Metacritique, Philosophy,
& the Logic of the Intellectual Marketplace

by Ralph Dumain


I've been thinking about this subject for the past few days (and on and off for years), and as coincidence would have it, I picked up the latest issue of Philosophy Now this afternoon and found a letter by Greg Schofield in it.  So since Greg knows this magazine, he will have at least one reference point for what I am getting at.

Even without a tangible market system in mind in the dissemination of information, the unplanned conglomeration of diverse viewpoints seems to manifest a logic of the marketplace, perhaps no surprise since the spontaneous existence of marketplaces goes back thousands of years.  However, it can be very helpful to scrutinize the obvious, as the obvious is what we always miss, not the complicated.  The aim here is not to replace the "free market" of ideas with a centrally controlled plan, but rather to establish another space where we can scrutinize the ideological environment and articulate alternative visions.

Market logic pervades the dissemination of Marxist ideas as any other.  It's hardly a shock.  First, consider in general the way information gets published in non-book form: magazines and journals, public speakers and lecture series, discussion groups, talk shows, conference programs, etc.  Naturally, unless some top-down, central plan is in effect, any of these formats will generate a diversity of publications and expressions.  This is a given.  Yet, observing what happens in the ideological marketplace may tell us to what degree this diverse free market is capable of delivering all we need to know.

The pattern could not be more obvious: everything to an extent works on the star system.  You want people to line up for blocks to attend a talk or  seminar, you get Noam Chomsky, not Ralph Dumain.  I'm hardly complaining.  It's so obvious it hardly bears mention.  If you want to solicit articles for an anthology or the special issue of some journal, you may follow the same pattern.

Soliciting known experts may not be the star system per se; it could just be established experts in some area.  And of course there is the network of one's personal associates.  Or instead of thinking of persons, one might think of topics and find the best people known on certain topics.  Perhaps even unknown and relatively unconnected individuals might surface in some publication or project if that person has demonstrated expertise.  Again, very obvious.

Off the top of my head, I see two basic ways such collections of individuals in one venue are assembled.  One is to have a general journal or conference in some broad field of interest, and there are ongoing submissions of random types out of which the most interesting are selected as ready.  Another is to issue a call for papers, not on a general field, but on some topic of interest or controversy, say for a conference program, issue of a journal, or book anthology.  Here any combination of contributions selected is possible: stars, associates, or contributions of merit irrespective of status.

Rather different are free-form discussions, which could take place in face-to-face groups, talk radio, e-mail, etc.  Here the issue is not a pre-selection process of the individuals (though the mechanisms of self-selection—who is inclined to participate in what?—is a subject for investigation), but rather the economy of the exchanges themselves.  How high a level can such discussions reach in such a spontaneous manner: is there a perceptible limitation on what gets accomplished in such venues?

Here is where we begin to unpack the obvious.  In the cases of both freeform and general publication venues, the general ideological level of the society tends to reproduce itself, even with pluralism as a guiding principle.  So the question is: do we need a separate space where we can rise above spontaneity, observe the whole process, criticize the intellectual limitations of the landscape, develop a perspective, and fill in what is missing?

I will have more to say about this, beginning with such popular philosophy magazines as Philosophy Now and The Philosopher's Magazine, both published in Britain but circulated in the USA and other anglophone countries.

I also have experience of a variety of public discussions, which are usually frustrating beyond a certain point.  Just to take philosophy as an example, because Washington is a city whose literate population is filled up with second-rate middle class functionaries—policy wonks, bureaucrats, lawyers and similar undesirables—people are rarely able to think about discussing anything but overtly political and moral topics, unable to think beneath them to the abstract philosophical patterns underlying these empirically oriented topics.  Nor are they able to correlate intelligent abstract thinking with the analysis of examples.  All of this meets up with the perennial issue of how to make philosophy relevant to everyday life.  Hence, I decided to draw the line, separating abstract from spontaneous cognition, and in effect separating philosophy from everyday life in order to grapple with it, as what is revolutionary about philosophy is its capacity for abstraction, and thus its ability to penetrate the concrete more deeply.  (See Lenin on abstraction.)  See my essay "How to Integrate Philosophy and Everyday Life: To Think Philosophically in Life, Or Reproduce the Fragmentation of Knowledge?", which will link to a companion piece.

Interestingly, I found that the abstract discussions basically devolved to a polarization between positivism (scientism) and lebensphilosophie (Romanticism).  Nobody understood this when I told them.  All of this reflects the inability of the modern individual to situate himself in his world.  For this reason, my study guide on this theme is of the utmost importance.

18 December 2002


If I understand the implications of your take on the problem:

(1) the issue is (a) the producers of ideas in relation to (b) the quality of publications, in relation to (c) the public's ability to engage actively, based on (d) an effective system or infrastructure of popular education.

(2) Without (d) you don't get (c), which means for (a) you rely on the star system and end up with (b) inadequate publications for the public.

I don't know the popular magazines in all fields.  The two I mentioned, Philosophy Now and The Philosopher's Magazine, are both glossy mags from the UK.  For some reason, the UK produces some very beautifully glossy socialist magazines, which we do not have in the USA.  The USA produces some secular humanist magazines, and some philosophical periodicals that may show up in a few popular bookstores, such as The Philosophical Forum.  I can't tell you anything about the economics involved.

