Originality and Failure in Philosophy


To what extent do philosophers’ quite understandable social needs and fears of failure compromise their capacity for originality? A lot, according to Costica Bradatan (Texas Tech), in his epistle to academic philosophers in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Why We Fail and How.” 

It’s an interesting read.

Those who don’t share what seems to be Bradatan’s view of the philosophical ideal—an individualistic quest for unique self-understanding—may nonetheless be warmly reminded of their past selves as undergraduates carrying around The Stranger or The Portable Nietzsche.

Even those who don’t share his disdain for the institutions and forms of communication by which contemporary academic philosophers interact may nonetheless find value in his criticisms.

And even those who reject his armchair psychologizing of the entire profession in terms of the human desire for companionship may…. well, hmmm, you know, actually, some of this just seems like evidence-free speculation nested in a framework in which a demand for evidence would likely be dismissed as a cowardly abdication of the philosopher’s responsibility to be original.

Still… there is something in all of this that’s worth thinking about.

Bradatan laments what he sees as a lack of originality in philosophy; he doesn’t mean originality within the context of a debate started by others, using their vocabulary, but something more fundamental. He thinks the cause of this perceived lack of fundamental originality is a fear of failure. Further, he thinks this fear of failure is misplaced: on his view, all philosophy is “doomed to fail,” so the fact of yours in particular failing should be no great shame, nothing worth running from. But we do run from it, he says, to the comforting sociality of the profession, which is really an illusion but still guarantees that we will not be sufficiently original, and so puts one more (redundant, I suppose) nail in the coffin of failure.

I agree that on one conception of what philosophy is about (answering philosophical questions) it may indeed fail, but that that suggests we may be overlooking a better way to conceive of the value of philosophy.

I disagree with most of the rest. I see philosophy as increasingly diverse and welcoming of originality.  I’m more pluralistic about the point of philosophy (e.g.) and so I don’t think originality is the only, or most important, element of it. It sounds implausible to me that “fear of failure” is what’s keeping a lot of philosophers from exploring or developing certain ideas they otherwise think worth exploring or developing. And I don’t think the sociality of the profession as manifested in various institutions and forms of interaction are inherently bad for philosophy. We shouldn’t be so dismissive of philosophical cooperation (both among the currently alive and between them and earlier philosophers), for it’s one of the key ways in which we learn how we’re going wrong and what we’re missing.

But perhaps I am not being fair to Bradatan, and I haven’t touched on parts of his essay that others will no doubt find interesting, concerning power in the profession. I’d be happy to hear what others think.

I will end the post with an excerpt from his essay:

Academic philosophers will rarely admit their gregariousness—we are fiercely independent, intentionally iconoclastic. We understand that we stick together because philosophy is all about debate and argument—isn’t it?—and because truth-seeking is a collective enterprise and philosophizing dialogical in nature. True enough. A dialogue, however, is a conversation between equals. And while genuine dialogues do take place between academic philosophers, the most pervading and consequential form of interaction here is a fierce—sometimes shouted, sometimes whispered, but just as often teeth-clenched silent—conversation about power. About who has it and who doesn’t, what are the best ways to get it and to keep it, who is in and who is out, and other similar interrogations. The remarkable thing about this conversation is that it is highly performative: power is being produced—gained and lost, increased or weakened—as the conversation takes place. It may start being between equals, but the conservation begets inequality: it increases the power of few to the detriment of many, it vitiates the interaction between those involved, and seriously alters the nature of philosophizing itself.

This power includes that over funds, resources, opportunities, academic credentials, positions, and recognitions, but—more subtly and more consequently for those involved—over the meaning of words. In his Memoirs, Hans Jonas recounts how once, while he and Hannah Arendt were teaching philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York, the dean of the Graduate Faculty asked some philosophers from the University of Chicago what they made of Arendt and Jonas’s work. Proud as the dean must have been of his star employees, he was in for a cold shower: “It’s not philosophy,” answered one analytical philosopher from Chicago. “It’s interesting, also good to have, and there should be departments that work on such things. I’m in favor of that. But the name for it has yet to be invented. I wouldn’t know what it should be called. I do know it’s not philosophy.” The power to give names to things, as those crushed by it know only too well, is among the greatest powers that there are: what you do, what you’ve been doing all your life—even the name of your calling—is something others who have that power can decide.

Equally important, this is also a power over the definitions of success and failure; the power to name is also the power to issue scales and rankings, lists of winners and losers. The closer one is to the site of this power—for us universities, academic journals and presses, funding bodies—the more successful one is judged to be. And since no one wants to be thought a failure, the social mobilization these definitions and rankings trigger is a sight to behold: everyone flocks there. To get there no costs are too high, no sacrifice too small, no expenses unaffordable. Most of those involved in the academic game are fascinated, to the point of intoxication, by the almost otherworldly prestige of this power. Everything that stems from it seems truthful, ennobling, worthy, and worth pursuing. What a generous giver, this power, what a wonder: not only does it confer upon you an identity, but it also gives you a sense of your own worthiness, a promise of redemption. It delivers you from your worst nightmares: the prospect of failure.

And that’s precisely where we fail. For all this flocking is fundamentally foreign to the genuine quest for truth; it falsifies the nature of philosophy and turns the philosopher into something else. Caught up in this game, a philosopher becomes a politician, a courtier, a clansman, a henchman, a tribe chief—anything but a thinker. The political game alienates a philosopher from what philosophy is fundamentally about, causing what is said (or much of it, anyway) to be dictated not by the exigencies of philosophizing, but by an alien force. The lodestone has shifted from truth to power.

