Sunday, April 01, 2012

Philosophy and the question: what can I do?

One of the questions that was raised in the comments during the last post seemed to warrant a post of its own, though I will be extrapolating a bit. I spent quite some time formulating a comment in response to the exchange between Mad Professor and Bob Sweetman (only to have that carefully crafted response suddenly erased beyond recall by a computer malfunction...) but in writing it, I realized that there are some tensions at play in our posting here that are well worth addressing.

Part of my reflecting on this took place while I was away at a family event in Detroit, which area I am originally form. The case surrounding Trayvon Martin that we were discussing last week is, with good reason, a major topic of discussion in Detroit and the tension was palpable. I, like both the Mad Professor and Bob seem to be saying, "get" the response of anger and disgust.  It is certainly where I started when I began looking into this case, and those feelings still exist. But, particularly as I re-entered my old home grounds in Michigan, I also wondered, what can I do? What can I as a person do in response to this and to stop things like this from happening again? What can we as a community do? And then, reading Bob's comments, I asked myself, who am I when I ask 'what can I do'? and likewise, who is this we that I am speaking of?

Identity is a complex issue that could not possibly be sorted out in the space of a blog entry, but one large portion of who both "I" and "we" am/are is a philosopher, or a community of philosophers, theologians, other theorists and activists. That's largely (though not exclusively) who reads this blog. I, Allyson the individual, could go and join protests and carry signs, and write letters to the appropriate authorities on this issue as well as on other equally pressing ones here in Canada. But I am also a trained philosopher, with a vocation to act as one. So what do I do in that capacity?

This is one of the major questions that faces us in the community in which "we" exist, and I think (correct me if I'm wrong, Bob) it was part of what you were trying to get it in your comments on the previous post. "We" who are in this particular community are trained to think in terms of theory, to look for the "bigger questions" that lie behind or underneath whatever topic is at hand. That is, in a sense, part of our job. But we have to be able to do that in a way that matters to the matter at hand (whatever particular issue or set of issues it is that we are addressing.) Bob, you wrote if our conceptual analyses are merely reflective of what is and never transformative or at least potentially transformative, what good are we? That's a question worth asking. It seems quite clear to me that it is transformation that this situation with the Trayvon Martin case requires. And there are many other places and issues that also require transformation: societal transformation, political transformation, ideological transformation--even personal transformation. So when we are faced with issues that rightfully make us react with deep anger and disgust, how do we, in our capacity as academics or activists with a theoretical bent, begin to dig into the work of transformation necessary?

I have some ideas involving more interaction between academics and activists, and working in an interdisciplinary manner to get more input from many different parties who come from different perspectives. This would, however, have to be undertaken in the hope and belief that it will help ensure theory is grounded in experience arising out of practice and practice is grounded in reflection on theory, and that this double grounding is a continual cycle that impacts both how we theorize and what we do. But what are other's thoughts, speaking in the capacity of a trained academic or activist (or both?)


  1. It seems to me that academics, at least in philosophy and theology, are too distanced from reality to inspire transformation. They may reflect reality in their conceptual analyses but nobody really engages with their work. The treasures they have toiled to produce remain locked away in inaccessible journals or massive tomes full of jargon and presupposed knowledge. The works are incapable of speaking to anyone who doesn't already possess a degree or two in the subject field.

    What is needed then is a new way of communicating. Or a renewed effort to communicate directly with the world.

    No more of this academic to academic talk (or even academic to activist). That’s not making the work of academics any more useful in driving positive change. Academics need to start talking to people, normal everyday people, not past them or over their heads.

    1. Hi Jared. I'm not sure it would be fair to expect academics to stop acting like academics, but I'd like to get at something similar with respect to how academics can make their work more useful "on the ground".

      It seems to me that what we lack on the ground today is a way to agree to act together despite our commitments to different camps of thought. We need alternatives to old polarities like religious versus secular, liberal versus conservative, socialist versus capitalist, and so on. These are crippling us yet most "on the ground" work still seems easy to identify as belonging to one side or another of a polarity that in itself is doing no useful work.

      The accessibility of ideas and analyses that come out of academics is an issue too, and while I don't completely agree that "communicating directly with the world" is a goal I think that a more open engagement with the world would be a useful shift in habits. You speak of ideas being "locked away in inaccessible journals" and I hear a voice in my head saying "more open-access publishing". Maybe I am only making a small distinction: you going out and engaging the world versus merely leaving the door open for the world to come in and engage you.

    2. You’re right of course. Academics must continue to do what they do. They must continue talking to each other and writing for each other even if the results are inaccessible to most people.

      So you know my comments are inspired by Saint Paul, if I read him right (1 Corinthians 9:19-24).