Apparently you are not happy with Philosophy Now and deem it pretty mediocre.  I don't know whether you connect this with the state of popular education and thus with all the consequences I postulated.  I have not got this far, thinking through the infrastructural aspects of the problem.  In any case, is this really the problem with Philosophy Now?  The people producing the magazine were academically trained: I presume they think they know what they're doing and are not actively dumbing down their product for popular consumption. 

Note a comparative study of Philosophy Now and The Philosopher's Magazine in the online version of the journal Hermenaut: "Philosophy Hits the Newsstands" by Joshua Glenn.

I've been looking at the problem of quality as an ideological problem, partly a result of the nature of journalism, partly an effect of the ideological landscape.  So when I refer to the logic of the intellectual marketplace, I'm actually thinking about the content of the intellectual products.

First, what one has is a haphazard array of article on various topics, viewpoints, controversies, perhaps recent developments in some field.  This comes about partly as the result of the nature of journalism and the need to fill magazines with engaging content on a production schedule.  On a more abstract level, one is marketing to the general, interested public an entity called "philosophy", and so the public is presumed to be interested in what's on in "philosophy".  Even if philosophical material were presented to the public in a more systematic and synoptic manner, this would still remain a problem.  For I'm suggesting that "philosophy", though valuable, is not sufficient any more, nor is the superficial pluralism that allows a diversity of viewpoints, even were this diversity less skewed in certain directions that it is now.  What is needed is metacritique.

Metacritique is the analytical scrutiny of intellectual products, intellectual practices, with an aim to analyze their mechanisms and uncover ideology at work.  Obviously, the popular magazines are not doing this.  They basically naively reproduces what already exists, which itself is dependent upon the predominant national configuration of the knowledge industry.  Magazines produced in the UK would presumably differ from those published in France or Germany.  Whether or not other national/linguistic groupings might be more sophisticated than ours, I couldn't say, but I am dubious.

Of course metacritique is the stock in trade of Marxism.  But I am not proposing some metaphysical entity known as "Marxist philosophy" that stands in a distinct and separate relationship to another entity known as bourgeois philosophy, which would be the reified incarnation of the metacritical relationship.

More to come.

At 06:35 PM 12/20/2002 +0800, Greg Schofield wrote:

Ralph I have been meaning to reply to this thread for some days now.

First I did not know they had printed my letter, I wrote in response to reading my first copy which had "accidentally" surfaced in my local news agency (not noted for its selection of intellectual material). It was the first flourish of great a magazine on philosophy that I can afford - to not this shit again just after buying it (funny how the articles look interesting before you purchase and then swiftly dissolve into the familiar stodge once you paid for it).

Seriously, the public thirst for knowledge is growing rather than slacking, OK not the majority but enough to see well written histories and science books expand on bookshop shelves whereas they had previously been few and far between in run of the mill bookstores. The economics of publishing (now somewhat dated knowledge) I know well enough - a presentable glossy well printed magazine in editions of a few thousand cost $AU30,000 alone for the printing, plates etc - Only much bigger print runs significantly shift the cost per item down, but then capital investment runs up to near the 1/2 million range.

Distribution is its own problem (mostly they are crooks) but getting the magazine present in the public market is a series of hurdles itself.

Academic journals/magazines actually operate through a different mechanism, subsidised by the library system and an established international network. Political magazines/newspapers have obvious internal mechanisms of sale and readership.

In this case we have to ask ourselves what is the market system, for in reality there are many markets. In the anglo world the Brits have perfected exploiting niche interests within the mass market - it is not Just Philosophy, but Archaeology and History where if there is any public presence a high proportion of it comes from the UK (I assume this is the same in the USA).

Now the magazines I know best (popular market ones) are not Philosophy but Archaeology and History and the ones most fondly sought derive from the UK. One aspect of this is that they are very well written, concise and full of facts (verbiage vs knowledge). But their success is fragile, only to be found in a few news agents, sometimes irregularly and months out of date (an Australian problem).

In short the distribution method (which will vary enormously from place to place) is both primitive and haphazard and this is fundamental. It will change someday, but that is not within our powers.

The star system, is self-serving and here I do not mean in the egotistical sense but in a class sense. Substantial figures of intellect are rare - Chomsky's status derives from the loyalty of his readership, here in Australia John Pilager occupies a somewhat similar position, he is constantly abused in the media, he hardly ever gets any air time or column space - whatever he says is outrageously distorted - by those that know him also know something of his worth and tirelessly keep his status alive via word of mouth.

That would be my point, as against the shameless commercial promotion of shoddy minds, some good minds are kept alive in the public imagination by word of mouth alone - there is only so many who can be maintained in this way. The counter-star system of decent minds thus always works under this deficit.

I mention this as background.

50 years ago things were different here. A large and popular communist party was aligned with a vibrant intellectual movement . . . .

