If something is not accessible, do we really need it?

I want to discuss two different kinds of arguments that pop up repeatedly, which at first glance seem completely different. The first deals with how academics who write about oppression often use jargon and unnecessarily complicated prose which the very people they write about cannot understand. The second is about the call for professional philosophers to engage more with the public, especially with regard to politics. I will first briefly quote some representative arguments, and then argue that although they raise some good points, they are deeply misguided.

Type I: “Remember, if it’s not accessible to the poor it is not revolutionary”

An example of this kind is  deconstructing epistemologies in academia,” OR, you not stupid, please don’t feel small, a blogpost about the experiences of a non-white, non-American studying at an American University where they don’t  always feel welcome:

i’m tired of participating in this illusion of intelligence and learning. during the semester, i spend so many hours every week crouched over my laptop, pouring over academic journals, desperately chugging caffeine to churn out some Big Important Words myself.

…a few days ago, i walked out of a lecture event by a scholar who’s written some really cool stuff….she gave a speech so dense that the very people she researched wouldn’t have understood her ideas about their lives, even if they knew english

…maybe these years are about putting on layer after layer of restrained eloquence to assemble the perfect, pressed (pant)suit. maybe “sharp intellectual insight” is just another way of saying “can use carefully selected big words to convince others through intimidation.” maybe academic success means wiping away all the uncertainty in my voice, so i can “talk about everything without knowing anything about the topic.”

…who the fuck talks in real life like that?

Another example is this facebook post which got 3000 shares when I last saw, which calls all theorizing inaccessible to the oppressed “intellectual masturbation”.

Type 2: The not-so-Public Philosopher

A recent example of the second kind of argument is Philosophy once helped us make sense of our confusing, ever-changing political world. What happened?, where it’s argued that professional philosophers no longer engage with the public and instead solely write trivial journal articles to get tenure:

It wasn’t always this way. Philosophers once considered it their civic duty to engage with the public. In Ancient Greece, Socrates would address crowds in the marketplace, while Plato wrote accessible dialogues, rather than convoluted papers, to appeal to a wide audience. Throughout history, great philosophers have made writing for a non-academic audience a key part of their work. Sartre and Camus both wrote newspaper articles on their philosophy and contemporary affairs, as did Arendt, Hegel, Mill, and countless other eminent thinkers.

This level of engagement is a far cry from today where, of all the disciplines, philosophy is infamous for being locked in its ivory tower. Far from being considered a civic duty, writing for a popular audience is actively discouraged by many academic departments. Several Ivy League professors have told me they’d like to write non-academic books on their ideas, but have to wait until they have the security of tenure for fear of being penalized.

Unfortunately, reluctance to engage in public affairs isn’t the only problem. Over the past few decades, academic philosophy has become increasingly narrow and abstruse, and so more irrelevant to daily life.

We can readily concede that a lot of  good points are being made in both arguments: that academia too often treats as unworthy people who don’t look or speak a certain way is something that has to be addressed. That academics seem to spend too much time publishing trivial articles for the sake of tenure is a frequent and valid complaint. These are certainly important point to raise.

So what’s wrong here?

One assumption that gets made uniformly is about the possibility of the translation of complex theory and theorizing into ordinary speech. For example, the “deconstructing epistemology” post thinks it is legitimate criticism that even native speakers of english wouldn’t be able to understand the academic way of speaking (eg: the unintelligible speaker whose talk the author walked out of, “who the fuck talks in real life like that?”, etc). The author seems convinced that all academic speech is just a facade, an attempt to seem pompous and intimidating. That the only reason anyone would choose to speak this way is to put up a pretense.

Here’s a thought: What if academic language is often complicated because it has to be? Since the goal of so much work in the Humanities is to study everyday patterns of speech and behaviour, we need a meta-language to describe patterns of everyday language. We don’t have to endorse the claim that all complexity is good, or that every scholar understand what they’re saying, or that all conceptual innovations and terms are useful. But once we acknowledge that these are efforts at meta-language, then we should be incredibly cautious about criticizing academic work because we’re typically just saying “this meta-work analyzing and criticizing usual behaviour is weird/implausible compared to usual behaviour”. The merits of such endeavors will have to be judged instead by whether or not they succeed by their own lights, whether they actually manage to pick up on some unseen and unexpected pattern. And so while I find some tweets from New Real Peer Review funny, I recognize that the it is in some ways seriously misguided.

We would never ask a physicist working on its esoteric theories to confine all their work to a level that will be understandable to the common man, and yet we find asking the same of Humanities scholars a no-brainer. This happens in large part because the realms studied by Sociologists, for example, happen to be those most people are familiar with and usually accept without too much critical scrutiny, while few people have direct access to the sub-atomic or cosmological. This leads to a constant resistance to accepting knowledge produced in the Humanities as real knowledge.

