Why Theory?

[This is cross-posted at Cyborgology.]

A few recent events and articles/news items have me thinking, in a somewhat disjointed fashion, about both what it means to “do theory” or to practice philosophy, and how, exactly, one should go about doing and practicing these things.

In particular, it seems like philosophy is stuck between being reduced to a hard science, on the one hand, and being incompatible “digital humanities,” on the other. And in the end I think this double-bind has the very troublesome effect of discouraging, silencing, and marginalizing what could be the most innovative things philosophy has to offer science, digital humanities, and contemporary intellectual life more generally.

You should read Fuck Theory’s virtuosic rant about the relationship between philosophy and “science”–read the whole thing, for yourself. It’s not just, well, right, it’s also a pretty good piece of writing. The crux of FT’s argument is this:

The best thinkers – throughout history, in every field of inquiry – embrace whatever insights and information that their thought requires.  The best scholars in the humanities respect the sciences; the best scientists are the ones who actually take the time to read the occasional book and can form a decent sentence.  The worst thinkers are the ones who insist on inane distinctions, who set up false binaries instead of knocking them down, and who think of knowledge as an either/or proposition instead of embrace the notion that knowledge is a mosaic of perspectives that together generate an evolving and diverse picture of existence.  

Personally, I think “science” can be incredibly useful to research in the humanities.  I have regular arguments about this with traditionalists in my discipline.  But I don’t think this because I want to “infuse” the humanities with science, I think this because I consider all human knowledge to be a single vast and manifold field, and I pick and choose what’s useful to me and not what the disciplinary guilds of contemporary academia think I need.  This true when literary scholars frown at my diagrams, and it’s equally true when obnoxious, ill-informed assholes like Steven Pinker tell me that evolutionary psychology is useful for literary criticism.  

FT absolutely nails the underlying problem with both Pinker’s article, and how we talk about “philosophy” generally: the always political, always ideological attempt to naturalize a distinction between “real” intellectual pursuits and “frivolous” ones. The problem, then, is a dogmatically conservative definition of whatever field one works in. And, in the contemporary academy, the “conservation” of philosophy is an urgent concern. Philosophy majors and departments are being eliminated, and my own state Governor went on record decrying the uselessness of philosophy and women’s studies.

So, to riff a bit on Anthony Appiah’s read of Du Bois’s “On the Conservation of Races,” they are trying to kill us (“us” being philosophy departments, majors in philosophy, etc.), so we need to make arguments for our own conservation. Philosophers have something unique to contribute to the academy, which is why they should keep us around, fund us, and let us produce more budding philosophers.

But, as FT suggests, the best arguments for our conservation will actually stress the intellectually and disciplinarily progressive nature of philosophical practice. The canonically significant ideas are often hybrids–Descartes was a mathematician and a philosopher, Kant taught mostly geography courses even as he wrote philosophy, and many of the most influential contemporary philosophers–like Angela Davis, Amartya Sen, Cornel West, Slavoj Zizek, Martha Nussbaum, and Judith Butler–all do highly interdisciplinary work. Philosophy’s unique contribution to intellectual life will transform intellectual life, and won’t be recognizable as “philosophy” in and by today’s standards. That’s why (disciplinarily) conservative arguments for philosophy’s value will fail. Philosophy’s value isn’t in what it is currently, but in the transformations it will help bring about. So, attempting to conserve a hypostasized snapshot of the discipline impedes it from participating in the very transformations that give it value. Or, preventing it from changing undercuts the most important contributions philosophy can make to ongoing intellectual life. (Like, ideally, philosophy should help abolish the university as a racist, sexist, ableist, classist, nationalist institution of privilege shepherding and profit generation. It can help us do that if we let it–which importantly involves rejecting philsophy’s own racist, sexist, ableist, nationalist elements, concepts, ideas, and practices. To be transformative “philosophy” as we know it must be transformed.)

I think some of that transformation is happening in and on social media. Not only are philosophers like me increasingly connected to and in conversation with scholars working on related topics in other fields, but philosophical practice is itself mutating (actually, I think these two phenomena are related, but that’s for another post). These mutations occur at the level of output–philosophical work happens on blogs, as long Facebook and Twitter interchanges, in videos and in podcasts. But they also occur at the level of research (or “input”). In the same way that philosophy isn’t just about writing, it’s not just about reading, either. If philosophy wants to be continually relevant and adequate to contemporary life and its problems, then it needs to transform itself, to work in and with the media in which our societies most readily represent, express, record, and communicate themselves. In the same way that the meaning of a phrase or a text can be lost in translation, our attempts to translate contemporary phenomena into legacy philosophical media will “lose” important details/considerations in the process.