It is not enough I think to present a body of knowledge, nor even to provide the means of self-education (those these must be in place), I think electronically we need eventually to provide traditional courses with traditional course work and some kind of formal recognition. It is not sufficient to be presented with knowledge, there are just too many distractions, to many other things to pursue, rather it must begin with a commitment to learn something specific supported by expectations of achievement.

Now part of this is about the need to be made to listen (in this case read) a concept because in the end knowledge of this concept will be subject to the demand of exposition. This is not a matter of skipping over things to pick out the best bits but of taking everything being said on board in order to absorb or criticise.

I know this seems to be getting off the track - but it is all about making space for thought . . . .

Now in this the content becomes all important, for it is here that the space is created. It is created out of common place self-discipline and applied human effort, it rests on what it hopes to achieve (on education to achieve more education - a self-moving project).

What I am trying to say that while publishing has its place, and creating means of self-teaching material also, on top of this is formal teaching itself which actually holds this space together into a totality with potential to grow.

In this I am saying that education, serious education lays the foundation for serious discussion especially amongst the mass of ordinary people (obviously not everyone has to do courses, but the thing falls apart when no-one can do these things - the rings of echoing ideas just do not have specific points of focus) . . . .

20 December 2002


At 11:52 AM 12/21/2002 +0800, Greg Schofield wrote:

I don't think they are dumbing down rather the reverse, and this might be connected to the problem of philosophy in general you speak of below. Popular writing on inherently complex subjects, requires more expertise then academic dissertation and in this they do quite a good job. Their problem is an inability to pose interesting questions, part of which stems from their philosophical concerns and the other is that in such a format they can only expose the inner shallowness of academia as it now exists.

Hence my immediate attraction to and then swift disapproval of the magazine reflected a discovery of a lack of content, aggravated by the fact that the writers were far better than I at expressing themselves, were competently trained and no idiots themselves, they still could not find interesting subject matter to talk about. Instead they tried to demonstrate their philosophy rather than employ it.

What is more they seem to be all boxed in, the popular format actually making this more acute and obvious (I have since read another issue and find much the same thing) . . . .

Interesting observations.
I would go a step further in this. Inherently the philosophical questions are more or less completed. There are other needs in this, but the idea of resolving anything much at the meta-level is more or less over. Indeed other than education, self-education, clarifying material in filling in a small number of gaps and finding a means of presenting in coherent form a whole system of philosophy (for purposes of education and self-knowledge) I am very much in agreement with this.

That is something to think about.  While I imagine much is old and stale, I would still be interesting in checking to see what if any areas of philosophy are still advancing substantively and which are doing the same old shit.  If there is a distinction, it would be a priority to reflect it in philosophical journalism.

But I'm inclined to agree that what matters more is learning how to think through things, how to apply what we already know, than to think we are going to come up with new systems of thought.  It seems that application of philosophical concepts (I'm not talking of applied disciplines like medical ethics, which have their own issues and problems) is not very intelligent.  I thought since the last undergrad class I walked out on that's there's something about the teaching of philosophy at the introductory level that is positively insufferable, an introduction to the perennial great philosophical questions.  That's another subject for reflection.

I think the most important thing to understand about philosophy is method rather than positive assertions, and how it relates to everything outside itself (whatever the boundary might be) rather than just being self-contained.  And to grasp it necessitates something deeper than just regurgitating the statements of recognized philosophers, i.e. a form of imitation.  Philosophy as an activity is inherently an act of negation, something I was trying to explain to someone last weekend.  But this is a whole area in itself.

I don't know anyone but us who is talking about this stuff, do you?

The practical uses of philosophy however is another thing. Here I think its ability make clear relationships and steps in movement is essential. Obviously I am being anything but pluralist in this. In fact I so strongly believe that useful philosophical disputation is virtually over that I tend to see the whole question resolving around an education problem.

I have a feeling I agree with you here, though I don't know your specific points of reference.  Once again, I'll point to an essay I wrote reflecting on my problem with popular philosophy: "How to Integrate Philosophy and Everyday Life: To Think Philosophically in Life, Or Reproduce the Fragmentation of Knowledge?".

In this light I can agree very much with you the need for a meta-critique. My personal view re philosophy is that the world is simply divided into Hegelian and pre-Hegelian philosophical viewpoints and whereas the first is bound to have its diversities, I cannot see any reason for suffering what stems from the latter (it is like making a place for Creation Science besides fully developed Darwinism).

I want to make sure I know what you mean here, before I assent to it.  Is it really the case that Hegel summed up all previous achievements of Western philosophy and that his synthesis was definitive, however contaminated by idealism, and all that remained was to turn him upside down, or to sublate philosophy itself?  Is there not essentially anything new since Hegel?  I'm not sure I can believe this, but the question of the "abolition" of philosophy (and the horizons of the Young Hegelians) hinges on this.

Logic is one key area to explore, and philosophy of nature is another.  How does everyone after Hegel relate to these two areas?

Hegel was the first fully self-conscious philosopher, it seems, who didn't just do philosophy but made its practice the subject of historical reflection.  So I would agree to assertions of this type.

I am wondering at this point whether the metacritique is, in its form, analytical at all. Perhaps its critique is more purely positive. I mean by this that there is passive element in analysing existing ideological/intellectual practices which may be better materially criticised by employing better and superior intellectual practice (linking up with education as being part of the intellectual process itself).

