophy is therapy for my soul, but maybe not yours.
Here is a possibility I recommend for consideration: we ought to hold ourselves to stricter creative standards than we often do, in our philosophical research manuscripts or public forum presentations. They should be more literary, more creative, more artistic perhaps, and vastly more engaged with culturally relevant themes (what I would call pragmatic and existential concerns). Before getting into what I mean by this, why I think it, and why I am saying it, now, it is worth saying a couple things immediately. First, I haven’t always followed this ideal, but indeed for the purpose of this post, I am trying to capture what I take to be the best creative practices that can generate good and decent philosophy.
Second, this post does not pretend to be metaphilosophically neutral. Indeed, I am after what I take to be the best practices in conventional-Continental-philosophy and am not impartial. I judge it to be superior to analytic philosophy because of its power to illuminate the contours of lived-experience. I advocate that we that we all in our own work implement these changes, and aid others in doing so. Let me be explicit: what I think is we should strive for voluntary self-change in this. I do not believe in using gatekeeping mechanisms to enforce the following. Sincere adoption and internalization of the norms that govern philosophy can only be effectively brought about if it is unforced, and rekindle the intellectual imagination in which art and philosophy swim. I’ll give you two examples of what I have in mind.
First, there are a great many places where it seems to me that people ought weaken their dedication to logocentric presentation of philosophy, and not abstract from lived-experience as much as they do. This focus on argument and the intellectual abstraction created and fostered by dominant philosophical forces oftentimes substitute an abstraction for how we truly experience the world. Dewey called this the philosophic fallacy, and while I have no particular tradition in mind (as this flaw is a cross-traditions fallacy), it abounds anytime an –ism becomes more important than paying attention to where that –ism applies concretely. Put more succinctly, many philosophers in the tradition of Western thought have identified relatively stable structures of experience and given them pride of place over those that are more concrete and dynamic. What seems to be the case is that there are plenty of philosophers obsessed with truncated arguments and debates inside analytic philosophy that regard the conceptual landscape of their own debates as what philosophy should be doing rather than articulating the pragmatic concrete effect of what it is they are truly doing (or not doing as it may have no concrete effect on our collective experience of the world—the navel gazing and armchair irrelevancy of philosophers overall). In these efforts, there’s something like what Dewey described about previous metaphysicians who reified concepts from experience in his Experience and Nature (1925) and privileged those beyond all others to the point that we still read philosophy in the shadow of these concepts.
This touches upon a second point: I think much could be achieved by adhering to standards of writing philosophers commonly dismiss, but in my opinion, we should actually be creative when we present our ideas. Take for instance the nuanced focus on what I take to be a family resemblance property of analytic philosophical writing: the tracing out of a thesis in various arguments, moves, and counter-moves. Some are so convinced that this is the only way philosophy can be done that the very young graduate students are often met at the nearby Starbucks outside the APA denouncing Continental without having read any of it.
In Continental philosophy, the story seems to be trying to focus on the interpretive milieu and how an idea arises and can impact the current cultural lifeworld (if it is entirely relevant to lived-experience). When we acknowledge the historicity of an idea, we can often gain a sense into the underpinning philosophical narratives of how these ideas emerge in time, and we can glean if our contribution to understanding has come before us rather than boldly claiming its originality. The limits of language and history become relevant to what we can say. When the ideas illuminate our practices, however, we find that stories are possible. Ideas illuminate aspects of our experience. Sartre wrote Nausea as a way to articulate the depths of our existential anguish, and perhaps, when we read this novel, we find another (and arguably better) way of attempting to bring philosophy to the level of people most concerned with the ideas we are in the business of addressing, solving, speculating about, and proposing.
However, I am not beyond thinking that philosophy shouldn’t be in other creative works. Philosophical ideas emerge in lived-experience, and photography, the image, and especially videos and plays are the embodiment of ideas and lived-experience. Sartre wrote many reviews as he was simultaneously a philosopher and a critic, engaged with theatre and visual arts. For him, art was a way of coping with existential reality of imprisonment. I, too, find writing creative works ways to experiment and have received some advice about how I shouldn’t publish a novella. What’s more science fiction is a fantastic example of speculating what the concrete effect and consequence an idea would have if we were habituated to that practice. In this way science fiction can embody the pragmatic spirit all philosophy should have!
Needless to say, the profession would have a hard time if a philosopher wrote research articles, books, and then in addition submitted a creative works portfolio of exhibitions, aesthetic critiques in the popular press, and an artistic installation. Most promotional reviews of a colleague abide by fairly convention standards (oftentimes privileging epistemology and metaphysics over other forms of philosophical inquiry), but as we are seeing many departments are under pressure to close. Philosophers write to only other philosophers, and we keep digging deeper into obscurity (who reads dissertations or research articles on metaethics, Wittgenstein, or Kripke for fun and the same holds for those concerned with redeeming Heidegger from himself after publishing the Black Notebooks or Badiou’s latest writing). Adding some creative energy to our writing would certainly help possibly arresting ourselves and maybe even legitimize the type of public engagement philosophy was meant to have—that is if we recall Epictetus’ words that philosophy is therapy for the soul.
Unfortunately, I do not see that the therapeutic function of philosophy something many in the analytic world think philosophy should have (applied ethicists, I think, are the rare exception to this rule). Maybe some allowance for this idea holds in people’s teaching, but not in the concerns they think and are taught worthy to research. The problem is that once a way of doing things has been around a while that way of doing things becomes habit. Like William James, I hold we can overcome these habits and ways of doing things if we have good reason to change them (yet again philosophy must be concerned with the existential and pragmatic matters of life to accept that conception of philosophy itself). For a long time, many in the analytic world have become so enamored with identifying philosophizing and its expression in writing with some reification they think underlies scientific writing. We write short journal articles.* We publish them, and only read what’s very recent.**
Needless to say, I think our writing should still focus on arguments, but I am committed to the fact that we need not just focus solely on arguments. If there’s an insight to be gleaned, philosophy should see itself not as a continuation and extension of the sciences—philosophy as handmaiden to the queen of science herself in Kant’s language. Instead, we should think boldly about the power to write. Being artistic is one way we can do that just as much as the norms of solid argumentation. I’d like to end on two points of ten made in a list of writing recommendations Nietzsche sent to Lou Andreas-Salome in August 1882 about writing:
- Style ought to prove that one believes an idea; not only that one thinks it but also feels it.
- The more abstract a truth which one wishes to teach, the more one must first entice the senses.
* In the Continental world, we write exegetical papers that probably are better transformed into monograph chapters.
** It’s in these circles that we find some analytic historians of philosophy complaining to their own about the dearth of historical work in analytic departments.