Must one ‘make a sharp break with the academy’ in order to be a philosopher? A conversation

“[A] conversation is a dramatic work, even if a very short one, in which the participants are not only the actors, but also the joint authors, working out in agreement or disagreement the mode of their production.” –Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

Early last week, I received a note from J. about my thoughts concerning Stanley Fish’s recent New York Times blog, “Does Philosophy Matter?” In my post, I summarized Fish’s view this way:

The conclusion that theory and practice are two separate activities would seem to entail the further result that philosophical disputes have lots of bark but very little bite. We get involved in philosophical debates and conceptual entanglements, may even sort through the morass, and yet, for all that, we are likely to come out unchanged in our everyday practices. It may be, we think, all sound and fury signifying nothing.

In my apologia for the philosophical life, I sought, if ever so sketchily, to take us back to a time before the split between theory and practice had set in and taken root in our collective imagination, back before philosophy could be understood as anything but a way of life. “For the ancients,” I wrote, “logic was the living-out of right thinking, metaphysics the living-within the natural world, politics the living-alongside others, ethics the living-out of virtues…”

From this point, our conversation–J’s and mine–took off.

A Short Bio: J is a recent philosophy Ph.D. who teaches (when employed), and writes (when not), while trying to keep in mind that few philosophy students become professional philosophers, but many may still want to live philosophically.

J: That’s a pretty nice formula (‘living-…’). Is it yours or repurposed from elsewhere? (The construction has a Heideggerian tone.)

A: Good ear, J. So far as I know the formula is mine. (Hopefully you’re referring to Heidegger in German, not to the unwieldy English translations…)

The inspirations: Pierre Hadot (esp. What is Ancient Philosophy?) and Montaigne (especially, and most basically, his understanding of the essay). I’ve been using this live-out language since I wrote this in the hope of overcoming the theory and practice divide. Even today, we talk about applying our ideas or our theories. Talking in this way suggests, however, that we get our ideas straight and then map them onto reality. So bioethicists apply philosophical insights to medical cases. It’s just this kind of vocabulary that I find unnerving. “Living-out” talk is meant to see our ideas as the kinds of ‘activities’ that are necessarily, intrinsically embodied. Insofar as we take philosophy AS a way of life, ideas already run our lives, run through our lives–and there’s no ‘so to speak’ about it.

J: You add a category compared to Hadot’s usual tripartite scheme [roughly: (1) logic concerns the realm of thought; (2) metaphysics concerns the realm of reality; (3) ethics the realm of living well. I added a category for politics–AT] (in a good way), but I was probably just put in mind of Heidegger because of the single-verb-articulated-adverbially-and-propositionally-in-multiple-ways. I suppose ‘living-out’ is especially potent: you get a hint of hexis, a sense of ‘in life as opposed to merely notionally’, a sense of action before the eyes of others…

I’ve only read a bit of Heidegger in German (no occasion to since I picked up enough German), but this year I looked at the new revision of Stambaugh’s translation of Heidegger’s Being and Time and did a bit of comparison, and the Heideggerization of English they’ve attained, with a decent amount of clarity and naturalness (with intended unnaturalness) really is something.

On Fish, I do think he realizes that philosophy used to be more [than merely an academic exercise], but as usual he writes offensively and is trying to force his critics to take issue with the claim that philosophy at present is little more than a game. I would suspect that he does it because he knows how poorly most academic philosophers are likely to acquit themselves if they take up that argument.

A: Wow, very cogent comments on all fronts: about Hadot, Heidegger, and Fish.