Yes, if I understand you correctly: it returns to a point I made in one of my previous posts, not to allow one's work to be dictated to by the agenda one opposes.  Such metacritique could embody such passivity and become another routine however intelligent.  Ideology critique can go on forever and ever and become another industry.  It's worth looking at those and critiquing them too (metametacritique?).  Perhaps the knowledge industry absorbs everything?  But I agree: the goal is to open out into the future, into something new.

Your point on the "knowledge industry" is well put and I am very much agreement that this is the case of passive, naïve, reflection of a given prefiguration (directly stemming from a very non-intellectual basis). This well sums up my impression of the Philosophical magazines, which more than in any other popular form make this passivity and naiveté plain.

Good.  It's important to articulate this.  The simplest and most obvious things are always the most elusive, and people don't see them.

Good point and I would draw attention to the division in Philosophy between Hegelian and pre-Hegelian Philosophy. Hegelian is a much broader and diverse church than Marxism, and despite the various shortcomings in various schools of thought stemming from this division, we do need to break with the predominantly Kantian nature of bourgeois ideology as a whole (not just the philosophical parts). I believe Kantianism is the highest form of ideological thought, that is it is philosophy which was a huge step forward from the past, articulated the very motion of thought but thought predetermined by the "unknown" ideological world view.

I'm not certain I understand this.  Actually, I'm pretty sure I don't.

It is this threshold that Hegel crosses and I think provides the natural division within philosophical thought. I  fault current philosophical trends by their Kantian guise that is if their concerns can be encompassed by Kantianism they  are effectively of the past (even if they are new philosophies). Hence at this level of essential thought Marxism holds no special place, for the division is epochal. All that is self-limiting belongs epistemologically to the past (not without useful insight but not sufficient to take seriously on its own grounds), anything which in thought is capable of self-development (regardless of any particular errors and oversights) belongs to the intellectual arena itself—an area of serious thought and debate.

Probably nobody else conceives the Kantian-Hegel split as the epochal moment in thought. I doubt if I could ever justify it soundly in philosophical terms—but in terms of intellectual practice I find it useful and this must mean something I think. Again  the test is simple enough can a specific viewpoint explain itself entirely in Kantian logic, or does it essentially exceed these limits.

I don't grasp this.  I could always venture guesses, but they would be totally unreliable.
 The whole of the structuralism vs poststructuralism debates fit snugly, for instance, within the logic of the grand structuralist Kant, and none I have seen as got beyond this epistemological confine despite its deconstructionalism (an intellectual con as far as I can see).


20 December 2002


Now, I am rather mystified that Justin would think I'm a pragmatist now or that either Greg or I am Rortyan in any sense, Marx help us.  If Rorty thinks philosophy is over it's because he's a subjectivist who just wants to jerk himself off in perpetuity engaging in endless conversation, as there is no objective knowledge to be gained.  Greg, on the other hand, seems to be inspired by Hegel and by the development of the Young Hegelian movement leading to the "abolition" of philosophy.  My position is different.

I need to articulate my previous statements more clearly. . . .

(1) I am not making the claim that philosophy is over, but I'm suggesting that fruitful areas of investigation be distinguished from the endlessly regurgitating the old positions.

(2) On this latter point, I was referring to debating the same old positions in a popular format, but the same could apply to academic philosophy as well to the extent that it does this.  Since I reject anti-realist philosophy, I can't see it as being productive, unless this camp discovers some new ideas, which I doubt it can.  While the clash between opposing philosophical positions can advance the state of the art to a higher level, I'm not sure how long this can go on.  In any case, I see progress as the advance of objective knowledge, which does not exclude knowledge of the limitations of knowledge.  Hence I want to know what further progress can be made.  I did not make any assertions about the dead end of all branches of philosophy; I'm leaving this as an open question.

(3) When I say applying what we already know I have two things in mind, neither of which are what I understand by pragmatism. 

   (a) My minor point is this: philosophy, like all specialized fields, has generated such a huge literature that probably nobody knows what's going on as a whole.  Academia is so balkanized that everybody gets away with footnote-whoring so that they never be held accountable for what they don't know outside of their own invisible college.  Hence applying what is already known means assessing and synthesizing what's already out there, so that we know where we stand and where there is to go.  This of course involves judgments which will be vigorously contested, but hey, we're not entitled?

   (b) My major point is this: there is the primary historical function of philosophy in coming up with new positions in general and arguing for them.  But thinking in practice involves relating abstract ideas to concrete situations.  This is a practice of philosophy, not the creation of new systems of ideas.  And I think this practice pretty much sucks, both among professionals and the lay public.  How to use what we have might be fertile ground for new ways of thinking, but this is a different angle of vision from coming up with entirely new ideas in ontology and epistemology.  My organizing principle for the 1990s was philosophy and the division of labor.  I found exactly one professional philosopher in the USA interested in the topic.

(4)  My ill feeling about teaching the great philosophical questions is not Rortyan.  It makes me sick because at the very outset I think metaphilosophically.  I struggle against the very posing of the questions and want to try my hand at problem-solving another way.  I was like this at the very beginning, as a teenager.

