ON PHILOSOPHICAL DISCUSSION: against the platonism of the academy

Some academics thinking in old-fashioned epistemological terms, seem to consider that blogging belongs to the context of discovery and print to the context of justification. They are unaware that the context of justification has become increasingly imbricated with the context of productivity. They reason in terms of rather naive binary oppositions: discovery versus justification, or doing real academic work for print and throwing out ideas that are OK for blogs and social networks. It is all reduced to a question of productivity: blogs, twitter, facebook can be used to stimulate their productivity, but the productivity itself is measured in terms of print publication. Primacy is given to professional academic life.

This primum academiae mobile is an example of the philosophical resistance that Laruelle discovered and supposedly overcame in his own intellectual individuation process. There are now quite a few non-standard philosophical blogs by non-standard individuals, whether they be academics or not. This is the democracy of thought being facilitated by the democratization of digital technologies.

Too many philosophical discussions on social networks are exercises in consensual cronyism where, despite the possibilities of openness provided by the medium, very few are welcome to the discussion, and those outsiders who try to participate are ignored or banished or scapegoated. It is no secret that the everyday practice of philosophy, even when it maintains an appearance of niceness, is full of nastiness or what Laruelle calls “harassment”:

philosophy is harassment in thought. Harassing humans with wisdom, happiness, truth, desire, care, or more banally with the critique of representation, of the text, of ideology, is this really very different from harassment by profit and productivity?” (La Lutte et l’Utopie à la fin des temps philosophiques, Paris, Kimé, 2004, p15).

Like François Laruellle, Feyerabend has defended “gnostic” thinking, as long as it is not academic or dogmatic gnosticism. For both, gnosticism is part of the democratic project that they favour for thought. A “gnostic” academic acolyte is one thing, just another true believer or joiner of movements, but a gnostic individual is something else, someone who practices that equality that puts many of our intellectuals so ill at ease when it comes from outside the profession.

(Note: I use “democracy” in reference to Feyerabend’s defence of a democratic relativism as basis for free exchange between people of different ideas and modes of life, and also to Laruelle’s idea of a democracy of thought where no discipline, no system, no thinker, and no academy, is foundational).

The negative reaction of academics to philosophical discussion on social networks is a reflection of the Platonism of the profession. The blog article is often assimilated to the domain of mere opinion, perhaps itself dependent on the currents of fashion. The idea that a blog could be devoted to working out the manifold aspects of a coherent problematic, rather than just publishing superficial reactions to the immediate present, seems not to occur to many professional philosophers.

There is also the problem of corporatism: how can we judge the value of something that comes from outside the corporation? Professional philosophy is governed by a competitive habitus, given the relatively small number of posts available. Philosophical blogging is an “outsider” phenomenon in the current context, and most academics are quite conformist, because of this mixture of Platonism and corporatism.

We can distinguish between dialogue, what Feyerabend calls free exchange, and dialectics or guided exchange. “Dialectical” is a good term to describe the communicational manners of professional philosophers, academic “peers” conversing inter se. “Dialogical” can better be used to describe a more free-style conversation with extra-professional and extra-academic partners. One of the blockages about accepting blogs in philosophy comes from this closed society mentality. Continental philosophy is more dialogically-oriented (even if it does not always succeed) and analytic philosophy is more expert dialectic-oriented.

Blog posts, facebook exchanges, twitter feeds and comment threads are not condemned in their very essence to be autistic, arbitrary, wrong-headed, emotionally-charged, biased, and narcissistic. To be sure, authors need to take their time in building up arguments and mobilising concepts, discussing and testing their theses, submitting their work to informed criticism. These long circuits of transindividuation, as Stiegler calls them, are important to break out of the impasses that a merely personal of thought.

All these supposedly non-academic, or “non-philosophical”, phenomena should not be regarded as mere superficial accompaniments to the hard labour of deep thought, and relegated to a purely psychological dimension of enthusiastic espousal and passionate exchange, in what Feyerabend once called the “supermarket of ideas”. Blogging is often considered  entertainment or publicity, playing with ideas, at best a source of inspiration, heuristics (context of discovery) as opposed to apodictics (context of justification.) The supermarket of ideas , on this view, can get us motivated, inspired, or publicised, but it is an epiphenomenon, the real work is in the academy and expressed in the academic style.

The academic style is the only rigorous one, nor are academic modes of publication the only valid and reliable ones. Often an academic article puts up a sham appearance of argument, but contains empty erudition and illiterate caricatures of explication and argument. Further, argument is not everything in philosophy. Mood, affect, percepts, conceptual experimentation, dialogue with seemingly incommensurable alternative views also have their place.

Academics and bloggers are both living inside the metaphysics of presence. This is what subtends the dualism of academia and the supermarket of ideas, or of context of discovery and context of justification. Bloggers and academics are still living on old conceptions of dialogue, more in the line of Thrasymachus than of Socrates. Thrasymachus would have had a “lively” blog today, substituting impact for rigour. So when Nicholas Carr asks “Is Google Making Us Stupid?“, he makes some good points, but I think that we were already stupid and the internet is just helping us broadcast and receive that stupidity faster and more widely.

The real question should be “Is Google making us more autistic?” and “in what sense?”. In the Thrasymachian sense of featuring in and “winning” the controversy or in the more philosophical sense of “autos”, of becoming what one is, of individuating. Babette Babich points out that this autistic becoming-self, which is what the practice of writing (or thinking or research) is all about, is what the internet mostly protects us from with its “safe space of friendly faces and sympathetic voices”. Here even  the smallest disagreement and the slightest critique is seen as aggressive, and a provocative thinker like Feyerabend would have gone crazy.

Feyerabend published his replies to various critics under the title “Conversations with Illiterates”. Despite the negativity that this title conveys with its use of the negative epithet for his interlocutors, Feyerabend insists on the positivity contained in the notion of conversation: “even a one-sided debate is more instructive than an essay” (SCIENCE IN A FREE SOCIETY, 10). A dialogue, even a one-sided dialogue, is more instructive, more edifying, more propitious for one’s individuation and that of others (and more fun) than a mere monologue.

However, a dialogue is always “one-sided”, though we must hasten to add that it is doubly one-sided, like the wasp and the orchid. When we manage to assemble something with our interlocutor we get an interaction between two “one-sidednesses”, between two processes of individuation (and not just between two individualities insisting on their differences, or worse, giving them up in the name of consensus). Our multiple interlocutors are what Deleuze called our “intercessors”, intervening in our process of individuation as helps or hindrances. This happens sometimes even against their will, and very often unknown to them.

Can people imagine today that Lakatos even encouraged Feyerabend to go all out and criticise him as severly as possible, and promised to respond in kind, and that was their idea of fun? Each was supposed to be “making mincemeat” of the other. Alas, this was not to be as Lakatos died prematurely, and Feyerabend found himself once again, but for different reasons than in his “conversations with illiterates”, condemned to a one-sided dialogue. And that when Deleuze theorises this kind of “one-sided dialogue” and tells us that it stems from a solitude that is richly populated because each of us “is many”, this is his depression talking just as much as his joy, and one cannot separate them any more than he did.

Academic erudition is necessary but it is to be shared on the agora and not confined to groups of initiates and adepts, comrades and cronies. That is the new Image of Thought that is coming, and that gnostics like Jung saw even before the internet was invented.

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One Response to ON PHILOSOPHICAL DISCUSSION: against the platonism of the academy

  1. landzek says:

    You are so right on.


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