One thing about Hadot has always saddened me. If he’d lived during the early 21st C., he wouldn’t have been a University Man. (I suppose that’s not just because the university is in the midst of a great transformation.) It’s hard to imagine that his philosophy could realize itself under those material and sociological conditions. In saying this, though, I can’t help but rebut myself, “Oh, but the times were different then. And it was only natural, wasn’t it?, to those coming of age after WWII and after May 68 to embrace the university as a home and refuge.” Even so, it’s a pity: to have written so adroitly and to have thought so seriously about the philosophical life and then to have failed to live accordingly…

J.: I guess I knew vaguely about Hadot’s religious background, but I didn’t really appreciate, until I read that recent book of interviews (put out by Stanford [The Present Alone is Our Happiness]), how much shelter his intellectual life enjoyed. It seems that, being employed by church educational institutions and monastic orders, he was not much pressured to produce or to be relevant to the day or work on something ‘important’ (in the contemporary, elite-driven sense). ‘I spent twelve years working on a commentator on Plotinus’—good Lord.

But I don’t know about failure. I think he also mentions repeatedly in that book that he has more of a withdrawn, contemplative disposition, and that he sees his life as somehow apportioned to it even though one might expect him to be dashing around, living and philosophizing and stuff. He makes his scholarly success, career-wise, out to have been mostly accidental, so at least he wasn’t overly ruined by the institutions that sheltered his living.

A: I’ve read the same volume (and pretty much everything he’s written). Yes, sheltered but not ruined. And also right: I wouldn’t say his entire life was a failure. I mean only: something was wanting, something weighty was missing…

What is that something? Well, take his book on Plotinus. It’s really remarkable, that book. Quite beautiful how Hadot takes us through Plotinus’s mysticism, how Plotinus means to achieve union with god. But then it’s all ascent and no descent. Because I think ethics ‘must come first,’ I’m inclined to ask, “How does mystical experience help us live in the here-and-now, with your loved ones, among our friends and neighbors?”

I asked this, and in another post Bruce replied, “Almost certainly, we could expect a gnostic [like Plotinus] to become less competent about the things of this life the more he becomes a good gnostic. Platonic relations with his wife, that’s where the term comes from. Abrahamic religions have a high value on the created order, gnostic religions view the material world as something to overcome.”

And so, I don’t understand how could Hadot have spent 12 years working on a figure like Plotinus: all ascent and no descent. That seems like a failure to live philosophically. There’s something wanting there…

I’ve got something particular in mind when I say “that seems like a failure to live philosophically.” First, one must live out one’s ideas. That is, if Hadot believed wholeheartedly that philosophy was a way of life, then in what sense could he qua University Man have lived out his ideas? Second, a successful life is a fully integrated life. Yet the structure of the modern university, where service commitments = duty for duty’s sake, where teaching = careerism, and where writing = this queer notion known as research, is such as to produce compartmentalization–within the self and without.

To become who he was, for Hadot to become Hadot, to have actualized his potentiality, Hadot would have needed to have left the academy and started his own school…

By the way, his translator and friend Michael Chase wrote a fine two-part obituary on Hadot for HUP. Perhaps you’ve read them? If not, you can read Part 1 here.

J.: No, I hadn’t, thank you.

I feel about him somewhat like I feel about Stanley Cavell’s decision to be an academic (instead of, as he says in a Preface, abandoning philosophy for another field, or ‘a field’), that there is something to take issue with in it but that I am satisfied with the idea that the academy is a place that would be bettered by the kind of example one could set by working as part of it—it’s not as if everyone has to be clearly on one side or the other, old guard or nomadic outsider. And in Hadot’s case, because he seems more… classical, I’m willing to countenance even more of an inclination to un-worldliness, sequestering. It fits with the historical fact of the vision of philosophy having a classical heritage, I guess—a heritage that makes it hard to conceive of the vision as entirely floating free from our weightier cultural institutions, places to learn Greek, etc.

In contrast I find Cavell slightly more of a source of frustration, personally, because I have a strong inclination to require Wittgensteinians to make a sharp break with the academy (even though almost none seem to), and as singular as Cavell’s own work is, its relationship of dependency (with, admittedly, aversion) to academia is pretty complex. On the other hand, when I read a book as furious and essential as his ‘Walden’ book, then consider your run-of-the-mill Thoreau scholar, writing journal articles and ensconced in a cozy teaching position instead of doing whatever twenty-first century Thoreauvians might do, I feel warmer toward Cavell.