Also, I think my early childhood interest in science might have had something to do with this.  I spent my first money at the age of 6 or 7 on science books for children.  This wasn't philosophy of science to be sure, but I developed certain habits of thinking that made me ill-disposed to traditional metaphysics. The modern questions are not essence viz. appearance or accident (or is it substance and accident?—I can't even remember), but matter viz. sensation and primary viz. secondary qualities.  The (sub)atomic constitution of all matter and its endless motion and transformation made some of the traditional stuff unspeakably dull, and so a lot of effort must be invested in trying to get into it, let alone tolerate it.  Also, one is predisposed to be skeptical from the gitgo about a priori metaphysical arguments.  I remember the first time I read the argument from Plato's Meno (?), that all knowledge is recollection.  My reaction, as a teenager: you mean this dumb shit is philosophy?

(5) Method vs. content, regurgitation vs. negation: I mean philosophy is a constant war against the ostensible, against formulations and statements.  The learning of ideas is also learning how to use them but also to inquire into their presuppositions and to always struggle with them to see not only what they assert but how they work.  So one has to struggle with the deeper motivations, tensions, and logical connections beneath the positive statements being made.  I could read something by Spinoza, Kant, and repeat what he wrote, and perhaps even paraphrase it, but to get underneath it is a struggle that goes beyond mimicry.  As Justin says, one has to digest it.  This process of digestion is what I am trying to get at.  I have my doubts as to how good people are at this.  (I think English professors who poach on philosophy have little grasp of the ideas they're using.)  Negation is the struggle against the apparent.  First, (abstract) thought is a negation of primary sensory experience, and then philosophical method is negation of thought's own phenomenology.

And it's a problem I have with popular philosophy books, crap like Sophie's World and even worse Zeno and the Tortoise.  It's not even remotely adequate as regurgitation, but that's what it is.  You can't learn how ideas are put together and why from reading this crap.  It's all just parroting.

(6) Making philosophical practical is learning how to think about everything, what else could it be?  See my essay on the subject referred to before.  I would never recommend anyone to go to law school, which can't be good for the mind.  The paradox of my paper was that philosophy was being practical, i.e. grasping the concrete, by being abstract.  Relating to the concrete more intimately by separating from it.  That's why I view ontology, epistemology, and logic as the heart of philosophy, and ethics, aesthetics, and political philosophy not really philosophy at all in themselves.  But my practical concern at the moment was my experience in Washington DC.  What philosophy is to these people is debating campaign finance reform, the invasion of Iraq, laissez-faire capitalism.  So I am an intellectual elitist, I'm told, for saying, I'm sick of this shit: can't you talk about anything else?  Do you even know what philosophy is?

(7)  How philosophy relates to what is beyond its boundary: no it's not Rortyian, or Deweyan, or pragmatic.  It's just modern.  It's been known for 200 years at least that self-contained philosophy is limited.  Modern science, Hume, and Kant put a nail in the coffin of a priori philosophy long ago; by that I mean it's long known that empirical matters cannot be deduced from abstract philosophical categories.

(8) What's new since Hegel?  I can't speak on Davidson and Kripke, but indeed there is the whole development of modern logic.  Where did it begin?  Frege?  And then there's mathematical logic and foundations, which oddly has a different provenance.  (Logicians and mathematicians seem to belong to two different cultures, though they do indeed interact.)  I can't imagine how all this would not be new. 

Philosophy of science is the other major area of importance.  The Young Hegelians were into religion and politics; they left other areas untouched, even in Hegel's philosophy, to a great extent.  Obviously ontology and epistemology come into play here.  But I imagine that advances might have occurred even without reference to the sciences, though I'm hazy on this.  Of course what constitutes an advance is open to question.

(9) The Young Hegelians & the abolition of philosophy (from Hegel to Marx):   I will take this up in a separate post.

At 01:18 AM 12/22/2002 +0000, Justin Schwartz wrote:

“I would go a step further in this. Inherently the philosophical questions are more or less completed. There are other needs in this, but the idea of resolving anything much at the meta-level is more or less over. Indeed other than education, self-education, clarifying material in filling in a small number of gaps and finding a means of presenting in coherent form a whole system of philosophy (for purposes of education and self-knowledge) I am very much in agreement with this.”

“That is something to think about.  While I imagine much is old and stale, I would still be interesting in checking to see what if any areas of philosophy are still advancing substantively and which are doing the same old shit.”

I think you and Greg are making different kinds of statements. You are talking about whether some or other areas of philosophy are still making whatever passes for progress in philosophy,in the way that, perhaps, it seemed to me that when I started in philosophy in the mid 1970s there was a lot of action in political philosophy (Rawls, Nozick, the revival of Marx), philosophy of science, phil of language, etc, but today this doesn't seem to be the case. Right now is not a creative time in philosophy—and not just in analytical philosophy. So called continental philosophy, having abandoned marxism and exhausted whatever there was in postmodernism, is also quiescent. Greg is making a grander, Rortyian point: philosophy is Over, this isn't just the usual lull, this time It's Finished. Of course that's something we can't know, might be right, but it's been said a lot for a long time. What Rorty says here might be to the point: we're just waiting, really, for a new Heidegger or Wittgenstein to come along and baffle us into activity again.

“But I'm inclined to agree that what matters more is learning how to think through things, how to apply what we already know, than to think we are going to come up with new systems of thought.”

How pragmatic of you, Ralph!

“It seems that application of philosophical concepts (I'm not talking of applied disciplines like medical ethics, which have their own issues and problems) is not very intelligent.  I thought since the last undergrad class I walked out on that's there's something about the teaching of philosophy at the introductory level that is positively insufferable, an introduction to the perennial great philosophical questions.  That's another subject for reflection.”

Now YOU wax Rortyian. After having done it lots of ways, back when I did this sort of thing. I agree with you. I decided at the end of my teaching career that the best to teach intro phil was either a great texts approach (Plato's Republic, Ari's Nich Ethics, Descartes' Meditations, Hume's Inquiry, Kant's Prolegomena or Groundwork, Mill's On Liberty, Marx's Manifesto & Theses on Feuerbach, Nieztsche's Genealogy), or focus on a particular issue like Human Nature that took in a lot of territory.

“I think the most important thing to understand about philosophy is method rather than positive assertions, . . .”

Which means what? The "method" of philosophy is just thinking. You can't separate"method" from content.

“. . . and how it relates to everything outside itself (whatever the boundary might be) rather than just being self-contained.”

You sound more and more Rortyian, or Deweyan, or pragmatic.

“And to grasp it necessitates something deeper than just regurgitating the statements of recognized philosophers, i.e. a form of imitation.”

Well, regurgitation, that's one term. But grasping what Hegel or Kant or Wittgenstein is saying and trying to work it through, that's not regurgitation. You gotta digest it to do that. Many philosophers, however, regard mere scholarship as not real philosophy.

“Philosophy as an activity is inherently an act of negation, . . .”

No it's not! Sez you! Oh yeah? . . . .

“Is there not essentially anything new since Hegel?”

Yes. Though H's expression is abstract and lose enough so that you can find Davidson and Kripke in him if you want to.

“I'm not sure I can believe this, but the question of the 'abolition' of philosophy (and the horizons of the Young Hegelians) hinges on this.”

Well, that's as they saw it.

“Logic is one key area to explore, and philosophy of nature is another.  How does everyone after Hegel relate to these two areas?”

Well, modern logic has nothing to do with Hegel's logic, which is a kind of metaphysics. And philosophy of nature died after Hegel, except in its half life in Engels-influenced Marxism. What we have now is philosophy of science.

21 December 2002


I want to begin with your conclusions from the assessment of the current situation:

(1) the official channels of communication are fatally clogged with garbage;
(2) education is the immediate priority, not pretensions at intellectual novelty;
(3) the alternative to (1) and the means of (2) is the exploitation of the Internet's possibilities.

I find this a very productive avenue of discussion, and that's an understatement.  It's even visionary in a way I rarely encounter.

The lack of vision may be more vexing than anything else.  The interactive resources of the Internet reveal this as do standard print publications, with the addition of being able to see it in action up close and even participate.  Both the need to rely upon and distrust academic expertise are acutely evident in every hot topic.

Speaking of catching up with Hegel, the Hegel lists are a case in point. When it comes to vision, most Hegel scholars seem as bereft of it as anyone else, but they provide an invaluable service in a way that the rest of us are not in a position to accomplish.  Case in point is BG's latest response to PT re Hegel and God (  BG played a very useful role in the past as the most eloquent expositor of Hegel's position when confronted with various objections.  There is something indefinably retrograde about BG, but now he has stepped up to the plate on the relation between philosophy and religion, showing how the former supersedes the latter instead of just complementing it.  I look forward to competent scholars being able to explain things even though I trust none of them with any ultimate vision of anything.

The vision thing, the metacritique, must pass into the hands of other people.

While I've not fully absorbed your commentary on (ahistorical) structuralism and the retrograde alternative (postmodernism?), I find a problem which may parallel yours:

(1) Philosophers who want to philosophize are sociologically illiterate;
(2) Philosophers, literary critics, sociologists, cultural and social theorists who are historically aware have reduced philosophy to sociology and are philosophically incompetent.

The first group are still naive about the self-identity of philosophy; they have not even discovered the concept of ideology.  This is true of almost all popular philosophy I have encountered.

Those who understand what ideology is know nothing else.

The relation between these two poles is an utter mystery, it seems, to everyone.

The understanding of Marxism, then, should now be to be very clear about something that gets fudged over, and involves the art of seeing philosophy in two ways at once, both distinguishing and interrelating both; (1) the intrinsic philosophical questions, (2) the sociological reasons for the way they are posed and answered at a given time.  Nobody ever explains this, but I learned from my experience in DC that it must be done.  (See Dialectics Not a Sociology of Knowledge by Theodor W. Adorno.)

At 01:44 AM 12/23/2002 +0800, Greg Schofield wrote:

1) I do not know of any one even suggesting a meta-critique in the way you have suggested (Ralph) and while such a thing is way beyond my abilities I do see the point and significance of it. Likewise I have not seen any similar debate nor indeed within philosophy as a whole. . . .