When this happens, rather than coming from existential problems or philosophical obsessions, an authentic impulse to communicate something important, writing becomes all strategy: the attempt to signal the writer’s presence within a certain power structure, his willingness to play along and not to cause trouble. The philosopher chasing success works on a wide range of trendy topics, open-minded, flexible, ready to bend and adjust as needed in order to court those in power, to please them, to silence adversaries, and to win over new adepts, to be a good soldier. Obviously, this is all done between the lines— for otherwise the writing is about obscure topics in metaphysics, new arguments for free will, trolley problems, the greatest good in Plato, or the latest developments in the philosophy of mind. But it is written politically, not philosophically. Its success is its failure.

The full essay is here.

photo of detail of “Floor” by Do Ho Suh

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Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
4 years ago

I agree with some of this, especially the bits about the awful effects of rankings and the arbitrary hierarchies they create and reinforce. But this is deeply unfair, especially in the claims it makes about philosophers’ characters and the reasons for conformity. It overlooks the concrete reasons that so many of us in the profession are terrified of failure in ways that only someone safely tenured could. I’m not one to usually say check your privilege, but Bradatan really needs to check his privilege here. For philosophers who aren’t tenured failure means that they pretty much have no decent way to make a living in the profession, and will not be able to have the career they spent upwards of ten years preparing for. If you work on a research project that you find interesting, but which is unfashionable, you run the awful risk of never getting hired and if you are hired you face an uphill battle in getting the articles you need to get tenure. I don’t like a lot of the work that people are currently doing in philosophy, but I see why they do it. It seems to me that a lot of this essay blames structural problems on a supposed lack of virtue or character in precisely the people who are suffering most under those structural problems. In that it reminds me of nothing so much as say Paul Ryan holding forth on poverty.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Sam Duncan
4 years ago

I wonder how many students are dissuaded from going to philosophy grad school, or who quit grad school, because of such concerns. If we are weeding people out, that could contribute to an echo-chamber at higher levels.Report

Bharath Vallabha
4 years ago

Nice essay. But with a major oversight. Bradatan talks of power, but doesn’t mention the root power and group think (good and bad) in academia: the classroom. It’s all too obvious: the fear of failure is firstly not an existential bad faith, but the fear of getting an “F”. The academic instills this fear in his students through the power he has over them. If Bradatan thinks wanting to pass a class is bad faith, he is in the wrong job.

The exhortation of academic philosophers to be like Diogenes is hollow because it is impossible. It is a fantasy, a category mistake. Socrates inspired both Plato and Diogenes, and that is an important, essential tension in philosophy. It is a choice a philosopher faces, whether to follow the Socratic inspiration into institution of Plato’s academy or into the institutionlessness of Diogenes’ failure. But it is surely bizarre to expect Plato in the academy to live like Diogenes! Have kids or don’t have kids; but don’t have kids and claim the freedom to live just for yourself.

This was the root hypocrisy of Wittgenstein and Heidegger: they used the aura of genius and their vast academic privilage to live like Diogenes in the academy. If philosophy is nonsense or mytho-poetic or learning to fail, cant grade student’s essays; that kind of philosophy can’t be pursued in the classroom. As simple as that. But why think all philosophy can be pursued in academia? Diogenes certainly didn’t.Report

Aaron Lercher
Aaron Lercher
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
4 years ago

I agree. Paraphrasing Bernard Williams in “Moral Luck,” if you try to be like Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Diogenes, or Gauguin, but then fail to be a genius, there is no upside. That’s an extremely risky strategy, morally and personally. Tenure is already risky enough for most people, with its up or out process.

Plus, there are writers outside the academy who might be considered philosophers, if the definition of “philosophy” is broad enough. Coates’s “Between the World and Me” is a work of philosophy by my inclusive standards. Firestone’s “Dialectics of Sex” is another good example.Report

Cicero Cortel
Cicero Cortel
4 years ago

This might indeed be happening. The reason is not the philosopher’s fault. It’s just that philosophy has become bankrupt of answers, real answers to such questions as: “What is mind?”. So philosophers just beat about the bush, and it becomes not as who has the truth, but who has more connections and so the power game.
When it is a matter of opinion, with no truth content involved, then it results to politics and power play.Report

arnold
arnold
4 years ago

…”an individualistic quest for unique self-understanding”…philosophy towards the origin of evidence…

…to be or not to be, remembered in verse, forgotten in practice…Report

asst prof
asst prof
4 years ago

It’s kind of fun to read the essay as if written in response to a set of particularly frustrating referee comments.

Not unrelatedly, I worry about framing all failure as success-in-disguise, or untimely genius. Sometimes, I’ve failed because I’ve done half-assed, unoriginal work, and I’m grateful to the people in the hive-mind who told me so.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

The problem is real and huge, but I don’t see a solution. As long as there is a system in place to reward people, working the system is liable to be the surest way to be rewarded.

Frankly, a lot of philosophers don’t seem to see any point to their work beyond playing the status game.

The problem of conformity, unsurprisingly, seems worst in political philosophy, where people care most about the conclusions.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

I wanted to add that this problem is much greater in philosophy than in most fields. In philosophy, it is usually true that the only evidence we can offer that we are doing good work is that other philosophers say we are doing good work. Chasing the approval of other philosophers rather than truth is thus liable to be a rewarding strategy.Report