Coming back to the blogpost, we can feel sad at the cultural alienation the author feels without endorsing any of the ludicrous anti-intellectual creed they’re peddling. Maybe you can’t be a “part of communities with awareness” unless you study theory. Maybe invoking the “wisdom of all the different communities you’ve grown up in” is just as much an obstacle to critical inquiry as the meaningless jargon that’s being criticized. Maybe academic scholarship isn’t just about “maintaining the way things are”, but instead “the way things are” is super complicated and so requires a ton of effort to understand.

So what happens if we’re honest about a lot of knowledge being irreducibly complex?

With respect to activist politics: Theory can be about someone even if they can’t understand it. Shocking, I know. We will probably have to make space for both esoteric theorizing, as well as these theorists reaching out to the communities themselves, especially if you subscribe to the Marx-style strategy of consciousness raising. What shouldn’t happen though is a call for all theorizing itself to be “inclusive” in the sense that everyone should be able to understand it without any preparation.

With respect to philosophy: Of course we can still want more scholars to water down their elaborate ideas and engage with the public, but I think the thrust of the initial arguments go away once we acknowledge knowledge is complex. For anyone who isn’t living under a rock, it should abundantly clear that the problem with political discourse isn’t that there isn’t enough intellectual input, but rather that we’re drowning in it. We already have great political commentary all over the spectrum: See Andrew Sullivan’s Democracies end when they are too democratic, Ross Douthat’s The Crisis for Liberalism, Fredrik deBoer’s our nightmare, Yasmin Nair’s Choose Your Elite, and David Wong’s How Half Of America Lost Its F**king Mind to name just a random sample. What exactly do we think professional philosophers are going to provide that public discourse doesn’t already have?

I think part of the reason philosophers call on other philosophers to engage more with the public is because of a romanticized conception of philosophy as an objective, reputable enterprise of truth-finding whose legitimacy isn’t in dispute. According to this, philosophers will descend on the public sphere like Plato’s enlightened ex-cave dweller, and bring order to the chaos that is public dialogue. And the dirty sprawling masses will see the errors of their ways and the reign of philosopher-kings will finally begin. Well that’s not going to happen. The dense material that makes up philosophy books is what makes different (academic) philosophical views compelling. Watering them down would destroy the very argumentative deftness and nuance that makes academic philosophy seem worthwhile as knowledge.

Moreover, if much of philosophical work is complex and fills books not because of some pretense, but because philosophy actually is complicated, then the social value of most philosophers comes not from their acting as public intellectuals, but precisely their role as members of an esoteric tradition.

At first glance it’s not apparent whether this even has value. But taking on a historic perspective, we can certainly see cases like Socrates and Spinoza whose ideas weren’t popular among their own communities but which we revere now. We can also think of cases like John Rawls and Thomas Kuhn, who were very much a part of the academic philosophical tradition, and whose works transformed the ways society at large saw itself. But these are exceptions: the vast majority of current and past philosophical work have no audience outside the academy (if at all). And that’s alright, since they still continue the tradition and set the groundwork for the next big work, whenever it appears. The question of the social worth of academic philosophy at any given time has to do with how the future will look, something that we not just don’t know about, but something about which we cannot know what we don’t know. The value of academic philosophy is tied in with its maintenance of the possibility of new and better ideas.

This will raise the question of whether we would be better off channeling those resources into other ventures. As Raymond Geuss suggests

“Philosophy” could dissolve itself into physics for the study of nature; linguistics, rhetoric, and mathematics for the study of speech, argumentation, and formal systems; and politics, belles lettres, and social psychology for the study of “what would be for the best.”

For me, I think we have enough funds in society to go around. Philosophy departments should stay because the sort of studies done there enable academics to think in certain ways, which might continue to be fruitful. I also think it’s just good to have spaces where people can pursue knowledge for its own sake and not for how many viewers its articles get, or how useful it is for immediate society. Obviously that also means we need to think about avenues where the more immediate intellectual needs of society can be met, but as I pointed out I think we have quite enough of them by number at least, even if they form a small percentage of the total content flying around.

This sort of argument for the value of philosophy will seem outlandish to the unimaginative minds of Molochian bureaucrats, and so as a matter of strategy, we might want to make a case for the benefits of academic philosophy in more grandiose and immediately accessible ways, heavily relying on its mythologized conception. But we should know better.

(I’m reasonably certain no non-philosopher would have reached here anyway, so I’m fine saying this. Keep the faith.)


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