OK in the future there may be a new major take on philosophy but this is  literally beyond us at the moment (we need to run just to catch up to long dead Hegel in these matters) . . . .

Rejecting structuralism can only go either forward or backward—no third root exists. The intellectual impasse in rejecting structuralism is that it has been done in an essentially nihilist way, as against flowing down through the other side of the divide. . . .

Hence when picking up Philosophy Now instead of seeing Kantian or even analytic philosophy, there are just earlier and much more primitive forms being recycled—real questions cannot be posed, nothing interesting can be said, the movement back from Kant has been so spectacular that the idea of moving past him is beyond comprehension. There is a frightening tumble down effect, a political reason why this question cannot be posed.

Within Marxism recognition of the Kantian predominance means returning to philosophical basics and questioning fundamental assumptions and categories of understanding at a time when so much identity rests just in these two things (in a time of defeat clinging to "truths" however untrue is a stubborn ailment). For intellectuals at large and especially the philosophically informed the threat is even more direct pose the problem in the way I have above and then there is no waiting for the new critique, there is no new system that has to be erected, but an established system which has to be absorbed and then which flows from Hegel to Marx and into the heart of Historical Materialism—in other words it is a danger area, precisely because it is more or less finished—it moves from absorbing its content to directly to applying its methodology.

This is one of the reasons why I place education and philosophical discourse as having to take place in this new media, I do not believe it can exist anywhere else—the barbarians have captured all the gates, trying to persuade them to honestly engage is as pointless as it is beyond their comprehension. Honesty (of the intellectual variety) is thus a big ask amongst professional intellectuals—it is a far lesser ask of lesser mortals and this is their medium . . . .

My constant return to education (in all its forms) as an immediate objective has in mind the establishment of a new consensus about logic, one not bound by Kantian restrictions—strangely the recapitulation in the humanities, its aversion of  going as far as Kant, works in our favour as is the fact that so much philosophical publication (not just the popular sort) is so uninteresting and self-absorbed—there is now a lot of room to provide interesting and stimulating material if we can provide the means—something of a social/intellectual buffer has been removed—the gap is more obvious and with this gap a need for a more substantial approach is created in the "marketplace" of ideas.

22 December 2002


This last post of yours is remarkable in a series of remarkable posts.  On this subject matter I've never had a conversation like this in my entire life.  This is incredible.

I've had a few experiences with anthropologists, but no need to go into that now.

The major difference between our contributions to the discussion is that,  while I have no truck with anarchism in politics, I seem to be an anarchist in personal practice, hence I'm not used to thinking about coordinating and regulating activity on a large scale.  Perhaps this reflects my experience as a freelancer and yours with the Stalinists.

As for the systemic adoption of standards, perhaps it's not even necessary for everyone to agree to cooperate.  If one endeavor just set up its own web site, published its own standards, classification system, concept map, Internet map, etc., others could copy it, or just visit the site as a navigation guide to find others.

Again, I find it difficult for me to swallow the practicability of such an ambitious vision, but better to have imagination than stagnate in the same old pedestrian swamp.  But in any event, anarchistic as our encounter here might have been, not to mention our chance meeting on the hegel-hegelians list, think how useful it has been to articulate perspectives and visions that are never articulated anywhere, to brainstorm, etc. 

In addition to continuing this process here, the dialogue should be preserved in some format beyond the archive of this obscure little list.   Certainly I could make a place for this and on my own web site, which has proven very effective for organizing other intellectual endeavors, not just for myself but for others.  This may mean I may have to extend my functional categories beyond individual texts & images, bibliographies, and study guides, to the project level.  But that's not difficult to do: a new unit on my site map, maybe even a new button to go with it.  Regardless, the only thing I would really have to think about would be whether to preserve this conversation verbatim or edit and/or organize it in an altered form.  I have reservations about just dumping the archive verbatim onto a web page or even a group of web pages . . . . Anyway intertextual links would have to be added.

First thing would be a title, secondly some keywords for the search engines to gobble.

At 01:09 PM 12/23/2002 +0800, Greg Schofield wrote:

. . . . A university to be useful has to be organised, it cannot be the university of hard knocks, it needs gates and within its walls defined and related departments some common form so people long before they engage with it have some idea of what is there (as against just being attracted to whatever is stumbled upon.

Another way of putting it, to get at real immediacies without further mediation—we need to create the vision and indeed it is going to be vexing (so little of it can be created directly—here mediation steps in, for such a vision necessarily ekes out of discussing other things) . . . .

Someone who knows Hegel also shows where not to go—besides everything else, and not denying that the student can and will diverge from the teacher, it has one aspect which only the self-taught really appreciate—it saves a hell of lot of wasted effort!!!

One word of warning from the already informed is worth gold when you are struggling to get to grips with something this complex. Hence, my emphasis on more traditional course-like structures amongst all the other possibilities. . . .

Yes in fact I think it passes rather directly into practice and here I would bring class into the picture. If our contribution is to set in place some of the foundations of such a practical meta-critique then we should be well pleased with ourselves. I think the meta-critique is one of the central principles in building up this new enterprise—the solution, the meta-critique itself, will not emerge from a particular mind, but become the working framework, a new intellectual commonsense of what is what and how intellectual things work.

Perhaps I have the wrong handle on your use of meta-critique. My view is that the really big re-orientations come like thieves in the night, that is we can prepare for it, but when it does arrive no-one really notices, rather things are simply apprehended in a different manner and it all seems quite natural. Critical to this view point is that Philosophy does have a role, but not the prominent one it once occupied—it will not be a philosophical critique—at least that is how I am reading things . . . .

Spot on. A result of the movement into disciplinary separation within academia in the 20th century. But this is exactly as it appears, while poor suckers like ourselves appear as madmen on about things that everybody has assumed have been solved elsewhere and on which they have the latest results so it is no concern of theirs!! I failed a MA course in anthropology . . . .

It was the hostility this engendered which surprised me. The borders of the discipline were its fortifications I had just failed to notice this thinking that the center of concern was in fact the subject matter—this it seems was not the case at all, unwittingly I had thrown myself at the pikes protecting the walls, they did not like such attacks my High Distinctions rapidly became dismal failures sometimes marked as low as 15/100—this I did not understand at the time (the writing being of the same quality, the questions being no more difficult than before and my approach being consistent). It is this aspect of the disciplinary organisation which I was unprepared for—I guess they call it a discipline for a number of reasons . . . .

If things were more clearly moved onto subject material rather than disciplines of study just as much specialist expertise could exist, just not so wrapped up into itself. There is something to think about in this for just as the universities as they developed shaped the intellects which filled them, a new "institution" also shapes, the trick is not escape such pressure into an anarchist"freedom" but to realign things to make a better fit for a different class interest.

If we were to start with a clean slate—forget all the distinct disciplines (such as philosophy) but had to arrange matters so that the sum total of intellectual knowledge could find its place without dissolving away—what would be the guiding principles? How would history be divided, where would the various parts of philosophy find their place? etc. etc. Whatever system is created would have to be coherent, flexible and capable of elaboration, a novice would need to easily discover the lie of the land and travel to that part which is of the most interest.

Maybe we borrow directly from Universities and have departments, but perhaps within these schools? I do not know, but the problem can be cured and indeed once the right logic is found I do not think it would be difficult nor would there be much dispute about its final form. It is like these forums—if some logical order was imposed on all the existing forums, that each had to commit to taking its place within a greater system—then anyone could participate at any level in practically any debate by just knowing where to look (there are other problems of course). At the moment it is chaos, at the moment we spend energy and emotion in each list just trying to impart a character to discussions so that internally they have coherence . . . .

On the other hand integrating his list in a sensible manner with all other lists and to do so coherently does have effects—those that are on the list but leave find other schools of thought, meanwhile by being able to coherently label his list and its main contributors as a school (i.e. being an active subscriber even in the critical sense makes you an enrolled member of that school) places a natural pressure on people to find constructive avenues (rather than being burnt up one by one) likewise Louis and his followers can be confronted externally (perhaps in purpose built lists) rather than toing-and-throughing in isolated lists (no doubt some of the points you made I also made there along with every second person who ever joined that list).

23 December 2002


I'm assuming that our vigorous contributors are now occupied with the holiday season.  I am myself, which is uncharacteristic for me.  In addition, I have other obligations which will likely prevent me from following through on my recent discussion topics for the next month.

However, here are a few tidbits of information, following up on the discussion of professional and popular philosophy.  I never thought much about the differences between Philosophy Now (PN) and The Philosopher's Magazine (TPM), beyond some very vague impressions, until I read the article in Hermenaut now on my web site.  However, the latest issues of both magazines confirm this report.  PN is exceptionally inept this time around.  TPM touts its mission and standards, and while interesting, still shows up the limitations of philosophy journalism and of British philosophy.

TPM's fifth anniversary issue (#21) sports a new look and an altered format.  The magazine's philosophy is reiterated in the article "Interviews Are Us" (p. 28). . . . TPM seeks to present in a journalistic fashion "genuine philosophy".  "Let us assume what cannot be easily assumed: that we know more or less what genuine philosophy is . . . ."  The editor goes on to compare academic and journalistic style.  The journalistic approach eschews any attempt at philosophical originality.  The only way to uphold intellectual standards is by publicizing academic philosophy that has already passed various quality control filters.

I think the problem I've been discussing is quite succinctly epitomized here.

There are other columns of comparable interest.  There is a review of how philosophy on the Internet has changed since 1997 ("Word of Mouse", p. 13).  I mention in particular Episteme Links, a guide to philosophy resources that has expanded its capabilities significantly, and whose editor had very great ambitions for philosophical communication online, in teaching, conferences, annotated texts, etc.

I'll also mention that I got the latest issue of Radical Philosophy (#116), something I never buy because of the price, but I needed this one.  This is another journal worth looking at, because it is still professional while more purposively focused yet still diverse.  I've used this magazine selectively for a number of years for many articles, but I don't regularly keep up with it, not being a subscriber, and also due to its limited availability in US bookstores.

30 December 2002

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