After Nature reader Brian B. wrote to me last week asking me about my thoughts concerning philosophy in light of the rise of the "neoliberal" university - which is essentially where the core of philosophy has now been placed, that is, in terms of of degree granting education and training (the "formal" or "traditional" place of philosophical activity, corresponding to peer-reviewed publication) - versus philosophy that happens outside of those walls, such as online.
Brian then went on to take Speculative Realism as a test case for an event or occurrence of philosophy whose main incarnation happened online rather than in the rooms of graduate seminars or in the pages of well known, peer-reviewed, professional academic journals (e.g. non-graduate student run journals whether print or online Open-Access, or non "independent" journals); that is, inside academic walls. Brian wondered whether there was more "creativity" happening outside the walls of academia in the "underground" of philosophy/online, or whether "real philosophy" can happen inside the formal university, perhaps even today (e.g. within the neoliberal university). He pointed out that I have experience in both places, having myself been a tenure track professor and then having had several offers for tenure positions and voluntarily "retiring" to a VAP position due to my health issues where I picked up philosophy again in the "underground" and online.
There's alot to think about, but I told him I'd offer some thoughts in the form of a blog post.
I think that philosophy, creatively speaking, is happening in both places. Although how philosophy occurs is markedly different. I do believe that how philosophy occurs in one place is by and large better than in the other, although as neoliberal institutional models increase that form of "traditional" philosophy inside the academy will more than likely vanish.
It is true that the anarchic conditions outside of academic walls can, at times, spur creative philosophical events - as in the case of the "former" Speculative Realism (not the current trademarked "brand" of Speculative ®ealism™. But, how philosophy then is sustained as an activity changes due to sheer nature of the medium. I am not sure that philosophy is meant to happen on Twitter for instance, where the speed of thought trumps the rigor of argument or the slow and careful reading and evaluative decision making that is required for the sound apprehension of detailed and subtle philosophical positions. I think alot of conversation in philosophy can occur online, but the hard work of philosophy itself, still to me at least, seems best reserved for more formal argumentative presentations of view, whether through papers, book chapters, books, or even conference presentations (which can be recorded and then uploaded online) as places to test those argumentative presentations of view. But for me, publication slows down at least to a moderate degree the speed of philosophy online, which is why Open-Access publication online can set a more reasonable pace for publication than the glacial advance of print publication. So long as the publication venue is peer-reviewed and of moderate to good quality I cannot see why publication online would succumb to uncalled for speeds of thinking that undercut the activity of philosophical discourse.
Now, even slow and carefully reasoned philosophy - as an event inside university walls - is itself under attack, where market conditions and new educational models of neoliberal education (online classes, for example) replace core pedagogical techniques that have been more or less "traditional" but are also often times more helpful in learning difficult texts and materials - this even beyond taking or teaching a class online, or via whatever method the current university will state that makes the most financial sense. Two examples might help me make this point.
First, inside university walls graduate education can often times be a transformative experience where the apprehension of material is slowed down in a group reading process that provides the structure required for a more formal engagement with the material; in a place where real human beings face to face engage, dialogue, receive, and shape texts and ideas. This seems to be simply an educational experience that is just not available online, even through GoogleHangouts (to a limited degree) which would be the nearest thing one could get. I think just the credentials involved, the tradition of a department and its faculty who've spent years developing key research profiles, all shapes that personal face to face experience. This is not to say that those experiences cannot be recreated elsewhere, such as at the recent PAF Summer Institute. The latter seems rare however, but is still possible..
Second, the act of writing graded papers and book reviews in a graduate seminar, and then finally even the act of writing the dissertation itself, where feedback and appropriate face to face dialogical conversation can actually mature one's philosophical perspective, seems to trump (in most cases at least) many of the popular forms of online philosophical practice. I remember quite well actually that the very process of writing the dissertation changed me and changed my perspective - I learned so much from the experience of doing a formal literature review but then having the chance to vet the literature review before my advisor and before my colleagues. While my own perspective was able to grow and mature beyond graduate school and take on new schemes of ideas, those ideas varying but nevertheless relating back to areas of inquiry that I took up in the dissertation, that development has been slower only because of a lack of opportunity for in-person communication and dialogical conversation. In short, in person conversation goes a long way in maturing and developing one's views. Again, this often times can be re-created outside of academic walls although is rare in online interactions.
To that end, still, in person face-to-face conversation always seemed more valuable to me. I recall several years ago having a conversation about Speculative Realism with Tom Sparrow at the December APA. And just that conversation about Speculative Realism seemed to impact us both, perhaps moreso than the ongoing occurrence of Speculative Realism happening online!My point is that philosophy as I see it and try to practice it, is essentially an activity where human beings sit down face to face and dialogically engage in conversation about questions of ultimacy. The medium of online philosophy outside of the academy, so far at least, has more often times than not stifled any productive way to engage in that same activity. But it has also expanded the range of the conversation. Blogs and social media are instrumental in establishing that range. On the other hand, whether reading body language, or simply sitting before others who have worked through a difficult text that you yourself are trying to learn, the rules of engagement are different in that conversation is the most "concrete" transmission of ideas, where ideas can be worked upon "in depth" - beyond the "surface" of quick social media grazing.
However, as the university is neoliberalized, I fear that those measures,too, will be supplanted by facile and surface dwelling techniques of all things within an online education: the speed of thought, the lack of real depth in engagement, the propaganda of social media accounts, fad and fashion. All things that have to some degree been kept in check in former university environments. This isn't to say that traditional graduate programs haven't been swayed by fashion (some have), or that time limits apply for one to complete a degree in the first place. My point is that the creative fires burning in graduate departments always had checks and balances - checks and balances that are largely absent when philosophy is had in the anarchic conditions of the online world.
Philosophy online seems (to me) to be more of a conversation, part of a process of individuation, where indeed good results can occur from time to time, finding their way to publication whether print or online Open-Access. See my post HERE on "Blogophobia" for example.
On the other hand, as the rise of the neoliberal university and its educational model supplants those traditional models with their checks and balances, and as the neoliberal university affects for the worse the job market, the anarchic world of online engagement - blogs and online journals that are "indie" or "underground" - may be the only place that philosophy is left with - the last outpost where real creative and new ideas can occur. Although, as I have stated elsewhere (HERE), if that is the case then I do not have much hope for carefully reasoned and just and fair debate given the politics involved.
Is there a middle between the two? In favor of that, Robin Mackay from Urbanomic's comment found in Jon Cognburn's take on Pete Wolfendale's latest book - a comment which I've been meaning to copy now for more than a week - puts in perspective how "underground" or "independent" philosophical events, such as publishing houses, can best institute new checks and balances that would apply to the anarchic online philosophical world.
I'll post Robin's comment as a way to close this post, along with two other comments after that, as a way to show how this checks and balances system seems to be trying to work itself out online. The test case is Pete Wolfendale's latest book where the Preface talks about the new Speculative ®ealism™. Whether the event or philosophy in question chooses to respond to those proposed checks and balances, and acknowledge those who deserve to be acknowledged, is a different story. Please carefully read what Robin has to say as he spent some time evidently writing it. Unlike a blog post which usually is scanned, his comment really should be read. (Originally found on Job Cogburn's "Circling Firing Squad" post HERE from 10/10/14.) The issue is of course whether Pete was justified in the claims he presents in his Preface. But because the book was published by Urbanomic Robin would like to provide justification for the contents of the book given the political conditions surrounding "Speculative Realism." There are also some other political dimensions at stake but I'll let readers see for themselves how that all works out.
Comment from Mark: