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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Daniel Garber
Daniel Garber
6 years ago

When Wittgenstein wrote philosophy in the way in which he did, it was an expression of his originality. I’m afraid, though, that when Mr. Vallabha wrote in the same way, it was not. From reading his essay, I’m not sure that he understood the difference. Real originality does take courage. But it also takes originality.Report

p
p
6 years ago

Actually, I do not think that Daniel Garber missed anything. Wittgenstein published his work 1921, 8 years before he received his PhD (which, I assume he would not have needed even to get at that time). And he came to Cambridge in 1911, so 10 years before he published it. His impact on the philosophical scene was felt by the mid 1910’s. In other words, Tractatus is more comparable to a first book by an already employed philosopher these days, than by a PhD student. This is completely missed in Bharath Vallabha’s post – yet it seems relevant for his discussion since he is talking about writing like Wittgenstein for his prospectus. The reason why we do bother with Wittgenstein is not his style – we may come to love or hate it – but his thinking. He is not alone in the history of philosophy to write in a non-scholarly style – the list is very long and Wittgenstein’s style has affinities to philosophers that include Heraclitus, Spinoza, or Anselm – at least to my mind). So although original in many ways, his non-scholarly style is not unprecedented, nor is it without imitators these days (say, Bencivenga’s A Theory of Language and Mind, etc.). Third, if you want to write in a non-scholarly style – you better good at it AND you better have something truly important to say. One of the first things I teach students is not to imitate Plato, Montaigne, or Sartre – for the very simple reason that they were original writers in addition to being highly original thinkers and that what we see from them is not their undergraduate papers, but fruits of long and painful labors (as it is also in Wittgenstein). One is surely free to write whichever way one likes – but I should not blame others if what one writes does not seem to merit their efforts. I find the end of Vallabha’s essay – on Wittgenstein’s exploitation of his being regarded as genius and so on – an expression of Vallabha’s ignorance of history of philosophy or philosophers.Report

Anne Jacobson
6 years ago

Sorry for a self-quote, but it is relevant, I think. As a student of Elizabeth Anscombe and other Wittgensteinians, I wrote in my 3 am interview, “I had always thought that one of the most interesting and indeed delightful questions one can ask is, “Should we be thinking about things in this way at all?” while in my experience that question was becoming for many a mark of one’s not having the essential ability to compare and contrast the standard views. I do not want to insist that making such comparisons is a bad thing, but it is not what is most engaging for me. “Report

Anne Jacobson
6 years ago

If I may add: there seem to me at least two things mr Vallabha might have been trying to do: copy Wittgenstein’s style or copy his attempt to get at the very beginning of the philosophical issue. From the little I have seen of his work, I would certainly expect it was both. i can easily imagine his attempts at the latter did not win him a lot of praise. That might be all right if he can switch over to the more standard approach, but if not, it’s very bad luck for him, I would think.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
6 years ago

Look, most prospectuses (and most dissertations) aren’t groundbreaking works of genius, and they’re not meant to be. (Anyone currently struggling to write their prospectus, or nervous about turning that draft in to their advisor would benefit from reminding themselves of them). So why not take that off the table in interpreting Vallabha’s reflections?

So are there reasons a potentially interesting but non-groundbreaking, non-genuis prospectus written in an unconventional style is worse than a similarly interesting, similarly non-groundbreaking, non-genius prospectus written in a more conventional style? If so, what are they, and how decisive are they in light of the reasons for preferring/encouraging a more unconventional one? What habits of mind are encouraged by each approach, and what are their costs or benefits for philosophical thinking, teaching, and scholarship?

Surely those are more interesting and worthwhile questions than just trotting out the standard reasons why most of us don’t want our undergrads imitating Plato and Nietzsche in their term papers.Report

MJSM
MJSM
6 years ago

It is revealing that the arguments Dan Garber and P make rely on the cult of genius arguments Vallhaba deals with in his essay. As Justin has intimated, the essay is as much about how disciplinary norms restrict creativity by only authorizing such adventurous writings for those (like Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, etc.) who by their brilliance and (presumably) eccentricity cannot operate in the normal academic way. This of becomes something of a tautology as only those geniuses can write in the way they do, and the way they write is an expression of their genius. I wonder if this is not an unfortunate side effect of the professionalization of philosophy (and other areas of the humanities), where in the need to be scholarly requires a (often necessary) uniformity, both making the process more specialized and more mundane. What worries me in Garber and P’s responses is the rarefied understanding of originality they both use to justify Wittgenstein’s writing, which falls into the trap of saying that only highly original works can be done this way, ignoring (to use p’s phrase) the long and painful process by which such works are developed. If we cut off a student’s attempt at doing such original work, how are we not potentially preventing the creation of new works of genius? In protecting our students from risk, might we not be holding at least some of them back?Report

MJSM
MJSM
6 years ago

Also, Prof. Jacobsen, there’s a typo in the link attached to your name (an extra “A” at the beginning). Thought you might want to know.Report

grad
grad
6 years ago

P,

Vallabha was trying to imitate the Investigations, not the Tractatus.Report

Daniel Garber
Daniel Garber
6 years ago

I think that I have been misunderstood. I don’t subscribe to any cult of genius, nor do I think that students should be discouraged from trying to do things that break disciplinary and professional boundaries, and go in new directions. Quite the contrary. My point is simply that you don’t break new ground by imitating someone who has broken new ground. I’m as much against the “normalizing tendencies of professionalization” as anyone I know. I have spent my career trying to fight against the established standards in the fields in which I work. I have had many wonderful students, and I hope that I have encouraged them to do things that I wouldn’t—and couldn’t—do myself, and supported them when they did them. I’m proud when my students have taken the fields in which I work in directions I never would have imagined. I’m sorry that what I wrote to Mr. Vallabha sounds condescending. Virtually all of our students are capable of doing original work, at at least some level, and they should be encouraged to do so. But there is no simple formula to follow.Report

MJSM
MJSM
6 years ago

Prof. Garber, apologies if I misread your post. I am curious about your idea of originality. When you say “you don’t break new ground by imitating someone who has broken new ground,” I think you might be over simplifying things. Obviously, without access to the original document (sadly gone) we can’t know anything of the quality of the work or how closely Vallabha’s work imitated Wittgenstein’s, but I don’t think it’s necessarily true that imitation can’t provide for original work. To use a less philosophically charged example, we can find a great deal of originality and instances of “new ground” in the thousands of sonnets written over the last four hundred or so years. Closer to home, it’s still unclear why a work like this–even supposing it had nothing original to say–couldn’t experiment formally for any reason other than notions of what is properly academic (and who is allowed to transgress such boundaries). Or rather, it is all too clear why it couldn’t work.Report

j.
j.
6 years ago

i don’t see that there’s much point in arguing over what is more likely to ‘break new ground (if you know, maybe you ought to secure a patent immediately), but what seems more likely to encourage progress, or creative thinking, or ‘new’ thought?

1) almost no one being permitted to emulate original work from the past

2) people being able to emulate original work of the past as they see fit in order to experiment and improve upon it, if not find a way of working that will satisfy them

in any case, if an author has something like a ‘method’ (and how will you know if they do?), surely it’s part of that that it be usable by others?Report

MJSM
MJSM
6 years ago

Also, to be clear, I by no means am trying to suggest anything repressive about Prof. Garber’s work with his students, or even his academic writing (with which I am sadly unacquainted).Report

Barry Lam
Barry Lam
6 years ago

I’d hate to plug, but I suggest that people read and think about Steven Pinker’s recent book or essays on style, particularly with respect to academic writing. My takeaway is that your writing style is not philosophically neutral. If you write in the “classical style” (Cartesian) that Pinker recommends, for instance, you are betraying a presumption (true in my view) that your language can be an accurate enough window toward first-order objects in the world. In light of this, writing should be a conversation where the writer is attempting to direct the gaze of a reader toward an object of joint attention. On the other hand, other traditions of style in philosophy betray a skeptical presumption about the relationship between writing and first-order objects, so that the writer becomes primarily preoccupied with indulgence in increasingly complex meta-concepts. Still other traditions of style betray an ongoing struggle to prove to a group of expert readers that the writer is not some incompetent, unoriginal dupe. I welcome more attention to the relationship between style/form and content in philosophy, but I do not think that a standing presumption in favor of classical style is unwarranted.Report

Anon faculty
Anon faculty
6 years ago

It’s worth pointing out a factors that contributed to Wittgenstein’s ability to write the way he did in the Philosophical Investigations:

– these aren’t prospectus-stage thoughts or initial forays into philosophy; they’re the late writings of a philosopher who had already received immense fame and attention through earlier works. (To put this a bit differently, if you want a case analogous to Wittgenstein, we wouldn’t consider a student at the prospectus stage; we’d have to consider what would happen if one of the famous figures nowadays–say, Parfit or someone like that–started to jot down his musings in Wittgensteinian fashion.)
– aside from the fact that Wittgenstein had a post at Cambridge, etc., he was the son of the second richest man in Europe (second to the Rothschilds). One suspects that this helps a bit.
– Wittgenstein himself is famously critical of academic philosophy; it’s a bit odd to think that one should imitate his style in an effort to succeed within the earliest and most restrictive, rule-bound stages of academic philosophy (writing a dissertation)Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
6 years ago

Anon faculty: I thought the question was *whether* such an early stage *should* be rule-bound and restrictive in this way. Like Barry Lam, I’m not sure the answer is no, but just pointing to these social/descriptive facts doesn’t address the normative and practical questions that Vallabha’s experiences raise.

Another such question: is it good for philosophy that only the children of the wealthy can afford to flout the ordinary conventions of the discipline in that way?Report

Richard Lara
5 years ago

I know that it is very late for this comment, but I only just discovered this forum – a fact that should not bother anybody here given that untimely discoveries seems to be the chief virtue of this site .

Regarding Garber’s comment, it would appear that Vallabha’s use of the numbered aphorism was an expression of his originality because philosopher’s like Novalis, Nietzsche and others used that style long before Wittgenstein did, and yet Garber claims Wittgenstein’s use of the numbered aphorism was an expression of his originality. So, if Garber is right, then originality is simply doing what others have done in the past, which is what Vallabha did. Thank you professor Garber! This counter-intuitive notion of originality never would have occurred to me.

I do not want to defend Vallabha, however, because he is equally guilty of anachronism when he says: “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.” Plato’s defines dialectic in the “Phaedrus” as an initial take on the subject matter of one’s discourse that makes possible all that one thinks and says about it – in other words, the dialectical move is the “key move” that makes all of a thinker’s discursive moves possible. This definition shows that the “key moves” notion that Cavell, Goldfarb and Vallabha believe to be so novel is actually as ancient as it is dimly understood by Cavell, Goldfarb and Vallabha.

I did find one point here worthy of merit – namely, “Wittgenstein himself [was] famously critical of academic philosophy” – but, on the other hand, he did not really have any other options. Report