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Some Observations Regarding the Writing of Philosophy

One of the more annoying things about academic philosophy is how much a paper must breakthrough to what others deem worthy. In this way, slow methodical reflection and journeying with an author are not usually recognized as a legitimate way to encounter a text, let alone write about it. Unless one is Heidegger, the allowance to use, interpret, and get right a thinker are not seen as legitimately worthy of time. Too often journal reviewers want to know why it is that someone is journeying with a thinker rather than appropriating that use for some other end outside the text one has dubbed worthy of attention. Understanding an author is not an intrinsic reason to write journal articles.

I love slowly crafted and detailed interpretations of books I have been reading all my scholarly life. Alas, I think the analytics won the metaphilosophical and professional game that hermeneutics done well is not real philosophy. Even though for me it is philosophy done well, plenty of trained Continentals have been conditioned to write mostly in English and write in such a way that other readers are not invited to read with you. Hell, even so called “Continental philosophers” in Europe host their conferences in English. Instead, analytic philosophers want the logic of a thinker spilt out on the table. Philosophical texts become like entrails spilt onto the augur’s table. There is no more building up of phenomenological descriptions, no more flirtatious waltzes with Sartre, and no more Roequentin observing the inauthenticity of people on benches. Instead, philosophical writing is putting forward one narrow thesis and carefully articulated arguments about that thesis such that an entire piece cannot seek to understand a possible unifying ground to so many disparate ideas in one thinker. One is left reconstructing James because of how unsystematic he was. The system is there; the same is true of Emerson. You have to reconstruct it slowly. But that’s not doing philosophy.

Contrast that with Charles Taylor’s engagement with James. See how he inhabits James’s Varieties in his Varieties of Religions Today (2002). See how he builds and waits for others, and how a lecture builds up until the crescendo that James was a way into understanding secularism since James echoed the individualism of contemporary religious experience. I or you cannot do this because we are not Charles Taylor. Part of my problem is I am still worried about getting James right. I am not interested in being Taylor or Heidegger. I’ve accepted that this is, of course, me doing the history of philosophy to others, but for me, reading James animates so much more of my spirit that I cannot inhabit other intellectual spaces very easily.

I seek to understand religions plural. I do not inhabit any particular one, and of the one I did inhabit for so long turned out to conceal injustice that I cannot in good conscience participate in it. With that said, I am also very metaphysically different than even when I wrote my dissertation. During my dissertation, there were phenomenological essences. Now, the world is growing, in process. The only way to understand Being is in our transactions and relations with it in time. The same is true of religion. I come to James because of these metaphilosophical assumptions about what it is that I am doing in philosophy. Given that there is a whole world that accepts different assumptions of what philosophy is, I often wonder if I should study religious literature instead. Maybe I would be more happy engaging in literary criticism of a philosophical text or jump ship to religious studies or something like that.

In many respects, professional philosophy has become…boring. It is a place where an analytic philosopher of religion can balk at my criticism that they didn’t get Rorty right. In getting Rorty right, however, his embrace of naturalism and skepticism of religion is so basic that to get that wrong should be embarrassing. Other analytics, then, say to me: What should I have done right? Either A. they want their hermeneutics done for them (outsourced hermeneutics), or B. such an analytic author can simply dismiss such hermeneutically-centered criticism and say…yeah but my argument (much like the playful naivete behind “Yeah but her emails.”). Of course, this is only one example. Both A and B presuppose that hermeneutics only matters to philosophers so as to A get their arguments about other matters right in which the appearance of competency matters to the one appropriating themes from some author or B. hermeneutics never mattered at all. Only the arguments matter.

So what to do with this short blog rant? I guess I will only say that maybe writing books is the answer. Not individual articles. Maybe books that can take their time and develop an idea are the last vestige in which someone may meticulously develop an interpretation and ideas.

By J. Edward Hackett

J. Edward Hackett, Ph.D is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in the United States. He specializes in American Philosophy, Continental Philosophy, and Ethics. He is the author of several books: Persons and Values in Pragmatic Phenomenology: An Exploration of Moral Metaphysics (2018), Phenomenology in the 21st Century (2016, coedited with J. Aaron Simmons), House of Cards and Philosophy (2015), and a novel, Flight of the Ravenhawk (2019). Hackett received his Ph.D. in 2013 from Southern Illinois University focusing on phenomenology and pragmatism, and his M.A. in analytic philosophy from Simon Fraser University in 2008. His philosophical work has been translated in Spanish and Russian. Recent work has paid attention to the overlap between Catholic and Methodist personalism in Scheler and Brightman, process metaphysics, the metaphysical underpinnings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the ethics and political philosophy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

One reply on “Some Observations Regarding the Writing of Philosophy”

Yeah, it was near the end of my research career when I finally realized that most philosophers don’t care much about getting so-and-so right … they just want something interesting. The problem, though, is that interesting is not always philosophical productive. E.g., the numerous riffs on Jazz + philosophy in pragmatism that was popular for nearly two decades … but rarely was anything other than a good metaphor.

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