Which is what makes this past week’s discussion of students’ use of social media even more important. Brian Leiter, pretty much the keeper of mainstream philosophical views/mores/norms, and thus the most loved and hated figure in professional philosophy, calls Twitter “childish noise” and advises grad students in philosophy to stay off social media entirely if they ever want a job. Other philosophers have a more moderate, likely use-and-experience informed approach to Twitter and other social media. These approaches argue that social media are just another professional platform for publishing your work in philosophy, for interacting with other scholars and their work, and so on.

Social media are a type of these “new” philosophical inputs and outputs–an new method, if you will, of practicing philosophy. It is true that you cannot accomplish in 140 characters–or even a 1000-word blog post–what one conventionally accomplishes in your average 7000-word journal article. But that’s the point: it’s a different medium. And philosophy doesn’t have to be restricted to one medium–in fact, its most mainstream definition already recognizes at least two media as “proper” to philosophical practice–the prose essay and formal logic (truth tables and syllogisms, anyone?). Oh, right, and there’s speaking as well as writing. Speaking is totally OG philosophy–Socrates was, after all, quite worried about what the new medium of writing would do to the practice of philosophy. So if some of the foundational texts and methods of Western philosophy (I’m thinking Plato here) are about philosophical practice adapting to the then-new media of writing, why can’t philosophy now adapt itself to “new media”? Sure, that’s going to change the inputs and outputs–philosophical research and philosophical ideas–which means “philosophy” itself will change. But that’s healthy. We need to change if we want to stay viable, both as a part of the academy and as a perspective from which to critique it.

To argue that philosophy students should not engage in this sort of intellectual practice is to prevent philosophy from developing and changing along with the rest of intellectual life (of which the other disciplines in the academy are just a small part). It also, and perhaps more importantly, keeps philosophy insular (philosophy students would be less likely to make extradisciplinary connections) and tradition-bound. This argument against social media use by grad students (and junior scholars) also advantages students and scholars at/from prestigious programs–in other words, those who already have access to connections, resources, and networks that students and scholars at less prestigious institutions can only access (or can more readily access) through social media. If you’re at an Ivy League school or a Leiterific doctoral program, resources and visibility aren’t something you have to seek out, at least in the ways that we at non-flagship state schools without doctoral programs have to actively pursue. Social media will by no means level the playing field within the discipline, but it certainly is an important resource for students and scholars who don’t already have all the advantages, so to speak.

So this brings me to the final thing that spurred me to all this metaphilosophical reflection. I’m a contributor at Cyborgology, a blog about social theory and technology. My work fits in quite well with everyone else’s–I don’t think it’s glaringly different, and we can all have productive conversations with one another with little to no “translation” necessary. But this week the American Sociological Association met, and for the first time it was really obvious to me that at least in this way I was the thing that was not like the others, the philosopher walking among sociologists. At the level of actual work and research, I feel more at home with this crew than I do with pretty much anything that appears on your average APA (American Philosophical Association) program (and, fwiw, most of the SPEP (Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy) too). This past week, however, institutional and disciplinary structures intervened to remind me that I’m supposed to have a discipline, which is not the same as the discipline these other people have.

My only response to the straw-man tension between “sociology” and “philosophy” is: fuck that childish noise. I thought we already knew that “disciplinary” distinctions, canons, and institutions discipline us, make us docile intellects, so to speak. It’s not inconsistent to claim both (a) philosophy has something distinct to contribute to emerging areas of study and collaborative/transdisciplinary research, and (b) “philosophy” is changing in medium, practice, and content. Perhaps philosophy is most “itself” when it is other than itself? Or, in the words of XCP Collective blogger educated ice, “philosophy is already more, and other, than what it is.” In order to practice philosophy in the way I think it must be practiced–not conservatively, but progressively, pushed to new media, new experiences, new phenomena, new problems–I must actively engage intellectuals from all over the academy and, importantly, from beyond it. I need to be in conversation with people whose training and research “inputs” are different than mine. At the same time, I still have something distinctively philosophical to offer, based on both my training and research “inputs,” but also on my “outputs”. I think that as a philosopher, I have a license to care about theory for its own sake, theory as such. Other disciplines require more obvious and direct connection to some studied object, population, culture, text, or whatever. And that’s good. And I need them to do that kind of research so that when I go down a theory-hole, I’m not jumping off from a poorly-grounded and poorly-researched base. At the same time, these scholars in other disciplines need us philosophers to do the best theorizing we can, so that their work is in dialogue with the best, most helpful and productive theoretical tools/concepts/questions/problems possible.

At this point I’m back at Gang of Four: Why Theory? Because: “What we think changes how we act/so to change ideas/change is what we do.” Philosophy (the practice, I mean; the discipline, not so much) is never more itself than when it is becoming what it is not–by, for example, engaging new media, collaborating with outsiders, and so on. Philosophy is always more, and other, than what it is.