Creativity, Hierarchy, and Authenticity in Professional Philosophy

Creativity, Hierarchy, and Authenticity in Professional Philosophy


What would motivate a person to write a dissertation prospectus in the manner of Wittgenstein’s Investigations? And what happens when one does? Bharath Vallabha tells us. Here’s an excerpt:

One of the key ideas of Cavell’s, and Goldfarb’s, interpretation of Wittgenstein is that key moves in philosophy are often the ones made at the very beginning, in the very way a debate or a question is set up. Partly inspired by my reading of Derrida at the time, I decided to take this Cavellian idea seriously, and literally. I took Putnam’s classic essay, “The Nature of Mental States”, and focused on its introductory paragraph. Six sentences. Three questions. Filled with normal philosophical uses of words like “pain”, “know”, “other people”, “analysis”, “concept”, “philosopher of mind”, and so on. By that point I had studied a fair amount of philosophy of mind, having taken courses by Shoemaker, Ginet, Boyd and others at Cornell, and having just finished my second year paper at Harvard with Richard Heck on McDowell’s Mind and World. I was going to be a philosophy of mind person. I knew how I was supposed to engage with Putnam’s essay, to evaluate his arguments for functionalism, to see his view in relation to the standard alternatives like identity theory, dualism, eliminativism and so on.

Writing like Wittgenstein gave me a new entry into this terrain. I didn’t have to focus on whether Putnam’s functionalist view in that paper was right. I was free instead to pursue my deeper interest, which was a kind of understanding of the activity of philosophy. I wanted to understand how Putnam’s essay got to have the sense that it is merely thinking through ideas, that it is somehow universal. As with most of my thinking at the time, I was desperate to get a handle on what kind of an education I was getting, of what I was being inculcated into and what I was being implicitly asked to leave behind. Most often I had a sense of being suffocated, of being forced into categories, dichotomies, arguments and narratives at a feverish pitch. I wanted to step back from it all and get my bearings, gather my thoughts. But the flow of courses, semesters, books, articles seemed to yank at me, pull me along as if in a torrent. What I wanted most was to gain perspective on what was happening, to take a time out, but in a philosophical way. Writing like Wittgenstein enabled this. No longer did I have to look at Putnam’s essay and think only about how it relates to qualia or to externalism. I could look at the essay, breathe out and ask whatever question I had about the essay. Even if they are questions which might not get me a job, or make me sound cool, or scientific. I could ask the questions for just one reason: because they were real questions for me. That’s it….

For four months I let myself live into a world where it was perfectly natural that my prospectus could be written in the Wittgensteinian way. I didn’t have a central thesis I was arguing for, since the reflections were my attempt to understand my own push and pull with regard to Putnam’s essay. As Wittgenstein said in the preface of the Tractatus, the appeal of what I was writing would be for people who had similar thoughts, and found it helpful to have them expressed. I didn’t engage with other texts of Putnam, or reference other authors. No quotations, no unnecessary padding, no bibliography. I didn’t do anything I didn’t want to do. I worked on each sentence and each paragraph, crafting the writing as if I were sculpting. Putting in ideas here, and taking them out there. Writing like Wittgenstein made it clearer why it was so natural for him to write his ideas on cards. Freed of the essay format, he didn’t have to treat his writing as having a linear, one-directional form. Each paragraph instead could be treated as a node, which can lead to nodes in any number of directions. In the midst of writing like this, it felt like a world I normally saw in two dimensions was opening to me a third dimension, that connections and links could be seen and drawn which became hidden and buried in the flow of the march of an argument going just from point A to point B.

I wrote about thirty five pages like this, pursuing ideas in the myriad directions my mind took me. I was happy. But could a prospectus really look like this? I didn’t care. I felt protected by one thought: If Wittgenstein can write like this and it can be great, why can’t others write like this also?

Go read the whole thing.

The essay beautifully conveys the liberation a student of philosophy may feel when first reading Wittgenstein’s diamond-like paragraphs—clear, polished, intricate, hard, and so different from anything else. But there is more to it than that. Vallabha tried to use Wittgenstein’s style to try to break free of the frame, built by others, into which philosophy of mind had been set, to get at it in his own way. The sense is of a student trying his best to use the tools of philosophy to understand his own thoughts and not be pushed around by others. But then he turns in his prospectus, and has to confront a profession that does not know what to do with such a piece of writing.

I don’t know Vallabha. I have no idea whether his prospectus was any good. But if you don’t realize that’s irrelevant, you are missing the point. His entire post could be fiction, but it speaks truthfully, I think, about one of the tensions at the heart of the professionalism of philosophy.

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