      That is, if academics want to drive transformation among the people, then they must become like the people, and speak to the people from the vantage of the people. Not from the vantage of being academics.

      I hear you though about crippling polarities. I also hear you about open source journals. That is a good trend. (And certainly not a "small distinction"! It was on my mind as well.)

      It’s not enough though. For example, it wasn’t enough for Saint Paul to “open the door,” or to disseminate his letters. He also went out to the world. His mission was to speak directly to the people, from the vantage of the people.

      (Now there is a professional philosopher!)

  2. While I think you have a point in saying that philosophy, and other academic work, should try to be more accessible, I think Daryl's point is also important: we need alternatives to old polarities.

    I find it interesting that you talk about how "academics" must become like "the people", which sounds as though academics are somehow separate from the people to begin with. Perhaps that is so with some academics, but for many I think it is not. I was left wondering who the people are if I am not one of them, in all my daily routine, with all my familial concerns and my worries about the rising price of bread and my long commute among all the other commuters. What are my experiences if not those of a person, surrounded by people with whom I live in community, whether I know them or not? When I speak or write, I do it as one voice among many, all of whom are part of the "people."

    I suppose what I was trying to do in my original post above is look at what our gifts are, what we have been trained in and/or have a calling to do, and how to best work together and use them as part of a community, working toward listening to each other and toward building real flourishing. I threw out vocations as being a touch point because it seems to me that's where we can all learn from each other. But we do need to work hard at making our language understandable. I do get what you mean (I think) when you praise Paul for going "out into the world". But on the other hand, part of me thinks that the notion of having to "out" into the world, as though we were somehow separate from it to begin with, is one facet of the polarities Daryl mentions, and one facet of what I think needs to change. Your thoughts?

  3. You’re right, academics are people and they’re constantly conversing using normal and accessible modes of communication.

    But you also seem to agree with me that normal academic discourse is by and large inaccessible to the general public. For instance, the modes associated with professional, i.e., academic, philosophy are conference presentations, lectures, journal articles and books, and none of these are directed to the general public.

    The philosophical conversations that take place in your daily life, as rich as these may be, they are not currently the substance of professional philosophy...

    So my point remains: if professional philosophers want to drive transformation in the world at large then they need to develop as part of their trade new (and old!) ways of communicating beyond the traditional modes of academia. This way the wisdom produced will be more accessible to the general public as well as more proactive in its own spread.

    As to new methods that should be developed I would quickly suggest two that are old. First, professional philosophers should work toward redeveloping the speaking tradition of Saint Paul (and Socrates) where the talking wasn’t done in the conference or lecture hall but the agora, where the people were.

    Second, professional philosophers should work toward redeveloping the writing tradition of Saint Paul. The Gospels, for instance, were directed to the people, they were written by the people in a redactive process, and they were designed for the people using memorable and engrossing forms such as stories, songs and proverbs. (These are much better ways of reaching and transforming people than long-winded, meticulous and jargon-rich arguments!)

    If professional philosophy shifted gears in this second way we might start getting philosophical works once again on par with, say, Genesis. (It seems to me a great loss to our society that professional philosophers are no longer producing philosophical works on the level of Scripture... Professional philosophers need to redevelop that trade!)

    But anyways, I do agree with everything that you say. I too think that gifts should be shared and that we should listen and try to learn from each other in the name of building real community and communal flourishing.

    If anything, I’m trying to overcome the separations and crippling polarities that Daryl laments by recognizing that listening and a willingness to learn are not enough. That's only one side of it. Professional philosophers must also develop new ways of communicating that will be heard.

    They must expand their professional boundaries and go out into the world...

    1. While I agree with Allyson that philosophers are already people in the world, I think the distinction between the philosopher-as-academic and philosopher-as-citizen is still germaine, and also what you are getting at here Jared. With other professions there seems to be a natural translation layer that communicates academic output into the world, where it then makes a difference (for good or bad). For example, physicists communicate with each other but then eventually also with engineers who in turn work with skilled tradespeople, and so the product of the physicist's work appears in public and is understood in application. That sequence is very much reversible, too. The physicist will eventually be a consumer of the work of her profession, equal with the everyman consumer who informs the chain through feedback mechanisms such as the market and the customer-support chain.

      So, I wonder what takes the place of the engineers and tradespeople in the world of philosophy, or if indeed philosophy can only be its most useful if done in public and for the public without such mediation. Surely Paul and Socrates also had inner circles where they could have highly coded conversations with peers, in addition to being public intellectuals?

  4. I was thinking (and typing) along similar lines, Daryl, and you must be faster at typing than I am. I tend to mull for several hours. In any case, I think with Jared's phrase "drive the transformation" we hit the nail on the head of the issue.

    What if philosophers are not supposed to be *driving* that transformation, but rather *contributing to* it? (Like your example of the physicist, Daryl). The issues the world is facing today are too complex to be addressed, even theoretically, within the confines of any one discipline, whether that discipline is speaking in the Agora or not. And in fact the Agora--the marketplace--is part of the problem, even as it is part of the solution.

    For my part, (and to give a concrete example) I have an understanding of how my philosophical work can act in service to society, contributing to a transformation of society. Simply put, my work is in 1.) understanding the ways stories can shape us in both harmful and healthy ways and which stories are having particularly harmful effects in the present context, and 2.) developing interpretive tools for re-writing or re-interpreting those harmful stories, so that we as people and as a society are shaped in healthy instead of harmful ways.

    It's important that I am able to talk about that work in public, non-academic places, with people who are not academics. If I can't, my work will not have the effect I hope for. And yet at the same time, I could not possibly have become as (hopefully!) articulate about my work as I am without serious immersion in academically-focused and sometimes quite abstruse material in those journals and conference halls and lecture rooms. Those are our (sub)Agoras, if you will. (What you refer to as Paul and Socrates' "inner circles" with their peers, Daryl?)

    At the same time, I realize that no matter how effective I am at speaking and writing about my work in accessible ways, my work is still only one part of any possible solution. We need economists willing and able to think not just about markets and money but also about livelihoods. We need environmentalists who can wake us as to our present danger and suggest alternatives we can responsibly pursue--even if it means giving up some of what we have now. We need designers intent on sustainability. We need manufacturers intent on worker's rights. We need scientists and engineers committed to excelling at what they do in creative, ethical, and resource-respecting ways. We need advertisers who (miraculously?) do their work without promoting a culture of consumerism. And I, as a philosopher working with narratives, need to be able to pay attention to all this (just as they also must do) as I look for the "stories we tell" and try to help re-shape them and send them back into the social "feed". No single one of these fields--science, technology, philosophy, advertising, economics, etc--should be the "driving force" in cultural transformation, or in culture and society at large. When there is only one such driving force, things become quickly unbalanced, as we have seen. Does that perhaps address what we've been talking about?

  5. I too have had the science-engineering pair on my mind from the start. My thought on this is that academic philosophers have novelists, film-makers, etc, to translate their work into mass-consumable products. And maybe that's good enough. Maybe academic philosophers should carry on as they have been and rely on this “translation layer” of artists to make their work communicable to the world.

    That said, I still feel that academic philosophy is missing something and needs some internal transformation. Call me stuck-in-the-past but I still think that it has lost something vital to its possession of a world-transforming power, and as such it is rather inert when it comes to inspiring transformation in the world.

    But as you say Allyson it’s a complex system. Who is to say where the trouble lies? Or who is to say that all professional disciplines shouldn’t be reviewing and transforming their trades?

    I think you’re absolutely right that they should be, and that the "driving force" needs to be applied along multiple fronts. The problem however is coordinating these efforts.

    I suppose that’s why I’m not satisfied with academic philosophy. My heart tells me that professional philosophers should be leading the way in this effort. Which raises the question again: Where are the professional philosophers? Why are the fruits of their labour not reaching the world and energizing as well as directing this multi-front initiative to transform the world?

  6. Since my musings occasioned this last post and the ensuing conversation, it seems right to weigh in. All advocacy scholarship has transformational intent. Christian philosophy too has transformational intent. One does not have to see this in individualistic terms, although it is easiest to think of the problem in this way and that seems to be important to the ensuing conversation, at least as ghost. The theory of relativity has had a transformative effect on our perception of the world even though it is articulated in ways that very few can understand, in which the popularizations are not quite up to the task of capturing all that is entailed by the theory. Moreover its effect has been multiple in the sense that "we" have learned to view the world in its wake in several not entirely coherent ways. It has served us as a principle of motion but we have not set off in the same direction. This example is an example of theory, indeed, highly abstruse theory yet capturing the imagination of subsequent generations in all sorts of ways. It has made a difference or rather very many differences. What I take from my own example is that theory can be transformative not merely representative but that the transformations that theories set in motion (if only potentially) are not univocal, determinate and defined, rather they are legion. My guess is that the myriad transformations that the notion of "rights" has set in motion over the four centuries of its use is that way. One could almost say that it has been too fecund, too generative. But maybe it is better to say that like any good idea it is logically underdetermined such that its development can proceed along multiple trajectories simultaneously as well as successively. That would seem to mean that transformation is a difficult, perhaps impossible thing to control, another conundrum to be thought about by those of us who view scholarship or at least our scholarship as properly transformative.



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